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

It is important to note that these narratives were not hostile to Islam or opposed to its primary message of rahmah (divine mercy and compassion). Rather, the disciples of Sunan Kalijogo who crafted these narratives succeeded in dominating the moral and theological high ground and neutralized religious supremacism by positioning Islam as the noble embodiment of truth and a source of universal love and compassion (Koran, 21:107). Similarly, these narratives portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as the Messenger of God, who came to earth for no purpose other than to perfect moral character and virtue. As may be evident from these scriptural citations, both of the aforementioned narratives regarding Islam and the Prophet are fully orthodox and consistent with the view of Islam and its Prophet held by the majority of the world’s Muslims.

What distinguishes Indonesia from other regions of the Muslim world is one simple fact: only in Nusantara, and most notably Java, did a pluralistic, tolerant and spiritual understanding of Islam achieve lasting military and political dominance, which it has continued to maintain – despite numerous, sometimes bloody challenges – for more than 450 years.

The fundamental problem the Javanese faced, and that Indonesia continues to face today, lies in the fact that orthodox Islam also contains the violent and supremacist narratives employed to such devastating effect by Mahmud of Ghazni, Sultan Trenggono and contemporary social media jihadists who employ these very same narratives when summoning Muslims to join a global insurrection against the current world order.

As Kyai Haji A Mustofa Bisri, spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, told a gathering of 400 senior Islamic scholars in 2014, at the culminating event of a six-week-long Festival of East Indies Saints: “A previous speaker mentioned that it was my idea to hold this festival, and indeed it’s been on my mind for quite some time. The idea arose from my concern that in recent years, Islamic proselytism (da‘wa) has been violating the principles advocated by the noble Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him. The Prophet advised those who proselytize to make things easy for other people, not cause them to flee in terror. And yet, lately, it is precisely da‘wa that makes people feel horrified and appalled by Islam.”

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