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Visual Arts, Literature, and Performance

by Laurie J. Sears

The movement of Islam into the countries around the South China Sea started over a thousand years ago and continues to this day. Most of those who brought Islamic stories and tales into Southeast Asia were sailors, traders, holy men, and adventurers who found the religion easy to transport since it required no temples, priests, or congregations for its worshippers. For a closer look at how Islam has been localized in Southeast Asia, the history of Islam on the island of Java in the Republic of Indonesia provides a good example. Java today is home to 59 percent of Indonesia’s population, which is projected to surpass a quarter of a billion people by the end of the decade. Almost two thirds of Indonesia’s Muslims live on Java, the island on which Indonesia’s largest cities, including its capital city of Jakarta, are located.

Although some Islamic traders and sailors came to Java from Arabia, it is clear that the arrival of Islam can be seen as a continuation of religious and cultural ideas coming from India in the preceding centuries. Muslims from Arabia, Persia, India, Sumatra, and China all passed through Java’s coastal cities. Islam was steadily taking hold on the north coast of Java throughout the heyday of Majapahit, the last great inland Hindu-Buddhist empire. Majapahit flourished in the fourteenth century when Java became a focal point for stories moving throughout the South China Sea between India and China. The mixing of Indic and Islamic tales in the past, and modern ones in the present, and their localization in Java, is the major theme of this essay.

Indic/Islamic Overlay and Temples and Mosques

In some areas of Southeast Asia where Islam later would be adopted, elaborate carvings of stories from the lives of the Buddha or the gods and heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics adorned the temple walls from the earlier Hindu-Buddhist period. The first mosques that date from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries looked similar to the Hindu temples that still can be found today on the island of Bali, where Hinduism has remained the dominant religion. As historian Jean Taylor has noted, mosques were a meeting place for communities that identified themselves as Islamic. The mosques served as places where Muslim men gathered
to pray together on Fridays; they also served as boarding houses for traveling students, scholars, and traders. The mosques identified space as Islamic space by organizing it according to the ideas of the Qur’an and hadith. People and ideas passed through these Islamic spaces, leaving their imprint on the landscape. Since Islam discourages the depiction of the human body, many mosques are decorated with geometric designs and letters from Arabic or an Arabic derived script. To foster communities of believers, all mosques have a place for washing hands and feet before praying and a clear orientation toward the holy city of Mecca. In Malay languages, direction toward Mecca is called the kiblat, from the Arabic word for the same thing. This is the direction toward which Muslims should turn to pray.

The first mosques on Java are found on the north coast where Chinese traders and scholars would stop on their way to other parts of the trading and religious world of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Chinese communities were important for attracting people and resources to these north coast cities. Starting in the seventh century there is evidence that Chinese scholars stopped in south Sumatra, the larger island to the north and west of Java, to spend a few years studying at large Buddhist monasteries before moving on to Buddhist monasteries in India. Chinese travelers and traders may have been among the first of the various travelers from Arabia, India, and East Asia who brought Islam to Java. The Islamic rulers on Java who first took Islam as their state religion in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries combined features from the Islamic courts of Mughal India, from local traditions and from Chinese-Buddhist and Confucian traditions. The earliest mosques in Java were built in Demak, Cirebon, and Kudus in the sixteenth century. They have been restored in recent times and still retain many of their earlier features. The mosques that we see today in Southeast Asia only began to adopt the Middle Eastern features of minarets, domes, and arched windows in the
late nineteenth century.

Oral Traditions and Stories

The mythological characters credited with bringing Islam to Java are the nine wali, or saints. The stories suggest that several of the Islamic saints came from Arabia, and almost all of them are associated with the founding of Islamic kingdoms on the north coast of Java in Demak, Banten, Cirebon, Kudus, and Gresik. The conversions to Islam that followed in the wake of these saints were the result of mysticism or warfare.

Sunan Kalijaga, the most famous of the nine wali, is a transition saint who links the older Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom with the first Muslim state of Demak. The stories say he performed a miracle in helping to build the mosque of Demak by collapsing the distance between the mosque in Demak and the main mosque in Mecca. By doing that, he was able to align the kiblat of the two mosques. In this process, both the mosque in Mecca and the mosque in Demak had to shift, representing the localization of Islam in Java and the impact of Islam in other parts of the world on the traditions in the region of Mecca. Sunan Kalijaga is also credited with bringing music, dance, and puppet theater to Java, thus claiming for Islam the Javanese performing arts that preceded it.

