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If you follow Western news a little too much, you’ll be aware of the fear of Islam; what you hear about is terrorism and fundamentalism, and the spectre of a conflict of civilisation. But if you read the article below, which is about the cult of the 7 Moslem saints in Bali, the Wali Pitu, you will see a human face of Islam, far from the sternness of Wahabi or Salafist dogma that dominates the airwaves.

At the origin, so the story goes (1991), there was the peddling of shoes across Bali, of a young merchant, Zainal, originating from Gresik in Eastern Java. Like other peddlers of his kind, Zainal would go from village to village, from market to Balinese temple festivals, to sell sandals and shoes. As a man of faith, he would wherever possible in his wanderings, stop to talk, eat halal food and if possible pray with people of his own belief. Mosques were places where he found those. So one day, while in Bedugul, at the local mosque, he came upon an aged Balinese man who impressed him remarkably. Sujai was his name. Old, he had had the call and was now a mosque-going Moslem; a rarity, because Balinese people mostly convert for pragmatic reasons, a marriage usually. But Sujai was really interested by the faith, which, he told him, had a long history in Bedugul: as a proof of it, there was, up there in the forest, an obviously Moslem tomb, half-derelict, have venerated, which warranted attention from the true followers…Zainal took note and, having sold a few shoes and sandals, went back to his quarters in a Moslem neighbourhood of Denpasar, in Monang Maning.

Cheap shoes, in those days, were not made in Bali. To get them, one had to go to Java, and in Java, Zainal had his own provider, in the town of Sidoarjo (near Surabaya), Pak Toyeb Zaen Arifien. Pak Toyeb, however, was not just an ordinary sandal maker. He was an ulema (Moslem cleric) affiliated to the Qadiriah brotherhood and owned a Koranic school for girls, called Pondok Putri al-Khoriyah.

For a former pesantren (Islamic boarding school) student like Zainal, a pesantren master (kyai) is who one visits to ask for advice, which the master never forgets to punctuate with Arabic references taken from the al-Quran and the prophet’s sayings (Hadith), the source of his aura. So, back in Java, Zainal visited him and told him his story, his meeting with a Balinese convert who knew of a strange and perhaps holy tomb in the middle of the Bedugul forest. So Pak Toyeb should come and see by himself that Islam had a past in Bali, and was also fast growing. Furthermore, insisted Zainal, the Moslems there lacked spiritual guidance. And converts like Sujai were certainly eager to see him.

Pak Toyeb was deeply moved. He told Zainal that “As soon as his finances would allow him, he would come to Bali to visit Pak Sujai, who had got the grace from Allah.”

Luckily, the day soon arrived when Pak Toyeb, with a small group of followers, as suited his status of kyai, took the road to Bali. The month was “Muharam,” in the year of Christ 1991. He did not arrive in unknown land. In Denpasar, several members of the East-Javanese community has already heard of the reputation of the old kyai: Not only could he recite the al-Quran by heart, but he was also a follower of one of the most famous Moslem saints, Abdel- Qadir al-Jelani, from Bagdad. And he brought with him the latter’s manaqib, the book of the saint’s good deeds. So after visiting Sujai and the Moslem tomb of Bedugul, when he was asked to read the manaqib story of the saint at his hosts’ mosque, he wilfully submitted. It was such a great success, that they all decided that more was needed. A Qadiriah brotherhood cell would be set up and monthly readings of the story of Abdul Qadir al-Jaleni were organized. This reading would take place every eve of the Pon-Friday day of the Javanese calendar, thus every 35 days on Thursday nights. To lead the reading Pak Toyeb would be asked to come.

Thus, in a single trip to Bali, a local branch of the Qadiriah brotherhood was set up in Bali, with Pak Toyeb as its guru. The original members were only 11, but it grew rapidly until it reached several dozen members. The meetings took place in turn in the members’ houses and were all led by Pak Toyeb, who came monthly from Sidoarjo for the purpose.

