Religion emerged, with the increasing refinement of civilisation from the ancient Animist cultural backdrop, which followed the rise of human beings as they wandered into all the areas on earth, seeking out new opportunities. 

The Malaysian peninsula has been host to humans for some forty thousand years and the first waves of what are now Malayan people began to arrive from China at around 2500 BC bearing their ancient animist and folklore practices with them. 

The first of the major formalised religions to penetrate into the peninsula were the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Indian influenced cultures, which spread over most of Southeast Asia bringing with them the advanced civilisation skills that would come to dominate the region. 

The earliest known of these kingdoms was Langkasuka, at around the second century AD, in the lands straddling southern Thailand and the northern peninsula, founded by the Hindu King, Merong Mahawangsa, said to have been a descendant of Alexander the Great.  

The kingdom of Gannga Negara, occupying the lands of the southern peninsula, was later established by one of his sons. Another small Hindu Kingdom, Pan Pan also existed in the area of Malaysia’s eastern coast.  

The influence of the Hindu Kingdom of Funan, which also features in the histories of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar also held sway over the peninsula during its heyday as these early kingdoms jostled for supremacy, and it was during this time that Buddhism began to vie with Hinduism for the religious loyalties of the time. 

As Funan collapsed, the Hindu Kingdom of Kedah, following the Mahawansa bloodline was established and by the seventh century was subsumed by the Buddhist Empire of Srivijaya which occupied Cambodia, southern Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, and it power base in Sumatra and Java, a highly advanced civilisation which built great monuments, the finest of which is the magnificent Borobudur temple in Java. 

It was from this building culture that Jayavarman II emerged, later finding fame as the founder of the Hindu Khmer Empire in Angkor, Cambodia, who brought with him the art of monumental building, for which his empire is so famous. 

Srivijaya in turn fell to the Majapahit Empire, which went on to rule over Malaysia, most of Indonesia and the Philippines, practicing both Hinduism and Buddhism in tandem. 

During the predominance of the early Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the influence of Arab traders was significant, and Islam had already found a home among the Cham peoples of southern Vietnam and a measure of influence on Srivijaya and later Majapahit, but it was the decline of Majapahit that led to its spread throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, from which time Islam rose to become the dominant force in Malaysia by the 15th century. 

Interestingly, it was also Arab traders who first brought knowledge of Christianity to Malaysia, through the port of Malacca, but it was through the later European conquests that it began to establish its presence, with examples of early churches established in Malacca now an important component of the UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The British later acquired Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and from these bases, eventually took control of all Malaysia, during which various Christian denominations acquired a foothold. Christianity remains a major minority religion in Malaysia today, practiced by around 9% of the population. 

Hinduism, which had played such a major part in Malaysia’s early era had begun to disappear with the conversion to Islam, but the influx of migrant Indian workers which accompanied British occupation led to a sizeable Indian population in Malaysia who still practice Hinduism today. 

A small community of Sikhs also arrived in Malaysia at the behest of the British, to act as a police force, and today, their descendants still retain their traditions. 

In modern Malaysia, a sizeable proportion of Han Chinese citizens are woven into the cultural fabric of Malaysian society, who arrived in successive waves from the 15th century, but most numerously as workers for the British during colonial times, with a further influx following the Chinese Civil War which preceded the communist takeover of their homeland in 1949. 

The Chinese ethnic citizens of Malaysia mainly practice Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity as well as ancient Chinese animist folk religions, though through marriage, many have also become Muslim. 

Freedom of worship is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, though under the law, those of the majority Malay descent, presently comprising around 60% of the population, are obliged to be Muslims and subject to the Sharia courts which operate exclusively for Muslims outside the jurisdiction of the civil secular courts, and have considerable authority over the behaviour and dress codes of Malays. 

Whilst other religions are generally free to practice, Islam is unquestionably the dominant influence and restrictions on other faiths are common, most notably obvious in the case of any activity by another faith aimed at conversion of Muslims, which is strictly and precisely forbidden. 

The version of Islam practiced in Malaysia is that of the Shafi’I Sunni tradition, with Shia Islam notably being banned in the country.