|Muslims in Java.
The Sumatran beachheads of
Islam had commercial ties with other parts of the region, but they were not closely
involved in events outside their immediate neighbourhoods. In Java, on the other hand,
where the distance between the Muslim coastal fringe and the interior was negligible, a
tense situation developed. The Muslims did not overthrow the kingdom of Majapahit (see
above). Majapahit, weakened by feuds within its royal family and increasingly denied the
benefits of overseas commerce, merely withered away and disappeared in the early 16th
century. The passing of its hegemony left a power vacuum in Java that set in train a
conflict between Islam and the aristocratic traditions of the interior.
In later centuries, the Javanese inland elite chose to bridge over the events of the
15th and 16th centuries and see a continuity between Majapahit and Mataram, the great
kingdom of 17th-century Java. This vision of the past, however, conceals a very troubled
period in Javanese history. The militant mood of coastal Islam may be seen in the enforced
imposition of the new faith on western Java and also on Palembang in southern Sumatra.
Similarly, the impact of Islam may be gauged by the fury of the 17th-century Mataram kings
against the princes and Muslim notables of the northern coast.
The conflict seems to have begun with the determination of the Demak coastal rulers in
the first half of the 16th century to rule over a great Javanese kingdom. The coastal
princes, especially as their harbours grew richer and their dynasties older and more
confident, came to see themselves not only as Muslim leaders but as Javanese princes.
Their pretensions are reflected in Tomé Pires' statement that they cultivated the
"knightly" habits of the ancient aristocracy. But when Demak sought to expand
inland, bringing with it Islam, its armies were halted in the mid-16th century by Pajang.
Some years later, Mataram, another principality in central Java, came to the fore. The
climax of the conflict was in the first half of the 17th century, when Agung, ruler of
Mataram, took the offensive and destroyed the coastal states and with them the basis of
Javanese overseas trade.
Mosque of Jepara with typical Hindu-Javanese meru-roof.
It is unlikely that this bitter struggle was fought only for religious reasons. Islam
came to Indonesia from India, perhaps from southern India, and the mood of heterodox
mystic Sufi sects of Islam was probably not foreign to the Javanese ascetics. Sufi
"saint" (wali) and Javanese guru eventually would have understood and respected
each other's yearning for personal union with God. The Javanese tradition, in which small
groups of disciples were initiated by a teacher into higher wisdom, was paralleled by the
Sufi teaching methods. For Muslim theologian and Javanese scholar alike the concern was
always less with the nature of God than with skills for communicating with him. Arabic
texts tended eventually to be recited as meditative aids, just as the Tantric mantras once
The earliest Javanese disciples of Islam were, however, not the thoughtful
representatives of earlier religious systems in Java but humble men of the coast who had
been left outside the traditional teachings of the courts and the anchorites. These men
doubtless saw in Islam a simple message of hope, offering them not only a congenial
personal faith but also opportunities of secular advancement in a trading society where
rank was not as important as fervour. Early Muslim literature has a theme of the wandering
adventurer who comes from obscure origins, makes good, and seeks the consolations of
Islam. For Muslim disciples such as these the times offered boundless means for achieving
success, either in trade or in the service of ambitious princes. These princes, parvenu
aristocrats and also the product of Islam, needed guardians of their conscience, courtly
advisers, and, above all, military commanders. For the new elite the progress of coastal
Islam brought both spiritual and material gain.
All of this must have been greatly disturbing to those in the interior who had been
nurtured in older traditions and saw no reason for abandoning their Shaivite-Mahayana
values. For the aristocrats of the interior, the memories of Majapahit's hierarchical
system of government under a godlike king represented standards of civilized behaviour
that must be asserted at all cost against the forces of confusion released by the coastal
population. Contacts between wandering dervishes and the peasants, at a time of acute
distress caused by warfare, and the pretensions of Muslim court officials, some of whom
claimed a privileged religious status without precedent in Javanese history, must have
seemed to threaten the foundations of society. The ruler of the interior kingdom of Pajang
is depicted in the Javanese chronicles as an ascetic and as the son and grandson of
ascetics. He was, in this respect, a true Javanese king. When, several generations later,
the ruler of Mataram destroyed the coastal states he was seeking to destroy the forces
that disunited Java. This was in the tradition of earlier Javanese kings. His conquests
were as much a part of his mission as Kertanagara's had been in the 13th century.
Thereafter Islam was permitted to survive only on Javanese royal terms. Its innovating
effects were postponed until the end of the 19th century. It was now one of several
religious activities and therefore tolerable in Javanese eyes. Muslim officials in the
court of Mataram became well-rewarded and obedient servants of the ruler. In time,
scholars returned to the study of the earlier genre of Javanese literature, including
texts that taught the nature of government according to the values of the
"Hindu-Javanese" world. In the countryside, Islam remained influential in time
of social distress, preaching to aggrieved peasants of the coming of the Messiah. As a
literary influence Islam survived in the form of mystical texts and poems, romantic tales,
and also in borrowings by later inland-court historians of material from the
"Universal Histories" (Serat Kanda) of the coastal culture. The borrowings are
testimony of the impact of what had happened in the 15th and 16th centuries, which later
historians could reinterpret but not ignore.
The history of 16th-century Java is still not fully understood, but Portuguese
intervention seems to have been unimportant. The Portuguese survived chiefly as private
traders, and, by the end of the century, the level of Muslim Indonesian trade with the
Middle East, and thence with Europe, was greater than it had ever been. In the
neighbourhood of the Strait of Malacca, Aceh and Johore were struggling for overlordship,
and the scene in Java was being prepared for the final phase in the struggle between
coastal Islam and the inland aristocracy. The outcome might have been the emergence of
greater Indonesian unities under cover of Javanese claims to leadership. The situation was
altered by the appearance of the Dutch at the end of the century.