Spiritualiy on the North Coast of Java

One complaint I have heard from many visitors to Indonesia is that there are a lack of sites in Java that have real spirituality.  As a result many quickly bypass Java for Bali where the spirituality of that island’s unique form of Hinduism is seemingly everywhere.  Meanwhile, in Jakarta, visitors are treated to sites such as the Istiqlal Mosque, a structure which, though an architectural success, has all the spirituality of a community center with tired Jakartans sleeping and sprawled out trying to escape the punishing tropical sun.

There are also arguments on both sides as to whether Borobudur and Prambanan are spiritually moving sites. The one undeniable fact is that they are monuments to a religious sensibility that counts only a tiny minority of believers on the island of Java.

To find the true spirituality of Java and the Javanese, one must, in my opinion, head to one of the shrines of the Wali Songo, or Nine Saints, who brought Islam to Java. On a recent trip to the North Coast of Central Java, I had the chance to visit Demak and Kudus.

Demak holds a special place in the history of Islam in Indonesia for it is where the religion first established itself in Java.  The Masjid Agung (1455)

Masjid Agung Demak

is the oldest mosque in Java and its cemetery is home to the rulers of the Demak kingdom – the first powerful Islamic kingdom in Java.  Also in Demak is the tomb of Sunan Kalijaga.  He is the only one of the Nine Saints depicted in Javanese (instead of Arabic) dress. 

Sunan Kalijaga

According to legend, Sunan Kalijaga came to Islam much the way an Eastern mystic would find enlightenment.

He [Kalijaga] had become a Muslim without ever having seen the Koran, entered a mosque, or heard a prayer – through an inner change of heart brought on by the same sort of yoga-like psychic discipline that was the core religious act of the Indic tradition from which he came.  His conversion was not a matter of a spiritual or mortal change following upon a decisive change in belief, but a willed spiritual and moral change which eventuated in an almost accessorial change in belief.  (Geertz, Islam Observed, p. 29)

Kudus is the only city in Indonesia to have an Arabic name. Al Quds, for which Kudus is a derivation, is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. The city is name after Sunan Kudus, another one of the Nine Saints. The minaret of the Manar Mosque

Masjid Al Manar

is built in an architectural style that resembles many Hindu temples of the same time period. To this day, the markets of Kudus do not sell beef because they still follow the deal Sunan Kudus struck with the then Hindu shop owners in the bazaar. (Buffalo meat is sold instead.) In exchange for being allowed to teach Islam, Sunan Kudus promised that his followers would follow the Hindu taboo on killing cows.

In both the tomb of Sunan Kalijaga and the tomb of Sunan Kudus, I saw devout men and women deep in prayer and other acts of religious devotion. Many of the worshipers were reciting verses from the Quran in Arabic. The tombs were two of the most spiritually alive places I have seen in Indonesia.  The other aspect I found interesting was the manner of worship.  Since the faithful were reciting the Quran aloud, the tombs, though Muslim, resembled Buddhist temples I had seen in Thailand, with monks and lay Buddhists chanting the sutras, more that mosques I had seen in the Middle East, where people worship silently. 

Worshiper at the Sunan Kudus Shrine

To me the scene was a fascinating portrait of the strength of Islamic faith and devotion in Indonesia against the tableau of the continuing presence of pre-Islamic forms of religious devotional ritual.

Worshipers at the Shrine of Sunan Kalijaga

Worshipers at the Shrine of Sunan Kalijaga

Worshiper at Masjid Agung Demak

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A Review of Civil Islam by Robert Hefner

by Robert Hefner

From the Book Jacket of Civil Islam, Drawing entitled "Democracy's Struggle" by Dodi Irwandi

Civil Islam



Civil Islam is considered by many to be the definitive work on Islam and democracy in Indonesia.  With respect to a preeminent scholar like Dr. Hefner, I have a critique.  What I found lacking, was a structural construct for how Islam can be a force multiplier for democracy and the institutions of democracy.  Indeed, one must read to the penultimate page of the book to glean something transferable from the Indonesian experience. 

The civil option may promote public religion, but distanced from the coercive machinery of state.  It strides proudly into the public arena but insists that its message is clearest when it bearers guard their independence.  Religious voices must be ready to balance and critique the state and the market, rather than give both a greater measure of social power.  Here is a religious reformation that works with, rather than against, the pluralizing realities of our age.  (Hefner: 219-220)

In other words, in democracy, Islam can be loud and forceful yet not dangerous because it is one of many voices – a variation of the democracy as a market place of ideas model.  Undoubtedly, Islamic organizations’ participation in a democratic public sphere is one of the most encouraging legacies of Indonesia’s democratic transition. 

