The history of mysticism in Java

“Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s Eccentric Saints are Challenging Fundamentalist Islam in Modern Indonesia” by George Quinn

Finally, a book that properly discussed the elephant in the Indonesian room: the mystical side that dominates the island of Java.

It is an impressive coverage and analysis of the spread of Islam in Java, the integration between the new religion and the local culture heavy with Hindu-Buddhism influences, and the rejection of the assimilation in several places that has created the hot spots that exist until today. But above all, the book tells the tales of the mysticism occurring throughout the island, from the weird to the wonderful, from the myth to the history.

The book is written by George Quinn, a New Zealander fluent in Indonesian and Javanese languages, who uniquely earned his BA from a local Indonesian university, Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He first visited Indonesia in 1966 and began his love affair with the country ever since, including marrying a local woman from Banyumasan. Quinn also has a PhD from Sydney University on Indonesia and became the Head of the Southeast Asia Centre in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

For this book he travelled and visited some of the most sacred tombs across Java (most of them not for the first time), and blend in with the locals to get the ground-level oral history. And for every folk tale that he found he corroborate it with the official historical records, which makes the book a unique mix of solid academic approach and the raw folk tales stuff straight from the people who live it.

Perhaps the best feature of this book is the clarity between fact and fiction, as they are usually so many different version of folk tales developing on the same subject or person, sometimes with different towns claiming ownership over the origin story. And in here Quinn tells the many different versions and addresses them all, including predicting what really occurred and clearly distinguishing whether or not it is likely to be a myth or a real historical event.

The book mainly revolves around the pilgrimage culture over the tombs of the so-called Nine Saints (Wali Songo) spread across the island. As Quinn remarks, “pilgrims regularly plead for personal favours (in Javanese: ngalap berkah, to grab a blessing) or make a nadhar promise, vowing to repay Allah or a saint in some fashion if their plea is granted. Outside the tomb chamber they may take part in a ritual slametan meal, or tear apart a mini-mountain of food in a rebutan ritual, or help to replace the power-charged cloth canopy that hangs over the tomb.”

So why do so many pilgrims come to the tomb of the saints to pray, a practice that is considered an idolatry in Islam? Because first and foremost, they believe that the saints have a direct access to Allah, and praying at their tomb means that they are praying towards Allah using “the express” pathway to Allah instead of the ordinary prayers “lane” mixed with billions of people. Hence it is arguably not a form of idolatry like the common misconception.

The practice is a remnant of the now-vanished Islam “abangan” culture that includes some of the local surviving customs not commonly associated with Islam outside Indonesia, such as scattering flower petals and charging bottles of water in tombs, burning incense, and slametan ritual, which is in contrast with the Islam “santri” culture most associated with Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah (the two largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia) today that teach the more traditional Islam from the Middle East.

Islam “abangan” was initiated by Sunan Kalijaga, the semi-mystical character that Quinn dubbed as “the embodiment of all that Javanese Islam stands for.” His teachings were then proceeded by several other disciple saints, all of whom were recruited by Sunan Kali Jaga in fascinating mythical stories filled with magic and deity-like powers.

And inline with the “abangan” approach, they assimilated the teachings of Islam into the existing local culture instead of replacing it completely, by using the stories of the shadow puppet shows familiar with Hindu characters and inserted Islamic values into the story. Such as the story of the 5 Pandawa brothers that were rebranded as a symbolism of Islam’s 5 obligations.

Moreover, although the book mainly provides the biography of some of the saints (with stories directly linked with Sunan Kalijaga), it also covers everything else related to mysticism in Java. Such as the story of the goddess of money, the tuyul army, and mystic places such as mount Kawi and Ketonggo forrest. It has the fascinating story of the guardian of the Merapi, which involved Panembahan Senopati and Nyi Roro Kidul, and how it ended up with mbah Maridjan. And about the believe of the emergence of Ratu Adil on judgement day, the prophecy of Jayabaya, and many other tales of magic that at one point involves a talking penis.

It also discusses real historical events, such as the story of a gay saint and strong aristocratic women in Madura. The backstory of Mbah Priok (and the name Tanjung Priok) and the long saga of his tomb that culminates in 2010 riot. And even contemporary affairs such as the rise of the Pemuda Pancasila and what it does with the balance of power in the country, addressing Wahhabism and its terror attacks in Indonesia, and the massive 212 demonstration agains Jakarta’s incumbent governor Ahok using religion as a political tool.

Indeed, this is a complete view of Java, filled with all the fact and fiction, the myth and the history. And it puts everything in their right explanatory contexts, including the local Javanese practices that could seem weird and wonderful for outsiders, but have deeper meaning for most of Java’s 130 million people (even for presidents). And the book captures all of the essences brilliantly. Simply amusing from start to finish.