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The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship >
The Islamic Conquest of the Javanese Kingdom

Although Java is very important to contemporary Southeast Asia, providing both the demographic and the bureaucratic center of modern-day Indonesia, scholars find that importance receding as they move back toward the pre-colonial period. Again, there is a paucity of historical data that would allow scholars to trace plausible connections between the Indic past and the Islamic present of Javanese cities or their hinterland. Most scholarship has tried to find historical clues in extant Islamic literature, yet too little is known about the major manuscript collections, which were only assembled in the nineteenth century, and there is almost no background information available on their provenance.

Some contemporary monuments do exist, however, that reflect structures originally built to commemorate the arrival of Muslim rule in Java. Among them are two mosques: the Yogyakarta and Cirebon mosques. The community mosque of Yogyakarta is said to have been built by the foremost Muslim ruler of the second Mataram dynasty, Sultan Agung (r. 1613–45), although it was not completed until the late eighteenth century. The mosque is an impressive structure, although it has been renovated often since its original foundation. It is dwarfed by the central palace complex known as the Kraton, built in the late eighteenth century to reflect a Javanese-Indic worldview that highlights the ruler as the center of the universe in a manner reminiscent of the Turko-Persianate model discussed earlier.

The pattern of juxtaposing royal structures with religious sites occurs elsewhere in Java, notably in Cirebon on the north coast. The community mosque of Cirebon is among the oldest landmarks of the Muslim presence in Java; its construction is said to go back to the early sixteenth century. Its elaborate wooden scaffolding and expansive outer courtyard reveal a refined aesthetic tradition, yet it too has been much renovated in subsequent centuries. At the same time, the Cirebon central mosque is architecturally dwarfed by the royal complexes on either side of it, both of which bear witness to a style of ornamentation that is too diffuse to be neatly classified but that accents furnishings from Europe and China within an overall Javanese structure.

Overall, the locus of spiritual power for Java was not dissimilar from its locus in the neighboring islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. It was rural rather than urban; even when it embraced an Islamic idiom, it continued to reflect the distinction between court and countryside, with priority given to those landscapes of villages, rice fields, forests, and mountains, which, according to A. Day, could extend into seascapes, islands, and mythical places across the seas, forming a continuum of literary space outside and moving away from the palace.

The Islamic Conquest of the Javanese Kingdom

Mosques were built on the island of Java to commemorate the arrival of Muslims there. The congregational mosque at Yogyakarta in central Java, for example, was founded by the foremost ruler of the Mataram line, Sultan Agung (r. 1613–45), but it was not completed until the late eighteenth century.

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Although the actual Islamic conquest of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit took place in 1478, regional courts and rural customs persisted, underscoring the emergence of a unique pattern of Muslim loyalty. On the one hand, Southeast Asian Islam could be linked to the patterns of Turko-Persianate Islamic culture examined in South Asia, but that would be to adopt the viewpoint of sultans and the courts that were constructed to reflect and perpetuate their vision of a “perfect” Islamic society. Many are the emblems of the umma down under that link it to its Indian Ocean precedents throughout the Archipelago. There were some old palm leaf texts, notes Anthony Reid, that even developed a syncretic origin myth, in which the gods of the La Galigo cycle were descended from Adam and Eve, and the hero of that cycle, Sawerigading, became a prophet foretelling the Qur’an. The story is probably apocryphal, but is nevertheless suggestive, that a senior Muslim scholar, returning from Mecca to Makassar in the 1660s, tried in vain to appeal to local rulers to impose Islamic principles. Instead, it seems, these Muslim rulers were either unwilling or unable to prohibit gambling, cock fighting, arrack drinking, opium smoking, and the like. They in fact promoted superstitious practices such as giving offerings to the spirit of ancestors in the hope that the latter would bring them prosperity.

The Islamic Conquest of the Javanese Kingdom

The congregational mosque at Cirebon on the north coast of Java reportedly dates from the early sixteenth century, but it has been repeatedly restored. Its courtyard and pitched wooden roofs show a refined aesthetic derived from local models.

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And so it is wise to refrain from too dichotomous a reading of Islam in Southeast Asia. To compartmentalize and then philosophize is to indulge in an excess of present-mindedness; that is, to try to read all history through the most recent developments without according sufficient nuance to pre-modern, earlier epochs and their distinctive features. Present-mindedness undergirds the familiar dyadic reading of Malay and then Indonesian religious history: it provides a main narrative to explain modern-day events. Consider the complexity of modern Acehnese history. In 1945, following the Japanese occupation, Aceh witnessed internal turmoil on a massive scale. Not only hereditary chiefs but also their families were the principal victims. Was that atrocity the final settling of a centuries-old struggle between customary law and Islam, as some have suggested, or was it rather the use of religion as an ideology, in this case, Islamic “orthodoxy” serving as the instrument of drastic socioeconomic change? Customary law and Islam, as demonstrated above, do not represent cultural oppositions but rather temporary political alliances. In 1945 the invocation of Islam by the “victorious” group had as much to do with efforts to centralize and homogenize all parts of the newly independent island-nation of Indonesia as it did with doctrinal or ritual differences among the Acehnese.

One caveat remains for Southeast Asia as for South Asia: Islam should be examined as more than either its exponents or detractors wish to make it. Civilizations— and their primary custodians, kings—draw on the symbolic and institutional power of all available religions, yet they do not, and cannot, exhaust the availability of any one religion to oppositional groups. In the case of Aceh and the neighboring Malay polities, scholars find groups who resist a Muslim ruler in the name of the same God, the same Prophet, and the same community of believers. The contest is over political authority even when it is framed as a contest over religious truth. The lesson from both South and Southeast Asia is to recognize Islamic norms and values as transferable and persistent in many contexts, whomever the royal rulers and whatever the stake in local or regional contests for power.

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