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Enduring Forms

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In 1986, the religious complex in Kudus became a site of controversy regarding the nature of one of its major elements:

[T]he Islamic community of Central Java was seriously offended by a research report of a team of architects. The report indicated that the Menara Kudus (Kudus Tower), a monument reputedly built in the seventeenth century and recognized popularly as a symbol of Islam, was originally a Hindu-Javanese monument. In response to this disquiet, the architects who were involved in the research quickly explained that the focus of their research was the architectural form (the stylistic expression), and this formal architectural analysis had nothing to do with the history, politics, or the rituals surrounding the monuments (Kusno, The Appearances of Memory, 209).

The difference of opinion involved in this episode is a venue to think about forms as carriers of historical meaning. Irrespective of siding between the architects and the community, drawing out the logic that underlies the two sides helps us to understand the richness of the site at Kudus and presumptions pertinent for evaluating material culture associated with Islam.

Menara Kudus

The minaret is a tall red-brick structure that looms over the landscape. Steep steps on the outside (on the facade not facing the street) take one up to a doorway at about three-quarters height, where the structure’s inward tapering comes to an end. Going further up, the structure flares out, containing an inner enclosure, with further stairs that lead up to a wooden room at the top that is open on the sides and contains the gong used to call people to prayer in Javanese mosques.

The top has a large clock as well such that, somewhat unusually, the minaret does double duty as a clock tower. The monument’s decorative elements consist of brickwork and small blue tiles on the sides that are said to be of Cham origin. The Cham are a Southeast Asian group, now spread through Cambodia and Vietnam, who are known to have become Muslim as early as the eleventh century. The structure is topped by a three-tier roof common to many ceremonial buildings in Java, including the great mosque of Demak discussed in a different section of this chapter.

The architects’ claim that this monument had Hindu-Javanese origins reflects a comparative judgment regarding forms. The minaret’s shape resembles Javanese buildings known to have existed before the development of Muslim communities. The point about forms will seem reasonable from even a cursory look at ruins at places such as Trowulan, East Java, associated with the Majapahit empire that flourished between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The architects’ point was to suggest that, based on looking at the form, the minaret is a monument that reveals a temporal boundary in the past.

The architects’ calling the minaret Hindu-Buddhist conveys a fixed relationship between the physical form and socioreligious identity. The architects’ judgment followed from a knowledge regime of colonial origins that was heavily invested in such identifications between materiality and forms. And, in turn, this was a matter deeply connected to understanding history in the timeline mode. Javanese buildings that have “Hindu” forms are placed chronologically before those with “Islamic” forms. By this token, the inventory of Java’s material culture acts as a guarantee for a positivist account of the island’s history. The Hindu-Buddhist identification was crucial for colonial discourses since that proved that the Muslims who predominated in modern Java were not the island’s “original” inhabitants. Their displacement by Dutch colonial authorities was therefore not to be seen as a moral problem.

The Muslim community’s objection to the architects’ report pinpoints an issue more substantive than the sense of communal injury. In political circumstances where religious identity is contested between Muslims and non-Muslims, the architectural judgment becomes seen as an effort to delegitimize the community’s sense of belonging to the land. Given that the monument has been known as a prominent signifier of Islam on the landscape for centuries, how can it be called Hindu? The minaret’s presence challenges the premise underlying architectural historians’ effort to equate between forms and identities in religious contexts. Understood as an innocent effect resulting from certain epistemological presumptions, calling the minaret Hindu falsifies the historical narrative about Java that sees history as a clear sequence from Hindu to Muslim, written, quite literally, in stone.

Irrespective of our opinion regarding the minaret’s identity, the minaret’s form is a complicated matter. Beyond this monument, we can be sure that the Javanese community that objected to the minaret being called Hindu-Buddhist has its own investments in seeing certain forms as being Islamic over others. In Indonesia and elsewhere, debates on whether a given form is Islamic or not have been a staple of public discussion for centuries. Also, architectural and decorative patterns identified as Islamic are copied all over the world, sometimes for purposes of proclaiming identity and at other times for creating an aura meant to refer to times and places associated with Muslims, with the aim of connoting luxury and orientalist exoticism.

