News | Tuesday, 6 December 2011 | sundanesecorner.org
Ms. Margaret Coffey of ABC Radio interviewed myself on the works of Haji Hasan Mustapa (ca. 1852-1930). One of the greatest Sundanese poets and writers, Mustapa finely reveals Islamic mysticism through Sundanese literary work, mainly in the form of dangding. The so-called dangding is a kind of traditional octosyllabic poetry that has its own rule of versification.
ABC Radio will air the talk in the ‘Encounter’ program on Sunday, 11 December, at 07.10 a.m. and will repeat it the following Wednesday, 14 December at 07.05 p.m. You can gain access to information of the program in more details by following this link: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/god-is3f-but-god-is-not3f/3706434
With kind permission of the producer, I reproduce here the transcription of the talk to be aired in the upcoming program:
God is…? But God is not…?
It matters what kind of God you believe in and in contemporary Indonesia the answers to these questions are worked out even in politics and public life.
Go to West Java, home to the Sundanese ethnic group, and you’ll find at play two strands of response to the question of who God is.
One is the legacy of an early 19th century scholar at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a man who never set foot in Indonesia, but whose book travelled there and is still in use in Indonesian schools. The other is the legacy of a Sundanese poet/preacher whose work is a remarkable repository of the Sundanese literary tradition.
Music: ‘Bubuka’, Tr 1. Classical Tembang Sunda, music from West Java. Celestial Harmonies 13134-2
Music: Extract from ‘Nembangkeun Karya Akbar Haji Hasan Mustapa’ (Reciting the Great Works of Haji Hasan Mustapa), held at Hotel Homann, Bandung, West Java, 30 June 1994.
Margaret Coffey: Did you know that forty million of Java’s population speak a distinct language that’s not Javanese and neither is it the national language Bahasa? It’s Sundanese, the language that belongs to the region of West Java, and you’re listening now to the work of one of its most famous literary and religious figures, the poet/preacher Haji Hasan Mustapa.
Hello I’m Margaret Coffey – with an Encounter that ranges over the history of Islam and its global reach to make some very contemporary connections.
Hawe Setiawan: Haji Hasan Mustapa was one of the greatest Sundanese writers and poets and we read from his work many things that are so important for the development of Indonesian culture I think. For instance the way he promotes Islamic values by means of Sundanese literature.
Margaret Coffey: That’s scholar of Sundanese literature Hawe Setiawan. At one end of this Encounter’s interests are figures like Hasan Mustapa who keep on speaking out of the past. Then there’s the significance of regional identity and language in amazingly culturally diverse Indonesia. And threading through all this there’s the way that Indonesian Muslims, along with Muslims elsewhere, understand and discuss just how God relates to each human being. Who God is, in fact.
Paul Heck: There are certain phrases that Muslims use that might suggest pre-determinism. And, you know, certainly there is something of that.
Margaret Coffey: Paul Heck has written of the common ground – amongst all the differences – between Christians and Muslims
Paul Heck: There is a statement, Inshallah – God wills it we’ll do that – right, and so you make an appointment with someone and you hear them say ‘Sure, Inshallah,’ and you are like are you going to be there or not, right. Well it’s his way of saying ‘yes, I’ll be there, but you know there is a possibility that God might intervene and I won’t be there, but you know, I’ll be there.’
Margaret Coffey: The idea of God implicit there goes back to a foundational Muslim idea of the sovereignty of God. Crucial debates in the early centuries of Islam – between two philosophically different schools, the Ash’arites and the Mutazilites, focussed on just what the sovereignty of God meant for human experience: how much room did it leave for human freedom? What conclusions could be drawn about the attributes of a transcendent, absolute God? A thousand years later – in the late 18th/early 19th centuries – those debates were alive in the mind of a theologian and writer in the Egyptian city of Cairo. He was a figure called:
Peter Riddell: Mohammad Al-Fadali al Shafi’i
Margaret Coffey: Peter Riddell is studying a text by this turn of the 18th century figure, a text that’s used today in pesantren, religious schools for primary and secondary aged children, all over Indonesia. It’s a catechism, a book describing the qualities and attributes of God – and Indonesian Muslims have been familiar with it for over a hundred years. It’s called:
Peter Riddell: Kifayat al-‘awam – literally means sufficiency for the common people – what is sufficient for the commoners.
Margaret Coffey: Who is the God it describes? We’ll come to that in a moment. But first, who was Al-Fadali?
Peter Riddell: He was a significant writer in the late 18th, early 19th centuries. He got a posting at Al-Azhar university – that in itself was significant because Al Azhar had been at that stage already arguably the most important centre of learning in the Arabic world for 800 years or so.
