Times of Change in Java: Islam at the Royal Court

The arrival of Islam in Java introduced a new idea of religious competition in society. This lead the Javanese to question their identity; what exactly did it mean to be both Javanese and muslim? For many Javanese the various religions known to them as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, formed merely an alternative approach to the worship of a higher power or God. Yet for others the cultural boundaries formed a threshold, which they found difficult to transcend; one had to choose between being a traditional Javanese, or adopting a muslim identity.

Islam at the Royal Court

Let us now look at the early perception of Islam in Java; what were the Javanese thoughts about this new religion? In order to find this out we will now discuss some of the earliest signs of Islam in Java.

The inscriptions on the tombstones at Trowulan and Tralaya, East-Java, dating from the 14th century, are the earliest evidence of Javanese muslims. The tombstones are located near the area in which the Majapahit Kingdom was based. The general design and features of the stones clearly corresponds with features of Majapahit art of the time. Therefore, the general style of art applied to these stones suggests that they were made for Royal members of the Majapahit Kingdom. Furthermore, the fact that these inscriptions date from the heydays of the Majapahit empire clearly suggests an early acceptance of and adherence to Islam by the Javanese elite of the time.

In an Old Javanese poem called Desawarnana of Prapanca from 1365 [1], the ruling King of Majapahit is said to worship both Siva and Buddha; no references are made in regard to Islamic beliefs, though. Yet still there were already some muslims present in the Royal Court. Why? If we go back to the previously mentioned tombstones, it must be noted that there various distinctive features on the stones. On top of both graves a Siva linggam – a religious Hindu symbol in the form of a phallus – is placed, while on the surface of the gravestones obviously Islamic features are depicted, such as quotes from the Koran written in Arabic. These uniquely combined features of several different religious depictions that there were indeed Javanese people at the Royal Court that clearly did not see any problem in being both Javanese and muslim at the same time. The King himself, however, remained adherent to Hindu-Buddhist beliefs.

This shows us that the Javanese elite embraced Islam, and that they had successfully adopted the new religion to their own culture. In no way could one speak of a potential conflict between a Javanese and an Islamic identity. However, what is remarkable, is the fact that the author of the Desawarnana poem left out the perception of an ideal Javanese society and state based on Islam. From this we may conclude that, although the possibility of being both Javanese and muslim was not seen as a problem, it nonetheless was not yet accepted by everyone in Majapahit society.

[1] Ricklefs, M.C., 2006: ‘Mystic Synthesis in Java: a History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries‘; p. 12.

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