Yet the question remains: Why in Indonesia has most of Islamic civil society accepted democracy as a paradigm in the first place.  Why does Indonesian Islam, “work with, rather than against, the pluralizing realities of our age.”   Hefner has two main themes in constructing an Islamic civil society that co-exists and compliments democracy: independence and civility.  Indeed one of the themes of the book is the struggle of Islamic organizations and thinkers to remain independent of the state.  Hefner also describes their failures to do so, so bloodily illustrated by NU’s involvement in the 1965-66 mass killings of communists.  So, one lesson is that Islamic institutions must keep some level of independence in spite of decades of oppression in order for them to play a constructive role in democratic society.  The relative success of Indonesian Islamic civil society to do so is indeed a contributing factor to the Indonesia’s unique status as a Muslim-majority democracy.

Certainly, independent organizations are an integral part of civil society and, as such, a building block of democracy.  Yet such a conclusion is somewhat tautological.  Hefner himself asserts that independence is only one part.  For example, in chapter two, Hefner examines the history of the Islamic boarding school (pesantren) system in Indonesia.  He concludes that though pesantrens were independent from the state, they were not good models of democratic institutions because of their hierarchical nature.  Explaining the pesantren system during the late colonial period Hefner writes, “Although Muslim society as a whole was characterized by considerable economic initiative and pluricentric organization, the structure of authority in most Muslim institutions remained unambiguously hierarchical.” 

In addition to independence, Hefner asserts a number of other factors are necessary for a “civil Islam.” 

For civil structures to become effective precedents for civic ideals, at least three additional conditions must be met.  First, native intellectuals have to look into their own social experience and derive from it a model of political culture that affirms principles of autonomy, mutual respect, and volunteerism.  Second, and equally important, influential actors and organizations must then work to generalize these democratic values beyond their original confines to a broader public sphere.  Third, and last, if these principles are to endure they must be buttressed by an array of supporting institutions, including those of the state. (Hefner: 35-36)

With a great deal of detail and insight, Hefner provides a number of examples of the afore-mentioned factors throughout the history of Indonesia from independence to the fall of Soeharto.   As I see it, the problem is that there is nothing obviously transferrable from the Indonesian experience.  Does an overtly “civil” Islam develop only thanks to visionary leaders like Nurcholish Madjid and Abudurrahman Wahid or moderate mass organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah?   Are such thinkers and organizations unique to the cultural context of Indonesia and therefore not really useful subjects of study for other Islamic democrats around the world?  In short, how did Indonesian Islamic institutions gain the civility?  How did Islam become “civil” in Indonesia?  The book leaves this question unanswered.  Perhaps, the lack of a sociological construct is due to the fact that there is actually nothing transferable from the Indonesian experience.  Then, perhaps the book should have a different title. 


Despite its shortcomings, Civil Islam does deliver one of the most elegant defenses of democracy in general and Dr. Hefner should be celebrated for it.  Essentially, democratic systems are better able to sustain stress that other types of political organization – especially authoritarian systems.  In general, successful democratic societies have ‘rules of the game’ which are respected.  The culture and institutions of those societies reinforce that respect.  It is this system of rules and supporting institutions and culture that check the power of the state and allow democratic systems to survive crises.  Authoritarian systems fail to do so because there are no rules (or respect for rules) other than the unabridged power of the autocrat and his circle of cronies.  Even in autocracies, the “state” is never a unitary rational actor but only an amalgamation or various groups and individuals whose success in life is somehow based on a link to the autocrat.  Autocratic systems work reasonably well when there is relatively little stress on the system.  The state, under its leader(s), can manage society’s competing interests through coercion and/or other extra-parliamentary means that are found in dictatorships the world over.  Once there is a challenge to the system and its leader(s), however, there are no set rules to which society’s competing interests can avail themselves except violence.  Describing the state of affairs in Indonesia in 1965-66, Hefner writes:

Power devolved not from a monolithic “state” into a uniform “society” but into the hands of segmental political organizations able to mobilize followers, coerce the weak, and, where necessary, bludgeon their enemies.  The conflict corroded civil decencies, undermined what was good in state institutions, and left political hooligans the winner. (Hefner: 57)

Unfortunately, that scenario was played out again (albeit less violently) during the fall of Soeharto.  Hefner uses the tragedies of those transition periods to unambiguously demonstrate the fallacy of  a benign dictatorship.  