We’re talking here late 1800s and there was already a long tradition of Indonesian and Malay scholars or students going to the Middle East to study. Now with a work such as Al-Fadali’s being established in the Middle East in Cairo and by all accounts it was the standard text on basic principles of theology at Al-Azhar University for much of the first half of the 19th century, with Indonesian and Malay students going to study in that part of the world inevitably they came into contact with it. The first translation into Malay was done in the 1870s, 1878, by a scholar who had been to study in Mecca; it was republished in 2009 in Malaysia and continues to be an important text, point of reference, for students in Malaysia and equally it found its way to Indonesia but it has been translated into Indonesian. The copy that I have been looking at is a rendering from the 1990s. In its own foreword the work declares that it is one of the most popular books used in pesantrens across Indonesia.
Margaret Coffey: So what you are really describing there is a dynamic relationship that has been alive for a long time …it has continued and different influences continue to prevail.
Peter Riddell: Personally I find that this makes the whole study of religion per se fascinating because religions are dynamic things – they are not set in stone, they are not set in time. The relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia on the one hand and the Arab world, Mecca, Medina, Cairo, wherever, it continues to evolve, because in both places there are evolutions that take place in a local sense but they cross fertilise as well – and even more so in the modern day with modern communications. There’s two way communication going on. That’s why when I look at the translation into Indonesian of this work today, it is not just a translation of the original Arabic, it includes a commentary and the fact that it includes a modern commentary is a statement in itself, namely that the authors believe they have to contextualise the discussion in the original work and make it relevant for today.
Music: ‘Rajamantri‘ Tr 2. Classical Tembang Sunda, music from West Java. Celestial Harmonies 13134-2
Margaret Coffey: Just around the time Al-Fadali’s book describing the attributes of God was making its way from Cairo to Southeast Asia and Indonesia, Haji Hasan Mustapa was making his way home from Mecca, where he had been a student, to his home town in West Java.
Julian Millie: Hasan Mustapa, or more commonly known as Haji Hasan Mustapa, was born about 1852 in Garut which is one of the areas of the province of West Java, Indonesia, and it is in the area occupied by the Sundanese ethnic group – Indonesia has very many ethnic groups and the Sundanese are the second biggest after the Javanese of those ethnic groups. And what does that mean to say they are Sundanese – well the biggest manifest difference is language really. People who regard themselves as Sundanese speak the language of Sundanese, which distinguishes them from their Javanese brothers and sisters. At the same time though all Sundanese are also fluent speakers of Indonesian as well, the national language.
Margaret Coffey: Which is not Javanese.
Julian Millie: Which is not Javanese, no, that’s right. So we have this strong distinction between the national language, Indonesian, and a regional language such as Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese, Madurese and so on.
Margaret Coffey: And are they mutually intelligible? Could a Sundanese who is a non-Javanese speaker understand Javanese in any way?
Julian Millie: Well generally no, no. The exception is that a lot of people are mobile nowadays – so they might be brought up in Bandung, the capital city of West Java, but then spend a bit of time working say in Semarang or in Surabaya when they would be within a Javanese speaking milieu and in that sense they would have some understanding of Javanese. But really no they are not generally intelligible to members of the other ethnic groups.
Margaret Coffey: Dr Julian Millie teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Monash University. It’s not only language he says that distinguishes West Java from what’s referred to as Java.
Julian Millie: Each of the regions had traditional elites. They had families who occupied positions in authority structures that had obviously dated back a very long time. And the Sundanese had such a structure as well. In the Javanese areas these traditional elites maintained their authority throughout the colonial period and into the present as well, whereas that didn’t happen in West Java. None of the Sundanese local elites survived the independence period and they haven’t held any significant authority since Independence. And that has made a big difference particularly in the Islamic atmosphere if you like of these two ethnic groups.
The Sundanese people tend to have a more prominent sense of Islam in the public sphere than Java and a large part of that is because these traditional elites had their own concepts of charisma and of cosmological concepts which were all Islamic but in a ways that were very much inflected by this background, the long histories of these families of the Sultan and so forth. Whereas in West Java because there weren’t those centres of these traditional authorities with their conventional ideas of cosmology and so forth, Islam had I guess a more broader uptake in that part of the world than it did in Java. So you find quite often nowadays Islamic communities in West Java tend to be more pious perhaps, more ready to accept that the public sphere should be Islamic, in perhaps sometimes a literal way, than the communities in Java.
Margaret Coffey: Was it not also the crucible for important Islamic movements earlier in the 20th century?
