‘Pray Only to Allah!’


A chance conversation at an ancient shrine in East Java helped me understand Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism—and the Islamic puritanism that now threatens it. I had traveled with a friend to the ruined fourteenth-century temple complex of Panataran, at the foot of the still-active volcano known as Gunung Kelud. Panataran is a remnant of Indonesia’s pre-Islamic past—on its carved walls appear writhing monkey-gods in combat with demons from the Hindu Ramayana epic—but most Javanese Muslims today regard this place as part of their own heritage. Panataran was part of Majapahit, an empire based on the island of Java that extended from Sumatra to New Guinea. Majapahit combined the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism with local animistic faiths. Although eventually overwhelmed by Muslim conquerors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Majapahit is still remembered with pride by the people of Java, who consider it a precursor to modern Indonesia.

On the stone floor of one of the shrines at Panataran, a young woman sat alone, apparently absorbed in prayer or meditation. I wondered to whom she was praying. Two hours after we arrived, a sudden storm forced me and my friend to take shelter under a makeshift plastic awning; soon others joined us. “Do you recognize her?” my friend asked me, as he nodded at one of the newcomers: it was the young woman we’d seen in the shrine.

Not at all put out by questions from a rain-soaked foreigner, the woman explained that she came here often. She told us she had been troubled for much of her life with bad health, which she attributed to an inherited family curse. One day she felt “summoned” to come to Panataran. Here she met a dukun (a Muslim holy man or healer) named Muhammad, who happened to work as a custodian at the site. As she was telling us her story, Muhammad himself joined us under the awning. He, too, answered our questions. Muhammad had instructed the woman to pray at Panataran frequently because of its curative powers.

I asked her about her religious identity. She was Javanese Catholic, but she insisted that her Christian faith didn’t keep her from praying at this site. She said the Roh Suci (Holy Ghost) chose Panataran as its residence before the world was created, centuries before the Majapahit kingdom; and it was the Holy Ghost that drew first Hindus and later Muslims to this spot.

When I asked Muhammad how he effected his cures, he explained that he invokes empat penunggu, the “four watchmen” or guardian spirits that, according to local belief, reside atop the nearby volcano. I couldn’t resist asking how he squared such invocations with Islam’s insistence on God’s absolute oneness. Muhammad said that Allah is unique in his sovereignty, “but Allah is on His throne, and He uses wakil-wakil [“representatives,” “substitutes”] for immediate dealings with humans in this world.”

The woman was untroubled by the difference between her account and Muhammad’s. “Dia membuka pintu gaib,” she said reverently of her healer: “He opens the door of the unseen.” This kind of blending of religious traditions is common in Java, but it is increasingly under attack, as I was soon to learn.

The day after my visit to Panataran, I gave a lecture for a wildlife rescue organization headquartered not far from Panataran near the Javanese city of Malang. Over dinner with the organization’s director, Rosek Nursahid, I mentioned my encounter with the woman and Muhammad. Rosek replied that penunggu—the word Muhammad had used to refer to the spirits that inhabit Gunung Kelud—is also used by many Muslims in rural Java to refer to guardian spirits that are believed to reside in trees. Villagers pray before the trees and believe that an indwelling spirit will expedite their petitions to God.

This folk custom has drawn the anger of the Front Pembela Islam, the “Islamic Defenders Front,” also known by its Indonesian acronym FPI. Informants told me that FPI members had launched a campaign of intimidation, raiding villages at night, cutting down trees associated with penunggu veneration, and denouncing worshippers as “kafirs” (infidels). Such tactics are characteristic of the FPI, which began in 1998, as Suharto’s dictatorial regime disintegrated and Indonesia’s emergent democracy opened up space for long-suppressed Islamist movements. The FPI’s website announces the group’s purpose: Pelayan ummat dan pembela agama—“service to the community of believers and defense of the faith.” A flashing headline reads, “Allah is our goal; Muhammad is our model; the Koran is our guiding text”—echoing Article 5 of the Covenant of Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian group that grew out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The FPI’s mission statement concludes: “Jihad is our path of struggle; a martyr’s death is our hope.”

For the Islamic Defenders Front, jihad entails a campaign to islamicize Indonesian society. The group first gained national attention for their vigilante attacks on nightclub customers, prostitutes, and bancis (transgendered people). An Indonesian friend described to me her disgust at seeing televised news footage of FPI members harassing a banci while the victim begged for mercy. “They weren’t just trying to enforce some moral code,” she said. “They were trying to inflict as much humiliation as possible.”

