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‘Bandit Saints of Java’: Where Islam meets local history

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang, East Java  /  Fri, March 15, 2019  /  08:59 am
 ‘Bandit Saints of Java’: Where Islam meets local history

New release: 'Bandit Saints of Java' is about the marriage of “the new authority of Indonesia with the age-old authority of Java”. (Courtesy of Monsoon Books/-)

“The stories are usually wildly unhistorical but also dramatic, wacky, poignant, funny, kitschy, uplifting, invariably fantastic yet often revelatory and profoundly true. Few of them are single-track narratives.”

Confused? Don’t expect Western reason to put everything into logical order. For Bandit Saints of Java is about the marriage of “the new authority of Indonesia with the age-old authority of Java”.

The media label “expert” is over-used.  An exception is George Quinn, 75, author of the opening statement from his latest book.

He studied at Gadjah Mada University, speaks Indonesian and Javanese, and ran Southeast Asian studies at Australia’s premier university. He first visited in 1966 and is married to Emmy Oey from Central Java.

Despite his experiences and knowledge Quinn remains “bewildered”, like wide-eyed students on first encountering the ancient archipelago.

This humility -- coupled with humor-laced prose -- snares even the most casual browser. He is from a near-extinct species, the lesser-jargon academic.

This is the most entertaining book in English on the mystery and magic, the “batik-like pattern of contradictions” of this nation since Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc. (2014).

The “bandit saints” are the Wali Sanga, also known as Walisongo, the nine probably Arab traders from India who brought Islam to Java in the 15th century.

How did they oust the existing faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism, also from India? The rout was incomplete, the earlier “gods, heroes, villains, clowns and ogres of the shadow theater still cram the imagination”.

One explanation is that the newcomers, unlike Protestant missionaries, accepted existing religions and adapted. Sunan (Honorable) Kalijaga used wayang kulit performances to show “the Islamic reality behind the ancient Hindu stories, so persuading them to embrace the new faith”.

Another version is that Java converted because King Brawijaya married an Indochinese Muslim princess who whispered about her faith while they were making love. Less romantic is the suggestion that Hindu worship had become elitist and complex while Islam was simpler and accessible to the masses.

In other tales, many little known till now, the Nimble Nine changed the course of the Brantas River, shifted shape, leapt across barriers super-hero fashion, and like all sages, prophesized.

The Brantas did shift after a volcanic explosion, so facts morphed into fiction. 

Then there’s the toddler-demon tuyul, and a menagerie of wraiths still spooking millions, as newsstand pulp mags and sinetron (TV soapies) plots prove. Superstition sells.

Quinn re-tells the folklore with wit, which he suspects may offend the more pious. His prose never plods as it would if he kept a straight face at his keyboard.

Take the chapter on the 2010 clumsy attempt by big business and the state to demolish the grave of Mbah Priok in the heart of the North Jakarta container terminal. It is a case study of religion being manipulated as clerics and ministers perform Olympic standard gymnastics of unreason seeking solutions.

Another hilarious section recalls the strife caused when it was discovered that many mosques were not oriented towards Mecca, but Christian Ethiopia.

The open upsurge of Islam, from the benign wearing of headscarves to stirring extremism, worries many. Yet Quinn remains hopeful that the world’s most populous Islamic nation, though officially secular, could become “the new Andalus”. (At the turn of the first millennium, the Muslim-ruled Spanish state was an educational, cultural and scientific center famous throughout Europe.)

The few foreigners who venture beyond Bali usually follow the Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Borobudur and Mount Bromo circuit. Fears of encountering extremists or offending protocols deter straying. 

Over years of visiting venerated places, the author reports only one challenge, at Surabaya’s Ampel mosque, which was rapidly reversed.

Although he is not a Muslim, Quinn’s intimacy with Islam and Javanese culture are useful insurances. The less knowledgeable, who stay respectful and curious, seldom encounter anything more oppressive than demands for selfies.

Westerners will better understand Indonesia through seeing the Wali Sangas’ real or mythologized tombs (Sunan Bonang has four) and other holy places. Many were sacred long before the arrival of Islam. Some are believed to be protected by Javan tigers, though now extinct. Weird? Absolutely.

The sites draw millions despite ancestor worship being forbidden by the austere Saudi-funded Wahhabism that has penetrated Indonesia.

Quinn claims “compelling evidence that the ancient practice of saint veneration and local pilgrimage is booming”. So is the income garnered by canny local authorities charging fees to pray.

For those keen to erase their ignorance the website  gives directions to some sites.

Almost every page of Bandit Saints carries a memorable line: “Tradition is a suspect territory that is ripe for invasion”; “The squint-eyed wariness of Java’s peasantry and the aloofness of patrician mystics”. 

“I felt -- as I always do -- a powerful affection for the aural ambience of Islam. It is a very public, very melodic ambience, as comforting and as beautiful [yes […] beautiful, even when wrenched out of shape by screeching predawn loudspeakers] as Islamic architecture, dress, food, etiquette, calligraphy and decoration.”

And who can resist a chapter with the sub-head: “A gay saint, pushy women and Islam?” Yet this is a scholarship, not The Daily Mail.

Bandit Saints probably couldn’t be published in Indonesian lest it generates confected outrage, particularly in an election year. It is available in mainstream bookshops.

As an outsider, New Zealand-born Quinn does not suffer the “anxiety Indonesians breathe every day in the air of public rhetoric”. 

As a result we are enriched, inspired to visit and fortified by this pilgrim’s findings: “In the tangled Sherwood of Java’s cultural interior they (the Wali Sanga) wait in ambush, a stubborn challenge to the well-armed soldiers of fundamentalism.” (ste)


Bandit Saints of Java    

By George Quinn

Monsoon Books, Leicestershire; 2019                                                                             

432 pages                                                                     


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