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

The Javanese victory over Demak gave birth to a set of narratives that have continued to evolve to the present day, through the process of deposition and erosion so aptly described by Brian Steed in the lead essay, “Maneuver in Islam’s narrative space.” These narratives initially assumed the form of oral and written histories such as the “Babad Tanah Jawi” (“History of the Land of Java”), which were composed by highly skilled poets retained by the court of Mataram. Over time, these narratives found expression in virtually every mode of Javanese art, education and culture, and were both deliberately and spontaneously inculcated, from generation to generation, at every level of Javanese society, from the palace to remote villages.

As Jadul Maula, director of the film “Rahmat Islam Nusantara,” has said: “When the saints molded their disciples and taught them how to achieve spiritual perfection, they deliberately chose not to alienate people from their own history, culture, traditions or physical environment. As a result, we can still discern their footprints, for a wide variety of Islamic identities emerged when the saints began to Islamize the East Indies archipelago: Javanese Islam, West Sumatran Islam, Achenese Islam, Sasak Islam, Buginese Islam. Yet a golden thread runs throughout these various expressions of Islam. For the process of Islamization encouraged the attainment of spiritual perfection, without annihilating the unique characteristics of each local culture that embraced the new religion.

“There is a basic teaching [within traditional Sunni Islam]: ‘Invite people to travel the path to God’ – and this needs to be emphasized: ‘Invite people to travel the path to God,’ not to join any particular sect or clique. Don’t invite others to embrace [a specific] religion, but rather, to travel the path to God Himself. And in order to do this, people must travel an inner, spiritual path: ie, the path of the soul.

“To cite one example: many saints used art to convey their teachings. It is known from the ancient tales that Sunan Kalijogo wandered throughout Java, performing as a shadow puppet master. Using shadow-puppet theater (wayang kulit), Sunan Kalijogo taught people to engage in introspection, to know themselves. Many people nowadays have difficulty understanding this kind of da‘wa (Islamic proselytism), especially if they’re trapped by concepts regarding religious identity. For example, they may regard wayang kulit as a Hindu art form.

“Yet the reason saints adopted wayang is because its symbols and stories were extremely popular. They didn’t want to alienate people from their own culture, and thus reworked these popular stories in such a way as to incorporate Islamic teachings that served as a mirror for self-reflection and a means to acquire self-knowledge. This illustrates how the early saints employed wise methods, including stories that were entertaining rather than didactic, and not in the least alien to their audience. People were encouraged to find their own path to God, and to encounter God, knowing that this encounter was the direct result of attaining a state of human perfection. “People were taught, first and foremost, to be fully human and thus humane. This differs from most contemporary da‘wa, which encourages people to embrace religion before they’ve become fully human. When inhumane people practice religion, they bring their personal defects to the practice of religion itself. By engaging in da‘wa that emphasized spiritual perfection and its attendant humane behavior, the Wali Songo (Nine Saints) adopted an approach that was universally acceptable within Nusantara society. People of all faiths were willing to lend an ear to such teachings, which are of immense value to anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. And thus the impact of the saints’ da‘wa was widely perceived as beneficial to society at large.”

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