Walisongo, Java’s muslim saints

In the story of Islam’s spread in Indonesia, the Walisongo hold a special place. Said to have been a group of nine missionaries that lived during the 15th and 16th centuries AD, the Walisongo used combined pious acts, supernatural displays of power, political manoeuvring and outright military conquest, to extend Islam’s reach across Java and neighbouring islands. Their tombs are popular places of pilgrimage, drawing devotees from all over Java and indeed, Muslim South-East Asia.

The Walisongo, Java’s muslim saints: an introduction

Sunan Ampel
Sunan Ampel who worked to spread Islam around Java in the late 1400s and early 1500s

These early missionaries of Islam were elevated to the status of walis (an Arabic term for ‘saint’) and ascribed the title Sunan (a Javanese epithet akin to “Honourable”). Over the centuries many stories surrounding the lives of these men and their exploits have been told.

Much of what we know comes from a collection of quasi-factual Javanese manuscripts collectively known as Babad Tanah Jawi (“History of the land of Java). There is no attempt to separate the fact from the fiction and no indication to laypersons such as myself what can or has been corroborated by archaeological evidence. Yet legends or myths still reveal much that can be of assistance to the historian or fact seeker, especially if they still hold sway in the hearts and minds of believers.

The conversion stories that survive are interesting for the absence of the formal signs of Islamic conversion – the recitation of the profession of faith (shahada) and male circumcision
. Islam was not the great civilizing watershed in Java that it was in other parts of the archipelago. With a rich cultural heritage that pre-dated the arrival of Islam by many centuries, the Javanese populace was not easily impressed by acts of ceremony and pomp.

Today, many describe Javanese Islam as being santri or abangan. A over-simplification perhaps, but nevertheless a useful description of the dichotomy in the religion’s practice on the great island. Santris are strict Muslims and adhere to Islam’s formalities, whilst abangan have little time for Islam’s rites and formalities, still attesting to the spirit world of their pre-Islamic forebears. Some scholars describe it as syncretistic, an undercurrent of the mystical always running beneath the dry formalism of Islamic doctrine.

Throughout history, there have always been movements within Islam to “reform” or “renew” the original spirit of Islam. These movements, especially popular in the Islamic World during the 19th century AD, came to be described as “Reformist” or “Modernist”, in quite the opposite sense that a Westerner would understand those terms.

It is unfortunate that the most internationally publicised of Indonesia’s Muslims – the Bali bombers and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir subscribe to a most violent strain of such Islamic “Modernism”. Be it a reaction to the subjugation of Muslim lands and people by infidels (such as in Palestine), or the blasphemous sullying of Islamic purity by decadent Western lifestyles back home, these violent men find something worth taking innocent lives for.

Sometimes these movements succeed in seizing temporal and spiritual authority – as the Wahhabis have done in Saudi Arabia – and sometimes they don’t – the Darul Islam revolt of Java in the 1940s to 1960s comes to mind. But religion, as much as the purists will argue otherwise, is always in a state of flux, both in its beliefs and application in practice

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Looking back at the historical context in which Islam first came to Java and was accepted by the people may well give clues as to the religion’s future direction on the island. But even if not, it still makes for a great story and one worth telling.

Maulana Malik Ibrahim

Maulana Malik Ibrahim
Maulana Malik Ibrahim

In this post, we meet the earliest and foremost of the nine walis – the mysterious Maulana Malik Ibrahim, also known as Syekh Magribi. His tomb is located outside the city of Gresik in north-east Java. The port city of Gresik itself was, according to Chinese records, founded by Chinese traders in 14th century and quickly became a major centre of regional trade. His origins are unknown, with Gujarat, Turkey or Persia being the most popular guesses.

Maulana Malik Ibrahim is generally regarded as Java’s first Islamic missionary and the father of the Walisongo. He is also credited with building the first pesantren or religious school on Java. But it is his affinity with Sufism that is perhaps his most important legacy.

