Chapter 2. Belief System

Table of Contents

Iblis, Setan and Mrekayangan


asyhadu al-la ilaha illallah,
wa asyhadu anna Muhammadar-Rasulullah.

isun anakseni kelawan atinisun,
setuhune oranana Pengeran anging Allah.
lan isun anakseni kelawan atinisun,
setuhune Nabi Muhammad iku utusane Allah.
tegese kang aran Pengeran, iku dzat kang agawe,

langit kelawanMbumi, sarta isine kabeh.
Isun anakseni setuhune Kanjeng Nabi Muhammad,
iku utusane Gusti Allah kanggo wong alam kabeh.

asyhadu an la ilaha illa Allah,
wa asyhadu anna Muhammadan Rasul Allah.

I bear witness in my heart,
that there is no Lord but Allah.
and I bear witness in my heart,
that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.

He who is called Lord is the Being who creates
heaven and earth and the contents thereof.
I bear witness that the most Excellent Prophet Muhammad
is the Apostle of Allah, for mankind throughout the whole world.

This poem is one sample of puji-pujian (praising God) I frequently heard from a tajug (prayer house) at Blok Kedawung, a village in Desa Kaliwadas of Weru District, about twelve kilometres south-west of the city of Cirebon.[1] The poem is in Cirebonese dialect, but somewhat surprisingly, on some occasions I heard the same poem chanted at a prayer house in the Sundanese village of Desa Brujul-Kulon,  District of Jatiwangi in Majalengka Regency about 30 kilometres west of Cirebon. This would suggest that the poem is not only known by Javanese speaking people in Cirebon living in the plain close to the coastal area, but also by the inland Sundanese as well. The chanters were groups of people (jama'ah) consisting of children and adults, males and females, who were about to undertake the prescribed prayer. They usually do this chanting soon after one of them has sounded the adzan (call for prayer). During chanting, they recite the verses repeatedly until the imam comes and prayer begins. The poem is not the only one recited in pre-prayer chanting; there are many others. I chose this particular poem because I think it is relevant to a discussion of the Cirebonese idea of God, the subject dealt with in this section.

Chanting puji-pujian at prayer time is a common practice among traditional Muslims, especially in Cirebon. Usually, the chanting goes on during the time between the call to prayer and the prayer itself, that is, during the time while people wait for their imam who will lead the prescribed daily prayer. The main idea of the chanting is that, in accordance with standards of piety, no time within the prayer session is without spiritual significance. All activities within this session are directed solely towards ibadah or ibadat (devotion to God); [2] and before the main ibadah (the prescribed prayer) begins, puji-pujian serves as a kind of warming up. In this context, the chanting, usually of verses that glorify God or that respect the Prophet Muhammad, or other similar verses, is considered a meritorious religious act. In addition, if the chanted verses are the syahadah (testimony of faith), they in fact, have at least a double function: for adults, the function is renewal and re-affirmation of the creed; for children, it is a kind of preparatory drill ensuring that they are conversant with pronouncing the words when the time comes to recite the creed formally.

 The first couplet of the poem I have selected includes the Arabic words of the syahadah which the Cirebonese call syahadat. [3] Literally, syahadat means testimony. In religious use the term syahadat refers to the Muslim profession of faith stating that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. The second couplet is the translation of the syahadat in rather archaic Cirebonese Javanese dialect. In English it translates “I bear witness (in my heart) that there is no Lord but Allah, and I bear witness (in my heart that the most Excellent Prophet Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The third couplet contains a short description of the two main “characters” depicted in the syahadat: the first, explains the use of the term Pengeran (Lord) for God, a key point for me in determining the poem's relevance; the second, explains the function of Muhammad, whose prophethood is universal. The basic idea of Deity that prevails among most Cirebonese seems to conform to the message conveyed by this verse. It says that what is really meant by God is the Being who created heaven, and earth together with their contents. There is no doubt however, that the word Pangeran refers to Allah, the proper name of God among Muslims.

