Section Icon


Copied to clipboard!

The idea that time and space are connected categories is a commonplace aspect of experience. This manifests obviously in the way the two are expressed as each other. Instances of time can be termed “close” or “distant,” and distances between faraway spaces are measured in “lightyears.” Analytical appreciation of this codependence has been the subject of extensive scholarship. The kind of problematization of time reflected in this book has a parallel life in critical thinking on space where it is understood as being always under construction through human interactions. The term spacetime is a way to approach the two elements in an amalgamated way.

Exploring spacetime as an element in the web of history requires attention to narratives. In this section I present two strikingly different representations of Java that allow us to see the significance of embedded projections in spacetime conjunctions. The first is an account by Tomé Pires (d. 1524 or 1540), a Portuguese apothecary and official who visited Java in the early sixteenth century. Pires’s Suma Oriental is the earliest known work to comment on Muslims being a major presence in Java. The second is an anonymous Javanese chronicle in verse entitled Babad Jaka Tingkir composed circa 1850. This work reflects long-standing local traditions about Islamic origins on the island from an internal Muslim perspective. I focus especially on the Babad’s account of the construction of the great mosque of Demak, a moment in time that the work treats as definitive for Java becoming an Islamic space.

Moors in Java

In the wake of Vasco da Gama (d. 1524) landing in India in 1498, the early sixteenth century was a heady period for Portuguese imperial ambitions in Asia. While not counted among famous explorers working for the crown, Tomé Pires has a major place in this Portuguese story for being the author of an account that relates geographical, historical, and commercial information about lands lying between East Africa and Southeast Asia. Given the societies and networks that mattered in this region, it is no surprise that Moors and Mohammedans (not Muslims) figure prominently in the narrative.

Pires’s Iberian background is a strong presence in the narrative, grafted into descriptions of peoples he describes in Asia. In the work’s foreword, he praises the Portuguese king Manuel I (d. 1521), his addressee, for subjugating kingdoms “at the heart of Moorish dominions” and spending generously to exalt the Catholic faith by “bringing such humiliation, loss and damage to the false diabolic opinion of the abominable, ignominious, false Mohammed, the head of all the vain Moorish religion” (Pires, Suma Oriental, 1, 2). Telegraphing religiopolitical dynamics internal to Iberia, groups identified as Moors and Mohammedans retain their status as familiar enemies as Pires moves across the globe in the narrative.

Pires’s account traverses geography from west to east, beginning in Egypt and East Africa and continuing until China. While parts concerned with the Middle East and South Asia contain many points of interest, I will skip over these for the moment to remain focused on Java. His description of the island provides the following historical explanation for the past that preceded the local conditions he encountered circa 1512–1515:

At the time when there were heathens along the sea coast of Java, many merchants used to come, Parsees, Arabs, Gujaratees, Bengalees, Malays and other nationalities, there being many Moors among them. They began to trade in the country and to grow rich. They succeeded in a way of making mosques, and mollahs came from outside, so that they came in such growing numbers that the sons of these said Moors were already Javanese and rich, for they had been in these parts for about seventy years. In some places the heathen Javanese lords themselves turned Mohammedan, and these mollahs and the merchant Moors took possession of these places. Others had a way of fortifying the places where they lived, and they took people of their own who sailed in their junks, and they killed the Javanese lords; and in this way they made themselves masters of the sea coast and took over trade and power in Java.

These lord pates are not Javanese of long standing in the country, but they are descended from Chinese, from Parsees and Kling, and from the nations we have already mentioned. However, brought up among the bragging Javanese, and still more on account of the riches they have inherited from their antecessors, these men made themselves more important in Javanese nobility and state than those of the hinterland; and each of them is reverenced in his land as though he were something much greater (Pires, Suma Oriental, 182).

Pires’s account highlights heterogeneity when it comes to the Muslim elites of Java in the early sixteenth century. They are a mixture of locals and a variety of descendants of peoples arriving from the Middle East and South Asia. Their relation to Islam is also diverse, ranging between conversion and descent, although all are acculturated to local patterns in habits and political attitudes.

Inferring from the quotation above, Pires understands Java to be divided between the coast and the hinterland. In other parts of the work, he speaks of the “kings of Java,” who, however, “do not command, nor are they taken into account, but only the viceroy and chief captain, which each of them has; and the one who is ruling now in Java is Guste Pate, his viceroy and chief captain. This man is known and honoured like the [real] king” (175). Based in the hinterland, this viceroy is said to be in a state of constant war with the Moorish coastal lords, especially the ruler of Demak, the most prestigious and powerful among them. Pires identifies this man as Pate Rodim, a third-generation ruler who dominates in part through marriage alliances between the ruling families that control the coast (184–186).