Sufis eschew the strict formalism of Islam, seeking instead a more personal union with their God, through individual meditation, fasting, song and dance. Sufis gathered into groups or orders called tariqa (in Arabic, ‘the path’), with a shaykh or teacher at the head. The shaykh could often trace a lineage back to the founder of the order and beyond, sometimes back to the Prophet himself.

However, through history, Sufi orders have had a mixed relationship with mainstream Islam. Early Sufis, claiming mystical union with Allah, were often misunderstood as claiming equality with the Divine, and subsequently put to death. For instance, the 9th century AD mystic al-Hallaj was executed because he was said to have claimed self-identification with God:

If you do not recognize God, at least recognize His signs. I am that sign, I am the creative Truth because through the Truth I am a truth eternally….

Other Sufis took this pursuit of mystical union with the Divine to the extreme, substituting Allah with a universal concept of “Truth”, thereby ceasing to be Muslims at all in the generally accepted sense.

Sufism’s great contribution to the spread of Islam was their ability to accommodate the religion within the existing traditions and cultures of non-Muslim societies. Sufis have been described as Islam’s great missionaries, carrying the religion to the far-flung extremities of the Islamic world – from the deserts of Saharan Africa and the steppes of Central Asia to the sun-drenched islands of Southeast Asia. De-emphasising Islamic rituals like daily prayer, alms-giving and fasting, but focussing instead on the personal quest for meaning and spirituality, the religion presented itself to non-believers in a far more attractive light.

The stories tell us that when Maulana Malik Ibrahim arrived in Gresik, the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire still held sway in east Java. However, the empire was riven by civil wars and the people were in deep suffering. The wise man recognized that aggressive preaching of Islam would have little impact on a society so steeped in history and tradition. The nobility and justice of Islam would have to be displayed by other means.

Leading by example, Maulana Malik Ibrahim spoke softly to the people and without arrogance. He gave alms to the poor, showed due deference to elders and extended a hand of friendship to the youth. In this way, little by little, the people of Gresik were drawn to the teachings of Islam. The stories make it clear that the majority of Malik Ibrahim’s converts were common folk, from the lowest strata of Majapahit’s Hinduised society. Members of the priestly Brahman caste were uninterested in this new religion.

According to his tombstone, Maulana Malik Ibrahim passed away in 1419 AD. But the nascent Muslim community that he had created continued to grow and prosper, thanks largely to another wali that continued his Islamising work – Sunan Ampel.

Sunan Ampel & Demak

Sunan Ampel who worked to spread Islam around Java in the late 1400s and early 1500s
Sunan Ampel

Legend has it that Sunan Ampel was a member of Majapahit nobility whose original name was Raden Rahmat. According to this legend, his mother was a princess from Champa (a kingdom in Indochina) who was married to one of King Kertawijaya’s brothers. The king granted him lordship over a small region known as Ampel, in what is now modern-day Surabaya

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Drawing on financial support from foreign Muslim traders already living in north Java’s pasisir cities, Sunan Ampel strengthened the local Muslim community around a new mosque and pesantren. A mosque in the Ampel area still bears his name, though much renovated and expanded from his time. The Middle-Eastern looking faces of many of today’s Ampel locals bear witness to Islam’s origins in this region.

Sunan Ampel followed in the footsteps of Maulana Malik Ibrahim by speaking to the local populace in terms they could understand, recasting existing Javanese myths and legends in an Islamic mould. The passivity and conciliatory nature of his teachings continued to reflect his own Sufi tendencies. He also sent out missionaries to spread the faith further afield.

But not all was well. It is said that Sunan Ampel’s aunt, consort to king Kertawijaya and a Muslim convert, managed to convince the king to accept this new religion, sparking outrage amongst Majapahit nobility and priestly castes. They rose up in defiance and in the ensuing rebellion, the Kertawijaya was killed. This triggered a new wave of political instability which would wrack Majapahit for decades.

