“Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s eccentric saints are challenging fundamentalist Islam in modern Indonesia” by George Quinn


Commentaries on Islam in Indonesia—especially those attached to major political events such as the recent presidential election—often deal in simplistic binary terms: a uniform mass of apparently ascendant “conservative Muslims” is ranged against similarly uniform blocks of embattled urban liberals or rural traditionalists.

George Quinn’s Bandit Saints of Java is a valuable corrective to such narratives produced by “easily stampeded foreign journalists”—as the author describes them. It deals instead with some of the myriad shades of grey that make up the actuality of 21st-century Indonesian Islam.

Quinn is an experienced and widely-published academic, formerly based at the Australian National University, and the book comes with the authority of committed scholarship and decades of on-the-ground research. But what makes it such a delightful surprise is that this is no staid academic tome. Quinn has “banished bibliographic references and footnotes” (though there are extensive chapter notes, tucked away at the back), leavened his text with stretches of highly engaging first-person narrative, and thrown in rich evocations of place, lively character sketches, and a good deal of humor.

Bandit Saints of Java is that rare thing: a scholarly book that doubles as a ripping yarn, as accessible to casually curious general readers as it is to dedicated students of Indonesian history and culture.

We meet many lesser-known figures, including the flamboyantly homosexual 18th-century Prince Jimat of Madura.

Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s eccentric saints are challenging fundamentalist Islam in modern Indonesia, George Quinn Monsoon Books, January 2019)
Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s eccentric saints are challenging fundamentalist Islam in modern Indonesia, George Quinn (Monsoon Books, January 2019)

Quinn’s main subject is the tradition of pilgrimage to the tombs of semi-mythical Muslim “saints” in Java, the island which is home to half of Indonesia’s entire population and most of its Muslims.

The precise details of the historical Islamisation of Java are hazy, but the major shift from the previously dominant Hindu-Buddhist religion took place during the 15th and 16th centuries. Popular accounts credit this conversion to the activities of the Wali Songo, the “nine saints”. The status of these Muslim missionaries hovers on the cusp between history and myth, but each has a recognised grave site. These tombs—mostly located on Java’s northern littoral—are major objects of pilgrimage.

But the Wali Songo are just the start: there are dozens of other saintly graves scattered across Java. Some are said to belong to figures as old as the Wali Songo themselves; others date from more recent centuries. Some are associated with clearly verifiable historical figures; others feature contradictory tangles of folklore and pre-Islamic heritage. As Quinn puts it, “each site has its own identity, sometimes aggressively asserted and occasionally wacky”. And as he reveals, the stories and cultural practices associated with these places often stray way beyond the norms of orthodox Islam.

Each chapter of the book is themed around a particular saint or pilgrimage site—all places that the author, a fluent speaker of both Indonesian and Javanese, has visited in person, often on multiple occasions. Sunan Kalijaga, the most colorful and most heavily mythologized member of the Wali Songo, gets a memorable introduction:


A sprawling metropolis of stories has sprung up around his exploits as a wandering teacher. Along the many avenues and lanes of this narrative city there is a common blueprint of story architecture and a distinctly Javanese style.


We also meet many lesser-known figures, including the flamboyantly homosexual 18th-century Prince Jimat of Madura, whose tomb in Sumenep is now venerated by thousands of conservative pilgrims.

Quinn has a wonderful knack for brisk retellings of individual legends, and a fine ability to draw out the edgy humour involved in the theological wrangles embedded in both oral legends, and old Javanese texts. The scandalous, anonymously-penned 19th-century texts Suluk Gatholoco and Serat Darmogandhul, for example, feature as principal characters a walking penis and a talking scrotum engaged in a righteous, if frequently foul-mouthed, mission against the forces of Islamic orthodoxy in Java.

Quinn has a travel writer’s ability to note the telling minutiae of a busy scene, and to catch the key characteristics of chance-met strangers.

One idea that emerges clearly from Bandit Saints of Java is just how fluid and dynamic “tradition” is in Java. Quinn reveals that the seemingly ageless stories attached to the tomb of Mbah Priok—a much contested pilgrimage site in northern Jakarta—only emerged into popular discourse in the 1990s. And he demonstrates how very rapidly the tombs of such contemporary figures as former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid and the former guardian of Mount Merapi, Mbah Maridjan, can obtain the trappings of a saintly pilgrimage site. And the shifting poles of orthodoxy and heterodoxy can see formerly opposed figures unexpectedly thrown together—“not allies exactly, but co-denizens of ‘tradition’”.