The FPI casts a wide net. Its members also engage in violence against adherents of the Ahmadiyah, a sect widely loathed in Muslim countries for its belief that prophecy did not end with the death of Muhammad. FPI militants frequently target churches and warn of the nation’s imminent “Christianization.” In 2011 FPI members were sentenced to jail terms of only a few months after being convicted of stabbing a pastor of the Batak Christian Protestant Church and severely beating worshipers at an outdoor prayer service in West Java. In 2008 the FPI broke up a rally in Jakarta organized by the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion, which advocates religious pluralism and the continuation of Indonesia’s tradition of Pancasila—the “five principles” that are supposed to govern interreligious relations in Indonesia. Pancasila dates back to President Sukarno and the creation of Indonesia as an independent nation after World War II. Although it mandates belief in one God, Pancasila accepts not only Islam, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity as legitimate expressions of monotheistic belief. Pancasila is anathema to Islamists who insist on the strict implementation of sharia law.

Indonesian Islamists have suffered few penalties for their militancy, especially in Java, where local governments bolster their credibility through appeals to Muslim identity. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population; 86 percent of its 245 million inhabitants are Muslim. And on the island of Java, where more than half the nation’s population lives, more than 90 percent of the people are Muslim. Fortunately, the FPI’s extremism is rejected by many Javanese Muslims, especially in the eastern part of the island, where many non-Muslims fled after the Islamic conquests and where the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism remains strong.

I was reminded of this legacy when visiting the mosque of Sendang Duwur on Java’s northeast coast. Sendang Duwur is famous for its sixteenth-century gateway. Carved above the lintel is Mount Mahameru, the cosmic mountain connecting earth and heaven. Massive wings of volcanic stone sprout from the wall. These are the wings of Garuda, the eagle-human hybrid that bears the Hindu god Vishnu through the sky. The doorway to the mosque is flanked by a pair of serpentine creatures reminiscent of ancient Indian nagas, the snakes that fight Garuda in Hindu myth.

Many Javanese Muslims come here as pilgrims to the tomb of Nur Rahmat, a sixteenth-century Muslim saint buried within the shrine. They don’t seem bothered by the visible traces of another religious tradition. On my visits to the mosque I noticed clusters of pilgrims posing for photos of themselves beside the winged gateway.

When I asked the shrine’s custodian, Pak Suayb, what the wings were doing on a mosque gateway, he had more than one answer. He started by recounting a legend. The mosque, he said, had originally been located in a different part of Java. Nur Rahmat admired the mosque’s beauty so much that he asked the sultan who owned it if he could have it. The sultan replied with a challenge: If Nur Rahmat could find a way to transport the mosque to his home, he could have it. Whereupon Nur Rahmat prayed to Allah, and in the course of a single night the mosque grew wings of stone and flew to its present location.

Then the custodian offered other explanations. Some say Nur Rahmat himself carved the gateway’s wings and snakes so Hindus would be attracted to Islam—the wings symbolizing Islam’s ability to go everywhere. The custodian saved his most interesting speculation for last: Nur Rahmat shaped the gateway in the form of eagle wings because he knew that one day a new nation would take Garuda as its national symbol. And in fact the Garuda eagle is the dominant motif in Indonesia’s coat of arms, which, as the custodian reminded me, also bears the symbols of Pancasila: unity in religious diversity.

Witness though it is to this diversity, Sendang Duwur nonetheless reflects the social trends at work in Indonesian Islam. Inside the shrine, where worshippers crowd around Nur Rahmat’s tomb, a large sign says, “Pray only to Allah!” As I was leaving, the custodian’s son, a friendly young man in his late teens, pointed to the village below. He directed my attention to a tower just visible in the distance. Not far from there, he said, is the hometown of Amrozi. I recognized the name. Amrozi Nuhasyim, a member of the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, was executed for his role in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than two hundred tourists and Indonesians. “Now some Muslims go as pilgrims to his grave,” the custodian’s son told me. Two tombs, two very different visions of Indonesia.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 


David Pinault is director of Santa Clara University's program in Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies. His latest book is the novel Museum of Seraphs in Torment.

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