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Islamic Influence on Southeast Asian Visual Arts, Literature, and Performance

The movement of Islam into the countries around the South China Sea
started over a thousand years ago and continues to this day. Most of
those who brought Islamic stories and tales into Southeast Asia were
sailors, traders, holy men, and adventurers who found the religion easy
to transport since it required no temples, priests, or congregations
for its worshippers. For a closer look at how Islam has been localized
in Southeast Asia, the history of Islam on the island of Java in the
Republic of Indonesia provides a good example. Java today is home to 59
percent of Indonesia’s population, which is projected to surpass a
quarter of a billion people by the end of the decade. Almost two thirds
of Indonesia’s Muslims live on Java, the island on which Indonesia’s
largest cities, including its capital city of Jakarta, are located.

Although some Islamic traders and sailors came to Java from Arabia, it
is clear that the arrival of Islam can be seen as a continuation of
religious and cultural ideas coming from India in the preceding
centuries. Muslims from Arabia, Persia, India, Sumatra, and China all
passed through Java’s coastal cities. Islam was steadily taking hold on
the north coast of Java throughout the heyday of Majapahit, the last
great inland Hindu-Buddhist empire. Majapahit flourished in the
fourteenth century when Java became a focal point for stories moving
throughout the South China Sea between India and China. The mixing of
Indic and Islamic tales in the past, and modern ones in the present,
and their localization in Java, is the major theme of this essay.

Indic/Islamic Overlay and Temples and Mosques

In some areas of Southeast Asia where Islam later would be adopted,
elaborate carvings of stories from the lives of the Buddha or the gods
and heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics adorned the temple
walls from the earlier Hindu-Buddhist period. The first mosques that
date from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries looked
similar to the Hindu temples that still can be found today on the
island of Bali, where Hinduism has remained the dominant religion. As
historian Jean Taylor has noted, mosques were a meeting place for
communities that identified themselves as Islamic. The mosques served
as places where Muslim men gathered to pray together on Fridays; they
also served as boarding houses for traveling students, scholars, and
traders. The mosques identified space as Islamic space by organizing it
according to the ideas of the Qur’an and hadith. People and ideas
passed through these Islamic spaces, leaving their imprint on the
landscape. Since Islam discourages the depiction of the human body,
many mosques are decorated with geometric designs and letters from
Arabic or an Arabic derived script. To foster communities of believers,
all mosques have a place for washing hands and feet before praying and
a clear orientation toward the holy city of Mecca. In Malay languages,
direction toward Mecca is called the kiblat, from the Arabic word for
the same thing. This is the direction toward which Muslims should turn
to pray.

The first mosques on Java are found on the north coast where Chinese
traders and scholars would stop on their way to other parts of the
trading and religious world of the South China Sea and the Indian
Ocean. The Chinese communities were important for attracting people and
resources to these north coast cities. Starting in the seventh century
there is evidence that Chinese scholars stopped in south Sumatra, the
larger island to the north and west of Java, to spend a few years
studying at large Buddhist monasteries before moving on to Buddhist
monasteries in India. Chinese travelers and traders may have been among
the first of the various travelers from Arabia, India, and East Asia
who brought Islam to Java. The Islamic rulers on Java who first took
Islam as their state religion in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries combined features from the Islamic courts of Mughal India,
from local traditions and from Chinese-Buddhist and Confucian
traditions. The earliest mosques in Java were built in Demak, Cirebon,
and Kudus in the sixteenth century. They have been restored in recent
times and still retain many of their earlier features. The mosques that
we see today in Southeast Asia only began to adopt the Middle Eastern
features of minarets, domes, and arched windows in the late nineteenth

Oral Traditions and Stories

The mythological characters credited with bringing Islam to Java are
the nine wali, or saints. The stories suggest that several of the
Islamic saints came from Arabia, and almost all of them are associated
with the founding of Islamic kingdoms on the north coast of Java in
Demak, Banten, Cirebon, Kudus, and Gresik. The conversions to Islam
that followed in the wake of these saints were the result of mysticism
or warfare.

Sunan Kalijaga, the most famous of the nine wali, is a transition saint
who links the older Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom with the first
Muslim state of Demak. The stories say he performed a miracle in
helping to build the mosque of Demak by collapsing the distance between
the mosque in Demak and the main mosque in Mecca. By doing that, he was
able to align the kiblat of the two mosques. In this process, both the
mosque in Mecca and the mosque in Demak had to shift, representing the
localization of Islam in Java and the impact of Islam in other parts of
the world on the traditions in the region of Mecca. Sunan Kalijaga is
also credited with bringing music, dance, and puppet theater to Java,
thus claiming for Islam the Javanese performing arts that preceded it.

Scholars of Javanese traditions have suggested that stories and
theatrical repertoires began to absorb Islamic influences in the wake
of Islamic travelers, traders, and teachers entering into the South
China Sea area. These new stories were created to meet the tastes of
the rising Islamic commercial elites inhabiting the new Islamic
city-states that had arisen on the north coast of Java in the course of
the sixteenth century. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, and perhaps even earlier, that Islamic and Hindu-Buddhist
stories blended in the South and Southeast Asian worlds. What is
notable in this mixing of tales and stories is the persistence of older
story repertoires and characters. The Ramayana and Mahabharata stories
from India remain to this day the most popular stories on the islands
of Java and Bali. While specifically Islamic elements are difficult to
see in what has long been considered the Hindu-Javanese literatures of
Java, we must first ask what would make an Islamic tale different from
a Hindu or Buddhist one.

The Islamic elements that we find in much of the literature—both oral
and written—of Java include several Islamic elements: a stress on
genealogy, the appearance of wahyu, a sign of divine grace usually in
the form of a ball of light, and the prohibition of disseminating
mystical knowledge to the uninitiated. Kings and commoners are often
singled out for greatness through the visible light that is seen to
descend upon them at some significant turning point in their lives. The
Serat Kandha [Books of Tales] texts that recorded these eclectic
stories are filled with such signs of divine grace. Wahyu stories
remain among the most popular stories in the shadow theater repertories
that continue to be performed on Java today. In the Serat Kandha texts,
genealogies link the historical kings of Java to the mythological gods
and heroes of Indic stories and also to Adam, the founding figure of
Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Old Testament as well.
The stress on genealogy in Javanese story-worlds evokes the Islamic
sense of transmission of the second most sacred texts of Islam, the
collections of hadith or stories of the life and sayings of the Prophet
Muhammad. Each hadith requires a chain of transmitters, the list of
people who successively narrated a story back to the time of the
Prophet. These chains of transmission or transmitters are called isnad.
Both stories and performers of stories in the literary worlds of Java
needed to have impressive genealogies and there are many stories about
teaching forbidden mystical knowledge.

Shadow Puppet and Wooden Puppet Theaters

Shadow puppet and wooden puppet traditions were an important means of
organizing knowledge in Javanese society where many people depended on
oral storytelling for the preservation and transmission of information.
These theatrical traditions represent the accumulated body of Javanese
history, genealogy, ethics, and religious lore. Puppet traditions teach
etiquette, proper language use, and mysticism and sometimes even offer
a bit of family therapy to the sponsor or patron of a performance. In
recent times, puppet performances have been used to promote government
programs like birth control.

There are several shadow puppet and wooden puppet theater repertoires
on the island of Java. Both the wayang purwa shadow theater of central
Java and the wayang golek wooden theater of west Java tell tales from
the Ramayana and Mahabharata cycles. Although these story cycles use
Indic characters associated with Hinduism in India, in Java the Indic
characters fit into Islamic spaces demarcated by mosque and market.
Several of the puppets used in the central Javanese shadow theater wear
Islamic turbans, jackets, and shoes. The palace sites that form the
setting for the opening scenes of most shadow plays seem derived from
the courts of Persia and India. Most interesting is the story of the
Pandawa king Yudistira, the leader of the five brothers who defeat
their cousins in the great war of the Mahabharata tales. Yudistira
carries around a sacred amulet called the Kalimasada. Eventually
Yudistira meets Kalijaga, one of the nine Islamic saints mentioned
above. Kalijaga is the only one who can successfully decipher the magic
weapon of Yudistira. He reads it and finds it to be the Kalimah
Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. This is but one example of
the ways in which Islam is connected to older heroes and heroines and
older traditions.

In addition to these particularly Indic tales, there are also
repertoires of oral and written tales that came to Java from Persia,
often through India, in the sixteenth century. The first versions of
the stories probably came into Javanese through the Malay language,
which was the language of trade and scholarship in parts of Sumatra and
the Malay peninsula. These stories are called Amir Hamzah tales and
they tell about the heroic Uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, Amir Hamzah.
Amir Hamzah has two loyal friends, characters quite reminiscent of the
clowns in other shadow play repertoires, named Umarmaya and Umarmadi.
Many tales are love stories about Amir Hamzah and his wife Putri
Muniggarim. The Amir Hamzah stories are performed with wooden puppets
in the part of north central Java called Kebumen. What is interesting
about these stories and their Islamic origins is how similar many of
the plots are to the shadow play stories about the Mahabharata heroes
and heroines. This is quite different from the way that the stories
exist in India, where they are part of north Indian and Pakistani Urdu
poetic performance traditions of recitation, music, and poetry. In West
Java, the Amir Hamzah stories are also performed with the wooden
puppets and the repertoire is known as Wayang Golek Cepak. Last, on the
island of Lombok, just east of Bali, a shadow theater tradition known
as Wayang Sasak is performed where the Islamic characters of the Amir
Hamzah stories are the good heroes and the Mahabharata characters are
the enemies to be defeated, signifying the triumph of Islam over
Hinduism in most of Lombok. This repertoire is a unique one, reflecting
historical struggles between the Balinese Hindus and the Muslim Sasaks
of Lombok. But the Amir Hamzah tales are performed in Hindu Bali as
well, and the musical accompaniment for Wayang Sasak is a Balinese
style of music.

