Islam in Java, back and forth

Islam in Java, back and forth

Source: Asia Views

M.C. Ricklefs describes Islamization in Java from the 14th century to the present. Is pluralism under threat?

Ricklefs - Islamisation and Its Opponents

M.C. Ricklefs, Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java: A Political, Social, and Religious History, c. 1930 to the Present,  Singapore (National University of Singapore, 2012), xxi + 576 pages.

In 1870s Java, one Muslim regent so admired the West that he once considered living like a Dutchman. However, when he was asked if he would become a Christian, he replied, ‘I’d rather have four wives and one God, than one wife and three Gods.’

The story appears in M.C. Ricklefs’ latest book, the last in a long trilogy about the process of Islamization in Java since the 14th century. Ricklefs previously published Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamisation from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries (2006), and Polarising Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions c. 1830-1930 (2007). In the most recent book, the Indonesian historian from Australia deals with Islamization in Java after 1930.

Ricklefs relates the above anecdote to describe a model of Islamic living in Java, which anthropologist Clifford Geertz once referred to as abangan (nominal Islam) in contrast with santri (pious Islam). Today, the same concept is known as Islam KTP (Islam on a citizen’s ID card only); while Muslims of this type typically recite syahadat (confession of faith), they do not faithfully perform Islamic rituals and do not approach Islam as a way of life. In the above example, the regent can profess Islam in a ‘selective’ and relaxed manner, unlike santri Muslims.

Ricklefs’ main thesis in his latest work is that the abangan model is starting to disappear. In Chapter 14, which is packed with data from diverse primary and secondary sources, interviews, censuses and surveys, Ricklefs indicates that Java has gotten ‘greener’: Islamization is deepening and this process is irreversible.

It is the result of a long and winding road. When Islam entered Java in the 14th century, relations between mosques and the palaces of Java were tense. Ties only started to improve when Sultan Agung ascended to the throne of Mataram (1613-1646), calling himself ‘sultan’ and using the title khalifatullah zhillullah fil ardhi. The peak was found in what Ricklefs terms a ‘mystical synthesis’ with three pillars: (1) to be Javanese is the same as being Muslim; (2) preparation to perform the five Islamic duties; and (3) following the local tradition of belief in Nyai Roro Kidul (Queen of the Southern Sea) and other supernatural beings.

But later, around the 1830s, the synthesis had begun to fade. With the pressure of Dutch colonization and other factors like the spread of Wahhabism from the Middle East, and Christianization accompanying colonialism the polarization of Islam and Java was just taking place. It was noticeable in the rivalry between Prince Diponegoro (santri) and the aforementioned regent (abangan). This polarization continued until the early 19th century and strengthened in the period of national movements, when the elite of both camps mobilized the masses into various organizations such as Serikat Islam, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) on the one side (santri), and the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) or the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) on the other (abangan).

The war for independence and the following period, Ricklefs continues, further deepened polarization. In the early phase of independence, this process reached a culmination with the violence following the PKI uprising in Madiun (1948). This polarization also gave birth to the politics of religious schools in the Sukarno era, which differentiated santri even more from abangan, and again climaxed in the ‘elimination’ of PKI activists and sympathizers, a bloodshed involving the masses.

This is the sociopolitical context of the latest wave of Islamization, in the form of further santrinization, with abangan elements being increasingly removed. The process was already in progress in the New Order period, but was more felt afterward.

Despite its abangan leader, the New Order under Suharto over the long term also favored santrinization. While banning its abangan foe, the PKI, the New Order supported santrinization by enlivening various aspects of Islamic cultural propagation. And finally, by cutting the political wing of Islam, the New Order’s authoritarianism was in fact preparing the awakening of more aggressive political Islam in the subsequent period.

This last part is described by Ricklefs in more than half of the remaining pages of his book. In certain sections, his descriptions are so vivid and nuanced, making it hard to imagine that it can be presented by one only recently familiar with Indonesia, let alone a foreigner. Regarding some of the most major issues, such as terrorism, the history professor cannot hide his annoyance at a group of scholars or researchers making inaccurate analyses, trapped by what he calls the ‘terrorism industry’.

Many other aspects of contemporary Islamization are spotlighted by Ricklefs: the relations between the state and religion, women and headscarves, education and Islamic schools, sharia business, pop culture and more. All of them, he says, are undergoing Islamization in the sense of the deepening of santrinization. In brief, today’s Javanese community, from the elite to grassroots, are even more santri or pious, physically and mentally.

Does this process constitute a threat to the future of pluralist Indonesia? There is the strong impression that Ricklefs wants to avoid this question. He only poses it on the book’s last page, leaving the reader to reflect.

But his data indicate the above suggestion. Ricklefs writes about the state beginning to bow to the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), bureaucratic and police leaders obligating their subordinates to execute religious duties, regional rules with a sharia tone emerging in different places and backed by politicians of secular parties, smaller influence of NU and Muhammadiyah, and so forth. It is apart from his repeated affirmations that headscarves sometimes only represent fashion, and that the number of terrorists here is very small.

For Ricklefs, ‘Islamization’ itself is neutrally and vaguely defined as “a process of deepening the commitment to standards of faith and Islamic practices and to Islam as a religious identity.” But these standards, he adds, “depend on the contestation between [Muslim] groups and individuals.”

This definition takes less heed of an important sociopolitical fact in this republic: political separation does not happen between Muslims on one side and their opponents on the other, but among Muslims themselves. The idea of an Islamic state, for instance, was rejected even by Amien Rais, an obviously non-abangan Javanese politician. And it was Nurcholish Madjid, a santri par excellence, ‘son’ of NU and Muhammadiyah at the same time from Jombang, one of Java’s major Islamic centers, who spread the slogan “Islam, Yes; Partai Islam (Islamic parties), No!”

Yet this book in fact is not a treatise of social or political science. As a senior scholar, Ricklefs actually is not known as a historian with a certain historical perspective by which he purposely makes sharp evaluations of his data. His main aim is to grasp what has been changing (and remained unchanged) in the long history of Islamization in Java. From this angle, his contribution is beyond description: you can collect this book as an encyclopedia for reference at any time.

Or, it is also likely that in this book, Ricklefs avoids too much involvement in sensitive political issues, like what we sometimes find in his essays. Let us just understand and enjoy what is offered, as it is already quite substantial and useful.

*Ihsan Ali-Fauzi, chair of Pusad (Center for religious studies and democracy, lecturer at Paramadina Graduate School, Jakarta

No. 1341, June 3-9, 2013

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