For Cirebonese, as well as for other Muslims, pronouncement of the Islamic creed, the syahadat, is a supreme religious act whose mere recitation suffices for entry into the community of believers.[4] The important position of syahadat among Cirebonese is manifest in the fact that almost without exception, all native Cirebonese are Muslim in the sense that everyone, recites the syahadat at least once during his/her lifetime. Interestingly, the formal recitation of the syahadat takes place at particularly crucial moments of the life cycle, that is, at the time of  circumcision and marriage. Circumcision for a boy and marriage for a girl are of fundamental importance among Javanese.[5]

“Formally, in Islam, the obligation to recite syahadat is required only once during a lifetime”, said Pak Shofie, my informant. He explained that when people finished reciting syahadat, they automatically become Muslim, whatever intention they might have in their hearts and whatever they will do after the recital. “We do not know what is in one's heart, we only know what one says.” In Islam, Pak Shofie added, that to do good or bad, right or wrong is solely an individual's right; for that reason a person bears responsibility to God. But when a person falls into trouble or gets sick, other Muslims are obliged to help, and when a person dies it is the duty of other Muslims to care for the corpse, to pray at the burial and to bury the person at a Muslim burial complex. This statement does confirm that a mere recitation of syahadat suffices for entry into the ummah, the community of believers whose social bonds are based on the pronouncement of that very creed. Of course this is not to say that a mere oral pronouncement is enough to become a good Muslim. Deeper awareness in the heart of the reciter is also required; again, Pak Shofie explained:

One who would truly recite syahadat is required to incorporate two things: the first is to pronounce it by the tongue and to fill the heart with earnestness while witnessing that there is no god that can be rightfully worshipped but Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. He must be sure that Muhammad's prophethood is to teach jinn and humankind about the divine message written in the Holy Qur'an. Secondly, real recital of syahadat should be accompanied by tasdiq, ta'dhim, khurmah and khilwah. Tasdiq means affirming that Allah is the sole God; ta'dhim means glorifying God; khurmah means exalting God; and khilwah means being generous in accepting Allah as the sole God; that is the real   syahadat. Ignoring those elements is to mar the recital of syahadat and one's becoming a Muslim is only superficial.[6]

Referring back to the poem that begins this section, God is firstly enunciated as Kang gawe, the creator of the universe: heaven, earth, and all the contents within them. This indicates that, in the first place, the Cirebonese idea of God is closely related to the concept of creation; professing that as creator, God creates what He likes and by His own will without interference from any other. Secondly, God is only one and the oneness of God is importantly emphasised: he has no companion, and has no equality. “Gusti Allah iku Siji, oranana kang madani” (the sovereign Lord Allah is One, none is equal to Him), Saefullah (37 years), a toy peddler, said. He affirmed the oneness of God by pointing out that it is in fact, depicted in the Holy Qur'an in surat Qulhu (QS: 112;1–4).[7] He recited the verses and then gave their meaning in Bahasa Indonesia, which translates as: “Say, He, Allah is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him”.

Some Cirebonese do recognise a variety of other deities: dewa (deva, male) and dewi (devi, female), Betara (Bhatara, male) and Betari (Bhatari, female), and also   Sang Hyang. In general these terms are usually thought to have a relation to terms for Hindu deities.[8]

However, in Cirebon, the meaning of these words or the subjects referred to by such terms are vague. These terms are mainly heard in wayang (shadow-puppet) stories. Some wayang enthusiasts explain that dewa-dewi, batara-betari and sang hyang are the same things which refer to the earlier ancestors' deities predating Islam, but they do not believe that these divine beings now exist or ever existed. Some others say that these terms refer to superhuman beings, a mixture between jinn (genie) and man, each having a certain spiritual or magical power that enables them to become master of a certain element of the universe, such as wind, water, earth, or sky-and that some of our ancestors took them as deities. Some believe, and some do not believe, they existed at some time in history. Still others consider that they are only fictitious figures from wayang stories, created and inherited by an earlier generation to teach people about morality. The last view seems to be held most commonly.

