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Polarizing Javanese Society: Islamic and…
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Polarizing Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions c. 1830-1930

by Merle Ricklefs

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Social change in Java

By the end of the 16th century, Islam had become a key element of Javanese identity. This was a Sufi version of Islam with a strong mystical content to reconcile Islam with older Hindu-Buddhist mystical believes on the island. In the 17th and 18th centuries the court of Mataram usually sided with the infidel East India Company, creating a cause for an Islamic-inspired opposition. Although many adhered to the five pillars of Islam, in practice, they also accepted an array of other spiritual forces and many remained familiar with the Hindu-Buddhist-derived classics. Other rules of Islam were not strictly followed.

In 1830, the Java War had resulted in unchallenged power for the colonial regime. The 19th century brought a significant growth in the population, and an increasing population density despite that much unused land was opened up for agriculture and settlement. Intellectual and religious contexts were changing rapidly. The Cultivation System that brought so much prosperity to the colonial power required the collaboration of the Javanese elite and made the “priyayi” outside the Principalities equally rich (p.16). The priyayi tried to imitate the kings with spiritual power at an appropriate level. Out of necessity to rule millions of Javanese, the Cultivation System was a conservative system and strengthened the position of the priyayi (p.23). Their financial strength was increased by the opportunities for corruption that matched modern day Indonesia. Non-priyayi also increasingly had jobs outside farming. Haji's had a certain elevated status that they later used to inspire reforms.

After 1830 the Sufist "mystic synthesis" of Islam and local beliefs was challenged and ultimately reduced to one of the variants of Islam on the island. More extreme forms of mysticism aimed at Nothingness or the Realm of the Void also existed. Buddhists from earlier eras could still be role models.

Steamships made the haj more easy and the number of people who made the pilgrimage and donned Arab clothing upon their return rose significantly, while some puritanical groups emerged. Haji's and religious students were mostly living in Surakarta and in Pasisir. In the 1880's religious schools were still mostly teaching magic arts, i.e. the older ngelmu's of Javanese Islamic traditions. Arabic books were used, but most teachers had little or no command of the language (p.71). In the years before the Depression, the Netherlands East Indies sent some 30 to 50 thousand haji yearly, some 40% of all pilgrims there. The Javanese have been about 20% of the Indies' total (p.215).

The middle of the 19th century saw the emergence of the abangan (reds): nominal, non-practising Muslims. They had not existed as a group before, so its members had distanced themselves from an Islamic identity and orthopraxy, although they attended certain Islamic activities as an expression of village solidarity. The stricter and often more affluent putihan (whites) were in the minority. The distinction may be a product of the Islamic reform movement. Culturally the two groups grew apart in many aspects.

Another minority converted to Christianity, which accommodated itself to Javanese identity and culture. The converts were largely won by Indo-Europeans rather than by the stricter Dutch Protestant missionaries. Not unlike Islamic missionaries may have done earlier, the Indo-Europeans used spirituality and mystical knowledge (p.109). Some maintained they could control malign spirits, presented Jesus as the ratu adil (legendary just king) and continued circumcision and selamatans (ritual meals). The Catholics were late entrants, but successful in blending Christianity with Javanese culture, as is expressed in the church at Ganjuran to the south of Yogyakarta. Protestant and Islamic missionaries were often not flexible enough to convince the Javanese.

Dutch colonial rule brought stability for the Principalities as well as for the priyayi elite. The cultural and intellectual horizon of the priyayi expanded dramatically. They created a world different from European administrative practices, that consisted of "punctilious distinctions of status and competition (...) for place, power and wealth". European modernity competed with Islamic modernity for the priyayi's attention. The former offered status, wealth and security, the latter an existence as a middle class trader. Dutch policies allowed the priyayi to be more modern and more traditional at the same time. Bramartani, the only newspaper in Javanese at the time, regularly published praising comments for the useful innovations and modern learning they brought to the island. The paper also supported the colonial government and Javanese soldiers in the wars in Aceh. The priyayi were most enthusiastic about Western schools to a place were little formal education had existed (scribes were used as tutors). Among others, Western learning helped to wipe out old (and preferably commoners') superstitions. God, Muhammad, King Willem and the government were praised for the opportunities education brought. Although America was also admired by Bramartani, the Netherlands was the principle cultural reference. Dutch furniture and theatricals also made inroads as were theosophy and freemasonry. Many priyayi shared the Dutch fascination with pre-Islamic Java, while Bramartani wrote positively about Thai Buddhism (p.172). Some also claimed that Dutch knowledge would succeed Islam. They rejected Islam as a foreign import that compared unfavourably with earlier Hindu-Buddhism ("buda"). One story held that the ancient god-clown Semar had remained in Java to instruct the people "to drink alcohol, eat pork, as in the age of Majapahit, and know profit and loss" (p.188).

The 20th century saw the rise of formal organisations on Java. They would also become political. Dutch education for natives gave rise to nationalist nucleus. Budi Utama was inspired by Java's Hindu-Buddhist past, with Gandhi and Tagore among its inspirations. Budi Utama felt an implicit indifference towards Islam. An equivalent Islamic modernism, combining a return to the roots of Islam with the embrace of Western learning also made inroads via the Muhammadiyah. This organisation opposed traditional Islamic practices and founded a range of government-sponsored schools. The Taman Siswa movement was purely nationalistic. It did not care about Islam, but found Dutch culture ill-fitting. Sarekat Islam was more militantly anti-colonial and anti-priyayi. This mass movement only became more self-consciously religious over time. Some priyayi Theosophists believed their culture was superior to the materialist Dutch and started another nationalist movement. Still, they published in Dutch. The most radical movement was the Communist Party. They also found inspiration in Java's past, but some also found Islam egalitarian. Still the PKI was mostly abangan. Its members often had religious and animistic ideas that would be difficult to recognise by Western communists (p.242).

The breadth of sources Mr. Ricklefs uses for this work is obviously limited. The emergence of the abangan is set in a time of the first systematic studies of Islam on the island. Equally, the description of the development of early modern thought is limited to the one Javanese newspaper and some literary works. Still, I found this a fine history. ( )
  mercure | Jun 29, 2012 |
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