Central Javanese Mystic and Syncretic Practices in Modern Islamic Theological Discourse

Agam Syahrial, Ohio University


Indonesia and Timor-Leste


The dissemination of Islam throughout the archipelagos was different from one island to another island in Indonesia. In most of Java, Islam flourished into a peculiar variant called Agami Jawi or the religion of Java due to its inclination toward mystical Hindhu-Budhist and local belief. A dramatic explosion in the numbers of Javanese Hajjis and Muslim students studying abroad in the Middle East started in 1850, and interactions between Muslim Indonesians to the Islam in Saudi Arabia intensified. Those hands-on experiences and interactions opened doors for new perspectives and gave opportunities to the Muslim society in Indonesia to learn and understand Islam more deeply. Due to those interactions, a reform in Indonesian Islam was born, a reform that put an emphasis on the purification of religious practice to eradicate all of the elements of non-Islamic mysticism, magic, animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Studies on Islam in Java like The Religion of Java by Clifford Geertz present a description of Javanese religious life and offer a plethora of insights in Javanese religious life and practice by discussing the tension between the Abangan, who practice mystic and syncretic practice and the reformists, who promoted a new way of practicing Islam. In addition to that, Fauzan Saleh, in Modern Trends in Islamic Theological Discourse in 20th Century Indonesia: A Critical Survey, explains the reform movement, which introduced a purer Islam through four basic principles: the return to the pristine sources of Islam: the Qur’an and the Sunnah; the encouragement of ijtihad; denouncement of taqlid; and revitalization of Arabic linguistics for properly engaging in ijtihad. However, few studies offer a discussion on Central Javanese perspectives of their mystic or syncretic practices after Islamic reform in the present.

This research paper aims to explain to what extent reformist views in Islam affect Javanese views of their ongoing mystic or syncretic practices (Kejawen) in present day Java. Several interviews were conducted with Javanese in Plumpungan village, Central Java, to find the answer to this question. This presentation starts by giving a historical background on Islam in Central Java, on the Islamic reform that happened in central Java, and on the reaction toward the reform from the Central Javanese. It is discovered that the central Javanese view their Kejawen as identity, Kejawen as complimentary not contradictory to Islam. In addition, they also view the importance of freedom in upholding one’s beliefs and finding relatability of their practice to modernity. This study also contributes to more insights on the already existing discussion on the discourse of mysticism in Islam outside the Arabic context.

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