The Cirebonese word for God is Pa-ngeran or Pe-ngeran.[9] This word is derived from Javanese and has two meanings: God, and lord referring to person of nobility or of high rank. The Cirebonese use the word in distinct ways to mean either of these. Pangeran meaning lord, is used only as a title of the court families and is put before the person's name, for example, “Pangeran Diponegoro”, “Pangeran Mangkurat Trusmi”, “Pangeran Panjunan”, and “Pangeran Jayakelana”. For the common noun meaning lord they do not use pangeran but pinangeran (by inserting an infix ‘in’); e.g: Pangeran Ardiningrat is a pinangeran, not a pangeran; there are  many pinangeran (not pangeran) in a court ceremony. Pangeran to mean God, on the other hand, is used independently but not as a title preceding any name, not even God's name. Thus, the expression as “Pangeran Allah” is never found.

In Cirebonese vernacular, asking about a person's God can be phrased as: “Sapa Pengeranira?” (“Who is your God?”). The answer is “Pengeranisun Gusti Allah” (“My God is the Lord Allah”). The word gusti also comes from Javanese and can also be translated as “lord”; it is akin to, or sometimes used interchangeably with, the word “kanjeng” (excellency) to refer to nobility such as prophets, saints, kings or others. A reference using gusti however implies a patron-client or a master-slave relationship in which the referee is the patron or the master. Kanjeng and gusti are used for example in such references as: Gusti Nabi or Kanjeng Nabi, or Kanjeng Gusti Nabi Muhammad, Gusti or Kanjeng or Kanjeng Gusti Sinuhun Sultan Sepuh. Kanjeng is therefore, used only in reference to a person and never to God; hence there can be no expression such as: “Kanjeng Pengeran” or “Kanjeng Allah”.

Along with regarding God as Kang gawe (the Creator), the Cirebonese also regard God as Kang Kuasa (the Sovereign) whose sovereignty is absolute and omnipotent, and Kang ngatur (the ruler). The notions of God as sovereign and ruler seem to be more frequently mentioned in daily life than the notion of God as creator. I did not further explore the reason for this, but it is probably for practical reasons; the matter of life after creation is of more concern than are matters before creation. As God is omnipotent everything is totally under His control and nothing in the universe is unseen to Him. The three-fold ideas of God as the Creator, the Sovereign and the Ruler are consistent with the ideas of God's absolute omnipotence over men on the one hand, and men's total dependence on Him on the other. The dependency relation of Creator-created is deeply imprinted; it manifests itself for example in oral traditions, and more apparently, in exclamations. When one begins to do something, especially something important, it is traditional to recite Basmalah, the  pronouncement of Bismillahir rahmanir rahim (Bism Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim), in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. On the other hand, when facing something undesirable or unwanted or when frightened, one will spontaneously respond: “ya Allah!” (“oh God!”); or “la ilaha illa'llah!”, even sometimes, “Muhammad rasulu’ llah”, with the full recital of the syahadat added; or “masya Allah” (ma sya-a Allah, meaning “Allah does not will that”); or “Astaghfirullahal'adzim!” (astaghfir Allah al-’azhim meaning I beg pardon of Allah the Greatest); or “la hawla walaquwwata illa billahil ‘aliyyil ‘adzim” (la hawl wa la quwwah illa bi Allah al'aly al'azhim, meaning “there is no power and strength except from Allah the Greatest”). Similarly, these expressions are used when shocked by something or by some accident. In a more precarious situation, when hearing that someone has died one will exclaim: “Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi roji'un”, (Inna li Allah wa inna ilaih raji'un meaning, “lo, we belong to Allah and lo, unto Him we return”). But in contrast, that is, when facing desirable things or results, the response is: “alhamdulillah” (al-hamd li Allah, meaning “praise be to Allah”). These expressions are commonly enunciated not only by devout individuals and santri, but also by ignorant laymen. The only difference is in pronunciation. As one might expect, learned individuals will produce perfect or nearly perfect utterances of Arabic compared with laymen; for example, less learned laymen may pronounce “la ilaha ill'Allah” as “la ilaha ilelloh” instead of as “la ilaha illa Allah”; “masya Allah” as “masya olloh” rather than as “ma sya-a Allah”; “Astaghfirullahal ‘adzim” as “astagpirulloh-al azhim” or even “astagailah”, or just “astaga” instead of as “astaghfir Allah al-’azhim”; or “la hawla walaquwwata illa billahil'aliyyil ‘adzim” as “la kaola wala kuwata ila billah” instead of as “la hawl wa la quwwah illa bi Allah”.

