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

As the Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi wrote of an Arab saint who encountered a similar fate in 10th century Baghdad: “When Mansur al-Hallaj attained the state of utmost friendship with God, he became his own enemy and cast away his life. He said, ‘Anal-Haq’ (‘I am the truth’), meaning, ‘Mansur al-Hallaj has vanished and God alone remains.’ This is true humility. You who proclaim: ‘Thou art God and I am your servant’ display arrogance [rooted in egotism and profound spiritual ignorance], for you thereby affirm your own [transitory and illusory] existence, rather than divine unity (tawhid). To proclaim ‘He is God’ also affirms dualism, for until ‘I’ [the state of divine unity] exists, ‘He’ [personal knowledge of God’s existence] is impossible. … Therefore it was not Mansur al-Hallaj, but rather, God alone who proclaimed ‘I am the Truth,’ since Mansur’s individual identity had already vanished.”

Five hundred years after the death of Siti Jenar, narratives affirming or disputing his status as a saint (or infidel) continue to shape the religious and political landscape of Indonesia. In 2004, the most popular musical group in Muslim Southeast Asia, Dewa, whose previous album had sold approximately 10 million copies, released a new album titled “Laskar Cinta,” or “The Warriors of Love.”

It constituted a direct challenge and rebuke to those who sympathized with the group Laskar Jihad, which had participated in a religious civil war in eastern Indonesia and was founded by a veteran of the Afghan jihad who claimed personal familiarity with Osama bin Laden. Dewa’s new album swiftly rose to the top of Indonesia’s charts and two of its songs became number one hits in Indonesia and on MTV Asia. One of these songs, titled “Satu” (“Oneness”), was explicitly dedicated to Siti Jenar and employed, as its lyrics, a famous saying conveyed by the Prophet Muhammad but regarded by Muslims as a direct statement by God Himself (hadith qudsi), which affirms and validates the spiritual vision of al-Hallaj, Rumi and Siti Jenar.

As President Wahid wrote in The Washington Post (“From Indonesia, Songs Against Terrorism”): “Dhani and the other members of Dewa have presented Indonesia’s youth with a stark choice, and one easy for most to answer: Do they want to join the army of jihad, or the army of love? Dhani and his group are on the front lines of a global conflict, defending Islam from its fanatical hijackers. In a world all too often marred by hatred and violence committed in the name of religion, they seek to rescue an entire generation from Wahhabi-financed extremists whose goal is to transform Muslim youth into holy warriors and suicide bombers. For every young Indonesian seduced by the ideology of hatred and fanaticism – including those responsible for the recent, awful attacks in Bali – countless others see through the extremists’ web of lies and hatred, in no small part thanks to the visionary courage of people like Ahmad Dhani. For as they listen to Dewa’s music, the hearts of millions of young Indonesians have been inspired to declare: ‘No to the warriors of jihad! Yes to the warriors of love!’ ”

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