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November 13, 2013

An Islamic Journey Part 1

Tom McLaughlin

Gresik, North Java Island – The very beginnings of the spread of Islam throughout the Malay world began here. I wanted to know how it started and why it spread so rapidly among thousands of faithful Buddhists. My journey took me back to the late 1300’s to the mid 1400’s, both mentally and physically.


Our first stop was the mausoleum of the Islamic missionary, Sunan Geri. Sunan means reverent one. Some translations say it means Saint, but Islam has no saints in the Christian sense. There is nobody between the believer and Allah.


Located atop a large hill, we climbed many steps with other visitors dressed in colorful batik and sarongs. Women had their heads covered and men wore the traditional round white hat and sarong. Lining each side of the steps were vendors selling all sorts of drink, dates and local food stuffs as well as cloth and toys. Beggars occupied the middle.


When we reached the top, we walked into an old Islamic graveyard with marble capital (I) shaped headstones and square footstones. There were long rectangular openings connecting the body with the outside world. Scattered around these tombs, people were reciting verses from the Koran.


The grave of the Sunan is enclosed in a dark, teak carved structure. The wood was interlaced like ones fingers. There was one low door to enter, about three feet high to make sure one shows reverence to this missionary of long ago.


Inside, the remains were enclosed in a large oval marble tomb, 10 feet long and four feet wide. There was the traditional long rectangle of earth with burning incense. Sitting in corners, people had their Koran open chanting verses.


Sunan Geri was born in 1342. He is attributed with spreading Islam throughout Java Island. His father was an Arab, while his mother was a princess. As legend explains, the mother, the princess, became very ill. Her father, the king, said to the people whoever can cure the princess can marry her and claim royal titles. The king’s representative searched for a person to cure her when he came to a mountain and found someone meditating. He was told if he could cure the princess he would marry her and become a minor ruler over one of the provinces. The man agreed he would cure the princess but only if the king embraced Islam.


He was brought to the palace, the princess was cured and the king converted. The word spread and the people fell in love with the new husband. Court intrigue followed with attempted assassinations, trips to an Islamic center on north Sumatra Island (Ache) and the involvement of another Sunan.


The princess became pregnant with Geri, but the grandfather wanted to kill the child to prevent his succession. The princess begged that the child not be killed and sent him adrift in the ocean where he was found by two Arab traders and given to a widower to raise.


Geri became one of the first Islamic leaders of the area. He wanted to dispose of all previous beliefs and establish a strict adherence to Islam. Sunan Geri was very extreme, not given to compromise. He established an Islamic boarding school and administered the area with the permission of the ruler, who governed most of Indonesia at the time.


There are several basic truths to this legend. Arabs had established small trading posts throughout Indonesia. The Arab quarter in both Surabaya and Gresik still exists today. Also of considerable interest in the story is the illness of the princess which will be a recurring theme through the next few columns.


…life is good. . . . .


Travelers advisory: When visiting the grave sites, men should wear long pants or a sarong to cover their shorts. Women must also wear a sarong, loose fitting blouse that does not reveal shape and a head cover. Try not to walk between those who are reciting the Koran and the grave of the Sunan. If from the west, one will probably be asked to have your picture taken with some individuals. Smile and enjoy the comradery.


Today, the town is industrial and home to the largest cement plant in Southeast Asia, Semans Gresik. Petrochemical compounds, automobile parts manufacturing, and salt collection from seawater are just a few of the many complexes housed in this small town and the spreading suburbs. The small harbor lined with oil tanks imports tropical logs from Borneo, (and they say they aren’t logging any more, RIGHT!) and bundles wrapped up in white plastic protection. Huge piles of coral from the sea provides lime for the cement factory and dredged sand all evidence of the continued environmental havoc being wrought out of the eyes of any environmentalists. Except me.


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