Saturday, 26 January 2008

A different Islam

I found a fascinating article in the International Herald Tribune, which discusses how the lingering but apparently terminal decline of Inodonesia's former dictator Suharto has brought into the spotlight all manner of unorthodox and animistic beliefs that persist in what is, officially, the world's largest Muslim nation.

Apparently Suharto's reluctance to depart this life is due to "powerful occult forces" that will not let him go until certain rituals have been performed. "His life is supported by a mystical power", according to one shaman.

Suharto himself was notoriously superstitious, studying with a well-known mystic and undertaking many ritual acts. He


made frequent visits to sacred places including mountains, caves, tombs and ruins, and he has taken ritual baths in the ocean and in rivers at places that were believed to hold special powers. He is said to have collected hundreds of sacred artifacts in order to absorb their magical power.


Among them is apparently a red stone with strong powers called a mirah delima, which psychics say can protect its owner from swords and bullets and guard against illness.

In addition, many believe that his political pre-eminence owed much to the magical power of his wife, her "wahyu", which resided in her womb. Her death in 1996 is said to have foreshadowed his fall from power two years later. His present illness has been attended by sinister omens. For example,

Two weeks ago, when doctors said Suharto was dying, a huge tree fell near Parangtritis, the town that is home to the mystical Queen of the South Sea, where Suharto sometimes bathed in the ocean.


Doubtless the purist Wahhabi imams of Saudi Arabia would be horrified by such a syncretic mixture of Islam with Hinduism and native beliefs. Indonesia has its own Islamist movement, of course, as the bombings in Bali in 2002 so devastatingly showed, and in common with other Muslim countries the country has seen increasing trends towards religious conformity. The hijab is spreading, never a good sign. But radical Islam is an alien plant in that part of the world, the product of new globalisation and, in many cases, money from the Middle East. The true spirit of Indonesian Islam is of a folk spirituality, tempered (perhaps corrupted) by the local landscape and a complex history of cultural interchange. Nothing could be in greater contrast to the simplistic certainties of the jihadists.