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Javanese Santri Islam

The Western aversion and distrust towards Islam runs deep, in contrast to how 'friendlier' religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism are often considered. Even Westerners better informed about Islam have their concerns, so it is probably not simply a case of a misunderstood religion. Many see Islam as an inherently undemocratic religion, placing restrictions on, for example, women's rights or freedom of religion. To assert that understanding leads to tolerance is not necessarily true. Islam confronts many of the foundations of Western liberal-democratic culture, and by its very nature does not lend itself to be co-opted into the pluralistic, 'tolerant' frameworks of liberal Western societies.

How many?

Islam in Java is extremely diverse in how it's manifested, and highly variable in terms of depth of commitment to the religion. The oft-quoted figure that 90 percent of the Javanese population embraces Islam is extremely misleading, and in fact, wrong. It is perhaps true that 90 percent of the Javanese population hold an identity card stating that Islam is their religion. However, given the low level of religious freedom in Indonesia, the life-threatening danger of not professing a government-approved religion, and pressure from within the Religion Ministry and Islamists to inflate the number of Muslims in Indonesia for political reasons, this 90 percent figure should be summarily dismissed as an untruth.

Muslims in Java are usually divided vertically according to their level of identification with Islam, such as Geertz's abangan/santri dichotomy, with the santri much more closely identifying themselves as Muslim. In addition to this, there is also a horizontal traditionalist/modernist dimension within Javanese Islam.

So what constitutes a santri Muslim in Java? And how are they differentiated from other Javanese who call themselves Muslim? Originally a santri was simply a student or follower within an Islamic school called a pesantren (literally, place of the santri) headed by a kyai master. The word santri referred to persons who removed themselves from the secular world in order to concentrate on devotional activities and mystical matters, and pesantren were the focus of such devotion. It was only later that the word santri was used to describe that particular class within Javanese society that identified strongly with Islam, distinct from the more nominal Islam of the abangan and priyayi. And indeed, the word santri used to describe a class probably had a lot more to do with the influence of Geertz on how Javanese think about themselves. In fact, in common conversation, the word muslimin is far more likely to be used to distinguish santri Javanese from other groups within society.

Further complicating this matter is that not all santri are alike; within this group there exists a wide variety of belief and interpretation of what constitutes Islam. To some extent, this reflects the variety of belief held by Muslims the world over, and is generally characterized by a division between traditionalist and modernist outlooks. It can also be depicted as a division between an Islam that has been absorbed to become an integral part of a local culture, and a puritan Islam that sees such cultural adaptation as being contrary to the original aesthetic.

Animist blend

Islam in Java eventually developed into two Islamic traditions that are apparent today - a Javanese Islam with its syncretic characteristics, and a puritan, modernist Islam. The first is an Islam within which is infused with a complex mix of animist-Hindu-Buddhist beliefs and concepts, and which is inclined to mysticism. The second is relatively freer of these syncretic accretions, and is much closer to the dogma of the defining Arabian orthodoxy.

Islam did not arrive in Java in its pure, Arabian form. One of the main reasons that Islam was able to take root in Java was due to the particular kind of Islam, Sufism, which emphasized with local traditions and customs, and was quite compatible with the pre-existing and highly developed Javanese mystical outlook. Islam was thus introduced with relatively little upheaval into the existing cultural, social and political structures. In addition, amongst the Hindu-Buddhist nobility, Sufi Islam offered a credible mysticism as an alternative or additional source of mystical power and political legitimization; Islam could be integrated into the wider Javanese search for magical powers.

Because of its mystical outlook, Sufi Islam was more easily incorporated into the traditional Javanese worldview. Toward the end of the 19th century the whole of Java could be considered Islamized, however the intensity of this process was uneven across the island. Santri culture was much more concentrated in the trading cities of the north coast and in countryside towns. Santri lifestyles only really influenced those neighboring rural settlements where ‘pesantren' had been established.

Becoming aware

With the development of the modernist movement within Islam, starting with the Wahabbi movement in Egypt and with the increasing number of Javanese Muslims going on Hajj to Mecca after the opening of the Suez Canal, came an increasing awareness that Javanese Islam had absorbed many elements that could be considered in opposition to the pure Islam of Arabia. santri's began to more consciously differentiate themselves from those holding traditional Javanese outlooks, considering them as irreconcilable with the teachings or the aesthetic expressed in the Koran, and thus increasingly polarizing the santri from the abangan. Over the past two decades, Javanese society has undergone a process of Islamization, moving generally toward a deeper understanding and commitment to Islam in the modernist santri style. This has led to further polarization of the abangan from the santri in contemporary Java.

