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SCOPE: Tracing Islam's journey on Java, between myth and politics.

JAVA NORTH COAST, Indonesia, Jan. 4 Kyodo

Want to be a president? Want to be rich? Or just want to find Mr. or Ms. Right?

From a village girl who wants to find a good husband, a businessman who wants to get richer, to a president who wants to retain his power, the answers bring them to nine cemetery complexes on the north coast of Indonesia's Java Island.

The cemeteries are not ordinary. The bodies of nine pious Muslim leaders who spread Islam throughout Java, popularly known as ''walisongo,'' lay in the cemeteries, which range from East Java's Ampeldenta to West Java's Cirebon.

In English, ''wali'' means a man who is loved by God, while ''songo'' means nine.

The nine wise men were Sunan Ampel, Sunan Gresik, Sunan Giri, Sunan Drajat, Sunan Bonang, Sunan Kudus, Sunan Muria, Sunan Kalijaga and Sunan Gunung Jati.

Miracles they performed in life and myths that accompany the stories of life and death have attracted many people across the archipelago to visit the cemeteries. They pray and ask for blessings for their requests.

When November comes about 10,000 people from across the archipelago, and about 1,000 people a day in other months, pack the 1,000-square-meter cemetery complex of Sunan Ampel in East Java's Ampeldenta area to commemorate the anniversary of his death.

But no one knows exactly when he died.

Three different historical sources mention three different years -- 1406, 1478 and 1481. But nobody, at least not among the pilgrims, cares.

Visitors pray in front of his grave, surrounded by a 1.5-meter-high steel fence, asking for his blessing and later following his philosophy of ''saying no to five immoral acts'' -- gambling, drinking alcohol, stealing, using marijuana and having extramarital sex -- to have their dreams come true.

Regardless of the religious activities inside the cemetery complex, the area nearby is also unique.

It has an Arab Village, where many Arab Indonesians live, and Ampel Market, where tourists can find perfume, jewelry, clothes and spices usually sold in Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The smell of perfume and the shine of gold bracelets or necklaces cheer the market up and Arabic faces appear in the windows of the houses in the villages.

A myth believed by Muslim visitors says a trip to trace the journey of the wise men must start from Sunan Ampel's grave in the east as he led the Council of the Nine Wise Men. Otherwise, you will find bad luck.

Unaware of the myth, a couple years ago I began the trip from the cemetery of Sunan Gunung Jati in the west, going to the east. I don't if bad luck I had was related to the trip, but probably not, because I am not a Muslim.

From Ampeldenta, visitors go to the cemeteries of Sunan Gresik in the East Java town Gresik and Sunan Giri in Giri village.

Sunan Gresik was the most senior among the nine wise men. He spread Islam in the then Hindu community by selling commodities at cheap prices and curing all kinds of diseases.

He also introduced ''pesantren'' or Islamic boarding schools, which are currently feared in some Western countries as places to educate terrorists.

And indeed, many convicted of terrorist acts in Indonesia did graduate from ''pesantren,'' particularly from a school built by militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is now on trial for a series of bombings.

The cemetery of Sunan Gresik is popular for its beautiful calligraphy, ordered directly from the Indian town of Gujarat.

Sunan Giri was known for his expertise in politics. His political views became the reference to establish Islamic kingdoms, not only on Java, but also outside the island. During his life, all kings in Islamic kingdoms had to be blessed by him before ascending their thrones.

Extra energy is needed to reach his cemetery complex, which is located on a hill. But the trip is pleasant and not tiring as along the way all kinds of souvenirs related to him, from books to jewelry, are sold.

From Giri, the journey continues to Bonang village, where the body of Sunan Bonang, who introduced Islam to the then Hindu community by singing and playing the traditional Javanese ''gamelan,'' is buried.

In the cemetery complex, a banana tree stands, but it is not an ordinary banana tree. Muslim visitors believe the tree, which was called the rosary banana tree, can only grow in the area.

The tree has seeds with holes, which have been used by visitors to make ''tasbih,'' a string of 100 beads to recite laudations to God.

In the nearby village Drajat, Sunan Drajat was buried. He was famous for his teachings: giving sticks to the blind, giving food to the starving, giving cloth to the naked and giving umbrellas to those who get caught in the rain.

Entering Central Java, visitors will first visit the cemetery of Sunan Kudus in Kudus. The former warrior introduced Islam to the then Hindu community by trying to adapt into their ways of life.

During Islamic Sacrifice Day, he did not kill cows, a sacred animal to Hindus, as Muslims usually did. He instead killed buffalo.

He also used Hindu architecture in establishing the Kudus Mosque, which is currently the most famous among the mosques built by the wise men.

Not far from Kudus, Mt. Muria is the home of Sunan Muria's cemetery. It is tiring to reach the cemetery complex as visitors must climb about 600 stairs, but still, it attracts many people.

''About 15,000 people, including those from overseas, visit the cemetery every day,'' Muhammad Shohib, chairman of the Sunan Muria Mosque and Cemetery Foundation, said.

According to him, most of the visitors want to get richer or have higher positions in their career.

Among the visitors, he said, was President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when he was still coordinating minister for political, social and security affairs and former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

In 1968, historian Slamet Muljana discovered that Sunan Muria was of Chinese descent. But the government banned his book on the discovery in 1971, fearing that it could raise anti-Chinese sentiment.

To attract people to convert to Islam, Sunan Muria tolerated a tradition to commemorate the death of someone, which is actually forbidden by Islam.

The journey in Central Java ends at the cemetery of Sunan Kalijaga in Demak. A former bandit who converted to Islam after meeting Sunan Bonang, he introduced Islam by using local culture. He created ''wayang kulit,'' Indonesia's famous leather puppets, and performed shadow plays.

Along with Sunan Muria and Sunan Kudus, however, he was criticized by other wise men for using leather puppets in spreading Islam. In Islam, it is forbidden to describe prophets in any forms.

The three were called the followers of ''Islam abangan,'' which is currently used to name those who do not practice pure Islam.

The overall journey ends at the cemetery of Sunan Gunung Jati in the West Java town Cirebon. Unlike other cemeteries, it is visited not only by Muslims, but also by Chinese because the wife of Sunan Gunung Jati was Ong Tien, daughter of Emperor Hong Gie of the Ming Dynasty.

''We don't discriminate against them. Muslim and non-Muslim visitors can pray here,'' said Yusuf Amir, a guard at the cemetery.

Visits, however, are allowed only on certain Fridays because other days will be a bad luck for them, according to Prayitno Prawirokusuman, another cemetery guard.

But he could not refuse admission when then President Abdurrahman Wahid visited the cemetery outside the proper Fridays.

''I don't know whether it is related to his fall from power,'' Prawirokusuman said, smiling.

Parliament impeached Wahid in 2001 over alleged corruption and replaced him with his deputy Megawati Sukarnoputri.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Jan 10, 2005
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