Adopting elements such as stylistically distinctive domes is also an invocation of the past for present purposes. For example, the Masjid Istiqlal, which is a kind of Indonesian national mosque in Jakarta completed in 1978, has a large dome incorporated into a box design without structural necessity. The dome in this instance is solely a formal marker of modern transspatial and transhistorical affiliation with Islam outside Java’s own centuries-long Islamic traditions visible in buildings, such as the Demak mosque I discuss in the “Spacetimes” section in this chapter.

These observations suggest that the community critical of the architects’ report would likely not forsake all possibilities that connect forms to socioreligious identity. The anomalous situation in the case of the Kudus minaret is that a monument that is Islamic in the community’s view of its past turns out to be distinctively un-Islamic when seen in the perspective enshrined in modern architectural history. The situation is especially charged because of the minaret’s prominence as the symbol of both the local community as well as modern Indonesia. It is among the very few monuments to have been featured in a medium as central to national identity as the country’s currency.

All the forms that we might today associate with Islam are traceable to non-Islamic contexts. Forms identified with Islam can shed their Islamicness and acquire new coordinates in other contexts. Old forms can also become vessels for new ideas, indexing processes of change and transformation.

Ambiguities pertaining to architectural and other forms are a resource to consider the pluriform nature of nodes we can posit and explore when considering Islamic history as a web. For my purposes, the most important thing about the Kudus minaret is that it compels us to think about form as simultaneously authoritative and changeable. A monument that looks Hindu but marks Islam indicates that forms do not bind to permanent ideological investments.

All the forms that we might today associate with Islam are traceable to non-Islamic contexts and have become Islamic through particular historical processes. Forms identified with Islam in a given context can shed their Islamicness and acquire new coordinates in other contexts. In the longue durée, forms can explain diachronic continuities such as the proliferation of architectural patterns across regions with Muslim populations. Old forms can also become vessels for new ideas, indexing processes of change and transformation. Forms also signify processes of authorization and exclusion, as we can see in the disquiet caused by the architectural report in Kudus.

Ultimately, what matters here is that the minaret is neither Hindu nor Muslim as such. Its interpretation depends on the viewpoint from which it is being seen, but such viewpoints are perennially embedded in larger narratives pertaining to identity and authority that themselves contain extensive investments in symbolic interpretation of forms. Placed in the discussion of history, the focus on forms helps us to see the constant interplay between materiality and human agency. Physical objects created in the past signify senses of the present and the future. The solidity of their forms is both a limit and an invitation to reinterpretation in the context of narrating the past.

Aerial view of Jerusalem with the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock clearly visible in the center flanked by a city on the left and trees on the right.

An aerial view of the sacred district in Jerusalem (2013).


Wikimedia, Godot13, 2013 (CC BY 4.0)


Enduring Forms

Jerusalems and their Monuments

Evidence pertaining to Islam as a historical phenomenon consists of entrances to a vast web of nodes that we can explore through thematization along numerous axes. This approach invites us to consider Islamic history as a creative enterprise whose expansive potential matches the immense diversity of ideas, places, practices, forms, and so on, which we have reason to connect to Islam as imagined by Muslims and non-Muslims. I use the city of Kudus in Java as a doorway into the web, but it is possible to do the very same with any other form of evidence. Most notably, I could equally choose the city of Jerusalem in the Middle East as its point of reference.

Much like Kudus, Jerusalem is perceived to have an enduring connection to the establishment of Islamic communities in the region where it is situated. However, the particulars of the city’s placement in this context vary greatly based on the timespace configuration we use to consider it. In a theologically driven Muslim model, the city is the first qibla, the direction in which prayers are offered, also coming under the control of Muslim rulers shortly after Muhammad’s death. The association with origins has made the city a site for pilgrimage and settlement for centuries.