Julian Millie: There have been a number in West Java. The one that is most prominent was the Darul Islam movement which was a rejection of the authority of the new republican government and it commenced in the late forties, which is the time Indonesia emerged as a independent nation and that movement achieved terrific support in a number of parts of West Java and the goal there was the establishment of an Islamic state for Indonesia, which didn’t come to fruition of course – it was a battle that was never going to be won. But it was terribly costly.
Margaret Coffey: So that’s the environment that formed Haji Hasan Mustapa, the poet and religious scholar who wrote these verses set to music….
Margaret Coffey: It’s in the form of a particular kind of tembang music [cianjuran]. [The style of recitation is called Kinanti Layar.] Thanks to Hawe Setiawan for this information and to Tito Ambyo for the recitation.
Music: Extract from ‘Nembangkeun Karya Akbar Haji Hasan Mustapa‘ (Reciting the Great Works of Haji Hasan Mustapa), held at Hotel Homann, Bandung, West Java, 30 June 1994.
Reading (by Tito Ambyo):
Kudu lawung pada lawung
sajajaran (da) pancakaki
gumelar lebah alamna
maju teuing mundur teuing
matak sarosopan rasa
pinggan diantep jeung piring
We must gather together
Making a single line of our genealogies
So that they move forward and then right back
In their right seasonal order
To produce a myriad sensations:
Flat plates are stacked with the curved bowls.
Julian Millie: He had a remarkable life. He was a member of a privileged class and he was able to obtain an education. So it would have consisted of studying with teachers from a very young age, doing courses in Islamic schools, called pesantren in Indonesia, not only in West Java but in Java. Still as a young man he was sent to Mecca and he ended up spending about thirteen years in Mecca in two stays. So that sort of in a way defined him because of course he became an alim or a religious authority as a result of that experience.
Margaret Coffey: There’s a long and complex story too of Mustapa’s connection with the Dutch colonial government – and his appointment via Dutch patronage as the head religious official in the West Java city of Bandung. But the key point here is the way Mustapa for all his Meccan studies connected with his own Sundanese culture and communicated that to his own people.
Julian Millie: Religious leaders like Mustapa also had a role as preachers and in that role of course they reached far larger audiences because these people would be invited to speak at all kinds of events – not just pedagogical ones, but if someone is being married then it is customary to invite a preacher to give a sermon at the celebration. Circumcisions are the same; various stages for example of the pregnancy are celebrated in this or that sort of way. So in that sense a preacher could reach quite large audiences at that time through his role as a person who is frequently invited to all kinds of events. Later in his life, in the Bandung phase of his life, he did also attract a following attracted to his charisma. He had people known to be his secretaries who would then follow him around and actually record his speeches, his sermons.
Margaret Coffey: What sort of figure emerges from all of these writings?
Julian Millie: Certainly a contrarian – he seemed to like being in opposition to the structures of Islamic authority in West Java, and there are a number of stories about things that he did that appeared to be deliberately designed to provoke people. A major part of his work is his use of metaphors and figurative language uses that he took from Sundanese culture – plants, parts of plants, trees, agricultural produce, agricultural patterns of behaviour and so forth – he used these as metaphors for describing Islamic concepts that in fact he had encountered in his time in Mecca so of course these were concepts that would be recognised throughout the Islamic world but of course once you start to describe theological schema in the various parts of the coconut and the various phases of its life.
In Sunda and similar societies all the different parts of the coconut are known by a different word and the various stages of the fruits life as well the names change, so the young coconut before it becomes a fruit, the bud and so forth – there’s an amazingly rich lexicon so Mustapa would use this rich lexicon then to present an Islamic system that was tremendously rich in its use of Sundanese images and that inevitably brought him into contact with a lot of authority figures for whom the containment of Islamic knowledge in fairly rigidly defined disciplines and forms and books and so forth was a very important part of maintaining religious authority. I mean it wouldn’t be very good if religious knowledge could be seen to spill out in all directions in all kinds of languages and to be used in whatever way that one wanted. But that appeared to be what Mustapa was quite keen on. He was very keen on Sundanese Muslims not considering themselves to be under the domain of narrowly defined forms of religious authority. He appeared to want them to be experiencing it in all kinds of ways.
Margaret Coffey: Which is why, says Hawe Setiawan, the memory of Haji Hasan Mustapa remains alive in West Java. He signifies the riches of Sundanese culture, and a way of being Muslim that is attractive to people. Apologies by the way for the poor sound on the telephone line to Bandung.
Hawe Setiawan: This is the most important point I think. Contemporary people, people who are interested in Mustapa, seems to have something to do with the way Islam is known here – in cultural roots here, in our life here. I mean we need to refresh, we need to redevelop our way in expressing Islam in a good way. We don’t need bomb, we don’t need jihad propaganda. We need to express Islam in a fine and good way, just like Mustapa.