Quinn does not shy away from addressing much discussed recent events which appear to signal the rise of intolerant Islamism in Java: an outbreak of moral panic over supposed “LGBT” activity on campuses and in the media; the notorious 2017 blasphemy case against Jakarta’s former mayor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. But he does so calmly, and with essential contextualization that seldom features in news pieces and op-eds.

Quinn’s lively prose helps to make this complex mosaic of ideas thoroughly engaging. But the book’s greatest strength comes from the travelogue passages, describing the author’s own journeys to the pilgrimage sites of Java, and evoking the atmosphere of these varied places, tucked away behind mosques in port cities, or perched on isolated hilltops. He has a travel writer’s ability to note the telling minutiae of a busy scene, and to catch the key characteristics of chance-met strangers.

Quinn gives plenty of space to those he meets at saintly tombs—the pilgrims, local residents and official “key keepers”—to speak for themselves. Although he is himself non-Muslim, he is very ready to describe his own enthralled responses to participation in communal worship at tombs:


History, faith, place, devotions and the heat of dense-packed humanity came together in one gently quaking body. It drew me deep into a community. I was no longer a tall, fair-skinned outsider who, as a matter of courtesy, got a priority place at the saint’s side. I became an unnoticed voice among many, a vibration in a chorus.


In the final chapter, Quinn edges subtly towards more conventional scholarship to state some important conclusions, based in part of hard evidence.

The supposed shift to a less tolerant, more orthodox Islam in Java might appear incompatible with the overtly heterodox business of pilgrimage that Bandit Saints of Java describes, and if orthodoxy is on the rise, then we might expect saint-veneration to be on the way out. However, Quinn reveals data demonstrating a staggering upsurge in the practice during recent decades. Annual visitor numbers at some tombs have increased by almost 900 percent since the 1980s. Quinn also points out that women appear to be particularly prominent in the pilgrim traffic, and that the pattern already extends well beyond Java, with major tomb pilgrimage circuits emerging in Lombok, Bali and Sulawesi.

In seeking to explain this remarkable phenomenon, Quinn turns to categorisations drawn from a key antecedent text for all those crudely binary journalistic accounts of Indonesian Islam: Clifford Geertz’s seminal 1960 anthropological treatise, The Religion of Java. Geertz saw Javanese society as divided into types, and he popularised the terms santri for strictly orthodox Muslims, and abangan for the avowedly syncretic rural traditionalists who seemed to owe more to folk belief and Hindu-Buddhism than to the Islam to which they notionally adhered (Geertz also identified a third Javanese type, but unlike santri and abangan, his “priyayi variant” failed to make it into popular discourse). In Geertz’s day the abangan appeared to make up the Javanese majority, but in the 21st century they seem in places to have all but vanished. Quinn, however, offers a fascinating hypothesis:


I think it is plausible that, for ex-abangan Javanese, holy tombs have become safe havens – institutions that fill a vacuum and offer protection to those whose devotional styles don’t square with the rigid demands of orthodoxy.


To be clear, many of these modern tomb-goers will appear, at a glance, indistinguishable from contemporary “santris”—with headscarves and skullcaps and regular mosque attendance to complement their pilgrimages. Indeed, Quinn suggests that some saints’ tombs are co-opting orthodox Muslims into their traditions and being co-opted by the orthodoxy in turn, with a degree of resultant tussling over “appropriate” pilgrimage practice. But ultimately, the book’s abiding message is that there is more than one way to be a strictly observant Muslim in Java, and that millions of people move effortless back and forth across the divide “between mosque and holy tomb”. It is, he argues, the memorable figures of the saints themselves which provide a guarantee of enduring diversity:


In the tangled Sherwood of Java’s cultural interior they wait in ambush, a stubborn challenge to the well-armed soldiers of fundamentalism.

Bandit Saints of Java is a brilliant book—one of the most engaging, memorable and genuinely insightful works on Indonesia published in recent years. It is also a perfect model for what popular scholarship can achieve in terms of accessibility. It deserves a wide readership.

Tim Hannigan is the author of Murder in the Hindu Kush, shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; A Brief History of Indonesia; and Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre.