Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Rethinking Javanese Religion: The Prospect of New Descriptions of Javanese Traditions

This study describes religion in Java.

Jochem van den Boogert

Although general consensus assures us that about 90% of the Javanese are Muslim, Islam in Java is hardly homogenous. Generally speaking a basic distinction is made between “true Islam” and “Javanese Islam”. The latter is usually described as a mix of practices and beliefs drawn from various religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and ancestor worship. It is characterised as extremely tolerant, syncretist, and ritualistic. This description comes with its own set of cognitive problems, such as: How can Javanese Islam tolerate practices and beliefs that are in contradiction to the fundamental precepts of Islam? Why, although most scholars agree that a Javanese religion distinct from “true Islam” exists, is there a fundamental disagreement on its name and nature? Why, despite these and other cognitive problems surrounding this concept, does Indonesian Studies continue to use it?

My research shows that Javanese religion as a concept originates in the colonial era. It lent intelligibility to the way a foreign culture, i.e. a Western, Protestant-Christian culture, experienced certain aspects of Javanese reality. I trace the history of the concepts of Javanese religion, such as “Javanese Islam”, “Javanism”, “agama Kejawen”, from early travel account, reports from civil servants, over missionary reports, the findings of orientalists and Indologists, to the works of anthropologists and contemporary social sciences. This history shows an absence of empirical and theoretical proof for the existence of a Javanese religion. This being the case, how do we explain the stubborn use of the concept of Javanese religion?

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