Music: ‘Bubuka‘, Tr 1. Classical Tembang Sunda, music from West Java. Celestial Harmonies 13134-2
Margaret Coffey: Julian Millie has been working with Hawe Setiawan on a translation of Hasan Mustapa’s book called ‘Exposition on the Stages of Islamicness’.
Julian Millie: Hawe and I have been translating this book for a number of years now and as we have come across certain passages Hawe frequently is struck by their relevance to contemporary polemics it West Java so it is quite often for him to excerpt it and then send it out on his own blog and people seem to read it immediately and respond.
This was a work that apparently it was published first in 1899 but it was published in book form not until 1937. He sets out seven stages of Islamicness, so it’s a journey, commencing with a Muslim who is very much part of a social environment in which everybody else is Muslim and it ends in the seventh stage with a person who has managed to break free from the social constraints that are implied by living in a society like that. The first three or four stages are a dialogue between the left side and the right side – the left side is under the influence of iblis, the devil, and the right side is under the influence of divinity. The left side encourages the speaker to remain within the safe confines of the social structures of religion, to not depart from them, to just resign yourself to Islam as a pattern that is really well engrained in this culture and which doesn’t require too much effort, whereas the voice of divinity from the right urges Mustapa instead to attempt at all times to break free from those and then the way to break free becomes this engagement with concepts that are very well known in the canon of Islamic knowledge
Margaret Coffey: Here’s one way that Mustapa engages with these Islamic concepts:
Julian Millie: The Muslim declaration of faith – the credal statement of Muslims – which is ‘there is no divinity other than Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger’: How can I have the nerve to testify for so long that there is no deity other than Allah? What if someone asked me, how do you know? Maybe I will only be able to answer because the old people said so, because my father said so. But how can one believe this, how can testimony rely on talk alone? So – you can see how this is sort of putting him in conflict with the bearers of religious authority – because of this I will persist in warning that I will not fail in my wish to get real proof. For instance I have been asked, how do you know what a chilli looks like. I reply, of course I know, for I have tasted that it is spicy. Do you know sugar? I replied, of course I know because I have tasted that it is sweet. Do you know salt? I replied of course I know for I have tasted that it is salty. I don’t answer my father told me.
A lot of it is about pushing clear meaning to the side as opposed to arguing for clear meanings – and this of course is one of the things that attracts people to mysticism – that it doesn’t offer the clear resolutions of meaning or clear definitions, but offers many.
Music: ‘Dahab‘, Tr 11 Visions, Joseph and James Tawadros. 2005
Margaret Coffey: And that sets him at an interesting variance from Mohammad Al-Fadali – the scholar whose book travelled to Indonesia around the same time Mustapa returned home.
Mohammad Al-Fadali’s book sets up a system that makes it easier for students to learn some core Islamic ideas about God. Back to Peter Riddell who by the way is Dean of the Melbourne School of Theology and an adjunct professor at Monash University.
Peter Riddell: It begins with general statements about God’s sovereignty and it then leads into a presentation of the attributes of God, which number forty-one – and it goes through and presents them in categories divided into twenty positive attributes, and twenty negative attributes – by positive I mean attributes that are necessary for God. By negative I mean attributes which cannot be applied to God, and then one possible attribute – that is, the power to create good or evil whenever he wishes. He has the power to do so and it is possible for him to do so but he doesn’t have to at any given moment.
Margaret Coffey: Why does that remain a possibility not a conclusion?
Peter Riddell: I think that speaks into the debate that I was talking about before because that was one of the big charges of the Mutazalite rationalists, that God had to necessarily be good, necessarily had to do good things and create good. Whereas for the scripturalists who really resolved the debate and became the normative authority in Islam, they were reluctant to enforce such a constraint on God and therefore they left that as a possibility for God to do as he saw fit. Ultimately it leaves the sovereignty up to God on that particular score.
Margaret Coffey: It’s interesting, because defining a whole series of attributes it concretises God doesn’t it rather than the idea of being unable to describe that which is God?
Peter Riddell: This kind of approach used by Mohamad Al- Fadali, it was speaking into another debate of course, the debate between I guess Sufi and more non-Sufi approaches to understanding God where the Sufi approaches especially in the most extreme spoke very much in terms of abstracts – so by responding to that Mohammad Al-Fadali was giving very concrete expressions of the shape of God, the nature of God, of the attributes of God so that individual Muslims could not only understand the shape of God but also especially understand their duty to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and to follow his law.
Music: ‘Mojang Priangan‘, Sundanese Music of West Java Vol 1 SOW 90155
Margaret Coffey: On ABC Radio National this is Encounter with the story of a conversation about God within Indonesian culture. Don’t forget you can return to this program at any time on abc.net.au/rn – just locate Encounter and check out the audio and the transcript. And do leave a comment in the comments box – it’s helpful to know what you think about our programs.