 Although these expressions do not necessarily reflect religiosity, in the sense that users need not necessarily be devout, these oral traditions are indications that Islam has indeed penetrated deeply into the traditions of Cirebonese social life.

Islam prohibits its followers from thinking about the substance of God or imagining His essence. Such questions as: “what does God look like” are strictly discouraged as they are beyond the reach of human understanding.[10] Not surprisingly, among the Cirebonese too, attempts to describe God end up with the identification of His names in terms of attributes called sifat-sifate Gusti Allah (Allah's attributes) which incorporate sifat wajib (the “must”- attributes), sifat mustahil (the “must not”-attributes) and sifat jaiz (the “may” attribute). The sifat wajib correspond to an affirmation of divine perfection, qualities that must be ascribed to God. There are twenty of these and hence they are known as sifat rong puluh (the twenty attributes). Thirteen of the attributes are said to be unanimously agreed on by theologians, while the other seven were added later by others.[11] The thirteen attributes are: wujud (existence); qidam (eternal); baqa’ (permanence); mukhalafatu lilhawaditsi (dissimilarity with the created); qiyamuhu binafsihi (self-subsistence); wahdaniyat (oneness); qudrat (power); iradat (will); ‘ilmu (‘knowledge), hayat (life); sama’  (hearing); bashar (vision); kalam (speech). The other attributes do not intrinsically describe God's essence; they designate what God can do and usually does, they are kaunuhu (He is in a state of being: qadiran (powerful); muridan (willing); ‘aliman (knowing); hayyan (alive); sami'an (hearing); bashiran (seeing); mutakalliman (speaking). To assist memorisation, the Cirebonese put the list of twenty attributes into a poem chanted as follows:[12]

Wujud, qidam, baqa,
mukhalafatu lilhawaditsi
qiyamuhu binafsihi,
wahdaniyat, qudrat, iradat, ’ilmu, hayat,
sama’,bashar, kalam,
qadiran, muridan,
‘aliman, hayyan, sami'an,
bashiran, mutakalliman.

The popularity of the poem is helped thanks to the modern recording technology and the current trend of people's religious commitment in Indonesia. Now the poem is beautifully chanted by some pop-singers and is available on records and cassettes, and can even be heard on some commercial radio stations.

The sifat mustahil (the “must not”-attributes), correspond to the negation of any defective qualities and, therefore, must not be ascribed to God. Standing in contrast with sifat wajib, there are also twenty sifat mustahil: ‘adam (non-existence); huduts (recency); fana’ (perishability); mumatsalatu lilhawaditsi (similarity with the created); ikhtiyaju bighairihi (non-self-sufficiency); ta'addud (plurality); ‘ajzu (weakness); karahah (unwillingness); jahlu (ignorance); mawtu (inanimated); ashommu (deafness); a'ma (blindness); bukmun (speechlessness); He, who or that which could be in a state of being: ‘ajizan (powerless); karihan (unwilling); jahilan (ignorant); mayyitan (dead); ashomman (deaf); a'man (blind), abkaman (non-speaking).

There is, however, only one sifat jaiz (the “may”-attribute): God's prerogative to do or not to do something.

