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Macalester College

Publication Date

Spring 2023

Program Name

Indonesia: Arts, Religion, and Social Change


Javanese Islam is incredibly unique in its style and practice. Despite boasting a Muslim population larger than the entire Middle East, Indonesia and its Islamic cultural practices are largely unknown in academic circles. This has made an introduction to Islam in the archipelago even more difficult for the rare interested Western reader. Frustratingly, what is lost on the rest of the world is basically second nature to 155 million Javanese Muslims, who learn from their families, schools, and pilgrimages about the Wali Songo, a group of nine semi-mythical figures credited with spreading Islam to Java. When we stop casting a value judgment on oral histories, we see they allow us into the ethos and nuance of Javanese society (even if their methods do not have the rigid fact-based approach that scholars are used to). In place of textbook history, the Wali, such as Sunan Kalijaga, offer a compromise: an origin story for the Muslims of Indonesia that aligns their faith with indigenous cultural values. It cannot be confirmed whether they lived at the same time or if they ever existed at all, but their social “footprints” validate the differences in Indonesian religious practice and fasten Java sturdily to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, recentering an ancient history into the fold of Islam. Much like the characters in his wayang puppet shows, the Wali Sunan Kalijaga has achieved immortality in the retelling of his stories. This essay attempts to use personal travels around Central Java and interviews, visits to makams and mosques (masjids), and collected oral histories to formulate a basic narrative and historically contextualize the so-called Bandit saint, Sunan Kalijågå. Most importantly, it presents a depiction of the Wali not as he really was, but as Java remembers him today, and considers why he remains essential to a thorough understanding of Islam on the island.


Asian Studies | Comparative Methodologies and Theories | History of Religion | Islamic Studies | Oral History | Pacific Islands Languages and Societies


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