The city’s Islamic association looks quite different when seen from the view of Christians and Jews, whose sacred sites also dot the city’s most celebrated precinct. Much as the multiplicity of Muslims’ views on Jerusalem, those of others vary radically as well, say between those alive during the first Muslim conquest, Crusaders arriving from Europe, Jewish communities invested in remaining in the land of Israel before the twentieth century, and the secular Zionists who founded the modern state of Israel. Jerusalem as an Islamic place can be explored through pursuing any number of different leads in this sphere. In a similar vein, we can delve into interconnected lives, events and their aftereffects, and implications contained within architectural forms present in Jerusalem in a plethora of ways.

The temporal relationships between Kudus and Jerusalem, and Sunan Kudus and charismatic religious authority, is familiarly Islamic, although I am suggesting that their presumed directions should be reversed from the way matters are usually presented. This issue acquires greater complexity when we move to the famous minaret of Kudus. Now the form of the physical evidence challenges our presumptions about Islamic authenticity. The multiple possibilities for how the minaret should be interpreted then become a critical resource for thinking about temporality.

Although the minaret has existed since the sixteenth century CE, its Hindu-Buddhist character has been an issue only since it became subject to modern art historical scrutiny in the nineteenth century. For the building’s users before this time, its function as a minaret seems to have sufficed as adequate explanation for its existence, without the necessity of putting it into religiously identified temporal schemes.

I do not mean to suggest that inhabitants of Kudus until the nineteenth century did not possess senses of time and history. A plethora of other evidence (including some covered in other sections in this chapter) indicates that the past certainly carried weight as a source of authority. But the form of the minaret seems not to have been a point of particular attention or criticism within the construction of time that mattered. This could not be the case for modern art historians of Southeast Asia and modern states. For such experts and entities, it is imperative to contextualize physical evidence by plotting it on the presumed transition from a Hindu-Buddhist milieu to Islamic hegemony whose causal chain must be materially visible.

The Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic sequence is necessitated by the timeline view of past in which the minaret of Kudus is an especially valuable piece of evidence since it signifies a highly consequential temporal transition. Although valuable, the minaret is a conundrum from the art historical perspective since it is a liminal object that invites multiple possibilities of interpretation. The minaret’s temporal liminality is also of great political value to the modern Indonesian state invested in a multireligious imagination of the nation. This accounts for the minaret making an appearance on Indonesian currency in 1986, under the aegis of an avowedly secular national government.

Seen from the viewpoint of imagining Islamic history as a web rather than a timeline, all types of evidence pertaining to the instantiation of Islam in space and time can be subjected to the type of unpacking of Kudus and its minaret and mosque that is presented in this chapter. A web works well as a trope because it allows, and encourages, multitemporal understandings. These, in turn, provide better access to the ever-changing human worlds that have been connected to materials available for adjudication. The web is an apt representation also because, unlike the line, it is three-dimensional, pluriform, and malleable. Constructions of time that we can observe in Islamic materials are marked by overlaps, contestation, leaps, and continual invention.

Islamic history is a web made of nodes such as Kudus and Jerusalem and any number of other entities whose temporal dimensions we can explore. A Jerusalem in Java, whose meaning is constantly evolving, indicates the role of contingency in the way human actors make the past usable for present circumstances. The histories of these pasts, chartable through attention to changing discourses, index the open-endedness of processes for creating narratives for present needs. Seen via Kudus, Islamic history is nonexclusivist, contested, and variable in the evaluation of facts and interpretations. An entangled, three-dimensional web is thus a more befitting trope to represent the Islamic past than the timeline that underwrites positivist historiography. Just as with Kudus, all the themes I explore in other chapters of this book aim to draw out further the implications of advocating using this trope to represent Islamic history.

Related Sections in Other Chapters