STUDIUM GENERALE : Islamisation and its Opponents in Indonesia: How Past and Present Compare by MERLE C. RICKLEFS

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008, 00:00 WIB
The Studium Generale was sponsored and facilitated by the Multidisciplinary Studies of the Postgraduate School of Gadjah Mada University (UGM). To formally open the university lecture, Prof. Merle C. Ricklefs B.A., Ph.D, FAHA, was invited to give an inaugural lecture on the topic: “Islamisation and its Opponents in Indonesia: How Past and Present Compare.” Ricklefs is a well-known scholar who has outstanding works on history and current affairs of Indonesia. His most remarkable works include Mystic Synthesis in Java (2006) and Polarising Javanese Society (2007) which have become widely known and often regarded as main references for those who are interested in studying the dynamics of Islam in Indonesia.

Prof. Ricklefs was warmly introduced by Prof. Dr. Bernard Adeney Risakotta, the Director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies-Yogyakarta (ICRS-Yogya), who lauded him as a highly esteemed and thoughtful scholar, a careful thinker who “only speaks his thoughts after ten years of research.” Personally, Prof. Risakotta also acknowledged Ricklef’s influence in his own academic journey and regarded him as one great historian who made him “love history” and whose example is worthy of our students’ emulation.

After the formal introduction, Prof. Dr. Irwan Abdullah, the Director of Postgraduate School of UGM, also delivered an opening speech for the Studium Generale. In his speech, he challenged all students to participate in developing the academic climate of the Postgraduate School of UGM. He also encouraged the students to take up the challenge of international academic engagements if they want to succeed in their own academic pursuits and development. Gadjah Madah University, having acquired an outstanding academic reputation both locally and internationally, is a strategic place for students and scholars to engage and obtain international academic exchanges and learning. Prof. Irwan also took pleasure in informing the assembly that UGM’s Postgraduate School has the biggest number of postgraduate students in Indonesia today.

Prof. Dr. Retno S. Sudibyo MSc, the Senior Vice Rector for P3M of UGM, formally opened the lecture. In her speech, she gave a very encouraging report that UGM, according to Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), is now listed as the 360th top rank university in the world. She expressed hopes that the Studium Generale would be fruitful in enhancing the academic atmosphere of Indonesian studies at UGM. She also expressed confidence that it would be an enlightening force for students of UGM since the topic was very relevant and was primarily focused on Indonesia’s unique cultural and historical context. Finally, she expressed anticipation that the lecture of Prof. Ricklefs would be very enriching in terms of data and analysis not only on the area of scientific knowledge but also on new approaches to Indonesian studies.

In his lecture, Prof. Ricklefs mainly discussed the processes of Islamisation in Java which in his view was eventually important in understanding the current dynamics and contemporary affairs in Indonesia. Ricklefs started his lecture by tracing up the historical roots of the Islamic movement in Java which goes back to 14th century based on empirical historical evidence found on the tombstones of several graves discovered in Trowulan and Tralaya Mojokerto. These graves, according to him, have marked a process of cultural transition, especially relating to transformation from Javanese to Hindu and Javanese to Islam tradition. Ricklefs observed that, generally there were two major periods pertaining to the concepts of reconciliation between Javanese identity and Islamic identity, i.e. in the period of Sultan Agung and Pakubuwono II, during which the cultural interaction between Islam and Java was apparent. In latter time, it was noticed that the kind of Islam that developed in Java was mystic synthesis or Islam sufi which was characterized by (1) a strong sense of Islamic identity, (2) strong and rigid observance of Islamic life and ritual, (3) and acceptance of local spiritualities.

In the 19th century, the process of Islamisation brought about, on the one hand, a deeper understanding or commitment of the faith, and on the other hand, opposition to that Islamisation. There were also, at least, four major social changes in 19th century, viz., European colonialism, domestic social movement, international Islamic revival movements and population growth. For example, during the Dutch colonialism, an indigenous middle class society was created especially those Javanese entrepreneurs who gained benefits from running activities on economic aspects which were not under the control of colonialism such as transportation, entertainment, shipping, fishing, and other economic endeavors. Along with that, the number of people performing hajj was also increasing so that many people experienced contact with others which resulted in the later time a shari’ah-oriented purification movement and sufi-oriented purification movement in Indonesia.

Interestingly, Ricklefs asserted that as Islamisation in Java was closely related to social, political and cultural dynamics, the variety of ‘Javanese’ Islam became very complex and dynamic. In some stages, it was noticed that opposition movement towards Islamisation had also emerged, for example the Babad Kediri which was considered anti-Islamic movement, and the Wali Songo who were referred to as the “bad guys.” Likewise, the book entitled Suluk Gatho Loco was considered an abusive book full of jokes about Islamic traditions. In 19th century, there was an emergence of a new group of society called Abangan. The term is actually an insulting word used by pious Muslims to describe their ignorant Abangan neighbors who abandoned rigid and strict observance of Islamic practices like praying.

In addition, the conversion to Christianity was also intensified in Javanese history. However, the interesting thing was that such conversion was not achieved by the European missionaries but by the indo or mixed people who deeply understood Javanese language and culture. By the year 1900, it was estimated that in Central Java alone there were 20.000 Christians and it was no more than 1 percent of Javanese population. Accordingly, instead of Javanese-Muslim, a new group emerged, i.e. Javanese-Christian or Javanese-Other than Muslim.

In the middle of the 19th century, these increasingly divided societies became politicized. For the first time, political parties came into existence in Indonesia, such as Masyumi, PNI, and the PKI which represented the Abangan. These political differences were markers which reflected the social differences, even strengthened the differences, among societies. In general, according to Ricklefs, there were six major characteristics of polarization in Javanese society. To mention them, (1) the conflicting interpretation of Islam (NU, Muhammadiyah, shari’ah and sufi-oriented etc), (2) conflicting social identity (Santri, Abangan, Priyayi, Javanese-Islam, Javanese-Christian etc), (3) community was divided (between us and them), (4) rebellion of PKI, (5) the election in 1950 which increased the potencies of conflict (slogans, rumors, campaigns), (6) and Soeharto’s order (New Order) during which the number of political parties were revised and reduced.

Furthermore, to see the varieties of religious expressions in Java, Ricklefs emphasized the need to understand the dynamics of Muhammadiyah in East Java and Central Java. Ricklefs observed that unlike in Central Java, Muhammadiyah in East Java, such as in Lamongan, was much more puritan or intolerant towards local phenomena of Javanese cultures. In other words, their opposition to all kinds of syncretization (for example, tahlilan, ruwatan etc) was much stronger than in Central Java.


However, Ricklefs admitted that the dynamics of Islam in Indonesia or in Java or in Yogyakarta is very complex and unique which makes him difficult to generalize the overall pattern as it is impossible to rely on only one, single village. Besides, there are increasing ‘rhymes’ of kejawen movement which is in opposition to Islam, such as Sabdo Palo, Darmo Gandul, Gatho Loco etc. that makes the dynamics become more complex and confusing. Thus, it is difficult to know the direction to where this Islamic movement is heading to.

In conclusion, Ricklefs admitted that while it is too daring to draw a conclusion from the abovementioned ‘rhymes,’ yet he conceded that there are some points which are fluid and extremely complex. Nobody knows for sure what is going on but he supposed that we are now actually dealing with the same question as we had at the very beginning: what does it mean to be Javanese, on the one hand, and Religious, on the other hand? How do ethnic and cultural identities relate to religious identities? Based on the polarization, disagreement, and conflict which are still occurring now, he then came to suggest that, despite the fact that he believed that history may not repeat itself, what has happened in the past may take place again in current times.