Let’s go back to those debates that Peter Riddell described as debates Mohammad Al-Fadali was speaking into – no matter that one of them dates right back to the ninth and tenth centuries. First there was the debate about what God consists of and then there was the debate as to the merits of Sufism as a way of approaching God. Remember that Al-Fadali was working at Al-Azhar university in Cairo – and it so happens at a significant turning point in Middle Eastern relations with Europe.
Peter Riddell: The French invasion had happened in 1798 – he died in 1821 so he would have felt it very keenly, though we have no record of his response to that particular event. Of course the arrival of the French meant the arrival of the British. Having said that, while the arrival of the colonial powers signalled a whole new level of focus for Islamic writers, for Islamic writers responding to the challenge of non-Muslim colonial powers, they also lived on with the legacy of previous writings and conflict within Islam. So his writing doesn’t specifically respond to the arrival of the French or the British. It more focuses on old rivalries and old disputes within Islam. So he is still speaking into debates that began in the 800s.
Margaret Coffey: And that’s the debate between the Mutazilites and the Ash’arites – those two schools of thinking about the nature of God.
Peter Riddell: At several points in the work he specifically refutes a particular school of writers from the 800s who argued for free will, for example, who argued that God must necessarily be just, God could not be unjust. Now he argues against that school. So that’s looking backwards reflecting a historical debate. At the same time we are seeing new debates emerge with the arrival of the colonial powers when Muslim writers from the modernist school based in Egypt began asking the question why have Muslims come under the control of non-Muslims, what have we done that God would allow this to happen, and the answer they came up with was that we haven’t been good enough Muslims, we’ve left the requirements of our faith and therefore we need to get back to our faith, get back to the basics in a sense. So that debate assumed its most crystallised form after him – he died in 1821 and the really the big centre of the modernist debate was around 1900. But he was there as an early forerunner of that – to some extent his arguments fed into that debate as well.
Margaret Coffey: This is how Peter Riddell describes the diverging camps in the thousand year old argument about God.
Peter Riddell: There were fundamentally two schools of thought – the Mutazilites one could characterise as rationalists, freer thinkers I suppose, and the other school, the family of the hadith, the scripturalists. The Mutazilite rationalists – they argued that by definition God was just, God was fair, God was equitable, and God was necessarily just. In other words, God could not predetermine a particular group of people to sin and then punish them for that sin. That would not be just. The more literalist school who adhered very closely to a literal reading of scripture – well really they asked a question, who are we mere humans, mere creatures, to question God’s justice. If we don’t understand God’s justice that merely points to our lack of understanding rather than a flaw in the divine. So their response was that we should not have this conversation, you rationalists should stop putting boundaries on God’s action and accept that some things are beyond our understanding, and they had a particular phrase to explain it -….. -literally means ‘without asking how’. And it was that school that effectively won the debate. And that came to define the shape of Islam as it evolved in succeeding centuries. The dominant school was one that accepted that God was absolute, there was a large measure of predeterminism. God was necessarily in control and that was right.
Margaret Coffey: There’s a catch here, in the idea of predeterminism. It’s an idea that demands clarification. I’ve heard the idea put to Peter Riddell in a university seminar that John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant reformer, and apostle of predestination, could have been influenced by Islam.
Paul Heck: Yeh. I don’t think it’s a realistic idea, but people are looking for ways to connect at this global and globalising moment. I think for our own interest we need to see how we are invested in one another’s lives and I think perhaps sometimes the intention can be noble to show somehow that we have the same theological dilemmas, we have the same philosophical questions you know, to show we are in the same boat as it were, and I think in many respects we are. But sometimes these comments neglect the facts of history including theological history to show that Muslims, Christians, Jews, other people are part of a common human venture.
Margaret Coffey: In fact, there’s a crucial theological difference between Calvin’s concept of predestination and the Islamic idea espoused by the Ash’arites. What’s at issue here, explains Paul Heck, is God’s nature, and not human worth.
Paul Heck: It wasn’t so much a question of a predestined choice of certain individuals for salvation so it is very different from some of the Christian discussions of the Reformation and the 16th century where they would have said that God has chosen certain people in advance for his grace and for his salvation and he hasn’t chosen other people. So, those debates in 16th century Europe were about the value of human nature as opposed to divine grace. Here the point was, was God just and what does that mean.
The Mutazili school said we have to understand the justice of God otherwise we would not be able to function in society. So for example, how do I know what I am doing is favourable to God? They said that things are just because the human mind knows they are just, things are good or bad because the human mind knows they are good or bad. And so in that sense it is a question of God’s justice: if I don’t know what I am doing is good or bad how can I be judged for it on judgement day by God? Is God just or not?
