Javanese Islamic Manuscripts

There are three Javanese manuscripts that reveal the authors’ thoughts about the Islam and the time of transition in Java. All three manuscripts are edited and published by G.W.J. Drewes. The first manuscript dates from the 16th century. This manuscript is a primbon – a Javanese title for a notebook. The content of this primbon is a compilation of Islamic study material, which students from an unknown scholar compiled together in one book. Both the writing language and the script itself is Javanese, though some Malay terms also occur. It is assumed that the primbon is made up of notes written in Javanese that were taken during classes, which were given either in Malay or Arabic.

It is important to note that the primbon is an orthodox work, and as such can be found in many Islamic countries. However, the primbon does not mention anything about adaptation to the Javanese environment. Yet this is not so surprising because most primbon works usually are about mysticism, also known as Sufi Islam, or ta sawwuf. And it was mysticism that contributed to the spread of Islam in Indonesia, since its inhabitants were already familiar with the Hindu and Buddhist variant forms of mysticism.[1]

In order to become a true Muslim, the Javanese had to alter many of their traditional religious practices, such as banning cremations, accepting circumcision, avoiding certain types of food, joining communal prayer, etc – all of which required from the Javanese a great deal of devotion and commitment to the Islam.[2]

Javanese terms in the primbon – like pangeran (God), sambahyang (prayer), tapa (ascetic), swarga (Heaven) and suksma (fine/subtle/immaterial) – demonstrate the adaptation of old and new religious concepts in Java. In this way, the cultural heritage of the old religion could be passed on to the new religion.

The second manuscript dates from the 16th century, and is all about orthodox Sufism. It is believed, that the content of the second manuscript support the observations of the first manuscript, namely the usage of Malay terms. The text itself is focused on the battle against the false doctrine. Most likely the author of the manuscript felt inspired to express his concern of the situation in Javanese society in the 16th century. The author’s concerns are also supported by the fact that during the 16th century the Javanese religion was in a phase of transition.

The religious doctrine stated in the second manuscript are clearly of Islamic origin; in particular, references are made to the teachings of Ibn Arabi and other groups named Batiniyya, Karramiyya and Mutangiyya. The manuscript does not mention anything about Hindu, Buddhist or Javanese teachings. Therefore, the references in this manuscript are entirely Islamic, though the cultural context and language is Javanese. And so, the second manuscript shows the author’s successful adaptation to, and implementation of Islamic doctrinal elements. The first and second manuscript both show an unique fusion of orthodox doctrine of Islam and pre-Islamic Javanese concepts, in particular the adaptation of important terms for ‘God’ and ‘prayer’.

The third manuscript, however, reveals a different perception on the early phases of Islamization in Java. In this manuscript, a clear distinction is drawn between a Javanese and Muslim identity. From these separate identities arises the gap between Muslims and ‘non-believers’, and even the possibility of apostasy is acknowledged. We read, that: “Whoever doubts the contents of this book is a kafir, for in this Islamic faith if one fails to follow its tenets or its rules of behavior or to profess it, then that person becomes a kafir…”. “If there is a Muslim who is affected by kafir behavior without knowledge of having been affected by kafir behavior, that person is nevertheless a kafir and has fallen away from Islam”[3].

The message of this text is obviously meant as a warning for Muslims to be aware of the threat of the false Islamic doctrine. Most of all, Muslims were taught to avoid the Qadiriyya. Just as in the two other manuscripts, this text uses Javanese terms for basic religious concepts, yet the transition in the Javanese community is also seen as a potential threat to the rise of Islam in Indonesia. However, we should bear in mind the fact that the exact date and origin of this third manuscript remain yet unknown. The little that can be said though, is that it is written in a time and place in Java during its socioreligious shift from Hindu-Buddhist beliefs to Islam. The author of the manuscript was able to draw clear lines between religion and identity; he left no room for compromise: one was either Muslim or a disbeliever, being either a follower of the Javanese religion or of the Islam – but, according to the author, one could not be both at the same time.


[1] Ricklefs, M.C., 2006: ‘Mystic Synthesis in Java: a History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries‘; p. 21-22.

[2] Ricklefs, M.C., 2006: ‘Mystic Synthesis in Java: a History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries‘; p. 23.

[3] Ricklefs, M.C., 2006: ‘Mystic Synthesis in Java: a History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries‘; p. 24.

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