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Java island

Java (Jawa) is an island of Indonesia and the site of its capital city, Jakarta. Once the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, Java now plays a dominant role in the economic and political life of Indonesia. Home to a population of 130 million in 2006, it is the most populous island in the world. Java is also one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.

Subtile mix of adat and islam

Visitors of Java encounter the many and varied manifestations of religion. On the central square (alun-alun) of most cities are elegant church towers besides mosques with silver-colored domes and loudspeakers where five times a day the call for player sounds. Not far from it, most of the times in the very near, there is a market, and a Chinese temple (klenteng ) with statues of Buddha and many other gods. The remarkable visitor will notice that at road crossings small flower-sacrifices (sajen ) are made, peace offerings for spirits that can do damage when not treated properly. And at places in the mountains pilgrims will visit graves of holy spirits to ask them for assistance in the most different things.

However the most famous old buildings - Borobudur and Prambanan - are the product of Hindu-Buddhist civilization, the biggest part of the Javanese is Islamic. About 12 per cent of them is Buddhist, Hindu or Christian, the other 86 per cent is Muslim. Since the Islamic community knows a big variety of religious traditions, that doesn't stop the government to say that Indonesia is the biggest Islamic state in the world. Only on Java there are more people than any Middle-Eastern state.
In the course of the history of the island orthodox Muslems (santri) and 'Javanese Muslems', which see the adat as more important than the orthodox rules, religious disputes are not avoided at all. A strong influence from native toleration had supported to a melting pot of religious factors , which is a brand for religion on Java. Javanese who as easy can sacrifice at the side of a pond and make sacrifices to their ancestors, as entering a mosque for salat (5 daily prayers), are no exception at all.

Mystical devotion

Mysticism and culture are connected very strong on Java. Whatever their belief the Javanese show profound thoughts. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once noticed that Java is the only place in the world where you can ask a farmer of the meaning of life, to be told everything about mystical things about the being of Allah and of existence.

This strong sensitiveness for the mystical has had it's influence on the Islam right from the start. It is said that the 'nine holy people' (wali songo), which spread the religion of the Islam on Java in the 15th century, were extremely skilled in magic and meditation; they could make themselves invisible, appear on two places at the same time and bent daggers of opponents.

Also the modern Java knows persons which have secret powers (dukun). Their specialty vary from massages and deliberation to magic and exorcism. However the modern Javanese are sceptical about some dukun, they believe that most of them have those powers. Traditional meditation techniques, most important are fasting and waking, as well as ascetical rituals, however they are controversial, are used often.

Many Muslems distance from such practice, because they accept the written form of the Quran to be the only right one to practice the way for Allah. They see the mystical, practiced outside the room of orthodox devotion, with suspicion. Just like in India, the origin of the Javanese Islam, the Islamic community is plagued by argue for centuries. One of the first messengers of Islam on Java, Seh Siti Jenar, was tortured because of proclaiming the mystical vision that Allah and the individual at in fact one. ("Who knows himself, knows God"). This is still popular on Java and is used to justify quiet religious life above prayer in the mosque and the yearly returning fasting.

The Islamic royal houses

Tension between mystical and orthodox manifested mostly in the royal houses of Central-Java. The sultans saw themselves as defenders of the religion. They forbade not religious people to enter the principality of the royal palaces without envoys and gifts to Mecca. Just like the kings of Northern India. from which they inherited many ideas, they stressed mystical devotion and tried to bring down the development of a powerfull and independent God, after an Arabic example.

The Javanese rulers have always fought to realize a royal cult in which the king, and not the clergy, told about Islamic topics. The sultan was the replacement of Allah on earth. Due to that the royal cemeteries and mosques were equalized to the holy shrines in Arabia, and 7 pilgrimages to those places were accounted for one pilgrimage to Mecca.

However conflicts with the clergy the royal houses claimed important functions with the Islamization of Java. In the 16th and 17th century their assignment became to destroy Hindu-Buddhist temples and convents, and to replace them by mosques, Islamic schools and places of pilgrimage. Three times a year the sultan gave a party to celebrate the holy days of birth of the prophet. He demanded males were circumstanced as a sign of entering the Islamic community.

