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

In 2005, while publicly defending Ahmad Dhani and Dewa from extremist accusations of apostasy, President Wahid leaned over and whispered to me: “You know, Holland, fundamentalists are always trying to annihilate mysticism. But they can never succeed, because it’s impossible to annihilate that which arises from the depths of human experience.” Subsequent developments in Ahmad Dhani’s life only go to prove the incompetence and failure of governments to support such positive narratives.

For more than 100 years, from 1478 to 1586, these opposing forces struggled for the soul of Java – and, ultimately, for that of Islam – in a war whose decisive engagements occurred not only on the field of battle, but in the hearts and minds of countless individuals scattered across the lush, tropical landscape of Java. For in this conflict between fundamentalist jihadists and Sufi (mystically inclined) Muslims, the Sufis’ profound spiritual ideology, popularized among the masses by storytellers and musicians, played a role even more vital than that of economics or pure military force in defeating religious extremism in Java.

One such figure, Sunan Kalijogo, who to this day remains the pre-eminent patron saint of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest mass Islamic group, taught his disciples a mystical brand of Islam that readily harmonized with pre-existing elements of traditional Javanese culture. Revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike, Kalijogo’s teachings formed a stark contrast to the militant brand of Islam espoused by Sunan Kudus and were in fact aligned with the wahdat al-wujud doctrine of Seh Siti Jenar, which represents the core teaching of the great Sufi mystic Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (d, 1234 in Damascus, Syria) and his respected line of disciples, including Abd al-Karim al-Jili (1366-1424).

At the end of this multigenerational conflict, a new dynasty arose, founded on the principle of “the throne for the people,” which established religious tolerance as the rule of law and restored freedom of conscience to all Javanese. This was 200 years before similar ideas took firm political root in the West, through passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The founder of that dynasty was a Javanese Sufi Muslim and disciple of Sunan Kalijogo named Senopati ing Alogo. The basis of his victory was the popular appeal of Senopati’s message of religious freedom, justice, respect for Javanese cultural identity and profound inner spirituality, in contrast to the fanaticism and tyranny of his political opponents.

Mataram, the name Sunan Kalijogo’s disciples gave to the region of south-central Java now known as Yogyakarta, and to the Islamic dynasty they founded, was loaded with symbolism. In addition to evoking the 9th century Mataram kingdom, which, centered nearby, was the first Javanese dynasty to adopt a syncretic form of Hinduism/Buddhism, the name explicitly combined the Sanskrit terms for “mother” (matr) and “Ram,” the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, who came to earth to destroy the demon-king Ravana. Within the context of 16th century Javanese culture, the narrative was clear: Senopati ing Alogo was like Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu; his guru, Sunan Kalijogo, a contemporary rishi, or “seer of ultimate Reality”; his followers, the devout Hanoman and his army of varanas (forest-dwellers); and Demak, the equivalent of Lanka, the demon kingdom from which Ravana and his followers (ie, Arab and Chinese fanatics) had issued forth to massacre, rape and enslave human beings – thereby disrupting the harmony of nature and the tranquil worship of God by religious devotees.

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