Maneuver in the narrative space: Lessons from Islam Nusantara
January-March 2018
By: C Holland Taylor

Among the more famous, and controversial, of these narratives concerns the life, teachings and death of Seh Siti Jenar, whom Javanese historical narratives describe as “His Highness”; the “Prince of Gnostics”; the “Shaykh”; “Seh Sunyata Jatimurti,” or “He Who Has Attained the Absolute Void as Reality Incarnate”; the “Susunan of Lemah Abang”; “a humble peasant risen to become a saint”; and “a worm, transformed by sacred knowledge into the self-aware manifestation of God Himself.”

Among Siti Jenar’s disciples were the members of a Sufi (ie, Islamic spiritual) brotherhood of kyais, or local lords, numbering some 40 men, who led a network of mystical Islamic communities spread across rural central Java. Although all had pronounced the shahada (Muslim confession of faith) and converted to Islam, they remained steeped in the ancient Javanese tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance, and thus chose to embrace a mystical, rather than supremacist, interpretation and practice of Islam. Mapped out, their locations composed a web that skirted and nearly encircled Raden Patah’s court-city of Demak. While Siti Jenar’s network of disciples threatened Demak’s temporal authority, his teachings were perceived as an even greater threat by orthodox religious leaders affiliated with the kingdom of Demak.

Siti Jenar dared to reveal the inner sanctum of truth (haqiqa and ma‘rifa), without requiring that his followers observe even the most basic tenets of Islamic law, such as ritual prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Instead, he set about organizing the countryside along the lines of a great spiritual community, in which kyais ruled the local population with a gentle hand and left everyone free to worship according to their own conscience. Siti Jenar’s example, and that of his disciples, was enough to attract a large following, and to incur a death sentence from the orthodox religious and political leaders in Demak.

Sunan Kudus, head of the militant Islamic faction in north-central Java, eventually executed Siti Jenar as a heretic, in Demak’s great public square, before a crowd of thousands. Eyewitnesses later described how Siti Jenar had laughed in the face of death and went, ecstatic, to his apotheosis. At the slash of Sunan Kudus’s sword, blood spat from Siti Jenar’s severed neck to spell “la illaha ilallah” (“there is no God but Allah”) in the dirt, and word quickly spread throughout the land of Java that this was a message from God Himself – a divine symbol, indisputably proving that Siti Jenar, and not his executioner, was the true and faithful Muslim.

The late Indonesian president and longtime chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, once told this author that Siti Jenar was condemned for publicly teaching the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud (“the unicity of being”) and for revealing spiritual practices that lead to the union of the individual soul with God (manunggaling kawula gusti), which undermined the authority of religious fundamentalists. To this day in Java, the narrative of Siti Jenar provides a clear demarcation between Muslim fundamentalists and those who are committed to religious pluralism and tolerance. Extremists often denounce Siti Jenar as an infidel and apostate, while spiritual luminaries, such as President Wahid, generally regard his mystical teachings as an expression of the highest truth of Islam and of reality itself.

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