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The Islamic Ashram

Pesantren in Amuntai, South Kalimantan

One of the most interesting aspects of Indonesia is the pesantren, or Islamic boarding school.  Usually located in rural areas, pesantrens are where 20 percent of all Indonesian children get their schooling (and a significantly higher percentage of poor and rural school children).  Pesantrens as institutions are normally funded by a religious endowment and are often supplemented by funding from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in order to carry out their education functions.  In addition, many pesantren, due to their rural location, maintain significant agricultural lands through which they can supplement their income. 


There are two types of pesantren in Indonesia today: traditional and modern.  A traditional pesantren only offers religious education as found in the Quran and hadiths.  A modern pesantren has a wider curriculum with math, science, and English in additional to religious subjects.  In theory, a graduate from a modern pesantren can proceed directly to university education.   



Kids at the traditional pesantren in Banten Lama

Traditional Pesantren in Banten Lama, Banten Province







There are a couple of different schools of thought regarding the origins of pesantrens as influential institutions in Indonesia.  In Civil Islam, the eminent anthropologist Robert Hefner from Boston University posits that pesantrens became more influential as Dutch colonial rule intensified.  Islamic leaders attempted to “distance themselves from the state” by “establishing pesantren across the interior of the island.”  (Heffner p. 34)  In essence, pesantren purposefully moved to remote locations to get away from Dutch colonial authority.

Girl at Al-Falah Pesantren, outside Bandung, West Java province

The other, not mutually exclusive, theory is that of Ronald Lukens-Bull.  Lukens-Bull, a professor at the University of North Florida, described the pesantren system in Indonesia as having arisen from the network of Buddhist monasteries and Hindu ashrams that existed in Java before the onset of Islam.  Essentially, Lukens-Bull argues that those who wanted to spread Islam in Java adopted the existing system of ascetic Hindu-Buddhist monasticism because it would give the new religion the best chance for success given the socio-cultural peculiarities of Island. 

Personally, I find a lot to like in Lukens-Bull’s theory.  Recently, I visited the Al-Falah boarding school just outside of Bandung.  During a tour of the school given by the kiyai, or religious leader, I walked by one classroom where students were reciting the Quran in Arabic – in what I think was an effort to memorize it.  While they were chanting the suras of the Quran, I was suddenly reminded of Buddhist temples in Japan where priests would chant the sutras in Sanskrit.  It had more of the cadence and rhythm of Buddhist chanting than any quranic recitations I have heard in the Middle East, or any other Islamic country for that matter.


My other experience came in the pesantren of Cipasung where in a performance students sang the Quran with a musical accompaniment.  Truly fascinating.  I was reminded of the devotional music performances I heard in India.  Surely, any self-respecting Saudi imam would tell you singing the Quran with a musical background is haram (forbidden).  Yet, here was such a practice in a center of Islamic learning.  Does that simple fact alone make it part of the Islamic experience and therefore considered an equally valid interpretation of Islam?   If not, wouldn’t many of the esoteric Protestant sects in the American South be considered less than truly Christian because they do not conform to Papal orthodoxy?  At the very least, Islam, as with any religion, is constantly changing, evolving and growing.  To understand the religion, events in Indonesia are just as important as those in the Arab world.

Musical Quranic Performance, Cipasung Pesantren, Tasikmalaya, West Java
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Overcast with Clouds


One of the striking artistic features found everywhere in Cirebon is megamendung.  Translated loosely, it means overcast with clouds.  Mega is cloud and mendung is overcast.  Located on the northwest coast of Java, Cirebon was indeed overcast all three days we were there. 

The megamendug style is most commonly associated with Cirebon’s famous batiks which are decorated with cloud designs. 

What was fascinating for me, however, was the way the local artisans incorporate the cloud/fog motif into so much of their architectural style.  Cirebon artists and architects seem keen to depict palaces as sitting in the clouds and/or shrouded by mist.  The first picture is from the Kraton Kanoman (Kanoman Palace), in the main throne room.


The second is from the Gua Sunyaragi or water palace, dating from 18th Century.  I am not sure if it is beautiful or ugly but the intent is clear.  The sultans must have wanted to feel that their pleasure palaces were sitting in a fogbank even when the weather was already overcast.  Their desire to see the artist’s rendering of clouds against the backdrop of nature’s version could be the genesis of the term “megamendung.”

