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

The history of Islam in the East Indies region, now dominated by Indonesia, is the history of maneuver in the narrative space. Strategically located at the junction of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, the vast archipelago, which Indonesians call Nusantara, has been a meeting point of different cultures and religions for thousands of years. It is also home to one of the world’s pre-eminent “crossroads civilizations,” whose encounter with Islam during the past 14 centuries has produced many object lessons of value to those concerned by the threat to international peace and security posed by Islamist extremism and terror.

The original inhabitants of the East Indies archipelago embraced an indigenous spirituality that was often centered on the worship of Sang Hyang Taya – The Great Void, or Absolute – as the unmanifest source of creation. As the prominent historian and Islamic scholar Kyai Haji Agus Sanyoto explains in the film “Rahmat Islam Nusantara” (“The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam”), “Although the word ‘taya’ literally means ‘That which is Not,’ it does not imply nonexistence. True, ‘That’ does not exist on a physical plane; yet ‘That’ does exist. ‘That’ is empty, yet full. This cannot be explained in purely rational terms, which is why Sang Hyang Taya came to be described with the phrase, ‘Tankeno kinoyo ngopo’ – That to which nothing can be done. The mind cannot grasp ‘That,’ which lies beyond human concepts. Nor can ‘That’ be approached using any of the five senses. That’s why the ancients used the term ‘suwung’ or ‘awang-uwung’: ‘That’ is … yet is not. ‘That’ is not … yet is.”

Those familiar with the precepts of mysticism, such as “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience” (Merriam-Webster), will immediately recognize a description of the Divine essence not unlike that expressed by mystics from all the world’s major religious traditions. When Hinduism and Buddhism arrived during the early centuries of the Common Era, many inhabitants of the East Indies readily embraced these new religions, which they regarded as different expressions of a single reality, or truth, that was already long familiar to them. The 14th-century Javanese court poet Mpu Tantular gave voice to this unitary vision in his poem “Sutasoma,” from which Indonesia’s national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Oneness Amid Diversity), is derived.

Islam arrived in the East Indies within decades of its birth, brought by Arab traders in search of spices or bound for the Tang dynasty port of Guangzhou, where a large Muslim community is known to have existed during the early 8th century. Arab and Persian merchant ships routinely sailed through the East Indies, their lives and precious cargo protected by a succession of maritime powers centered on the islands of Sumatra (the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya, 650-1288) and Java. The Spice Islands were an integral part of the Great Silk Road that linked China with the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. For more than 1,000 years, the precepts of Buddhism spread peacefully along a circular route from the original Buddhist heartland in the Ganges basin through modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan, and simultaneously along a southern maritime route that linked India with Southeast Asia and Han China. While competing empires and dynasties rose and fell from power throughout this vast region, the spread of Buddhism through Central, East and Southeast Asia, along with the sociocultural, economic and civilizational “flowering” that accompanied this spread, provide an outstanding example, in world history, of intercultural dialogue and the peaceful dispersion of knowledge, spirituality and trade.

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