Writing Systems and Manuscript Traditions

The first writing traditions known in Java are Indic ones. They take
the form of inscriptions written on stones in a Sanskrit based script
from south India. Sanskrit is the language of religious, technical, and
aesthetic information that was preserved by specialists in India. As
far as we know, it may never have existed as a spoken language. For
mainland Southeast Asia, these early inscriptions are dated to the
third and fourth centuries CE. On Java, the earliest inscriptions date
from the fifth century. By the ninth century, a fragment of a Ramayana
text exists from the Indian tales discussed above. This fragment is
written in Old Javanese with only a few Sanskrit phrases mixed in. More
poetic literature in Old Javanese dates from the eleventh century and
it mirrors poetic literature from northern India. These are poems of
love and beauty, of heroes and battles. Many of the poems are connected
to the Ramayana and Mahabharata cycles of stories that are performed in
Java and Bali up to the present day.

The first inscriptions on Java connected to Islam date to the eleventh
century and are found on gravestones of Muslim travelers who died in
eastern Java. Manuscripts connected to Islam written in Malay and
Javanese date from later periods. Because of the tropical climate,
manuscripts had to be copied and recopied by hand until the
introduction of printing, which came to Southeast Asia through Chinese
woodblocks and European moveable type presses. Manuscripts connected to
Islamic thought were written in several languages: an Arabic script
used to write Javanese, an Arabic script used to write Malay, and an
Indic script used to write Javanese. Some of the manuscripts dating
from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are illuminated ones. They
tell the Islamic stories of Amir Hamzah and Yusuf, the Islamic name for
the biblical hero Joseph, and the manuscript pages are decorated with
shadow puppet characters.

The letters of the various alphabets used to inscribe Javanese
manuscripts were believed to be as powerful amulets and charms, as well
as bearers of information. The act of writing was an art in itself;
often those who composed the texts and those who copied them were
different people. Manuscripts had a sacred quality in past centuries in
Java, and one had to have enough personal strength to be able to
withstand the powers that writing invoked. The Dutch colonials, who
controlled the many islands that make up Indonesia today from the
middle of the nineteenth century until World War II, were concerned
about Islam as a rallying point for anti-European sentiment. The Dutch
discouraged strong attachment to Islam by those Javanese who served
under the Dutch colonial regime.

One of the most prolific writers of the late colonial period in Java
was R. A. Kartini, the daughter of a Javanese regent, the highest
native rank under the Dutch in Java. Kartini’s father was a regent of
Jepara, on the north coast of Java. He allowed his daughter to have a
primary school education in a Dutch school. She was thus able to write
letters in the years when, as a young girl, she was confined to her
house and yard—as was common for women of high status until they

Kartini’s letters to her various friends in Holland, Jakarta (then
called Batavia), and other parts of the Indies, are fascinating
documents about the life of a young Muslim woman at the turn of the
nineteenth to the twentieth century. She complained to her Dutch
friends about the need for women to marry, about the polygamous
household in which she was raised, and about the conditions of Javanese
women, who were often forced into loveless marriages. She herself
finally married at age twenty-four and died a year later, a few days
after her first child was born. She is celebrated today in Indonesia as
the mother of the nation and celebrated for her work in demanding
education for women.

Another famous writer was Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. He was
well known for his passionate speeches where he tried to combine Islam,
nationalism, and communism. He often used Islamic phrases as well as
references to shadow-play characters in his speeches. He was the leader
of Indonesia from the proclamation of independence in 1945 until he was
removed from office in 1965.


After the Indonesians won their independence in 1949, Islam could
flourish in a variety of ways. Today there are both puppet theaters and
contemporary performing arts groups on Java. Some of the more famous
directors and dancers regularly stage plays with Islamic themes. The
well-known Javanese choreographer and dancer Sardono Kusuma staged the
story of the famous Islamic rebel Prince Diponegoro, who led the
Javanese of the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta to rise up against
the Dutch in 1825. Rahman Sabur, a contemporary director from West
Java, often stages plays with Islamic themes with his theater group
Payung Hitam or Black Umbrella. In 2003 he directed several plays about
foreign fears of Islamic men in the post 9-11 world. In recent times,
one of the major personae of the Indonesian performing arts is the
young woman known as Inul. She is famous for her suggestive style of
jaipongan dancing, as well as her strict observance of Islam. She is an
apt image for the contradictions of Islam and modernity in the
twenty-first century.