At the same time these rulers continued the many ceremonies, pomp and circumstance of their Hindu-Buddhist predecessors. On Islamic holidays the royal house gave sacrifice in the form of mountains of fares (gunungan ) to the four spirits of protection of the island, but only because of Allahs mercy. And every year the sultan was expected to have sexual intercourse with the goddess of the South Sea, Ratu Kidul. The marriage between those two ensures the country wealth and fertility. Nowadays either envoys of the royal houses of Jogya and Solo go to the South Sea-beach with food and clothing sacrifices to renew the connection between the king and queen of the ocean.

Thanking dinner for the spirits

Until a short while ago a big part of the Javanese rural population did the same kind of rituals. In the villages in the hinterlands there was a place for sacrifices for protectionist spirits - most of the times an old waringin tree - was the ritual center, not the mosque. Every year people ensured themselves of the protection of the village spirit, by doing the ritual 'village-cleaning' (resik dusun), incense and food-sacrifices were made.
In the daily life inside the house there also was (and is) protection with regular sacrifices. Events like a pregnancy, a birth, the first time hair gets cut, a circumcision, marriage and death are as well big events for a sacrifice to be made. The events in life and the personal development are as well biological as spiritual processes. A successful development is ensured by execution of one of the most easy and most popular rite, the selamatan. This thanking dinner, a Javanese variant of the worldwide known unity dinner, is a quiet religious party that is celebrated with neighbors and relatives. After the food is presented on a mat in the center of the room, incense is burned and prayers for Allah, local spirits and protectionist spirits are made.

After the prayer the guests eat a little of the food, and the rest is taken home to share with the family, which is in this way also concerned in the blessing. Because of the stress on the mystical communication, unity and quietness, the selamatan shows a true rukun (social harmony) on Java. This kind of Islamic rites are one of the things that have a Javanese face.

Orthodox vs. Javanese Islam

The Islamic influence has always been stronger on the Northern side of Java than at the Central-Javanese royal houses. More than 600 years ago Islamic traders from Sumatra, India, Persia, Arabia and even China established here. Who visits Semarang, Surabaya, Pasuruan and other cities at the Northern coast, will notice the clear Islamic institutions and style of clothing.

The colonialism was also a cause to help raising the orthodox Islam and suffering of Javanese traditions. The European hard of authority of traditional rulers in the 19th century caused an identity crisis, which was solved by some by disapproving royal houses and a stronger connection to the Islam. The descendance of the royal houses came together with a fast rise of the number of Javanese holding a pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey that was made more easy by the arrival of European steamships which came through the Canal of Suez.

Around the turn of the century the reformers called to reform the Javanese Islam to transfer it to the Arabic Islam. This became very disputed, even with groups of devoted Muslems. Javanese tradition of prayer, mystic, estethics and the position of the women, which is for most of the people as to be united with Islam, became wrong because of the purists wanted the Middle-East rules. Many Javanese which saw themselves as good Muslems, were opposed to these reforms and disagreed with the Arabic orthodox Islam.

Religious variety

These religious disputed were the start of other developments. Around the turn of the century some Javanese converted to Christianity. After the independence these few became a flood, when the Protestants proved their independence in Europe. With this they made Christianity more attractive for an influential 'modern minded' minority.

In the 20th century tensions between Javanese and orthodox Muslems caused different branches which caused to strengthen the Javanese Islam very much. Still splits happen, while the reformation thinking Muslems get more influence. Since 1965-1966 the government has defended pluralism strongly with it 'Old Order' politics, while religious extremism was admitted to strong regulations. Atheism is not allowed; it is associated with communism. Everyone has to be religious in one of the 5 allowed religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. Islamic organizations have to admit free choice of religion and have to let go of the Islamic unitary state of Indonesia.

Ways of the government to separate politics and religion and stimulate plurality, has had didn't make the influence of the Islam on daily life any smaller. The changes that have taken place in the Islamic world, did also change Java. The last couple of years the growing number of people living in the city has converted to Islam, to turn themselves of from the bad habits of life and Western liberalism. On the campus in big cities are modern, high-educated women, dressed in jilbab- clothing, ancles and arms fully covered, scarf around the neck - has become a normal sight.

Mosques and Islamic schools are attended more than earlier. Despite a big part is Islamic, in one form or another, which is branded by tolerance, moderateness and interwoven with centuries old mysticism. A mystic of which all Javanese know is and which creates a certain certainty in the different religious conceptions on the Island.

Last revised on December 27, 2009
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