This past summer I taught a graduate course in comparative mysticism at University Gadjah Mada in their Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. In addition, and maybe more significantly, I spoke at a variety of Islamic colleges (& Christian and Hindu colleges). Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world and it is the largest Islamic country in the world.
The goal was to bring them a knowledge of Judaism in order to clear up misconceptions and to foster a more receptive attitude to Judaism. I was sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and by the AJC-API (American Jewish Committee -Asia Pacific Institute) for the University teaching and sponsored by Gadjah Mada University and the regional Islamic colleges for my important travel to give talks.
University Gadjah Mada is the major center for the study of religion in Indonesia and is the feeder school producing the faculty of the Indonesian Islamic colleges. I stayed in a lovley guest house a mile from the university and walked to work each day down the main shopping avenue.
In my class, I covered contemporary approaches to mysticism such as Michel de Certeau, Jeffrey Kripal, and Amy Hollywood, then the theory was applied to mystical texts from the Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions. I taught a course in mysticism since it complements the Indonesia emphasis on mysticism as a main rubric for self-understanding of their own religion and as an easy way to introduce Judaism into the curriculum since I spent about 40% of the classes discussing Judaism. I was specifically brought to introduce the Judaism into this major graduate program of religion, which because of its status as a feeder school producing MA’s and Phd’s who go into administration and teaching in Islamic colleges.
Indonesia is predominately an easy-going hybrid Islam oriented more toward local traditions of the arts and devotion than law. By their own estimates, no more than 25% of my classroom prayed daily, let alone five times a day. They said it was between them and God. They said they all fasted during Ramadan but did not go to prayers.
They like Sufism but are not into Sufi saints or graves. They read the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra about the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) in which all of creation is a manifestation of the divine. But they also accepted as meaningful to their Indonesia Islam the universal Sufism of the West, including Inayat Khan, Idries Shah and Robert Frager. This acceptance of western universal Sufism by Indonesian is similar to going to Monsey NY and finding the Chassidim reading Buber.
My syllabus included the Jewish Sufism of Bahye, Ovadiah ben Avraham ben Maimonies, Isaac of Acco, and Eliyahu deVidas as a bridge topic to show a Judaism that was similar to their Islam before I turned to the Zohar and Hasidism. We also covered Christian Kabbalah as a hybrid form of Kabbalah because their own conceptions of religion are about hybridity.
Indonesia was founded on the motto of “unity in diversity” and has Pancasila as an official ideology in which one must accept one God, revelation through a prophet and scripture. The government has determined that the six official religions that follow this are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. It is a world where Muslim acknowledge Hindus and Buddhists as having one God and where conversely Hindus and Buddhists see themselves as having one God, revelation, and scripture.
Pancasila was legally mandated from the founding of the state until 20 years ago. Now, it is still accepted but has many interpretations and variants. How much it is social policy as opposed to theology is debated; one finds explanations of this as a policy of social cohesion and for others it is a liberal and tolerant reading of Islamic theology. The country uses the phrase “God almighty” in official events to refer to all six religions.
The Islamic focus on tawhid- divine unity remains in place but also includes the other religions. Tribal religion is treated as culture and folkways- not as theology or religion- so those practices can be integrated into any of the six. The tribes were basically made to pick one of the faith for their identity cards, Depending on the region they chose Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.
Jews are not included in this list anymore since there are not many Jews in Indonesia. They were briefly included at the founding of the state before they emigrated to Australia and the U.S. There is a trend of recent conversions to Judaism clustered in several cities, which deserves its own discussion. (In the meantime, read the two articles here and here)
There are also Muslim who study Hebrew and Jewish books as Judeophiles. Many of the latter reached out to me before I arrived when they read the announcement of my arriving.
My own host professor at the university and co-instructor is one of these Judeophiles. He is Christian, teaches Judaism, and has been on The Brandeis Schusterman program for Israel studies. He even translated Heschel’s The Sabbath into Indonesian and could not find a publisher because there was no market.
However as I write this, I note that Americans tend to know little about Indonesia and few college students study Indonesian. Sufism is a good way to introduce Indonesian Islam before I speak directly about the Islamic colleges.
The East Java city of Kediri is on the site of an 8th century Hindu city and is now an Islamic factory town, known as the headquarters of the leading brand of Indonesian cigarettes, mainly clove cigarettes. When I visited Kediri to speak in an Islamic college, my hosts graciously took me to the shrine of Sufi Sheykh Sulaiman Al-Wasil Syamsudin. The shrine is downtown right near the bus station and main hotel owned by the cigarette company.
