Inclusivity, Tolerance and the Golden Age of Islam

To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.

Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.

Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.

Tomb of a Sufi Chief

In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.

One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.

This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.

Islamic Spain Agricultural Scene

A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.

Rumi showing his love for his disciples

These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.

Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Al-Wasiti Discussion

Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.

Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.

Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.

From the book “The Birth of Iskandar”

A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.

Bowl of Reflections, Early 13th Century

In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.

Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.

Meeting of Rumi and Molla Shams Al-Din

Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.

Mevlana Museum

Spread of Islam and Introduction to the Javanese Philosophy

The history of the arrival and spread of Islam in Indonesia is a little unclear despite it being one of the most significant developments in Indonesian history as there are many competing theories and only fragmentary historical evidence. One theory states it arrived directly from Arabia before the 9th century, while another credits Sufi merchants and preachers for bringing Islam to Indonesian islands in the 12th or 13th century either from Gujarat, India or directly from the Middle East. 

Masjid Ageng Surakarta, photo taken between 1910 – 1930

Nevertheless, a clear turning point occurred when the Hindu empire Majapahit in Java fell to the Islamised Demak Sultanate. In 1527, the Muslim ruler renamed newly conquered Sunda Kelapa as Jayakarta (meaning “precious victory”) which was eventually contracted to Jakarta, the current capital city of Indonesia. 

 Islam is thought to have been present in Southeast Asia from early in the Islamic era. From the time of the third caliph of Islam, Uthman (644-656), Muslim emissaries and merchants were arriving in China who would have passed through Indonesia sea routes from the Islamic world. It would have been through this contact that Arabic emissaries between 904 and the mid-12th century are thought to have become involved in the Sumatran trading state of Srivijaya.


Believers on their way to the mosque, between 1925 and 1948

The most reliable evidence of the early spread of Islam in Indonesia comes from inscriptions on tombstones and a limited number of travellers’ accounts. The earliest legibly inscribed tombstone is dated AH 475 (1082 CE), although as it belongs to a non-Indonesian Muslim, there is doubt as to whether it was transported to Java at a later time.

An early Muslim gravestone dated AH 822 (1419 CE) has been found at Gresik an East Javanese port and marks the burial of Malik Ibrahim. As it appears that he was non-Javanese foreigner, the gravestone does not provide evidence of coastal Javanese conversion. Malik Ibrahim was, however, according to Javanese tradition one of the first nine apostles of Islam in Java (the Wali Songo) although no documentary evidence exists for this tradition.

It was largely due to the Walisongo that in the period of 40–50 years, Islam was widespread in Java, whereas before it was very difficult to develop.

Javanese Mosque between 1890 and 1920

Equality

Until the early Demak era, society was divided into two major groups: Gusti, people who live in the palace and Kawula, people who live outside the palace. Gusti means “master”, Kawula means “servants”. Kawula only have the right to lease, not the right of ownership, because the right of ownership only belonged to the people with the social status of Gusti. In the era of Majapahit, all property is owned by the palace (state, or nation, or the kingdom).

Walisongo, especially Sheikh Siti Jenar and Sunan Kalijaga, created a new perspective in the cultural and society structure. They introduce the new community structure which is so-called “Masyarakat”, derived from the Arabic term of Musharaka, which means a community of equal and mutual cooperation. We know this because the term “masyarakat” and “rakyat” are missing in the Javanese Kawi vocabulary, indicating that the term was brought in later by Walisongo.

Following this was a change of mindset. Gusti referred to themselves as: intahulun, kulun or ingsun, while Kawula referred to themselves as kula or kawula. Walisongo changes all those designation which indicates the meaning of servants, and replaced it with the term of ingsun, aku, kulun, or awak, and other designations that do not represent the identity of slaves or persons with lower social status. In present days, the term of kula, ambo, abdi, hamba, sahaya or saya, are still being used for the purpose of showing respect toward others, such as while speaking toward someone older, parents, strangers and so on.

Masjid in Kampung Arab (Arab Village) in Semarang, c. 1930

Humility

The Javanese in the era of Majapahit were notoriously arrogant. Their principle of life is Adigang Adigung Adiguna (“superior in power, authority, and knowledge”). According to the testimony of scholar Antonio Pigafetta, there’s no one is as arrogant exceed the Javanese. If they were walking, and there’s also people from another nation who walk at a higher place, they will be ordered to get down. and if they refuse, they will be killed. That was the character of the Javanese at the time. So in old Javanese Kawi, there’s no word for kalah (“lose”). If someone at odds with others, then there is only “win” or “dead”. As Ma Huan noted, in Chao-wa (Java) if a man touches their head with his hand, or if there is a misunderstanding about money at a sale, or a battle of words when they are crazy with drunkenness, they at once pull out their knives and stab [each other]. He who is stronger prevails.

Another evidence of the arrogance of the Javanese is represented during the time when envoys from China (Meng Xi) came in order to deliver a message from their king (Kubilai Khan) to the king of Singasari (Kertanegara). The message ordered Kertanegara to submit toward their kingdom. And in return, Meng Xi (the Chinese envoy) had his ears cut off, humiliated, and sent back to China by Kertanegara.