At various points in the narrative, Pires assesses the Javanese’s temperament and moral attributes. He claims that the Javanese are haughty and proud by nature, whereas other peoples, such as the Malays, have the same attributes but only “by accident or art.” This extends especially to local elite women who “are so preposterous that they kill themselves with a kris if anything displeases them, and they sometimes kill their husbands; and it is a custom in Java for a woman to be searched before she goes to her husband, because they carry secret krises” (199). In descriptions such as these, Pires does not distinguish between the Moorish and non-Moorish Javanese, implying that the land imparts cultural attributes that dominate over aspects of behavior that may have other origins.

My concern here is not the informational content (which is significant) or its truth value but the spacetime characteristics of his representation. Three items are especially significant. First, his view of Muslims in Java (as much as any other place) he encounters is colored by presumptions he carries from his sense of Iberian religiopolitical dynamics. This makes the experienced time of the Catholic-Moorish contest in Iberia a kind of antecedent to Java, the temporal connection acting to collapse the distance between spaces geographically far apart.

Second, his explanation for Muslims’ presence in Java posits diverse origins. There is no founding figure or event, no extraordinary cause to bear the burden of explication. And third, while the Moors and Mohammedans he describes are a distinguishable group, they are also fully enculturated in the local environment. They contest control over land and resources with other powers, such as the king and his viceroy, Guste Pate, but even the ruler of Demak acknowledges the royal court as the definer of norms.

Becoming host to Muslims, Java seems to have absorbed their identity into itself rather than having been remade through the conversion of local peoples or the settlement of outsiders and their descendants. Specific evaluations of spacetime embedded within Pires’s understandings will be easier to see after considering a contrasting position.

The Recalcitrant Mosque

Nancy Florida’s book Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future: History as Prophecy in Colonial Java is among the finest scholarship to analyze a complex literary work claiming to represent the past. The book contains a translation and detailed analyses of the Javanese Babad Jaka Tingkir, an anonymous account in verse inscribed in the mid-nineteenth century but claiming to represent occurrences from the early sixteenth century. Although in a form recognizable as traditional, the work takes up a radical posture on its objective:

Rather than register a recuperation of past reality in the name of “objective truth” (as do many conventional master-narrative historical projects of the West), or a reinscription of the imagined pasts of dynastic presents with an eye to continuing traditional status quos (as do many of the more mainstream works of indigenous Javanese history), this text constructs an alternative past which, countering its oppressive colonial present, would move toward more autonomous, perhaps even liberating, futures (Florida, Writing the Past, 10).

The work accomplishes its task through its form and the episodes it chooses to narrate. Its title translates to The History of the Youth from Tingkir, ostensibly making it an account of Sultan Pajang (d. 1586), a figure well known in Javanese lore as the first Islamic king in the island’s interior and a precursor to the powerful Mataram sultanate (1587–1755). I say ostensibly because the sole surviving manuscript of the work, which stops midsentence, seemingly unfinished, takes us only to the point where the Youth from Tingkir (Jaka Tingkir) is a recently orphaned infant.

What the work provides is actually a prehistory of the hero, whose own exploits would have been known already to the Javanese audience likely to read the work. In Florida’s portrayal, the work’s inconclusiveness is prefigured in what the author says from the very beginning and is our clue to regard it as a narrative about the past attempting to imagine a future away from the colonial circumstances facing its author in nineteenth-century Dutch East Indies. The infant whose story is left dangling at the work’s end is both a past hero and the potential savior alive in the present who can transform the future.

The narrative of the Babad Jaka Tingkir consists of six loosely connected episodes about the past whose frames and contents both feed into the work’s purpose (Florida, Writing the Past, 285). The work’s seemingly disjointed surface is attributable in part to the fact that the author is relying on the audience’s prior knowledge to fill in the gaps. For the discerning reader, the work is meant to act as context for the already familiar text of the past. As a series, the episodes parallel Java’s transition from being ruled by the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire (1293 to c. 1500) to the predominance of the Muslim rulers of Demak.

The first two episodes are focused on the king of Majapahit and his descendants, while the main characters in the remaining four are identified as Muslims. In the work’s portrayal, the arrival of Islam in Java is incidental, as some members of the Majapahit ruling family are said to convert. But in the third episode, the establishment of Islamic rule and religious authority is given central billing through the extensive account of the construction of the great mosque of Demak. This episode provides the clearest picture of the work’s sense of Java as an Islamic spacetime, reflecting both Javanese Muslim self-understanding of origins in the nineteenth century and the author’s political aspirations for a future different from the present in which he or she was writing.