Now the Ash’aris, the other school of thought, would certainly have agreed that God is just. But they wouldn’t have agreed that humans determine the justice of God. OK? They would have said that God determines what is good or bad, and God determines what is just or unjust. Even if humans don’t fully understand the ways of God they have to accept the ways of God. The first school, the Mutazalites, were much more in favour of the idea of free will. And so they are really trying, that second school of thought, the Ash’aris, are really trying to preserve the sovereignty of God. The first school of thought was trying to preserve the justice of God. That second school the Ash’aris they even went so far as to say God creates human acts –we don’t even create our own acts, and as I mentioned before the Mutazilites saw that as abhorrent – does God also create our unjust acts? And therefore that makes God unjust. So all of these were very complex debates.
Margaret Coffey: How did the second school allow a sphere for individual, for personal responsibility?
Paul Heck: I am not sure first of all that that was their primary concern. But just to put it in a different sense, when they say that God creates the acts, does that mean God makes automatons out of us, we’re just puppets in the hands of god. Maybe that was what some of them meant. But I think at another level when they say that God creates our acts, they are saying that it is God that determines the moral worth of our acts, it is not the human mind that determines the moral worth of acts. In that sense what the Ash’arites wanted to say is that salvation is in God’s hands. The Mutazilites almost were saying that humans are the agents of their own salvation – voluntarily through their own volition they do good, bad, justice, or injustice and so they are the ones who determine whether they are saved or damned. The Ash’arites wanted to say, the agency of salvation is Allah, is God, and so they wanted to say that look even someone who does bad acts could be saved by God. We can’t understand God’s ways. And so, even though on the one hand it seems like they were just talking about humans as automatons, right, that God creates their acts, I think that at a deeper level they were also saying that, look, God could be merciful.
Music: ‘Nahawand Taqasim‘, Tr 1 Visions, Joseph and James Tawadros. 2005
Margaret Coffey: Paul Heck there. And that deeper level of meaning is the idea to hold on to – the idea that God could be powerful and merciful. And it takes us to human responsibility.
Paul Heck: Now, OK, where did they allow room for human freedom? It’s very complex. There is this thing called capacity. Do you have agency, do you have capacity. The term in classical Arabic was qudra. Now, to get around this, to ensure that God is the creator of everything, the Ash’arites said that at the moment, at every moment you act, God is creating at the same time an agency, a capacity, a qudra. Qudra, capacity, agency, to create things, to do things, that’s something that is not in human nature, ok, that you don’t have this capacity by your human nature because that would somehow make you a partner with God in the causal nexus of the universe. God is the only cause. Right! But what they are saying is that at the same time or just as you are doing something God also creates the capacity to allow you to do that. So it is a way for them to as it were have their cake and eat it too – to preserve the sovereignty of God, that God creates everything, your acts and even your capacity to do those acts, and yet it shoulders the responsibility on humans because just when you are doing that act you are given the capacity by God, so at every instant that you do something you are given the capacity to do that act.
Margaret Coffey: So how was Islamic I suppose normative doctrine on these themes resolved and over what period – I suppose can it be said ever to have been finally resolved?
Paul Heck: Yeh. No these debates still go on of course and they do tie in to the attributes of God, right, particularly the divine speech of God. These things were heavily debated in the 8th and 9th and 10th and 11th centuries and really right up until the Ottoman period. And today, you know Muslims will debate these things but I would say they are not so much front and centre today. The debates in Islam today are more about whether Sufism is legitimacy, the idea of reverencing a spiritual figure, a saint. Salafi groups in Islam would say that that is polytheism whereas Sufi groups would say they are not worshipping those saints but those saints are guiding them, or helping them or even interceding for them. So those are the big debates today, you know, over what is true monotheism.
Margaret Coffey: Paul Heck – author of Common Ground: Islam, Christianity and Religious Pluralism and he is the founder also of the Centre for the Study of Religions across civilisations at Georgetown University. And with that remark about the debates today circling around the legitimacy of Sufism and what is true monotheism, he brings us back to Indonesia and the living influence of those two historic figures, Mohammad Al-Fadali and Haji Hasan Mustapa.
Music: ‘Papatet‘, Tr 2. Classical Tembang Sunda, music from West Java. Celestial Harmonies 13134-2
Margaret Coffey: As Julian Millie explained, there is a clear connection between Hasan Mustapa and Al-Fadali, just in the focus of their thinking and writing. His own research interest is in Hasan Mustapa.
