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November 27, 2013

An Islamic Journey Part 3

Tom McLaughlin

Surabaya, North Java Island – We visited the third grave of an Islamic missionary, Sunan Ampel, located in the Arab quarter of this northeast Java coastal town. The tomb was covered in white cloth when we visited at 8 P.M.


The grave yard was very crowded with people sitting and reading the Koran and standing in line to visit the crypt.


We met three young religious teachers who taught in the local schools. I commiserated with them on how hard it was to teach 13-year-olds and they all agreed. We then compared teaching methods and we decided we wanted to teach the little kids or older students but not the middle schoolers.


We talked about Sunan Ampel and they came to his grave every week to receive his blessings. They knew he was a great man, a fantastic religious teacher, but they, like us, were searching for more information. We all had our pictures taken together and they led us to the grave site. Unfortunately, pictures were forbidden in the mausoleum area.


Within the graveyard, are huge jugs of water driven from wells under the mosque where it is thought they have medicinal powers similar to the Zam-Zam well in Mecca. Many use a common cup and dip the water for a drink.


Another legend is about the nine tombstones lined along the edge of the cemetery. Sunan Ampel befriended the caretaker of the mosque and graveyard who greeted the pilgrims as they came to worship. The man died nine different times and hence has nine different tombstones. This demonstrates that all are equal in the eyes of Allah and a simple caretaker can be the recipient of miracles.


Connected to the grave yard is the great mosque of Surabaya. Built in 1421, one must transverse a long passage way lined on each side by vendors selling clothes, perfumes, prayer beads and dates from the Middle East. The mosque has been enlarged several times over the years. It is estimated that 2,000 people visit the grave and mosque every day.


From what is known about Sunan Ampel, he was born in Champa Para, according to the inscription on his tombstone. Nobody seems to know where Champa was located. Some think it was in Vietnam while others feel was in Malacca (now Malaysia) or North Sumatra (Ache). He arrived in Java in 1443 and was credited with building the great Mosque at Demak. (There is a kampung in Kuching known as Demak Baru where kampung people from Gersik, Surabaya and Boyan were relocated following the modernization of the area)


Sunan Ampel is also believed to have been the spiritual advisor to other Sunans in Java. He became the driving force behind the establishment of the first Islamic states in Demak, Central Java.


Sunan Ampel believed that pure Islam would gradually take hold in Java over several generations. He incorporated local beliefs to gradually turn the people away from Buddhism and Hinduism to belief in Islam. Puppet shows (wayang kulit) were and still are a major source of entertainment, gently introduced material from the Koran.


The major themes of these shows and the lessons that are still preached today include five rules. They are not to drink alcohol, don’t gamble, don’t steal, don’t suck opium (which has been modernized to not smoke marijuana) and don’t commit adultery or play with a woman who is not your wife. These five rules are all tenets of Islam. And worth following.


…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.


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