In the 12th century, Sheykh Al-Wasil Syamsudin brought Sufism and Islamic teaching to Kediri in East Java from Persia. His Sufism included astrology and fortune-telling. In the 16th century, a Chinese Buddhist style enclosure was built around his tomb with Hindu and Buddhist temple ornamentation. The shire has an actual inscription about his work in old Javanese. The tomb is in the middle of a small graveyard. Around the graveyard is a mosque, community cemetery and concessions for Islamic ritual objects.
When I visited at ten PM there were only two men reciting Quran as a remembrance of God near the tomb and another two or three women behind a curtain. There is no set ritual to be done there. Outside the shrine, there were a few tables with literature from the various local Sufi organizations who venerate the shrine. Finally, as in Turkey, there were shops for sweetened Turkish style coffee in glasses.
Around the shrine, one sees items of the broader syncretic faith of Java. These include a mural of the Chinese goddess of the sea on the wall of one of the shrine’s building, Javanese Gamelan instruments, holy water for ritual in the Hindu style., and a “Cambodian tree” as a place to pray for marriage (like Amukah in the Galilee). This syncretism is characteristic of traditional Javanese Islam; one that does not worry about purity, legalism, or other faiths. This syncretism was important for me to see with my own eyes.
Clifford Geertz, the important anthropologist, considering true Islam as centered on law (fiqh) based on his knowledge of Islam in Morocco, and therefore saw Javanese Islam as an Islamic veneer over Javanese traditional religion. More recent scholars such as Mark Woodward reverses it and makes Islam as the primary religious category, which uses the local cultural blend of a Hindu-Buddhist-animist practices as ways to be Muslim.
Sufism is an alternate fundamental mode of Islam that is alternative to the version we know based on law. This is the primary mode of Islam in the Islam of Kediri. The Quran and Hadith are read in Sufi terms. It is strictly Muslim, in that, Muslims use Islamic prayer modes and chant Quran, Javanese Hindus and Christians do not. But Islam is embedded in Javanese culture. For greater detail, consult the experts on Indonesian Islam who have produced a vast secondary literature.
This Sufi Islam that accepts the practices of the local Javanese culture is rather mellow, pluralistic, irenic, and accepting of its cultural setting. In addition, Java also has many nominal Muslims, without Islamic practice or knowledge. I will talk more about it when I discusses the colleges that I visited and people I had personal discussion with about Islam. But it is important to note how mellow is their tradition flavor of Islam. One of my colleagues at the University, recently wrote a paper showing how Islam is compatible with animism. A paper that is border line between empirical observation and creating a progressive 21st century Islamic political theology that embraces tribal religions.
Since I taught mysticism, I found out quickly from both my classroom students, and subsequently from readings, that Indonesian Sufism and mysticism to them is not the sublime unitive mystical experience of William James or an inner meaning as described by the classic books on Arabic and Persian Sufism. Rather they used the word mysticism for any religious experience or connection to religious or ritual forces. The terms in Indonesia are kebatinan, which in class they used for any religious experience and kepercayaan for relgious faith.
Ritual done by Sufis is seen as having powers and blessings. And Sufi leaders, for their followers, have supernatural powers. People want the blessing (Karamat) and become Sufis. For Geertz, this was a native Javanese animism with an Islamic veneer and for current trends it is clearly Islamic Sufism making use of local language and practices.
There are many Sufi groups in the city of Kediri. The major groups recruit the male adolescents at the Islamic boarding schools and are traditional quoting Al Ghazali and requiring the following of Islamic precepts. However, there are others ranging from those that include women and children, to those that recruit through social media for outreach, and there are those that primarily cater to addicts and criminals. Some allow non-Muslims to attend. Some of them only meet at the shrine and not in a mosque because the nominal Muslims do not feel comfortable in the normative in the Mosque.
In general, the Sufi directive is that everything one does should be for God, “Le- allah” and one should think of god in all you do. Similar to the parallel concepts in Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut. According to the books about Kediri Sufism, even for the traditional groups, they assume if something is not forbidden in the Quran then it is permitted.
They do not relate to stringency of later generations. Most of the Sufi groups care little about later Arabic fatwas or later fiqh. I received similar answers from the Muslim graduate students in my classroom or local Muslims in Jogja (Yogyakarta). If you asked them about how they relate to anti-Christian (or Jewish or Hindu) writings of the medieval ibn Taymiyyah (or other conservative Islamic thinkers), they answered that it is not Hadith and does not apply to them or that they are not Salafi so he does not matter.