Julian Millie: The connection with Al-Fadali is quite clear mainly through this theological construct that answers the question of well what is Allah made of – what does God consist of – and Mustapa used the idea of the attributes with great attention to Sundanese tradition – so that’s a very strong connection between them – they both use this idea but in quite different ways.
Margaret Coffey: You used the words plasticity and mediation to describe his work – so it has quite a different character from Al-Fadali’s work itself which has a kind of rigorous quality about it, doesn’t it?
Julian Millie: I agree – it is like there is a sort of heading in opposite directions. One is quite consolidating, trying to make a strict definition that will probably be argued against other definitions. While on Mustapa’s part, he really is opening it up to so many interpretations and to a lot of vagueness which he definitely thought was a positive attribute – the idea that a word could have multiple meanings, or that meanings could change over time, or that people should be involved in comparing meanings – this was a very common theme, so I agree there.
Margaret Coffey: Julian Millie. On the other hand, Peter Riddell has been studying Al-Fadali.
Peter Riddell: Al-Fadali as I say he speaks into a quite a number of debates but he speaks into a specifically Indonesian question today. There are tensions in modern Indonesia between forces for international Islamic resurgence and more traditionalist forces that are more Sufi inclined in parts of Southeast Asia. Al-Fadali’s I suppose more literalist approach to the faith doesn’t really lend itself easily to complex Sufi theologies. It lends itself today to one side of a debate that is becoming increasingly vocal in Indonesia.
Margaret Coffey: Does the commentary in your text enhance that aspect of his work?
Peter Riddell: Yes it does. I mean the commentary emphasises the points he is making. So for example in his work if he refers to the rationalists, the Mutazilite rationalists, in highly critical terms as he does, the commentary explains more about the Mutazilite rationalists just so that the Indonesian readers understand who they were and what their arguments were, but then equally supports the criticism of them as well. That is relevant for today in another way in that the rationalist school that was represented by these 8th century thinkers has had a resurgence among more liberal wings of Islamic thinking around the world and it has shown itself in Indonesia.
There was one particular set of sermons which I was looking at recently where the whole question of freewill and predestination was addressed. Al-Fadali’s approach is essentially predestinarian – the sermon I was looking at quite skilfully argues for a fairly balanced approach between the two.
Margaret Coffey: So, in Indonesia, the discussion remains three cornered. As Peter Riddell remarked, the revival of Mutazilite emphasis on applying human reason to religious themes has been an important strand in modern Indonesian religious thought. Think of a figure like the late Nurcholish Majid. But the main discussion is going on in a wider field – among the broad Muslim public, and not just among the intellectuals – and that’s also in the field of the dominant school of Islamic thinking, the Ash’arite school.
Paul Heck: The Sufi thing is much more in line with the Ash’ari because the Sufis they give a spiritualised understanding of this theology. They want to say that they have detached themselves from the world, and they have even detached themselves from their own will such that it is only God that’s acting through them – right? – I mean for the good, so it is not just when they are in the mosque when they are praying but it’s at every moment of their life where God is working through them. It might seem a bit ironic but in fact Sufism is as it were the spiritual counterpart of the Ash’ari theology that emphasises the action of God through human beings. Now I get a lot of Muslim students in my classes who ask about this and you know they are like their Christian counterparts. The Christian counterparts for them the debate is more have I been chosen by God for a special grace or not, right. I mean the debate is does human nature have any worth in the eyes of God. If it doesn’t then your salvation depends entirely not on your human nature and what your human nature can do, but whether God has chosen you in advance for his grace, so that’s coming out of some of the Calvinist positions. And so you know Christians have those concerns, Christian youth debate those things but it is a very different theological history. The Muslim youth though they ask me these questions. There is something very basic in Islam – God is determining things and destinying. It connects with this notion in Islam that God wrote everything in advance. Some people consider this to be the sixth pillar of Islam. So this is not part of one theological school or another – of course it gets interpreted in different ways – but you know every Muslim youth along with the idea of praying and fasting and pilgrimage, and zakar, alms giving, they would know this and so they come up to me and they say how can we understand this? Are we just you know automatons, God has just written all our acts in advance? Now the way that this is treated today is in this sense – that God’s foreknowledge of what we do, of what all humans will do over the course of human history, precedes his act of determining, of writing down all those things in his book of history, let’s call it. For example he knew that I would freely choose to become an academic before he wrote it in the acts of human history as it were.
Margaret Coffey: I am wondering if Christians today, whether in some quarters too much is made amongst them of predestination in the Muslim sense?
Paul Heck: Oh right, that they elevate a little bit the idea that Muslims are all about predestination? Absolutely.
