This was a polarised and conflicted society



Book Review

M.C. Ricklefs, Polarising Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions (c. 1830-1930), Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007.

written by Muhammad Latif Fauzi 

The basic idea of this book is a mystery of political violence, in the 1960s for instance, in which differing degrees of commitment to Islam (religiosity) of Javanese society played a major role in defining loyalties. The questions are whether or not there are deeper historical roots of these categories and what circumstances can make religion into a source of social conflict. Only with understanding history of nineteenth century Java can the mystery be unravelled and, furthermore, there exist something valuable about human societies more generally.

In the early of nineteenth century, Islam had come to be the religious element in Javanese identity. It was a particular kind of Islam called the ‘mystic synthesis.’ This Javanese mysticism had three notable characteristic features: (1) Javanese held firmly to their identity as Muslims. With the exception of certain isolated population, to be Javanese was to be a Muslim. (2) They carried out the basic ritual obligations of the faith (five pillars of Islam), but, (3) they also accepted the reality of local spiritual forces (Chapter 1, a brief summary of the first serial).

In the course of the nineteenth century, colonial rule, population increase and Islamic reform all acted to undermine this ‘mystic synthesis’. Javanese were polarised into three groups: the priyayi elite, a bourgeoisie Islamic bent, and a peasantry being ground down by colonialism and by their social superiors. This apparent polarisation was paralleled in cultural and religious spheres (Chapter 2). Pious Muslims became divided amongst adherents of that synthesis, reformers who demanded a more orthoprax way of life, reforming Sufis and those who believed in messianic ideas. Arab communities in the pasisir town, the rising number of hajis, and pesantrens development have become proper vehicles to disseminate the ideas of a purified Islam (Chapter 3).

A new category of Javanese emerged, people who resisted Islamic reform and began to attenuate their Islamic identity. This group was known as abangan, nominal Muslims, and constituted a majority of the population (Chapter 4). Nevertheless, by the 1830s a minority of Javanese converted to Christianity for the first time. The role of European missionaries was less significant than that of the Indo-European and indigenous Javanese proselytisers who bridged the cultural gaps between Christianity and Javanese culture. Thus, a joke saying Landa wurung, Jawa tanggung (failed Dutchmen and half-baked Javanese) began to disappear at the time (Chapter 5

The priyayi elite, Java’s aristocracy, embraced the forms of modernity represented by their European rulers and the wider advances of modern scientific learning. In major places like Surakarta and Yogyakarta, a hybrid European-Javanese cosmopolitanism grew (Chapter 6). Some even came to regard the original conversion of the Javanese to Islam as a ‘civilisational mistake’ and within this element explicitly anti-Islamic sentiments began to appear. They combined admiration for European learning and for the glories of Java’s older history, a combination of budi and Budha. Cultural change led by two contending modernities in Java- Islamic reform and European learning- had contributed to social polarisation and conflicting religious identities (Chapter 7). In the early twentieth century, these categories became constituted in formal organisations and thus grew more rigid, more clearly defined and more conflicting. Nevertheless, they became politicized in the context of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movements. Thus were born political identities that lay behind the conflict of twentieth century Indonesia (Chapter 8).

To sum up, religion, politic, and conflicted societies seem to have been dominant among Javanese society in the beginnings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since there are no strict characteristics of the existing diverging Islamic communities at the time, ‘social fluidity’, in my opinion, becomes a key word to depict the realities. Besides that, looking at the emergence of groups as interconnected entities, ‘continuity and change’ seems relevant to call rather than ‘social conflict’. For this reason, Javanese society was, is and will be always polarised throughout times.


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