Lest he and his community be destroyed, Sunan Ampel sought to have missionaries in every province of Majapahit – said to number nine, at the time – so he intructed eight other Sufi masters for this task. And so the Council of Nine was created.

Having lost Kertwijaya’s protection, Sunan Ampel feared for his community in Ampel. His fears were exacerbated by the fact that Trowulan, the Majapahit capital, was only a couple of days’ march to the south. As such, he sought to move his main base of operations to another city, perhaps Giri (to the east), or Demak (to the west), both of which now also had large Muslim followings and even a small military force to offer some protection. Ultimately, Sunan Ampel decided that Giri was still too close to Trowulan for comfort and moved the centre of his activities to Demak.

Silting over the centuries means that Demak is today several miles from the sea. But in the days of Sunan Ampel, it was one of the largest sea ports on the north coast of central Java. The city’s origins are mysterious, but there is evidence to indicate that it was founded in the late 15th century by Chinese Muslims, perhaps by a man called Cek-Ko-po.

Raden Fatah (sometimes called “Patah”), son of the murdered King Kertawijaya by a Chinese wife (and Sunan Ampel’s son-in-law) founded the Muslim sultanate of Demak in around 1478 AD. Whether he is the same person as “Jin Bun” as mentioned in old documents known as The Malay Annals of Semarang and Cirebon is uncertain. It was around this time that the city’s famous multi-tiered mosque was built.

Though the centre of missionary activities had shifted to Demak after 1478 AD, Sunan Ampel himself remained in Ampel until his death in 1481 AD.

Demak – The new centre of Islamic power

Sunan Ampel had been instrumental in helping establish Muslims as an influential power in the port cities of Java’s north coast, giving them economic clout beyond their numbers. He had also been the driving force behind the recruitment and training of missionaries (two of his own sons themselves became walis, Sunan Bonang and Sunan Drajat).

A subsequent king of Demak, known as Trenggono (who appears to have ruled twice c.1505-18 and c.1521-46), grandson of Raden Fatah, seems to have led Demak on a series of conquests. Later Javanese court chronicles describe the conquests in various ways, but all show concern to demonstrate Demak as the heir to the legitimacy of Majapahit (even though the Majapahit dynasty may have already vanished). By this time, the centre of Majapahit had been shifted from Trowulan to Kediri, which finally falls to Demak in 1527 AD.

Though small Hindu kingdoms remained in the eastern extremity of Java, 1527 AD is now symbolically seen as the year when the Hindu-Buddhist period of Java’s history ends, succeeded by the age of Islam. The flight of Majapahit’s Hindu intelligentsia to Bali reached its nadir, ensuring that Java’s Hindu-Buddhist core though exiled, remained alive, albeit in a slightly evolved form.

During the next decades, Demak brought more and more port cities, principalities and kingdoms under its sway. In 1543 AD Mt Penanggungan (a Hindu holy place) was occupied. In 1545 AD Malang was taken. But during an expedition against Panarukan in 1546 AD, Sultan Trenggono was apparently murdered.

Demak’s authority probably did not extend to centralized control and administration of the other states, but was probably based around an alliance or recognition of Demak’s senior position within a loose federation. Demak’s domination of east Java did not long survive this period – by this time there were other Muslim kingdoms that were coming to the fore – specifically, Kudus to the west – but it was clear that the battle for control of the island was now between Muslim kingdoms, rather than between Muslim and Hindu-Buddhist ones.

It is a small irony of history that eventual control of Java, sought by every Javan monarch since the mythic days of Gajah Mada’s Majapahit would not fall to a Javan at all, but rather a race of people from the other side of the world – the Dutch.

Further information on the Walisongo

I have only given a brief introduction to the history of the Walisongo and two of the most famous walis – Maulana Malik Ibrahim and Sunan Ampel. There are many more fascinating stories to be told about the other walis.

There are several excellent online sources of information for those interested in finding out more about Java’s Muslim saints.


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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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