Scholars of Javanese traditions have suggested that stories and theatrical repertoires began to absorb Islamic influences in the wake of Islamic travelers, traders, and teachers entering into the South China Sea area. These new stories were created to meet the tastes of the rising Islamic commercial elites inhabiting the new Islamic city-states that had arisen on the north coast of Java in the course of the sixteenth century. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and perhaps even earlier, that Islamic and Hindu-Buddhist stories blended in the South and Southeast Asian worlds. What is notable in this mixing of tales and stories is the persistence of
older story repertoires and characters. The Ramayana and Mahabharata stories from India remain to this day the most popular stories on the islands of Java and Bali. While specifically Islamic elements are difficult to see in what has long been considered the Hindu-Javanese literatures of Java, we must first ask what would make an Islamic tale different from a Hindu or Buddhist one.

The Islamic elements that we find in much of the literature—both oral and written—of Java include several Islamic elements: a stress on genealogy, the appearance of wahyu, a sign of divine grace usually in the form of a ball of light, and the prohibition of disseminating mystical knowledge to the uninitiated. Kings and commoners are often singled out for greatness through the visible light that is seen to descend upon them at some significant turning point in their lives. The Serat Kandha [Books of Tales] texts that recorded these eclectic stories are filled with such signs of divine grace. Wahyu stories remain among the most popular stories in the shadow theater repertories that continue to be performed on Java today. In the Serat Kandha texts, genealogies link the historical kings of Java to the mythological gods and heroes of Indic stories and also to Adam, the founding figure of Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Old Testament as well. The stress on genealogy in Javanese story-worlds evokes the Islamic sense of transmission of the second most sacred texts of Islam, the collections of hadith or stories of the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Each hadith requires a chain of transmitters, the list of people who successively narrated a story back to the time of the Prophet. These chains of transmission or transmitters are called isnad. Both stories and performers of stories in the literary worlds of Java needed to have impressive genealogies and there are many stories about teaching forbidden mystical knowledge.

Shadow Puppet and Wooden Puppet Theaters

Shadow puppet and wooden puppet traditions were an important means of organizing knowledge in Javanese society where many people depended on oral storytelling for the preservation and transmission of information. These theatrical traditions represent the accumulated body of Javanese history, genealogy, ethics, and religious lore. Puppet traditions teach etiquette, proper language use, and mysticism and sometimes even offer a bit of family therapy to the sponsor or patron of a performance. In recent times, puppet performances have been used to promote government programs like birth control.

There are several shadow puppet and wooden puppet theater repertoires on the island of Java. Both the wayang purwa shadow theater of central Java and the wayang golek wooden theater of west Java tell tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata cycles. Although these story cycles use Indic characters associated with Hinduism in India, in Java the Indic characters fit into Islamic
spaces demarcated by mosque and market. Several of the puppets used in the central Javanese shadow theater wear Islamic turbans, jackets, and shoes. The palace sites that form the setting for the opening scenes of most shadow plays seem derived from the courts of Persia and India. Most interesting is the story of the Pandawa king Yudistira, the leader of the five brothers who defeat their cousins in the great war of the Mahabharata tales. Yudistira carries around a sacred amulet called the Kalimasada. Eventually Yudistira meets Kalijaga, one of the nine Islamic saints mentioned above. Kalijaga is the only one who can successfully decipher the magic weapon of Yudistira. He reads it and finds it to be the Kalimah Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. This is but one example of the ways in which Islam is connected to older heroes and heroines and older traditions.

In addition to these particularly Indic tales, there are also repertoires of oral and written tales that came to Java from Persia, often through India, in the sixteenth century. The first versions of the stories probably came into Javanese through the Malay language, which was the language of trade and scholarship in parts of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. These stories are called Amir Hamzah tales and they tell about the heroic Uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, Amir Hamzah. Amir Hamzah has two loyal friends, characters quite reminiscent of the clowns in other shadow play repertoires, named Umarmaya and Umarmadi. Many tales are love stories about Amir Hamzah and his wife Putri Muniggarim. The Amir Hamzah stories are performed with wooden puppets in the part of north central Java called Kebumen. What is interesting about these stories
and their Islamic origins is how similar many of the plots are to the shadow play stories about the Mahabharata heroes and heroines. This is quite different from the way that the stories exist in India, where they are part of north Indian and Pakistani Urdu poetic performance traditions of recitation, music, and poetry. In West Java, the Amir Hamzah stories are also performed with the
wooden puppets and the repertoire is known as Wayang Golek Cepak. Last, on the island of Lombok, just east of Bali, a shadow theater tradition known as Wayang Sasak is performed where the Islamic characters of the Amir Hamzah stories are the good heroes and the Mahabharata characters are the enemies to be defeated, signifying the triumph of Islam over Hinduism in most of Lombok. This repertoire is a unique one, reflecting historical struggles between the Balinese Hindus and the Muslim Sasaks of Lombok. But the Amir Hamzah tales are performed in Hindu Bali as well, and the musical accompaniment for Wayang Sasak is a Balinese style of music.

