Excerpt – “Indonesia: History, Heritage, Culture”

The newest volume in the AAS Key Issues in Asian Studies series of short texts for the undergraduate classroom is Indonesia: History, Heritage, Culture, by Kathleen M. Adams (Loyola University Chicago). In this book, Adams offers readers an overview of Indonesia’s history from 1.5 million years ago through the present day, examining how trade, colonialism, religion, and nationalism have affected and shaped the archipelago over millennia. In pointing out moments of uncertainty and contingency, Adams draws students’ attention to the unexpected ways in which a group of islands has cohered into the world’s fourth most-populous nation.

Adams opens each chapter of Indonesia: History, Heritage, Culture with a focal image or artifact from which the chapter’s narrative flows. In the excerpt below, a photograph of one of Indonesia’s oldest mosques offers a starting point for a discussion of the arrival and spread of Islam across the islands.

Photo by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8588481.

Today we know Indonesia as home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. But this was not always so. The story of Islam’s arrival and penetration in the archipelago is rooted in early trade. Carried to island Southeast Asia by sailors and merchants, Islam began making inroads in northern Sumatra in the thirteenth century and then spread eastward following spice trade routes to other, smaller commercial ports in the East Indies. Today’s Indonesian Islamic community (ummah) is far from uniform, and this is a reflection of the religion’s gradual and uneven spread across these culturally diverse islands. Some scholars liken Islam to a river that picks up sediments in the lands through which it courses. This analogy is especially apt for Islam’s early years in Indonesia. As with the arrival of Indian religions in the archipelago, the shift to Islam was not sudden and instantly complete but rather comingled with preexisting cultural and spiritual practices. Ultimately, Islam was to have an enduring, transformative impact on religious, social, and political practices in the archipelago.

This chapter, which traces Islam’s arrival and spread in Indonesia, as well as the spiritual and practical shifts entailed in this process, opens with an image of one of Indonesia’s oldest mosques, the Grand Mosque of Demak, erected in 1477 CE. Situated on Java’s north coast, Demak was the island’s earliest major sultanate. Javanese lore holds that Demak’s Grand Mosque was constructed in a single day by one of Java’s “Nine Saints,” known as the Wali Sanga (wali translates as “guardian,” and its Arabic roots indicate one close to God). Legends about these Sufi saints credited with bringing Islam to Java vary. Some say these spiritually potent Muslim mystics came from Samarkand (on the Silk Road) and Egypt while others suggest they came from North Sumatra’s Muslim Pasai Kingdom. Most likely walis accompanied Muslim traders plying Indonesia’s waters. Although they are often depicted as a group, it’s unlikely that they traveled in a single entourage. Java abounds with stories of the miracles these Nine Saints performed as they established Javanese Muslim outposts and mosques, advised the island’s rulers on spiritual matters, and embraced indigenous artistic forms (such as shadow puppetry) to spread the faith. From early on, the walis were part of the fabric of popular Muslim piety on Java. For centuries Javanese Muslims have made spiritual pilgrimages to sites associated with walis, and to their graves, as prayers made at saints’ tombs were considered especially efficacious. Although contemporary Muslims increasingly disdain such veneration of saints, Demak’s Grand Mosque remains a key Muslim pilgrimage destination, largely because of its association with the walis.

This deeply revered mosque bears little resemblance to the stereotypic Middle Eastern mosques. Instead of a dome, which was not a feature of Indonesian mosque architecture until the nineteenth century, the slanted roof with extended porch is classically Javanese and the three-tiered roofline echoes those associated with Hindu-Buddhist Javanese structures. (Such temple roofs still exist on Bali and reportedly allude to Mount Meru, the Hindu-Buddhist center of the cosmos). For today’s Muslim commentators, however, the three-tiered roof evokes the three levels of faith. Crowning the Demak mosque’s roof is a stupa shape associated with Buddhist temples. The mosque’s doors feature foliage, crowns, vases, and dragonlike creatures and reportedly depict the Muslim mystic Ki Ageng Solo capturing thunder and lightning (legend claims the doors are imbued with the power to repel these forces). More broadly, the mosque’s architecture, carvings, and associated legends attest to Islam’s initial comingling with earlier belief systems. In these embellishments, we catch glimpses of religions coexisting side by side, as early Muslim structures were built by workers of varied faiths.

It is noteworthy that, initially, this mosque had no minaret (call to prayer tower). A steel-domed minaret was added in the early twentieth century, as pan-Islamic architectural motifs spread. As the minaret’s addition suggests, Islam’s story in the archipelago over the past several hundred years entails growing ties with (and interest in) Islamic architectural and spiritual expressions in its Arabic homeland. The landscape of Indonesian Islam has shifted dramatically in recent decades, as many archipelago Muslims are renewing their spiritual commitment, striving to disentangle Islam from indigenous practices, and embracing more global Islamic styles in dress, art, and architecture. Today other, grander Indonesian mosques, replete with glittering domes and soaring minarets, outshimmer Demak’s historic mosque. Nevertheless, Demak’s mosque remains one of Indonesia’s most cherished religious structures and perhaps the archipelago’s most important Muslim site.