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Banten: Remnants of an Ancient Sultanate Just Outside Jakarta

On November 23, I visited Banten Lama which is a couple hours west of Jakarta in the province of Banten.  Banten was once the seat of a powerful sultanate.  Banten was established as an Islamic fiefdom under the rule of the Demak kingdom in 1523-4 when Sunan Gunungjati drove out the local Hindu-Buddhist ruler.  Sunan Gunungjati was one of the 9 Islamic saints (wali songo) who are credited with spreading Islam throughout Java.  In 1552, Banten became an independent sultanate under the rule Sultan Mauluna Hasanuddin.  Due to the Banten Sultanate’s ability to control the lucrative pepper trade, the city flourished becoming the largest is city in Indonesia by the 1670s.  Banten’s golden age was short-lived, however.  In 1680, coming on the heels of then Sultan Tirtayasa’s declaration of war on the Dutch, an internal power struggle between the Sultan and his son, the crown prince, led to Dutch intervention on behalf the latter.  Thus began the once-great sultanate’s steady decline.   

It is worth noting that Sultan Tirtayasa, who had been at war with the Dutch intermittently for nearly 50 years, had surrounded the Dutch capital of Batavia (present day Jakarta) on the west, south and east in 1677-8.   At the time, the Dutch were involved in trying to support the disintegrating Mataram Kingdom against the rebel leader Trunajaya.  Meanwhile, Sultan Tirtayasa was supporting Trunajaya with money and weapons.  According to the historian M.C. Ricklefs, “What might have happened had he [Sultan Tirtayasa] done so [attacked] two or three years earlier cannot be guessed, but certainly by 1680 the moment for such a move had passed.”

There is not much of the glory of Banten left today partly due to Dutch colonial policy and partly due to the port silting up.  In 1832 the Dutch burned down the Surosowan Palace leaving only the outer walls, which are visible today.  The Masjid Agung (Grand Mosque), which dates to the mid-fifteenth century, has been heavily restored.  The Mosque’s design retains the traditional Javanese three-tiered roof.  By far, the most impressive remaining structure of the old mosque is the massive minaret, which also served as a lighthouse.  It was reportedly designed by a Chinese Muslim in 1559. 

Personally, aside from the majestic and stalwart minaret-cum-lighthouse, the Mosque was not all that interesting architecturally – its age belied by a recent refurbishment.  On the one hand, I admire the fact that the local government and people take enough pride in their community and history to restore the monument.  On the other hand, the restoration seemed to rob the mosque of something of its character (if it ever had any).

What I liked most about the mosque was its organic, lived-in feeling.  It made the Mosque feel alive and part of the community, rather than a tourist site off limits to the locals.  On one grassy patch in the mosque’s front courtyard I saw a small herd of goats, on another grassy patch there was a group of young men playing soccer.  Young children were swimming in the water tanks between the grass and the inner part of the mosque.  Being part of the overall milieu, which was lively but not hectic, I felt that I could get some sense of the flavor or atmosphere of the community, the culture, the country.  I was reminded of some of the historic, yet non-touristy temples I visited in India.  The feeling of a community that is poor yet enjoying leisure time.  A spontaneous festival breaking out did not seem far-fetched. 

Obviously, Indonesia is not India and, despite the similarities, I would not mistake the two.  Yet, I have still not clearly identified what it was that differentiated the two in my mind.

The other part I liked was the juxtaposition between the joie de vivre outside and the reflective, contemplative calm inside.  There were maybe a couple of women and men either praying or meditating inside the mosque.  The solemn atmosphere was reinforced by the lack of electricity, which was all the more obvious given the onset of dusk.  The growing darkness enhanced the subdued mood of the place.

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Padang Food!!!!!!!!


On Friday November 5, I had one of the best culinary experiences I can remember.  Padang food is widely known throughout Indonesia – possibly the favorite regional cuisine in Indonesia.  There are restaurants all over Jakarta.  The restaurant I went to is called Garuda, it is in the suburb of Pluit on the way to the airport.  


The city of Padang itself is on the west coast of southern Sumatra. 







Even the process of serving the food is unique.  Many plates are brought to your table and you help yourself to the ones that look appetizing.  You leave the ones you don’t want to try and they are later put back in the display case.  At the end, the waiter counts up what you have eaten off the plates and gives you the bill. 