There are certain phrases that Muslims use that might suggest pre-determinism. And you know, certainly there is something of that. And I don’t know, perhaps that can be the function of certain social political conditions where maybe there is a certain fatalism when you are faced with an authoritarian regime or where you are a bright young Muslim student at a university but in your society you can’t get anywhere unless you have what’s called the wastas – someone you know who will be a connection for you to get a job in a government – you know you realise that you are in an authoritarian regime, you are in a social system where your merits don’t seem to matter. And so yes, there are certain Muslim phrases – ‘it has been written’ – it is maktoub, ‘it is written’. But that doesn’t I would suggest undermine a Muslim activism. I mean we are seeing in the Arab Spring that Muslims are taking their political destiny into their own hands. There’s a lot of obstacles along the way but here is an example – when the opportunity is there they take it. Yes, there is a real Western misjudgement of this but that is not to say it it is not there to some extent.
Margaret Coffey: In the same vein, back in West Java, Mustapa is a figure invoked in shaping the political future.
Julian Millie: It is amazing the way that Mustapa is recalled in some debates that are in fact quite important in West Java at this point in time. Although he is not a person who is studied or indeed remembered on a large scale, in some debates that are going on now he is becoming important. Contemporary West Java has been the site of ongoing disputes of religious conflict, both within the Muslim community and also between religions. One of the most prominent that has been ongoing has been some pressure and threats that have been brought to bear on the Ahmadiya minority.
And of course these have created debate in West Java and in Indonesia. And it is interesting that Mustapa and his teachings are recalled so there is one lecturer who works in Tasikmalaya in West Java – his name is Asep Salahudin – who has published quite a number of newspaper articles around these ongoing debates. And for him Mustapa’s very locally oriented Islamic mediations are very important in this debate because he uses the symbol of the caruluk. The caruluk is a kind of food that comes from the Aren palm tree. And what he does with the idea of the caruluk is to say look Sundanese people have developed a way of living in harmony. We have to be careful then about these traditions. And in Asep Salahudin’s feeling these [other] traditions arrive from outside of West Java – what he is referring to is the idea that there to is one universally correct interpretation of being Muslim, of what is required of Muslims. And Salahudin then uses Mustapa’s writings deliberately to say we don’t need those forces from outside which appear to encourage disturbance.
Margaret Coffey: Hawe Setiawan is a scholar in the Centre for Sundanese Studies. He’s involved in many aspects of Sundanese cultural life – and one way he communicates ideas about Sundanese culture to the broader public is via a monthly column in a local newspaper. He also has children to whom he tries to communicate the value of rich regional cultures in the building up of the Indonesian nation.
Hawe Setiawan: I tell them that we live in a global world with different people, different culture, languages and we have our own language our own culture and we can contribute to the togetherness by expressing ourselves in a fine way, just like Mustapa expressing Islam, his Sundanese, in a fine way. You know Mustapa writes authoritative works on the customs and culture of Sundanese people. This work is important to be read by schoolchildren actually. My wife and I try hard to read this kind of works to tell something to our children here for the benefit of their development as part of this nation, this great nation.
Music: Extract from ‘Nembangkeun Karya Akbar Haji Hasan Mustapa‘ (Reciting the Great Works of Haji Hasan Mustapa), held at Hotel Homann, Bandung, West Java, 30 June 1994.
Margaret Coffey: Indonesian scholar Hawe Setiawan, who is working with Julian Millie, from Monash University, on the translation of a book of writings by Haji Hasan Mustapa.
Julian Millie: This passage for example really was one of the ones passed on by Hawe. The text talks about people who are bigoted: ‘The Lord who we worship widely smiles in his singularity here. Wow, I’ve warned you about squabbles over the correct object of worship. It is the fault of those who are busy in the world of observance and as a result you wear your shoes on the wrong feet. Each of you argues for their own correctness, I am right and you are wrong, not realising that your accusations are nonsense and that even you yourself could be accused.’
Margaret Coffey: Hawe Setiawan kindly provided the recording you heard of a beautiful performance in Bandung in 1994 of Mustapa’s poetry. The singers were Tajudin Niwan and Neneng Dinar. You heard also in this program Paul Heck, Julian Millie and Peter Riddell – my thanks to them for their work in putting me in touch with people and ideas and translations – and there’s further information about their work and their writing at abc.net.au/rn. Just locate Encounter. There you can listen again to the program, read a transcript – and make a comment. We’d like to hear from you. Technical production by Brendan O’Neil. I’m Margaret Coffey.
Music: ‘Bubuka‘, Tr 1. Classical Tembang Sunda, music from West Java. Celestial Harmonies 13134-2
Paul Heck / Dr Julian Millie, Centre of South East Asian Studies, Monash University / Peter Riddell / Hawe Setiawan
Arsisto Ambyo, Journalist, Radio Australia