[ISG] Java’s culture of local pilgrimage: its place in the study of Indonesian Islam

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“There is a ‘surprising fact’ that over the last 20 – 30 years there has been a huge increase in the number of people making devotional visits to the tombs of saints across the island of Java and the neighbouring island of Madura,” explains Professor George Quinn in the Indonesia Study Group (ISG) on 5 May. Saint veneration and local pilgrimage preserve many ‘non-standard’ devotional practices that were once called abangan. The big jump in pilgrim numbers belies the claim that non-standard Islam is on the run, or has collapsed altogether, in the face of rising orthodoxy/conservatism. This seminar examines some of the challenges Java’s burgeoning pilgrimage culture poses for research into the dynamics of religious change in Indonesia.

Among the less observant Muslims and in general, it is easier for people to take long journey to the tombs of saints due to an increase in disposable income and better infrastructure. There has also been a significant increase in the interest of doing tarekat and modern Sufism among Muslims in Indonesia because many feel formal devotions is “desiccated” and emotionally unsatisfying.

The growing interest in local pilgrimage also happens amongst the strictly observant Muslims. Professor Quinn offers three reasons: first, the hajj flow-on effect, many Muslim find pilgrimage to the saint’s tomb to be closely related to the pilgrimage in hajj ritual. Second, there is a wider awareness of an orthodox theological case for the legitimacy of pilgrimage to the graves of the saints. Finally, the lure of profit and government patronage seems to be softening the hostility of the local pilgrimage practice. On the other hand, pilgrimage sites also seem to be evolving to accommodate their new santri clients. “This is happening with different degrees of intensity at different locations and in different localities,” Professor Quinn argues.

George Quinn is an honorary professor in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

The presentation material for this discussion is available for download here, and the podcast here.

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