More importantly, however, is the taste of the food itself – it is absolutely delicious.  One of my favorites was the fried chicken which is moist, flavorful and juicy yet not greasy. 

The other one I really liked was the sate Padang.  There are pieces of meat on a skewer which is then smothered in a yellow sauce.  At the time, I could not figure out what the base was.  There was just a hint of sour beneath the many flavors, which I later learned was lemon grass.  There is also a generous portion of turmeric, which is where the dish gets its yellow color.  Despite the generous amounts of turmeric, the spice does not overpower the other flavors.  There are also a lot of shallots which when eating, I could only detect subconsciously.  The sauce, and the dish, is like nothing I have ever had.  Here is a recipe.  http://web.mit.edu/ais-mit/www/recipes/sate_padang.html







In all the dishes there seems to be definite Indian influence and hints of Thai.  Yet, the ultimate outcome is something completely unique.

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Yogyakarta Kraton

The Sultan’s palace of Yogyakarta dates back to 1755 when Hamengkubuwana I (aka Mangkubumi) moved to Yogya after signing a treaty with the Dutch that recognized him as Sultan of half of Java.  (Hamengkubuwana later renamed the city Yogyakarta.)  The agreement with teh Dutch, known as the Giyanthi Treaty, essentially spilt in two the once mighty Sultanate of Mataram.  Since that time Sultans have sat on the throne continuously, despite instances of serious turmoil.

Today Hamengkubuwana X is not only Sultan but governor of the special administrative region of Yogyakarta.  On 3 October 1998, Hamengkubuwana X was the first Sultan to be democratically elected. The Sultan was also considered as a potential choice for president in the post-Suharto era.

The current Sultan’s father, Hamengkubuwana IX is one of the most respected figures in Indonesian history due to the key role he played in the independence struggle against the Dutch.  The Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwana IX  essentially hosted the nascent Republic of Indonesia government after the Dutch retook Jakarta and Bandung.  The Sultan also refused Dutch overtures to co-opt him when he turned down their offer to make him the leader of a new, subject, Javanese state in January 1949.  Throughout the war of independence Hamangkubuwana IX supported republican forces. 

According to some guide books, the palace is one of the finest examples of Javanese court architecture.  The spacious courtyards and pavilions are supposed to be hallmarks of an ideal Javanese palace. 

As you can see from these photos, many European elements of design are incorporated into the palace.  I was particularly struck by the stain glass windows and the lamp posts. 



From what I have read, it is unclear exactly when these Western touches were added.   It seems to me that there is something in the Javanese psyche that is not only open to new ideas and new styles but can incorporate them into existing structure. 

I also liked the various lithographs and illustrations of the Sultan’s armies found in the museums inside the palace.  All the uniforms had a mix of Western and Indonesian elements.  Here is a picture I found of someone wearing a uniform like those I saw in the museum. 

It is really like Benedict Andersen said in Imagined Communities:

This ‘tropical Gothic’… Nothing better illustrates capitalism in feudal-aristocratic drag than colonial militaries.  If the Prussian General Staff, Europe’s military teacher, stressed the anonymous solidarity of a professionalized corps, ballistics, railroads, engineering, strategic planning, and the like, the colonial army stressed glory, epaulettes, personal heroism, polo and an archaizing courtliness among its officers. (Andersen, 151)

One of the most unattractive aspects of visiting the palace is the faux palace, which, from my experience, is an inescapable stop on the way to the real palace.  Most taxis in town will drop the unsuspecting tourist at the faux palace.  The problem is that there is no way to know one is at the fake palace because it has a booth selling entrance tickets.  Unfortunately, once one is inside, there is precious little to see aside from a somewhat weathered stage.  There are, however, many guides who offer free tours, which, of course, end with an obligatory tour of their over-priced batik shop.  As frustrating as this situation is, it must be said that it is possible to find the real palace.  There are some signs and most people (I assume) make their way to the real palace at some point.  The real palace is about 100 meters to the West of the fake palace.  In any event, perhaps the Sultan has a reason to allow these characters operate on his property, but I don’t know what it is.

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Going Live

Here in Banjarbaru, I have created my first blog at Pesta Blogger 2010.  It is a pleasure to be here with about 40 new Indonesian friends — all of whom are blogging for the first time.  A/C would be nice, however.

Pesta Blogger site in Benjarbaru

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Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

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