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Reflecting on Wali Songo's understanding of pluralism

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, July 22, 2008

by Siska Widyawati

Wali Songo wrote in an old paper, Mertasinga, "About the path that you shall take, don't be exaggerated. Lead life with simplicity, don't be arrogant if you talk, and don't overact in front of other human beings. That is the true path. To meditate on the mountain or in the cave only creates vanity. True meditation is in the middle of the crowd. Be noble and forgive people who make mistakes. This is the only true path."

That was a teaching of Syekh Attaulah to Sunan Gunung Jati. Gunung Jati was one of the "Wali Songo", or "nine saints", in the history of Islamic preaching in Java.

This paper was translated by Amman N Wahjoe, who inherited this document from his father, handed down from generation to generation in his family. Wahjoe translated the paper, which used to be called babad -- originally written in Javanese and Sundanese, then translated to Indonesian. The paper has become an important document in unveiling the history of the saints in Java.

They are sacred documents that were usually considered as the exclusive heritage within a family and treated as a charm, even though most of the family members did not know the meaning or even how to read them.

These old documents are very interesting, and allow us to gain deeper understanding of the teachings of the Walis in Java. I think they will show the roots of the beliefs of my ancestors. The more I search, the more I find the simplicity of their teaching that touches my inner spirit and religiosity. I was used to hearing their stories, full of syncretism and myth, such as how one of the Wali conjured a gold tree from a normal tree, or traveled to Mecca in a minute. There is no problem with myth; the problem is people are more attracted to myth than the real teachings.

The wisdom of the Wali are deep treasures within Islamic Sufism. One example is the teachings of Sunan Kudus, one of the Wali, who lived in Kudus city, Central Java. He asked the people in Kudus not to slaughter cows, to tolerate the beliefs of Hindi people who also lived there. Until now the teaching is still well preserved by many people in Kudus.

One of the sunan who was famous for his creative approach, and whose teachings were rich with local content, was Sunan Kalijaga. This Wali used cultural approaches to preach. One of his legacies, which is famous among the Javanese, is the tale of demi-god Ruci (Dewa Ruci). The tale was of Bima (one of Pandava's brothers) who met with Ruci, who shared the same appearance with him, but in miniature scale. The meeting of Bima and Dewa Ruci symbolized the meeting of a human with his own soul.

The tale of Ruci is a symbol that is famous among Sufism treasures; that every human must meet with her/his own soul to know their true mission in life. Unfortunately, there are many Javanese people who perform the tale of Ruci with skin/shadow puppets to purify themselves without knowing the true meaning behind the tale.

Another surprising fact is that most of the Wali's were foreigners. According to the book by Sudirman Tebba, "Mengenal Wajah Islam yang Ramah" (To know the kind face of Islam, 2007), and also in the Mertasingan paper, most of the Walis came from the Middle East and Campa.

Sunan Gunung Jati and Sunan Kudus had Arabic descent. Other Walis such as Sunan Ampel, Sunan Giri and Sunan Bonang had family ties in Campa. Campa is thought to have been a town in Cambodia.

The fact that foreigners came especially to Java and undertook Islamic preaching is interesting. Why did they come to Java? And moreover, how did they, as foreigners, have the ability to translate Islamic values into local values, or in other words, preach in the language of the people?

This is a mystery that demands serious research, but with their unique Sufism treasure, the Walis taught my ancestors to worship God in a simple surrender; as what else is the meaning of Islam other than total surrender to God?

It is a shame that the essence of Wali's teaching is forgotten nowadays. Many people in Indonesia try to see their Islamic reflection from outside rather than in their own history. The Pan-Islamism movement of the '80s has had a big influence in changing the way Indonesians understand Islam.

The intolerant teachings, only focused on the implementation of sharia (regulation) without wisdom, made Islam to be perceived in a very different perspective among the young generation of Indonesian Muslims.

Modern Indonesian Islamic movements primarily descend from Islamic movements from Egypt or the Middle East, and this has made many people alienated from their own history of religiosity. The hardliner school of thought is triggering a reactionary movement, called liberal Islam, that tries to put Islam, which has its own transcendental logic, into a framework that is sometimes too material.

I don't find the face of Islam that I believe in my conscience to be divided between two extreme movements. I find the inherent connection of my beliefs, about how to be a real Muslim, in the teaching of Walis.

In the context of the one-sided understanding that Islam is identical with violence and terrorism, it is time for us to regain and try to find the essence of the legacy of the teachings of the Walis; for us to find our own unique history of religiosity and spread this to the world, Islam as a blessing to the entire universe.

The writer is a journalist. This article was published at The Jakarta Post. She can be reached at

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