Writing Systems and Manuscript Traditions

The first writing traditions known in Java are Indic ones. They take the form of inscriptions written on stones in a Sanskrit based script from south India. Sanskrit is the language of religious, technical, and aesthetic information that was preserved by specialists in India. As far as we know, it may never have existed as a spoken language. For mainland Southeast Asia, these early inscriptions are dated to the third and fourth centuries CE. On Java, the earliest inscriptions date from the fifth century. By the ninth century, a fragment of a Ramayana text exists from the Indian tales discussed above. This fragment is written in Old Javanese with only a few Sanskrit phrases mixed in. More poetic literature in Old Javanese dates from the eleventh century and it mirrors poetic literature from northern India. These are poems of love and beauty, of heroes and battles. Many of the poems are connected to the Ramayana and Mahabharata cycles of stories that are performed in Java and Bali up to the present day.

The first inscriptions on Java connected to Islam date to the eleventh century and are found on gravestones of Muslim travelers who died in eastern Java. Manuscripts connected to Islam written in Malay and Javanese date from later periods. Because of the tropical climate, manuscripts had to be copied and recopied by hand until the introduction of printing, which came to Southeast Asia through Chinese woodblocks and European moveable type presses. Manuscripts connected to Islamic thought were written in several languages: an Arabic script used to write Javanese, an Arabic script used to write Malay, and an Indic script used to write Javanese. Some of the manuscripts dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are illuminated ones. They tell the Islamic stories of Amir Hamzah and Yusuf, the Islamic name for the biblical hero Joseph, and the manuscript pages are decorated with shadow puppet characters.

The letters of the various alphabets used to inscribe Javanese manuscripts were believed to be as powerful amulets and charms, as well as bearers of information. The act of writing was an art in itself; often those who composed the texts and those who copied them were different people. Manuscripts had a sacred quality in past centuries in Java, and one had to have enough personal strength to be able to withstand the powers that writing invoked. The Dutch colonials, who controlled the many islands that make up Indonesia today from the middle of the nineteenth century until World War II, were concerned about Islam as a rallying point for anti-European sentiment. The Dutch discouraged strong attachment to Islam by those Javanese who served under the Dutch colonial regime.

One of the most prolific writers of the late colonial period in Java was R. A. Kartini, the daughter of a Javanese regent, the highest native rank under the Dutch in Java. Kartini’s father was a regent of Jepara, on the north coast of Java. He allowed his daughter to have a primary school education in a Dutch school. She was thus able to write letters in the years when, as a young
girl, she was confined to her house and yard—as was common for women of high status until they married.

Kartini’s letters to her various friends in Holland, Jakarta (then called Batavia), and other parts of the Indies, are fascinating documents about the life of a young Muslim woman at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. She complained to her Dutch friends about the need for women to marry, about the polygamous household in which she was raised, and about the conditions of Javanese women, who were often forced into loveless marriages. She herself finally married at age twenty-four and died a year later, a few days after her first child was born. She is celebrated today in Indonesia as the mother of the nation and celebrated for her work in demanding education for women.

Another famous writer was Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. He was well known for his passionate speeches where he tried to combine Islam, nationalism, and communism. He often used Islamic phrases as well as references to shadow-play characters in his speeches. He was the leader of Indonesia from the proclamation of independence in 1945 until he was removed from office in 1965.


After the Indonesians won their independence in 1949, Islam could flourish in a variety of ways. Today there are both puppet theaters and contemporary performing arts groups on Java. Some of the more famous directors and dancers regularly stage plays with Islamic themes. The well-known Javanese choreographer and dancer Sardono Kusuma staged the story of the famous Islamic rebel Prince Diponegoro, who led the Javanese of the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta to rise up against the Dutch in 1825. Rahman Sabur, a contemporary director from West Java, often stages plays with Islamic themes with his theater group Payung Hitam or Black Umbrella.
In 2003 he directed several plays about foreign fears of Islamic men in the post 9-11 world. In recent times, one of the major personae of the Indonesian performing arts is the young woman known as Inul. She is famous for her suggestive style of jaipongan dancing, as well as her
strict observance of Islam. She is an apt image for the contradictions of Islam and modernity in the twenty-first century.