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)
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.
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
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.
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.