Bandit Saints of Java by George Quinn

When Islam first arrived in Indonesia in the 15th C., it came ready-packaged in a mystical doctrine that was widely welcomed across Java. Though widespread conversion from the Hindu-Buddhist faith to Islam was complete by the 1600s, the old belief systems did not disappear. Buddhism and Hinduism had a presence on Java for 1000 years and their influence still survived in many rites, symbols, customs and traditions such as the wayang theater forms and architectural features like the split gate that reflect Java’s ancient past.

Researchers who today struggle to trace the dynamics of religious change in modern Java are unanimous in one thing: syncretic Javanized Islam has been on the run, pushed hard by conservative, orthodox forces since the 1980s. Javanese have now largely abandoned their pre-Muslim beliefs that were intermixed with animist, Hindu and Buddhist leanings and avalanched over to observant conservatism. This imported hard-edged guise of pious Islam is hostile to the veneration of any image or object that might tempt believers away from the single-minded worship of the one God, Allah.

Bandit Saints of Java is a challenge to that perception which can only hold water if one assumes that Java’s unique religious heritage and Indonesia‘s pre-national history have died out or are irrelevant in the present. This unusual work of nonfiction dives deep under the surface of modern Indonesia, exploring personalities, legends and lore in the wacky, teeming world of local pilgrimages that is largely invisible to journalists, scholars and tourists. The book convincingly illuminates how a brash, new, energetic religion changed but not wholly supplanted the old Buddhist/Hindu belief systems.

The religion of Java lives on in the venerable mausoleums of legendary saints and spirit guardians who represent local, traditionalist native faith with all its mysticism and magic and obsession with holy places and the dead. For modern Indonesians, saint veneration and local pilgrimages are central to their Islamic identity and the practice of their religion that adopts a tolerant, understanding and humanistic approach. The author argues that many Javanese are able to stay strong in Islam while honoring their semi-divine ancestors who are known as the Nine Saints (Wali Songo).

The pilgrimage sites, which Quinn calls the new heathen landscape of Indonesia, are not your usual shrines but fusions of holy ground, the focus of memorable stories and objects of religious devotion. Hundreds of these places of worship, big and small, sprawl across Java as well as Indonesia’s outer Islands. Visiting them has become normal in modern Java and serve to assuage those who face an interminable wait – now averaging 17 years – to go on the haj to Mecca. The saint’s graves are havens of refuge and respite   embedded solidly in the practices of everyday life for scores of millions of people. The Indonesian Ministry of Tourism reported that 12.2 million people visited the tombs of the Nine Saints in 2014.

A few of the sites, like that of Sunan Bonang in Tuban, host up to a million visitors a year. In the final months of the Ramadan fasting month, 20,000 pilgrims a day visit the tomb of Sunan Ampel in Surabaya. The popularity of local pilgrimages has given rise to a highly profitable services sector called wisata ziarah (pilgrimage tourism) in which pilgrims are whisked around by chartered bus to as many as 9 tombs in 6 days. Run on a shoestring, the tours are composed mostly of women who wear like-colored t-shirts, sleep in the bus, mosque or rest pavilions, eat takeaway food and shop for religious souvenirs. So relentlessly popular are the tours that most participants don’t even get close to the small, inner burial chamber but have to sit in dense ranks on tiled patio floors all around the vicinity.

Most are off the beaten track and don’t appear on modern maps or make it into the pages of a Lonely Planet guidebook. These landmarks inherited from the distance past are buried under the new geography of cities, highways, ports, railroads, factories, plantations, administrative boundaries and tourist attractions. They roost at the top of staircases on steep hillsides, lie in the darkness of caves, shelter in the tiny scraps of forests still left on Java, crouch under the arbors of trees in quiet villages, hidden in the cluttered old quarters of the island’s major cities or in district level towns like Blora, Tuban, Kediri, Demak, Tegal, Karawang, Sumedang, Banten, Kudus, Magelang, Jombang, Mojoagung and Gresik. Often the temples lie besides or opposite the high-rise domes, shiny halls and Middle Eastern-style minarets of flamboyant modern mosques whose straight-laced parishioners view the local pilgrimage sites as nests of idolatry and backwardness.

George Quinn is a one-of-a-kind scholar of Indonesian studies. Possessing a native speaker level command of Indonesian and Javanese, this Australian specialist holds a BA from Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University and for           many years headed the Southeast Center at the Australian National University. As an Indonesianist – or more precisely, a Javanist – of the first rank, he is adept at writing in a number of genres – fiction, literary criticism, lexiography, history. He has published countless papers and articles reflecting his decades-long travel and research in Java.

Quinn didn’t write this brilliant discussion of Java’s pilgrimage culture from the sterile confines of a university office under towering bookcases but actually lived the experiences reported in his book. Only a man on the spot would be able to describe in such rich detail the packed, fetid atmosphere of tombs and the details of architecture. Though not a Muslim himself, he is as informed about the nuances of Javanese Islam as any practicing Indonesian ulama. Often Quinn was the only tall, fair-skinned outsider granted as a matter of courtesy a priority place in the inner sanctum. Key-keepers without exception made him feel welcome and were lavish in their responses to his innumerable and sometimes provocative questions. His respect (dare I say reverence?) for the old Sufi saints are equal in ardor to any devout Javanese worshipper.

The writer’s marvelous, tactile description of the venerable 15th C. Demak mosque 25 km east of Semarang, is a case in point. There are myriad, priceless scenes of devoted pilgrims – a milling hubbub of murmuring prayer and singing in crowded incense-filled chambers. The text is populated by strange supernatural characters like Gatholoco, the “walking human penis;” a guardian of a holy mountain who became an icon of male vigor at 79; a Muslim saint who       was gay and an atheist Sufi saint who took his dogs into       the mosque. Others were outright tricksters like the wise pre-Islamic jester Semar.

All the esteemed personages are echoes of Java’s ancient tantric heritage that fused Hindu-Buddhist tantra and yoga with Sufism. The majority of the saints were opponents of followers of austere Arab-style Islamic orthodoxy with their pretentions of Middle Eastern dress, their faux-pious mannerisms and claim to religious piety and learning.

Bandit Saints of Java paints an astonishing portrait of Islam as it’s actually practiced today by many of Java’s 130 million people. The author is a superb, witty and entertaining writer who vividly records what he saw and felt close-up on the ground. Though some of the material is almost impossibly esoteric, the book’s most vital contribution in my mind is that it gives one faith that Indonesia’s lovely, animist native kajawen beliefs will endure in the end under the onslaught of the harsh tenets of hardline Islamist Wahhabism imported from Saudi Arabia. This erudite and well-researched study gives us the hope that Java will continue to hold dear its own soft, Sufi-inspired interpretation of Islam.

Bandit Saints of Java by George Quinn, Monsoon Books 2018, ISBN 978-191-204-9448, paperback, 448 pages, dimensions 20 cm x 13 cm.


Review by Bill Dalton

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