With all its symbolic significance as a place of Islamic origins in Java, the mosque of Demak is not datable based on the timeline model of the past. It lacks easily decipherable evidence, which modern historians have adjudicated by lamenting the absence of records or using generalized conjecture or approximation to elide the gap between internal evidence and Common Era homogenized time. If we resolve to bracket this paradigm, the evidence we have turns into a trove of possibilities connected to varying senses of the past associated with the monument.

Confusion regarding the mosque’s date of origins is rooted in the way scholars have interpreted elements found in the building and narratives as possible chronograms. The first point to be made here is the very notion of a chronogram, a practice widespread across the Middle East and Asia, according to which a date is encoded into text or image. For a date to deserve this requires that it be qualitatively extraordinary, marking a moment that stands apart from other moments before and after it. Dates made into chronograms are thus meant to be interruptive, defying the notion of homogeneous time by definition. To see a chronogram as a straightforward point of the data on a standardized calendar is to overlook an important piece of information.

Interpreters have attempted to date the mosque in Demak through reference to four mutually inconsistent chronograms. Three of these are “concealed,” meaning they are visual and the interpreter gets to a text by first figuring out the words to be used for what is seen. These involve the following: 1) dragons engraved on the mosque’s doors that may be read as 1466, 2) the image of a turtle on the wall of the mihrab that faces Mecca that may give 1479, and 3) the image of lightning also on the main doors that leads to 1506. The fourth is a textual chronogram that comes from a work entitled Babad Demak (Chronicle of Demak) that has been interpreted as 1407. As scholars familiar with chronograms have argued, the interpretations that lead to the various years are far from definitive, leading to a level of ambiguity that sits atop the fact that we are already unsure whether to place the origins in 1407, 1466, 1479, or 1506 (Wieringa, “A Monument Marking the Dawn of the Muslim Era in Java,” 168–174).

The Babad Jaka Tingkir provides an account of the mosque’s construction far apart from anodyne discussions of years on a calendrical scale. Here the mosque is treated as a pusaka or talisman whose coming into being transforms its surrounding land and is meant to condition Java’s future. In the narrative, the environs of Demak are said to have had a mosque already, though a bigger one is needed to mark the community’s expansion both numerically and in sociopolitical significance. Muslim elites of the region—both religious and political—gather to undertake the task under the leadership of Sunan Bonang. Those attending get classified into categories assigned different functions.

Eight premier religious guides (including Sunan Kudus) are made responsible for the four pillars of the central sanctuary, while lesser religious figures and kings and princes from all around are tasked with making pillars for the building’s peripheral parts as well as other elements of construction. All undertake the jobs assigned to them assiduously except for Sunan Kalijaga, one of the Wali Songo who is a maverick among the saints and is also called Sèh Malaya. When reprimanded by Sunan Bonang for dereliction of duty, Sunan Kalijaga compels leftover scraps of wood to congeal together into one of the four pillars of the main sanctuary.

Sunan Kalijaga’s signature miracle culminates the process of manufacturing materials for the mosque. After a bit of rest, the whole group works together to join the pieces to create the building. This narrative conveys not just the creation of a building but also the establishment of the whole social hierarchy associated with Javanese Islam. The living bodies that create the mosque in pieces and then assemble it are constructing a socioreligious edifice meant to mark a new present and future for the land. The self-consciously symbolic narrative we see in Babad Jaka Tingkir is a mid-nineteenth-century version of the community’s story of its own origins that had been in circulation for centuries.

As a monument central to Islamic religiopolitical identity, the Demak mosque bears comparison to the Ka’ba in Mecca. This aspect is dramatized in the narrative through the story of how the mosque is made to orient toward Mecca. The direction toward Arabia, required of mosques, proves challenging because authorities present on the scene differ in their views. After much discussion, the chief saints decide to take time out to meditate to find a solution to their dispute. This effort reveals the correct direction through spiritual intuition, which they then proceed to fix.

But now another problem arises in that the newly constructed mosque refuses to align in the right direction even though the Ka’ba has miraculously appeared on the scene and is in the saints’ field of vision. This leads Sunan Kalijaga (Sèh Malaya) to force the two buildings to acknowledge each other. The following is Florida’s translation of the narrative:

Condensed the world was tiny

And Mecca shone close by

Allah’s Ka’bah was nigh, manifest before them

To estimate its distance

But three miles off it loomed

The Celibate Lord did beckon

Sèh Malaya, ware to the subtle sign

Lord Sunan Kali rose to his feet

From north he did face south

One leg he did extend to side

Both legs did stretch forth

Long and tall, their stance astride

His right foot reaching Mecca came

Just outside the fence of Allah’s Ka’bah there

His left foot did remain behind

Planted to the northwest of the mosque

Allah’s Ka’bah did his right hand grasp

His left hand having taken hold

Of the uppermost peak of the mosque

Both of them he pulled

Stretched out and brought to meet

The Ka’bah’s roof and the peak of the mosque

Realized as one being were

Perfectly straight strictly on mark

All the great and mighty wali

Watched in exultant joy

Lord Sunan Bonang softly said:

