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The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship >
The Spice-Rich Islands of the Moluccas and Sulawesi

The prize for both the Portugese and the Dutch were the spice-rich islands known as the Moluccas and Sulawesi. Although the Moluccas are so small as to merit almost no attention in studies of Southeast Asia, they are significant as the furthest edge of the Malay cultural zone, which begins in Aceh but had its center of diffusion to the north, in Melaka (Malacca). If Molucca sounds like Malacca, it is because the two extremes of the Malay archipelago are related by common linguistic and cultural patterns as well as by commercial and social exchange. Despite the earlier caveat that there is too much internal fragmentation in Southeast Asia to speak of a common civilization in the pre-modern period, the history of the Moluccas suggests that at least the elements of a core Southeast Asian Islamicate world can be derived from the Malay cultural complex and then traced eastward through much of the archipelago.

The Moluccas bring out what is only hinted at in most sources but needs to be stressed repeatedly: Adat and hukum can and do coexist, without existential angst or psychic breakdown, in the same groups who identify themselves as Muslims. In parts of the central Moluccas participation in the more iconic practices of Islam—such as abstaining from eating pork, attending communal prayer, and observing Ramadan—coexist with an open invocation of the ancestors, magic, and sorcery. In some places pilgrimage to sacred places is regarded as an acceptable substitute for the hajj, often interpreted as an Arab custom not required of “true” Muslims. In practice, the seeming contradictions between adat and hukum are often minimized; they remain latent and potential rather than actual, especially because they can often be resolved through skillful resort to the Shariah (eternal Islamic law).

Next door to the Moluccas, in Sulawesi, it is equally difficult to demarcate too sharply the particular from the universal. Hereditary kingship, however spottily documented, seems to be the linchpin to understanding the emergence of new Islamic communities. Islam was introduced to Sulawesi through the connection with Melaka and Acheh. As the Malay language increasingly became a lingua franca for the entire archipelago through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the rulers of southern Sulawesi were drawn to imitate the Muslim model of success. Impressed by the example of the sultanate of Acheh, they embraced Islam in 1605. There are no coins celebrating kingship, as noted in Samudera, but because commerce between India and the archipelago was constant, the legend of Mughal dynastic success must have been at least as impressive in Makassar, the capital of south Sulawesi, as it was in Rome or London. It is also likely that the sultan of Sulawesi knew that the power of Acheh, especially after the fall of Melaka, had been buttressed by help from the Ottoman king of kings, Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66).

Despite the anti-Arab bias in many circles, pilgrims returning from the Hejaz, the seat of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, would have reinforced the mystique of Muslim kings, whether Ottoman or Mughal. (This process has now been documented in The Longest Journey, the exemplary work on Southeast Asian practices of the hajj by Eric Tagliacozzo.) Each Sulawesi ruler, like his Acehnese counterpart, was thus able to project himself through court chroniclers and Sufi poets as the true king, just and wise, the shadow of God on earth, the axial point of a new and expanding Muslim community. Yet the problem of fragmentation remained, however. In Sulawesi, as in Aceh and Melaka, the number of those receptive to such a lofty notion of Islamic kingship was limited to the port cities and the regions that supported them through tax levies.

What is evident to even the casual observer is that Islam itself became an idiom for symbolic and administrative control: the sultan who claimed divine lineage could be supreme arbiter and absolute monarch without challenge to his dual exercise of authority. At the same time, however, the hereditary chieftains of the archipelago in Melaka, Samudera, and Sulawesi continued to claim their rights on the basis of ancient customary law. In effect, the struggle—and it was a protracted struggle from the fifteenth century on—was between two very different kinds of leaders: centripetal rulers, who converted to Islam and invoked Islam to retain all rights within their own courtly purview, and traditional rulers, who also became Muslim but continued to embody and protect the customary practices of the community, often described as magic, superstition, or soothsaying.

The multiple invocation of Islam can be seen in the portrayal of spiritual contests, which are often depicted in folklore as pitting Muslim kings against their opponents. The common theme is the mandate of Islamic kingship to overcome and eradicate local pre-Islamic beliefs. Muslims kings do not always win; what is perhaps even more interesting, at least from a narrative perspective, is the identical structure of the tales. There are always two combatants who represent the opposing communities. The loser always goes first, doing a seemingly impossible task that is then topped by his opponent, the eventual winner. For instance, in a spiritual contest waged in northern Sumatra, in the region of Acheh, it is the Muslim sultan who outduels an Indian yogi. Yet in southern Sulawesi the contest takes a different turn: it involves a kind of tag-team contest in which a cadre of Muslim religious officals (ulama) are locked in duel with a cadre of local soothsayers (botos). A religious official goes first: he sits on top of a banana leaf to say his prayers, after which a soothsayer proceeds to recite his prayers standing on his head on the same banana leaf! A second religious official then piles up thousands of eggs without breaking one, and of course, the second soothsayer then takes out rows of eggs from different parts of the pile . . . without breaking a single one. And so it goes until the ulama are vanquished and the soothsayers emerge victorious.

The details of the narrative are finally less important, despite their intrinsic appeal as displays of mind-numbing virtuosity, than the limits that they place on official, centrist rule: although wrapped in a seamless Islamic ideology of autocratic control, Muslim officials are not able to vanquish adroit local practitioners, who also define themselves as Muslim. Contest stories, for example, do not explain which prayers the religious official and the soothsayer recited, but presumably both performed Muslim ritual prayer (salat).

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