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

Thus, over a period of nearly three decades (1405-33), Majapahit’s ability to govern its dependencies throughout the Malay archipelago was severely eroded by the Ming dynasty’s foreign policy, which was designed to “fragment the barbarians” and encourage local rulers to establish a direct tribute relationship with China. Then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as they had appeared, the massive Chinese fleets vanished from Southeast Asian waters, leaving a power vacuum in their wake. Following Zheng He’s death, the Ming emperor (Xuande) decided to cease funding naval expeditions. This coincided with the fall of the eunuch faction at the Ming court in Beijing, many of whom were Hui Muslims, and the rise to power of Confucian scholar-bureaucrats who opposed engagement with the Outer Barbarians of the Western Ocean.

Its maritime – and, hence, economic – lifeline severed by Chinese intervention, the Majapahit empire fell into an advanced state of decay, enabling the spread of Muslim city-states along the coasts of Sumatra, the Malay peninsula, Borneo, Sulawesi and the Malukus, which promptly declared independence from their Hindu/Buddhist overlords. The tide of political Islam reached Java in 1478, when a Chinese Muslim harbor master named Jin Bun murdered an aristocratic Javanese governor (adipati), assumed the title “Raden Patah” and established the Islamic sultanate of Demak.

Closely allied with Chinese and Arab Muslims who lived in maritime ports along the north coast of Java, Demak drew upon familiar Islamic narratives to legitimize waging war (ie, jihad) upon the severely weakened Majapahit empire. These narratives were largely identical to those employed by Muslim conquerors throughout Islamic history and may be readily traced to specific elements of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice, including those portions of fiqh (classical Islamic law, aka Shariah) that enjoin Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity toward non-Muslims and require the establishment of an Islamic state, whose ruler unifies and leads the community of Muslims in what amounts to a perpetual state of war, which may be periodically interrupted by truce, against any who refuse to submit to Islam.

After decades of intermittent warfare, the Demak army, led by Raden Patah’s son, Sultan Trenggono, finally sacked the infidels’ (ie, Majapahit) capital, torched the sacred Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and scattered the indigenous Javanese nobility, priests and court followers across the mountainous landscape of southern Java, from whence many fled to Bali. For nearly 25 years, Sultan Trenggono waged annual jihad campaigns in southern and eastern Java, in order to break the resistance of the local Javanese aristocracy and landed gentry, known as kyais, who rejected his ultimatum to embrace Islam and refused to abandon their ancestral homes, land and followers to live in impoverished exile.

It was during this formative period of Islamic conquest that the first Javanese narratives about Islam began to take shape. Many of these concern the role of Muslim saints in adapting and propagating the essence of Islamic teachings within the context of Javanese culture, and contrast the saints’ behavior with that of Arab and Chinese militants who weaponized specific elements of classical Islamic orthodoxy in order to justify their seizure of economic and political power.

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