 As well as describing God in terms of these attributes, He can also be described in terms of Beautiful Names which are called aran baguse Gusti Allah or asma'ul husna (God's Beautiful Names). But this knowledge is prevalent only among relatively learned individuals and is usually enunciated in Arabic terms. There are ninety-nine Names in total.[13]

In theological discourse, especially between the traditional Asy'arite schools on the one hand, and the rationalist Mu'tazilites on the other, there is disagreement about the appropriateness of describing God in terms of attributes. The Asy'arite proponents, including Al-Ghazali, argue in favour of attribution; while the Mu'tazilites stand against it. The Cirebonese clearly stand within the Asy'arite line. In accepting this doctrine, the Cirebonese however, in one way or another, also develop the necessary logical thinking they need to defend their faith. Mas'ud (26 years), a batik factory worker, used the existence of the universe as the basis for his argument on the existence of God:

…everything that exists must have come about because it has been created by its creator. The existence of clothes that we wear indicates that there is someone who makes them, that is, the tailor; the existence of chairs, tables and furniture indicates the existence of the maker, the carpenter; so too, the existence of plants, trees, animal, seas, earth, heaven, stars, moon, sun and all the things within the universe together with the well established structure and order would clearly indicate the existence of the Great Creator and Sustainer which we, Muslims, call Allah, the true God.[14]

 When I further asked him, given that the universe exists because it was created by the Great Creator, and that this becomes the proof that God exists, who then, is the Creator of God?”. Appearing slightly offended, he explained:

You must realise that every rule in the world has an exception. You can see for example, in some offices there is a notice on the door saying: “NO ENTRANCE!” But why does the director go in and out of the room freely and carelessly despite the “no entrance” notice? It is because the “no entrance” notice does not apply to him; he is exempted from the rule because he is in fact, the master of the office and it is he who put up the notice. The same token also applies to God. Because God, the prime Creator, is not a thing and is not created, he is exempted from the rule stating that “everything is created.” Above all, it will be evident when you also realise that the next two other attributes of Allah are qidam which means without beginning, and baqa, that is without ending.[15]

Mas'ud's explanation represents a layman's style. But considering that he is only a primary school graduate and has never been to a pesantren, that he has learned religion only from ngaji at the nearby tajug, where chanting puji-pujian is one of its media as well as its methods, his argument is remarkable. He accepts religious doctrine not in the form of dead dogma which must be accepted without question. He, instead, develops his creed with an enriched body of theological thinking. Not all people are of course like Mas'ud, but there are certainly many others like him, who may be taken as interesting examples showing that there are some cases in which assimilation of Islam amongst traditional people has produced a sort of ‘popular rationalism.’ The existence of God cannot be satisfactorily proven by any empirical enquiries, laboratory experiments or sophisticated logical  manipulation, let alone by Mas'ud's explanation. Ghazali (in Au Zed 1974) warned that even the prophets were not sent to prove the existence of God and the origin of the world; they were only sent to teach His unity. Arguments for God's existence are permissible only if they are derived and sustained by the Qur'an.[16]

The description I have presented would suggest that the Cirebonese do not seem to have a unique concept of God. Their ides of God derives entirely from Islam wherein the concept of deity is recorded in the Holy Scripture, the Qur'an. The Scripture preaches that basic to the Islamic faith is the acceptance of the principle of absolute monotheism, the rejection of polytheism, and destruction of idols by bearing witness that Allah is the only one and unique God, and the Creator of all that exists. The Qur'an expresses and emphasises these basic tenets. This faith is the renewal of what the earlier prophets, Adam to Muhammad, recalled; it has also been validated and ratified by the pre-Islamic monotheistic believers where Abraham khalil Allah, or the friend of God, is notably described in the Qur'an as being: just and a prophet, a true believer (hanif), having surrendered himself (Muslim) to God without compromise with the musyrikun or polytheists, those who associate others with God.[17]