“Little brother Sèh Malaya, now

‘Tis right beyond a doubt”

Sèh Malaya did a sembah make

Then his hands released

Allah’s Ka’bah and the mosque returned, each to its own place

Then Sèh Malaya sitting down

Before his elder brother made a sembah (Florida, Writing the Past, 167)

An instance of the manufacture of space, this evocative narrative accomplishes something seemingly ordinary in Islamic terms. After all, mosques around the world have been made to orient toward Mecca through geometric calculation for centuries. The special aspects here are that the invisible line that connects a mosque to Mecca becomes visible as the saints present in Java can see the Ka’ba, and Sunan Kalijaga must force both buildings to move to create the correct alignment. In the symbolic sense, then, the creation of the mosque in Demak changes the monument in Mecca as well.

The Demak mosque’s elaborate physical structure, meant to mirror and sacralize Java’s sociopolitical hierarchy in an Islamic vein, causes a shuffling of the original holy land. Constructing Demak in Mecca’s image—and Kudus in that of Jerusalem—the founders of the Muslim community in Java in the Babad Jaka Tingkir are responsible for a global rather than a local commotion. When we read this work as an anticolonial prophecy, as Florida suggests we should, the narrative contains a sixteenth-century past, with a presumed triumphalist future, that is to act as prescription for what can happen in Java in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Fluid Spacetimes

We can now briefly compare Pires and Babad Jaka Tingkir to draw out the significance of variation in spacetimes. While both these sources claim authoritative knowledge about the presence of Muslims in Java, their portrayals vary radically based on matters such as authorial background, purpose, and the desired effect on the presumed audience. These matters pertain to the works’ underlying conditions of possibility, which can, in turn, be seen to reflect the authors’ social and intellectual investments at the level of foundational cosmology. In Pires’s account, the story of Muslims in Java (and other places in Asia he visits) are a continuation of what he knows about Iberia. Muslims are Moors, wherever encountered, even though this term would likely mean little to the people he is describing. His narrative contains a kind of collapse between Java and Iberia that is, moreover, rooted in a temporal transposition.

In the Babad Jaka Tingkir, the account of Java is haunted not by the Iberian past but by the holy land in Arabia, to which symbolic buildings such as the Demak mosque must orient. But a foundational change in Java in this case affects Arabia as well, a directionality implausible in Pires’s perspective. Moreover, in the Babad, the mosque in Demak is a signature event for the establishment of Islam in Java, connected to specific persons and marking a qualitative break in the progression of local time.

[W]hen we attempt to glean informational content from sources about the Islamic past, it is crucial to begin by attending to spacetime armatures that condition the voices we read. Data about Islam cannot be treated as a single repository that may yield simple points of reference from which to make comparisons.

Pires’s account is devoid of a moment of origination and portrays the presence of Muslims as a gradually accumulating affair characterized by indigenization. The sense of a new beginning in the Babad renders Javanese Muslims into an exceptional community. Pires’s description is not invested in a clear division and portrays local Muslims and non-Muslims as adhering to the same cultural mores. This list of differences can be made much longer.

These examples indicate that when we attempt to glean informational content from sources about the Islamic past, it is crucial to begin by attending to spacetime armatures that condition the voices we read. Data about Islam cannot be treated as a single repository that may yield simple points of reference from which to make comparisons. Indeed, one might say that comparing Pires and Babad Jaka Tingkir to try to get to the origins of Islam in Java may be a misguided exercise.

These two sources’ radically different spacetime presumptions preclude any easy triangulation aimed at deriving a single, amalgamated story about Islamic beginnings in Java. Such a method requires discarding crucial aspects of the two narratives since they are nonsensical in each other’s terms. For example, Pires’s notes on the Javanese’s character traits are crucial for us to understand him but are meaningless in the Babad’s perspective. Similarly, the story of the recalcitrant mosque is irrelevant in Pires’s framework.

Once we become attentive to spacetime differences, the most efficacious approach to sources of the type I have discussed is to treat them as embodying independent streams of time. Such streams may intersect, but they are best evaluated through sensitivity to their internal presumptions rather than trying to get to basic common denominators. Differences of constitution between the sources is an absolute limit to our ability to know, although noting this is very far from proclaiming a historiographical failure. A sense of futility at this juncture follows only if we remain invested in a timeline model of Islamic history in which sources must feed into a unilinear model of the past. In the web model I am proposing, Pires, Babad Jaka Tingkir, and other sources embody spatiotemporal constructs whose variance is a major resource for creating ever richer accounts of the past.

Related Sections in Other Chapters