However, the santri should not be considered a homogenous group, as they are polarized along traditionalist/modernist lines. It is usually difficult to immediately differentiate mystically inclined traditionalist santri from modernist orthodox santri. Both may well observe the five pillars of Islam, and just as importantly, strongly identify themselves as Muslim.

So what is it that differentiates the Javanese santri from the rest of the population? Essentially, differences can be reduced to identity. Santri consciously identify themselves as Muslims, and attempt as far as possible to live in accordance to their own understanding of Islam, whether this be the traditional syncretic Islam, the purist Islam of the modernist or mixtures of both.

In terms of belief, the typical santri would adhere to the basic tenants of Islam as laid down within Koran, and the sunnah, which comprises the syrah (Mohammed's life story) and the hadith (Mohammed's saying and customs). The Koran is considered to be the literal word of God, and thus cannot be doubted in any way. The hadith, however, can be the subject of debate and difference of opinion, and it very often is. Consisting of literally hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of separate sayings and customs, and written or conveyed by numerous authors, the hadith is a hotbed of contradiction, dispute, xenophobia and, occasionally, downright weirdness.

In terms of their day-to-day behavior, the santri closely adhere to the formal requirements of the religion, the most obvious of which is solat, the ritual prayer undertaken at specific times five times a day. More than anything else, it is the conscientious performance of solat that separates the santri from the abangan. According to Islamic law, solat is wajibain (absolutely compulsory), gaining merit for performance, and punishment for non-performance. santri frequently live in areas surrounding mosques called kauman. Quite apart from providing a sense of community, living close to a mosque means that the calls to prayer are clearly heard to ensure that every solat is performed.


Also wajibain is about fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During this month, every able Muslim must abstain from food, drink, sex, immoral acts and negative thoughts from dawn to sunset. In contrast to solat, many abangan also fast during this month, though perhaps not as seriously as their santri cousins. Koentzereningerat (1985) claims that Agami Jawi (abangan) Muslims who do not perform solat or give alms seldom neglect to fast during the entire month of Ramadan, because it is in accordance with the indigenous idea of tirakat, - deliberately seeking out hardship and discomfort for religious reasons.

The contemporary Javanese santri can aspire to performing the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, at least once in their lifetime, usually when they are older. The Indonesian government, though the Religion Ministry, provides highly organized packages to Mecca for a reasonable cost. As a consequence, the high status associated with someone who had undertaken the Hajj in days past has now diminished considerably. The honorific title Hajji is now very rarely used when addressing or referring to someone verbally, though the abbreviated title (H.) will often be used in written forms.

Externally, differences in dress are nearly always apparent in the contemporary santri. Muslimah, in particular, stand apart from non-santri by the wearing of a jilbab (headdress covering the head, ears and neck, leaving only the face visible). Older muslimah, or for the more 'liberal' female santri, a less severe kerudung is often substituted, covering only the head leaving much of the hair, neck and ears still visible. Headdress is worn whenever the muslimah is outside the house, or whenever she is in the presence of any males apart from her husband, sons, father and brothers. (Some muslimah are less strict about this within their own home.) Muslimah will frequently absent themselves whenever male guests come to visit, partly due to the reserve that the muslimah is expected to show, but often also because they do not want to go to the trouble of wearing their head-dress in order to meet the guest.


Islam defines an awrah, or areas of the body considered private,for both sexes. The muslimah must cover all her body, except for her face and hands. Long, loose-fitting dresses or slacks are usually worn, though in Java many muslimah also commonly wear jeans along with a long, loose-fitting shirt. Basically, the female form must be so covered as to obscure the shape of the breasts, hips and buttocks, so as not to arouse the passions or attention of males. This concept of the awrah is also extended to female behavior, with the muslimah expected to guard her voice and her physical movements, and to avoid drawing undue attention to herself.

The Javanese santri male also wears certain types of clothing, however these are not prescribed by Islam, traditional or otherwise, nor are they worn all the time. The male awrah is much less restrictive, between the waist and the thighs, but it is generally considered more polite to completely cover the body, arms and legs. The gamis is a type of loose-fitting, long-sleeved, round-collared shirt worn by santri men; often for formal religious occasions or for Friday Prayers where it is accompanied with a checkered sarong. The peci, though not traditionally associated with Javanese Islam, must nowadays be considered part of male santri dress, although abangan Muslims also frequently wear it.

