"Contemporary Views of Geertz": 2-A Workshop

~Book Review of The Religion of Java by Clifford Geertz
(The University of Chicago Press, 1960)~


Reviewer: Yasuko KOBAYASHI (Aichi Gakusen University)
Discussant: Teruo SEKIMOTO (The University of Tokyo)


Foreword: by Midori KAWASHIMA (Sophia University):

On March 6, 1999, the aforementioned study-group session was held at Sophia University with over 20 participants engaged in active discussion and debate. The following report of the session, written by Yuichi AKASAKI. We of Group 2-A plan to host study-group sessions again in the following years to review basic literature on Islam in Southeast Asia. If you are interested in these sessions, please contact Midori KAWASHIMA (Sophia University).


Report: by Yuichi AKASAKI (Hiroshima University, Graduate School)

   This study group aims to promote the exchange and sharing of information among young researchers interested in Islam in Southeast Asia, transcending the boundaries of country-by-country studies. This time we took up Geertz's 'The Religion of Java', which highly influenced the formation of the contemporary image ofJavanese Muslims. Ms. Yasuko Kobayashi reviewed Geertz's study, and reported how his work should be interpreted from a contemporary point of view.

Geertz stresses the diversity of religion in Java and classifies the people into three categories according to religious beliefs, ethical preferences and political ideologies: the Abangan, the Santri, and the Prijai. Ms.Kobayashi first explained the origins of the terms Santri and Abangan, and the historical background of the 1950's, when Geertz conducted his research. She explained that the Abangan are peasants who are animists, and many of them support the PKI. The Santri are mostly Muslim merchants, many of whom support Masjumi, NU. The Prijai are predominantly white-collar Hindus, and many of them are supporters of the PNI.

Ms.Kobayashi mentioned here that while Geertz 's research is noted for its depiction of Javanese society and is hightly valued for its independence from the traditional "Orientalist"approach, many fellow researchers have criticized Geertz's research for over 25 years. She sees the following problems with Geertz's work:

First, while Abangan and Santri are categories that are based on religion, Prijaji is a term that indicates a social class. Geertz also fails to recognize the fact that Abangan could convert to Santri. Second, Geertz overlooks the traditional rapport between Islam and Java Hindu. Third, Ms. Kobayashi pointed out that Geertz has made some mistakes in his work due to a lack of a systematic knowledge of Islam. Geertz's work has given the impression that the impact of Islam in Java was "of minor consequence", although Islam has become deeply rooted in Java, and he instead regards the role of the "Modernist" as more influencial. She contended that studies of Islam in Indonesia have placed too much emphasis on the "modernists", and that the "traditionalists " had not been given due attention until the mid-80's.

How should we look at Geertz's studies from a contemporary point of view? First of all, it is a valuable source for ethnography if we take into consideration its historical context. The descriptions of Abangan reveal many instances of the Javanese custom of Slametan. The descriptions of Santri indicate the difficult path Indonesia has led during its nation-building process, such as the conflicts between the "modernists" and "traditionalists", the confrontation of the Muslims with the PKI, and the undeveloped status of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. On the other hand, she suggested that the section on the Prijaji has less value as an ethnographic record when it is compared with the Abangan and Santri parts. Secondly, she posed aquestion as to whether Geertz had perceived the Abangan as an independent religion although both the Abangan and the Prijaji are Muslims. In addition, she indicated that though his book gives the impression that only "modernists" have the spirit of progression, Geertz could have depicted the dynamism of the "traditionalists" more positively, since in another article he shows understanding of the important role of the Kijai (religious teachers) in social reformation . Lastly, she added that the "re-Islamization" of the Abangan had been an ongoing process, since the time Geertz had conducted his research.

Mr. Sekimoto commented on Ms. Kobayashi's report. He pointed out that although Geertz successfully depicted the social and religious changes in Mojokto from a historical perspective, in Java could not be generalized. There exists a conscious and subjective Abangan ("Islam Jawa" in their language), within the framework of Islamic universalism vs. regionalism.

After Mr. Sekimoto's comments, the participants,--the Arab specialists in particular--asked questions concerning the relationship between Indonesian Muslims and the Arab region and Indonesian Muslims' perception of Islam in the Arab region. There was also criticism of the convenient dualism of "modernists" and "traditionalists" that many researchers tend to use.

Geertz's study is indeed one of the most important works in the area of Javanese Islam. However, there is much criticism regarding his work and by evaluating these we were able to arrive at a common understanding with regards to Geertz's work. As for myself, I realized once again the need for further case studies focusing on particular regions of Java, in the study of Islam in Indonesia. Geertz seems to perceive Slametan as unique to East Javan Islam, while on the other hand, he seems to be under the strong influence of his previous studies in Yogyakarta, in describing the Prijaji. This has remained a big question for myself. We plan to continue reviewing the basic literature concerning Islam in Southeast Asia, and further discussion on this topic is expected.

(Yuichi Akasaki)