Finally, I wanted to take my entire University class to a Sufi dhikr or visit a tarikah since as a group of university liberals they had never been. They may have personal theologies based on Ibn Arabi or Mulla Sadra, but no actual pietistic practice or exposure. But my hectic lecturing schedule outside of the university precluded the visit. Next time.
Besides teaching graduate school at the university, I traveled to speak about Judaism in several Islamic colleges around the country. The goal was to give them familiarity with Judaism.
Many Indonesian attend religious colleges- Christian, Hindu or Islamic- funded by the state and subject to state supervision. They are generally BA institutions; students go to the secular universities for graduate school. The Islamic colleges teach Islam in a college social-science style. They have a mandatory freshman course in Islamic religion and culture. The rest of the courses are part of the various majors. A history major can take history of Islam, a sociology major can take a course on Islamic sociology, an education major can take courses on Islamic education. Even a college that has a major in Islamic law, offers courses of a historic-social nature such as “Rise of the Salafi in the Modern Era.” The overall approach to their Islam is to rely on the Indonesian tolerant culturally embedded form and to study in a historic manner.
In some ways, one can compare their Islam to ideas of a tolerant “Catholic Israel” historic form of Judaism with deep respect for folkways and using their own clear thinking about the classic texts over the stringent interpretations made in later centuries. The heads of these Islamic colleges ideally have graduate degrees from places like the center of religious studies at the secular Gadjah Mada University where I taught. These deans, and department heads have the responsibility for the formation of a tolerant Islam in their institutions.
In each Islamic college, I began my talk by introducing myself and my religious background as a Jewish American, a rabbi, and a professor. And in each place, I created opening connection by recounting how the medieval Fatimid traders who originally brought Islam to Indonesia included Jews among the traders. We have responsa from the Cairo Genizah permitting wives back home in Egypt to remarry after Indonesian shipwrecks. Indonesians understood these as analogous to the similar fatwa permitting remarriage for the Muslim traders. But they also understood that Jews were on the Fatimid trading ships as part of what Marshall Hodgson called the Islamic Caliphate; the Jews were part of the diversity of Islamic Egypt in many ways similar to my culturally belonging to the US.
The first part of the talk was an introduction to Judaism as similar in structure to Islam in unity of God, prayer, and the other pillars of Islam. I also showed similarity in dietary practices, circumcision, and other rituals. Then, I repeated those ideas in a historic manner mentioning Talmud, hadith, kalam, Maimonides, shaariah, fatwas, responsa and Jewish sufis.
Then, I gave a brief overview of Jews under medieval Islam, both symbiosis and tension. I included famous contrasts such as the high that Shmuel Hanagid reached and then the pogrom against his son. I continued the history briefly survey the decline of the Jewish-Muslim relationship under colonialism and the rise of nationalism. I transitioned to contemporary interfaith efforts of Muslim organizations as well as very briefly mentioning the basic terms of 21st century interfaith and intercommunal relations.
Finally, I concluded with the story of one of my current Muslim Seton Hall students. He came to the program wanting to know about interfaith and Christianity, and through the course of his study decided that he wants to become a professor of Judaism in a Muslim country. He is currently working on a PhD on medieval Jewish texts. I concluded with his story as an exhortation for them to encounter Jews and study Judaism.
The students ostensibly know English as part of their HS and college education, but in all the school I used a translator stopping after every idea. In the first school, the translator only helped with some words and summarized a few ideas. By the last school, I sat with the translator the night before and went over the entire talk.
The content of the talk was not original. It included the texts from the two chapters on Islam from my book Judaism and World Religions, articles and handouts from Rabbi Prof Reuven Firestone, and speeches from Rabbi David Rosen. For the first talk, not knowing what the students would be interested in discussing in the questions and answers, I brought lots of pages with me. A whole stack. For the next talk, I just brought the script of the talk.
The reaction was better than anyone expected. I was told to anticipate 30-50 students showing up in each school. Instead I had attendance numbers like 200 in Manado and 160 in Kediri. They were excited beforehand and afterwards to meet a Jewish scholar. There was sincere appreciation for opening new vistas. After one of the times that I spoke, a female student came up to me saying: “You give really good dawah,” using the Arabic phrase for outreach or calling to God.
They had never heard any of this material before. They did not really know the basics of Judaism, the history of Jews under Islam, or met a Jew. In some ways, and I don’t say this to flatter myself, it was like Swami Vivekananda speaking at the Parliament of World Religions (1893) to introduce Hinduism, when his audience knew nothing about Hinduism, or at best, just knew it as paganism. I do not know the stereotypes that they had before the lecture since there was no before the lecture survey and Jews are not a big topic for discussion.
I was repeatedly warned to prepare for abrasive questions from the students about Palestine/Israel. In each case I was told to brace myself. But these questions never came. Maybe they were just polite. Maybe I seemed more of a cleric than a politician, the same way one would not ask a Swami from the Vedanta society about Indian national politics. I assume that I was perceived as more religious knowledge so no political questions. Or maybe they themselves do not associate their Islamic practice in anyway with the politics of Arabia, Pakistan and Syria, or even their own governments actions to suppress rebellions. Alternately as one Christian pastor involved in seminary education told me “Israel is a Christian country” and he did not understand the existence of post-Jesus Jews.
Instead, I was asked by the students in each school about the normal concerns of contemporary college students. The questions of the students were: Judaism and LGBT, Judaism and feminism or woman’s rights, is internet good for religion, and what is the role of the internet in fostering peace or violence. They did ask about overcoming social media hatred about Middle East conflicts. They also asked about Jewish dietary laws and the exact times of Jewish prayer. They wanted PowerPoint images of Jewish ritual objects, tallit, tfillin, head coverings, synagogues, Jews from different lands. I regret not having prepared such a display.
They had little interest in the theological questions of Moses vs Mohamed, or the nature of Jewish scripture, or even Quranic passages. They already have a basic respect and tolerance for other faiths as part of their curriculum.
Since the Indonesian constitution states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.” The first tenet of the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, declares a required belief in one God, revelation and scripture, which is fulfilled by accepting Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. There would be an automatic sense that we all worship one God and one sticks to one’s tradition. This basic equivalence of faiths as political theology allows them to easily add Judaism to their accepted religions. They have all studied this in high school as part of civics or civil religion.
The Islamic colleges seek to go beyond the mandated course and offer a required course in world religions as part of their goal of creating a tolerant Islam. They actively dismiss the hardline exclusive readings of Islam produced in other countries. So, my audiences knew something about Judaism from the chapters in introductions to world religions books of Huston Smith and Ninian Smart. Those 1960’s classics present Judaism as essentialized, without medieval history, and as a religion outside politics. They have the other world faiths discussed in Ninian Smart in Indonesia, so I was the novelty of meeting a believer in faith they never met before.
There are few books in Indonesian exclusively on Judaism, some of the few books available are Abba Eban, My People and a work by a Dutch Christian. This Fall 2019, one of the Islamic colleges will be introducing a new course focusing on Judaism. I have a copy of the textbook that the teacher produced; it builds on the categories of Ninian Smart. I also met students who are studying Hebrew and came to the event in t-shirts embossed with Shalom in Hebrew.
After each talk, I would be surrounded by dozens of students wanting to take a selfie with me. Indonesia is a very big Instagram country. There are hundreds of pictures on Instagram of me with young female in a jilbab (Indonesian name for hijab) students. The jilbabs are an interested facet of Indonesian Islamic life. They were generally not worn in the 1980’s and returned in the 21st century as part of the self-identity of the younger generation. The head covering by the young generation absolutely drives crazy many of the baby boomer age Muslims who feel their children are getting too religious. Yet, this young generation is more educated, open, and tolerant.
There is a vast literature on how the young feel the jilbab is essential to their Islam and how at the same time they are more likely than the previous generation to write dissertations on eco-feminism or greater feminist rights. Part of the current acceptance of the jilbab is that they are now in bright colors, vivid patterns and serve as bold fashion accessories. More than half of my graduate classroom was female. From what I hear, that is a major change from 15 years ago.
On the other hand, most of these same women wanted to shake my hand and then put their arm around me for the selfie. I asked many of them: Is touching a member of the opposite sex permitted. I have been in other Muslim counties where it clearly was not permitted, even in non-Salafi ones. Each woman gave the same basic answer. “We are not Salafi” so we touch. Salafi functions as a pejorative in the language of the college students for those too strict in the law or those who invoke a fatwa made in the Arab lands. They have their own identity as traditional Indonesian Muslims.
What about Salafi Islam? Isn’t it taking over?
Some of my readers may remember that Bali was bombed in 2002 by Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group. But the government has been banning, imprisoning, and expelling radical Islamic forces. Those convicted in relation to the bombings were sentenced to death.
On the other hand, the NYT considers the younger generation of feminists and phd students who wear a jilbob as a right-wing turn. However, it is a truism around the world that the younger generation of Orthodox of any faith who are more educated than their parents have a greater return to textual practice as part a transition from traditionalism to a text-based religion. And Indonesia has had religious parties that have wanted more Islam in the country since it founding 1945, but they want an Indonesia Islam.
Recently, there was a wonderful article by Muhammad Sani Umar & Mark Woodward, “The Izala effect: unintended consequences of Salafi radicalism in Indonesia and Nigeria” in Contemporary Islam. In the article they “argue that the Salafi religious and cultural agendas are incompatible with Islam as understood by a vast majority of Muslims in these regions.” They see the extreme Islam as inauthentic compared to their version. The Salafi seek to ban the cultural Sufi world of poetry, music, performance and that drives the Indonesian to totally reject the Salafi. The Salafi want to introduce Arabic culture and people are proud of their Indonesian culture, so the Salafi are obviously false. They show that Indonesians associate all forms of Salafi- Wahhabism with violence and terrorism.
To return the opening discussion of how does Indonesian Islam accept Hinduism and Confucianism as a unified monotheistic God of tawhid. Indonesians study the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra who are monists and define tawhid as the “unity of being” (waḥdat al-wujūd) that denies an ontological distinction between Allah and creation because all of it pre-existed in the mind of Allah prior to the moment of creation. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine; we experience the divine in all things. Since Salafis reject these propositions, then from an Indonesian perspective they do not have the proper Islamic worldview.
My students certainly had these mystical perspectives and their parents certainly went to Sufi shrines. Hence, they are compelled to reject Salafis. Arabic beards and robes do not make the Muslim, rather the unity of God in the heart.
Plato, in the Republic wrote “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” Here the converse is true. The Indonesian commitment to Gamelan music and ritual performances means the extremism is not accepted. I am not an ethnomusicologist and did not pay the same attention to music as to religion. However, gamelan music is taught to children. People told me that their relatives taught it to them as children or they went to Sunday school for gamelan music. One Sunday morning, standing before an open-side building design, I watched such a class for 30 kids. I even met some American ex-pats who were sending their girl – age six to the Sunday gamelan class. People shows off to me that they could play. But outside of the classes or special festivals and events, I heard little of it on any island. Even the masjid in Kediri had a set up for playing gamelan music in the mosque.
Nevertheless, yes, 2019 Indonesia is stricter than 1999 Indonesia. Alcohol and porn are banned on Java as an act of upholding Islamic values- but that does not mean they want other aspects of the law or the undoing of religious diversity.
Do not confuse Java with Aech on the northern tip of Sumatra, which follows Sharia. I did not visit it and it functions, in many ways, as its own region. I also was not in Papua or the Maluku islands.
In addition, do not confuse Islamic popularism in politics with Islam as a religion. Indonesia has its share of Islamic versions of Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich, below the threshold but making lots of noise. But they are not Bnai Brak Haredim, so too the Islamic popularists are not Haredim.
For example, there is preacher at as a masjid on/near the campus of University Gadjah Mada who advocates an ethno-national Islam of wanting to exclude Christians and Hindus from teaching and living together, but it has little connection to Islamic observance or knowledge of Islam. The same ethno-nationals may not pray Islamic prayers or follow Islamic law. It mainly attracts the formerly secular and those in the natural sciences. The strictly observant Muslims are products of Islamic boarding schools and are more politically tolerant than these ethno-nationals. The University’s administration counters the ethno-national Islam by giving greater voice to the graduates of the Islamic boarding school system who can read Arabic and know the Islamic religion.
Finally, seventeen years ago in 2002, was the last
time the university had a visiting professor of Judaism, Rebecca T. Alpert of
Temple U. In her own account of her time in Indonesia, she remarked how people
thought she was crazy to go to a Muslim country. Now, it is common to meet fellow
ex-pat Jews in Dubai, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Also she notes how she learned
of how the Biblical stories are portrayed in the Quran in this visit. Now there
are Jewish professors of Islam and Christianity as well as Muslim and Christian
professors of Judaism. The age of globalization creates a field of greater
travel for interfaith work, and in the 21st century there is greater
Jewish-Islamic encounter and knowledge of one another. My trip did not have the surprise element
but is all part of today’s interfaith work.