Arabic speech

Santri will frequently pepper their speech with expressions of an Arabic flavor, even (perhaps especially) when communicating with non-Muslims or abangan. Bismillahirrohmannirrahim ('In the name of Allah the all merciful') is an expression used before the commencement of any task, however large or small. This phrase precedes every surah (chapter) within the Koran. The use of this phrase is, however, not limited to santri Muslims; abangan Muslims also frequently use it. Tasks such as starting a motorbike, driving a nail into a wall, sex, speeches and the slaughtering of meat animals, will all be preceded with bismillah as a remembrance that everything, every action and every word, should be done for God in the name of God.

Assalamwallaikum, along with its rejoinder, Wallaikumsalam, is used when meeting, greeting and bidding farewell to people, and is also frequently used as a formal opening greeting for speeches. Strangely, use of this expression by public officials has declined dramatically since the fall of Soeharto in May of 1998.

santri consider any expression of certainty about the future to be slightly arrogant, and very often use the term insyaallah (God willing) to prefix any statement of positive intent or prediction, or agreement to do something. This expression is also sometimes used as a polite way of saying no, or for expressing ambiguity in answer to a question pertaining to something to be done in the future. Insyaallah also expresses what some see as a rather negative fatalism, allowing Muslims to avoid personal responsibility.

Contemporary santri Islam, in fact modernist Islam in general, is very much an outward religion. The inner dimensions are generally not stressed, and when they are spoken of it is in terms of a very separate compartment of Islam. The modernist aesthetic has had a big impact upon the more mystically inclined traditionalist Islam, especially over the past two decades. Ritual, outward social behavior, language and religious identity overshadow the inner dimensions. Sufism and the tarekat, although acknowledged, are now viewed with either suspicion or awe. For the vast majority of santri Muslims, the only link to mystical dimensions and practices is at funeral ceremonies, where dhikir mediation is performed.

santri Islam, in general, emphasizes ritual, while mysticism, in whatever its form, stresses inner, spiritual or the vertical axis of religion. santri are thus often perceived as emphasizing the material, literal or the horizontal axis. The mystic aspires to direct experience with God rather than mere belief or mechanical ritual. Sufi texts make a distinction between lahir (outer aspects) and batin (inner aspects), and that the outer meaning of the Koran concerns the regulation of outward behavior while its inner meaning concerns the mystical path and the quest for knowledge about God.

Mysticism still reigns

Mysticism and magic have always formed a basis of culture for all Javanese, irrespective of their professed outlook. santri Muslims will often make reference to indigenous beliefs, even while at the same time invoking the superiority of Islamic belief. Many avowedly modernist Muslims sometimes ascribe matters to Islam that in fact have their basis within traditional beliefs. At the unconscious level many Javanese beliefs linger in the minds of the santri; Nyi Rorol Kidul, the Goddess of the Southern Sea, can still strike fear into their hearts, as can the power of Kejawen mystics. Many santri see no contradiction in consulting a dukun (local witch doctor) to cure their ailments, or in believing black magic is often used in matters concerning love relationships, or that manusia harimau, people who transform themselves into tigers, inhabit some villages. Indigenous beliefs may tend to fill some of the spiritual vacuum left behind by modernist Islam.

Javanese santri Islam is not monochromic; there is great variability in the way that it is expressed, and in the depth of commitment and knowledge of its adherents. However, indigenous mystical beliefs persist in the subconscious of all Javanese, and many traditional practices and ceremonies are still performed, albeit only in a formal manner. Javanese society has become increasingly ‘santri-fied' over the past few decades, and the modernist expression of the religion has greatly influenced, outwardly at least, the more mystically inclined traditionalist Islam. Despite this apparent modernity, however, Indonesian Islam needs to be considered on its own terms, and not just as a branch of Middle Eastern Islam.


Keith Eames et al (1998), "Social and Religious Trends in Asia Pacific Security"
Robert J. Kyle (1995), Honors thesis "Rethinking Javanese Mysticism: A Case Study of Subud Mysticism", Dept of Archeology and Anthropology, Faculty of Arts, Australian National University, Canberra
Franz Magnis-Suseno (1997), "Javanese Ethics and World-view: the Javanese Idea of the Good Life", Gramedia, Jakarta
MC Ricklefs (1993), "A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1300", McMillan, London

Reproduced with permission from Gary Dean, Javanese Santri Islam.

Contributor: Gary Dean

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