Life

Illuminating Chinese role
in history of Indonesian
Islam

Tasyriq Hifzhillah, Contributor, Yogyakarta

Runtuhnya Kerajaan Hindu-Jawa
dan Timbulnya Negara-Negara Islam di Nusantara
(Collapse of Hindu-Javanese Kingdoms
and Emergence of Islamic States in Indonesia)
Prof. Dr. Slamet Muljana
LKiS Yogyakarta
viii + 303pp

Historical reality is often too bitter to swallow or too hot to stand.

History is a large mirror that reflects the facts of the past, and all that has been etched into the glass of history can never be erased.

If you don't like a particular historical fact, you may try to cover it up or forget it, but you can never remove it. An historical fact can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but regardless of the interpretation, the fact will never change.

In this light, the history of the collapse of the Majapahit kingdom, followed by the emergence of Islamic states in Indonesia, contains many interesting facts of note. As the oldest kingdom on Java, the Majapahit not only represented the historical romanticism of the apex of Hindu-Javanese civilization, but also served as evidence of its political struggle during its wane and amid the Islamization of Java.

Runtuhnya Kerajaan Hindu-Jawa dan Timbulnya Negara-Negara Islam di Nusantara (Collapse of Hindu-Javanese Kingdoms and Emergence of Islamic States in Indonesia), written by Slamet Muljana, an historian and philologist at the University of Indonesia, not only traces the origin of the fall of the Majapahit kingdom, but also focuses on the role played by the Chinese in bringing Islam to the country.

Muljana's findings counter and, at the same time, criticize the thesis generally accepted by many historians that Islam in Indonesia is another branch of Islam that developed on the Arabian Peninsula.

Muljana believes that Islam in Indonesia, and in Java in particular, was not the ""pure"" Islam that originated in Arab countries, but a hybrid Islam with many variants, and that various elements contributed to its development.

In his book, Muljana refers considerably to unofficial historical documents like Babad Tanah Jawi (The Chronicle of Java) and Serat Kanda, both written during the 17th-century period of the Mataram kingdom.

Several historians have questioned the validity of these two books, because they contain a mixture of history and tales in such a way that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. Moreover, neither book refers to any reliable historical sources, such as the ancient inscriptions and historical works on the Majapahit in the authoritative Pararaton and Negarakertagama.

Muljana's book, divided into nine chapters, also draws upon a number of archival documents summarizing the Preambule Prasaran, Chinese documents from Talang Temple, Portuguese sources and documents from Sam Po Kong Temple in Semarang, written by Poortman and quoted by Mangaraja Onggang (M.O.) Parlindungan.

Poortman, a neighborhood head during the Dutch colonial era, was originally assigned in 1928 by the colonial administration to find out whether Raden Fatah was of Chinese ethnicity. As events developed, this fact was later politicized when the Chinese were linked with the 1926-1927 uprising staged by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Poortman searched Sam Po Kong Temple in Semarang and confiscated three cartloads of documents written in Chinese, some of which were 400 to 500 years old. M.O. Parlindungan, author of the controversial book Tuanku Rao, referred to Poortman's archives.

Muljana writes, from the basis of these sources, that Raden Rahmad, or Sunan Ampel -- a Javanese ruler and nobleman -- who lived in the mid-15th century, was a migrant from Yunnan province, China. His real name was Bong Swi Hoo and he was the grandson of Bong Tak Keng, the highest ruler of Campa.

In 1447, Sunan Ampel apparently married a woman of Chinese origin called Ni Gede Manila. Her Chinese father, Gan Eng Cu, was formerly a captain in Manila and was transferred to Tuban in 1423. From this marriage, Sunan Bonang was born, ""Bonang"" being a derivative of the Chinese name ""Bong Ang"".

Another of Gan Eng Cu's sons was Gan Si Cang, who became a captain in Semarang. In 1481, Gan Si Cang headed the construction of Demak mosque, employing carpenters from the Semarang dockyards.

Muljana believes that Sunan Kalijaga, who was known in his youth as Raden Said, was none other than Gan Si Cang. Meanwhile, Sunan Gunung Jati, or Syarif Hidayatullah, said Muljana, was Toh Bo, the son of Tung Ka Lo, aka Sultan Trenggana.

Not only these four sunan -- a title given to the wiseman who first brought Islam to Java -- but also others were, according to Muljana, of Chinese origin. For example, Sunan Giri, a student of Sunan Ampel, also came from China. His father, Sayid Ishak, was none other than Sunan Ampel's uncle, Bong Swi Hoo. Meanwhile, Sunan Kudus, or Jafar Sidik, was also believed to be Chinese, with the birth name Ja Tik Su.

The book concludes that at least six sunan were of Chinese origin. However, Muljana's weakness, as Asvi Warman Adam writes in the preface, is that he based his research solely on M.O. Parlindungan's book, and did not himself check Sa Pok Kong's documents from Sam Po Kong Temple.

Regardless of this weakness, in using these sources, Muljana has undeniably produced ""another"" historical perspective, something quite different from the history interpretation that arises from heavy reliance on official literature.

This type of reconstruction provides many benefits: We can enjoy an ""unofficial"" version of history and additional stories, tapes and interesting tidbits that have escaped the attention of many.

Runtuhnya Kerajaan Hindu-Jawa was originally published in 1968 by Bhratara in Jakarta.

The New Order regime, in line with its policy of developmentalism and systematic removal of all things Chinese, banned the book in 1971 for its controversial claim that the six sunan were of Chinese origin.

The New Order fanned anti-Chinese sentiment in many respects, including historical research and interpretive history. However, now seven years into the reform era, Muljana's version of the history of Islam in Indonesia deserves to be reviewed in a more objective frame of mind.

The reviewer is a researcher at the Liberation Studies Institute (LSP), Yogyakarta.

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