Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s Eccentric Saints are Challenging Fundamentalist Islam in Modern Indonesia (Monsoon Books)
Review by William Tham
Between Religious Orthodoxy and Cultural Pride
DESPITE THE FANCIFUL tagline, promising encounters with the “wacky figures from Java’s past”, George Quinn’s pilgrimage travelogue is much more a down-to-earth achievement than it is marketed to be. Journeying across Java, from the busy port at Tanjung Priok to the frigid highlands of Mount Lawu and the island of Madura (not exactly Java, but close enough given its intertwined history), Quinn engages in the alternative, oft-unnoticed narrative of Indonesian Islam – the story of what Clifford Geertz calls the abangan tradition, or syncretic practice fusing Islamic teachings with elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous Javanese beliefs.
What also came along were saints whose tombs became the site of legend and pilgrimage, a list that grew to include vanishing kings, deviant princes, Madurese queens, the titular bandit saints and of course the Wali Songo themselves, who were said to have brought Islam to Java.
Quinn, interestingly, is an atheist, but he is a curious and sympathetic observer of what emerges as a lively portrait of domestic pilgrimages and the uneasy coexistence of more orthodox Islamic practice (santri), with the old traditions. He straddles the role of an outsider and insider, fluent in both Javanese and Standard Indonesian, delivering a condensed history of Javanese Islam. He covers a lot of ground, from the fall of the Majapahit empire to the efforts of the Wali Songo, from the vicious Dutch Cultuurstelsel system to Chinese immigration, and eventually the violent rise of the New Order.
All that can be a lot to take in, but Quinn effortlessly merges fact and fiction in the style of a storyteller. There are plenty of elements of magic, particularly the chapter “In the Forests of the Future”, with its mix of spiritually charged places and environmental concerns, merging into a study of heritage, conservation and messiahs.
While Quinn notes how the rise of fundamentalism was effectively sanctioned by the violence that accompanied the New Order’s rise to power, which polarised the Muslim community, he eventually paints a more complicated picture. Expanding on the simple abangan/santri binary, he looks at how the political and economic realities resulted in a hybrid situation that exists today.
While the allure of orthodoxy is strong, economic realities mean that the tombs of local saints, including recent figures like the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, become alternative sites of pilgrimage, becoming even more popular with the establishment of tour groups, domestic and foreign visitors, fuelled by rising disposable income.
Bandit Saints is an engaging addition to the literature on Java, and an antidote to the simple polemics of intolerance and fanaticism thrown up by the international media.