How Islam learned to adapt in 'Nusantara'
April-June 2015
By: Yahya Cholil Staquf

Nusantara’s ulama introduced Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf) and a variety of spiritual brotherhoods (tariqa) established by their predecessors in the Middle East to local communities throughout the East Indies archipelago. Their teachings on Islamic mysticism elicited an enthusiastic response from locals and soon became the prevailing image/face of Nusantara Islam.

In fact, mysticism became the primary attraction of Islam to local communities throughout the region, for it is compatible with the long-established mystical traditions prevalent throughout Nusantara. In a Strategic Review article titled “Indonesia’s Big Idea: Resolving the Bitter Global Debate on Islam,” authors Kyai Haji A. Mustafa Bisri and C. Holland Taylor described the principal elements of Islamic mysticism, which have become integral to the spiritual orientation/cultural heritage of Nusantara and form its basic character.

Two brief citations may serve to illustrate the manner in which Mpu Tantular’s concept of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika parallels the worldview held by the renowned Persian poet and mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273):

The difference among men results from the outward name; when you reach the inner meaning you reach peace. Oh marrow of existence! It is because of the perspective in question that there is a difference between a Muslim, a Zoroastrian and a Jew. … Every prophet and every saint hath a way, but it leads to God; all the ways are really one.

The Spanish-born Sufi Ibn ’Arabi (1165-1240), who is often referred to as Shaykh al-Akbar, or The Great Master, expressed a similar view when he wrote:

My heart has become capable of every form; it is a pasture for gazelles and a cloister for Christian monks, and a temple for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka'ba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran. I follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take. My religion and my faith is the true religion.

Significantly, Jalal ad-Din Rumi and Ibn ’Arabi are two of the most authoritative figures within the realm of Islamic spirituality and mysticism.

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