Walisongo then developed term ngalah (which comes from “NgAllah”). It comes from the Javanese prefix “Ng” which means toward (a purpose, and or destination), for example: ng-alas (toward the forest), ng-awang (toward the clouds), and Ng-Allah means toward Allah (tawakkul – from the Arabic language, it is the word for the Islamic concept of reliance on God or “trusting in God’s plan”), the word “ngalah” itself was then used by the Javanese as an expression in avoiding conflict.

Mosque, Indonesia between 1900 and 1940

Rituals

The Walisongo saw that Hinduism and Buddhism actually were only embraced by the Gusti society inside the palaces. The common religion that generally embraced by the general population outside the palace is Kapitayan, a religion whose devotee toward Sang Hyang Taya. Taya means suwung (“empty”). the god of Kapitayan is abstract and indescribably. Sang Hyang Taya is defined simply as tan keno kinaya ngapa, it cannot be seen, thought, nor imagined. And the might of Sang Hyang Taya can be seen in various places, such as in stone, monument, trees and in many other places in this world. Therefore, the ancient Javanese make their offerings over those places as their devotion toward Sang Hyang Taya. A similar concept of Brahman is found in Hinduism.

These Kapitayan’s religious values was then adopted by the Walisongo in spreading Islam toward the regions as the concept of tawhid in Kapitayan is very similar to the concept of tawhid in Islam. the term of Tan keno kinaya ngapa in Kapitayan (“can’t be seen, can’t be thought, can’t be imagined, He is beyond everything”), have a similar meaning as laisa kamitslihi syai’un in Islam (“There is nothing like unto Him” – Qur’an Surah Ash-Syura chapter 42 verse 11).

Walisongo also use the term Sembahyang (sembah (worship)+ Hyang (god), thus worshipping Sang Hyang Taya in Kapitayan) in introducing the term of Shalat in Islam. There’s also a ritual in form of not eating from morning up until night in Kapitayan, which is called as Upawasa (Puasa, “fasting”). Incidentally, the ritual of fasting in Hinduism is also called “Upawasa” or “Upavasa”. Instead of using the term of fasting in Islam, Walisongo used the term of Puasa or Upawasa from the Kapitayan in describing the ritual. The term of Poso Dino Pitu in Kapitayan whose means fasting on the day of the second and the fifth day in which is equal to seven days of fasting, is very similar with the form of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays in Islam. The Tradition of Tumpengan of Kapitayan was also being kept by the Walisongo under the Islamic perspective as known as Sedekah (from Sadaqah which, in the modern context, has come to signify “voluntary charity”. According to the Quran, the word means voluntary offering, whose amount is at the will of the “benefactor”.)

Nasi Tumpeng.jpg
Tumpeng. The big plate generally set in the middle of a celebration.

At the time of Majapahit, there is a ceremony which is called as Sraddha, a ceremony that being held 12 years after a person’s death. There is a time in the Majapahit history, a poet namely Mpu Tanakung, composed the Kidung of Banawa Sekar Sekar (The Ballad of Flowers Boat), to describe how the ceremony was carried out with full opulence and grandeur. This tradition was then called by society around the lakes and beach with the term Sadran or Nyadran (derived from the word Sraddha). Walisongo who derived from Champa also brought religious traditions, such as ceremonies for 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, 10 days, and 1000 days after someone’s death. This is not a native Javanese tradition, nor the Hindu tradition. In the books of Tradition of Champa, such tradition has already exists since a very long time ago.

Another example of the teaching of Walisongo is Slametan which is developed by Sunan Bonang. In the Tantric religion embraced by kings of Nusantara archipelago, there’s a sect in that Tantric religion which is called the Bhairawa Tantra sect that worships the Goddess of Earth, Durga and Kali. They have a rituals where they were creating a circle called Ksetra.

Kasuyatan Mosque, between 1915 and 1926

At Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta, there is a statue of a character named Adityawarman height of three meters and stands on a pile of skulls. He is the priest of the Bhairawa Tantra, the one who performed the teaching of malima. He was inaugurated and then became the Bhairawa priest carrying the title of Wisesa Dharani, the ruler of the earth. The statue described that he sat on a pile of hundreds of corpses, drinking blood, and laughing uproariously.

Witnessing such situation, Sunan Bonang created a similar event. He entered the center of Bhairawa Tantra in Kediri. During his travels in Kediri, he stayed in the west of the river, in the village of Singkal Nganjuk. There he held a similar ceremony, made the similar circle, but much more subdued. Food were put in the center of the circle and then they pray together. This is called Slametan, a ceremonial meal prepared to maintain a balanced relationship between the natural and supernatural forces.. Therefore, Sunan Bonang was also known as Sunan Wadat Cakrawati, as the leader or imam of Chakra Iswara (Cakreswara).

Mosque in Surabaya between 1900 – 1940