When Toyeb came to Bali, he did not only perform the expected readings and associated zikir (repetitive prayers) performances. Interested by the status and condition of Islam in Bali, he took advantage of his visits to Bali to call on local Islamic teachers, from whom he inquired about the condition of Islam in Bali. He had also his own informants, like Zainal, who told him, while selling their shoes and other wares, of the real conditions of Islam on the island, and of strange tombs that were reported to exist here and there, on the island. All had their stories, legendary and often magical; some were revered by local people and occasional Moslem visitors. So there was undoubtedly was some link between Islam and Bali, thought Pak Toyeb. But he did not know what it was. It was intriguing.

It is only a year after his first visit that Pak Toyeb understood what this was all about. He was performing a tahajud prayer in the middle of the night during the Muharam month, in his house of Sidoharjo, when he suddenly got a sirri (sign), a magical revelation. He heard a voice speaking from a distance, but clearly, which was saying in Javanese: “Wus kaporo nyoto ing telatah Bali ilu kawengku dining pitu piro piro wali cobo wujudna,” which, translated, becomes: “The land of Bali is host to seven Moslem saints. Reveal them.” At first Toyeb did not pay much attention to this voice; it could just be a trick from his imagination. But the following nights he heard again a voice with the same tone. Just like someone giving an order that had to be heeded. No doubt it was something truly serious: he had to listen to it. He would put down on paper what he heard, and later decide what to do about it. The voice said: “Ono sawijining pepunden dumunung ono ing telatah susunaning siti sasandingan pamujan agung kang menggon sakduwuring tirto kang kadarbeni dening suwitaning pandito ojo sumelang.” Translated in English: “There is a pepunden (sacred place) located in a place where earth is accumulated; it is located on water and it is looked after by a priest; don’t hesitate”. Even though Toyeb did not exactly understand what it meant, he wrote it down as he understood it. Its meaning would come later, he was sure.

He thought it was over, but in the same month, while performing his sholatul lalii (night prayer), he heard again the same voice giving yet another clue. And again a few days later. Always in Javanese, giving him ever clearer indications. There was no doubt to have anymore: he was assigned by God to find the lost Moslem saints of Bali.

On his next trip, and the following one, and the next one after, until he had visited all of them, Pak Toyeb, accompanied by Zainal and up to 15 members of the Denpasar Qadiriah brotherhood, undertook a systematic visit of all the old tombs of Bali that could be the resting place of a saint’s remains. Some of the characters buried in the tombs were already known: in Denpasar-Pemecutan, it was a Hindu-married Moslem princess; in Seseh a Javanese prince killed by treachery on the order of the king of Mengwi; in Lovina, a Chinese holy man; but elsewhere, especially when the tomb was derelict, sometimes nothing more than a few old stones were left, and it was impossible to guess who was the real “owner” of the place. At best, there might be some signs of the presence of a holy figure, like in Karangasem, where a tomb had somehow been left untouched by the lava flow from Mount Agung’s 1963 eruption. So the only way to know was to listen to the “signs”. If there were saints in the visited tombs, there would certainly be “signs”.

And “signs” there indeed were, when Pak Toyeb and his followers visited, confirming the signs already obtained during his Muharam nights. Actually they did not simply visit, but they also prayed, after the manner of the Javanese Sufi and brotherhood member, their head swinging to and fro to the rhythm of the holy sourates, “la ilah ha illalah”…Many times, of course, nothing occurred, but a few times, seven in all, when the moon was totally dark or on the contrary striking of brightness, Pak Toyeb found himself overtaken by a sudden shudder. There it was, the expected “sign,” we may call it a trance, but there was a name at the tip of his tongue, and a certainty that it was not just anybody who was buried there, but an aulya, a Moslem saint.

The whole process of identification of the saints took Pak Toyeb and his team no less than 6 years to complete, from 1992 until 1998. But now the seven Moslem saints of Bali were known, for sure; and here they are: Pangeran Mas Sepuh in Seseh Beach; Habib Umar bin Yusuf Al Magribi in the Bedugul forest; Habib Ali bin Abu Bakar al Khamid in Kusamba; Syech Maulana Yusuf Al Baghdi Al Maghribi in Bongaya (Bebandem), Habib Ali Bin Zaenal Al Idrus in Bongaya, and Abdul Qodir Muhammad in Kemukus (Lovina).

So there was now “proof,’ through the 7 saints, of Islam’s long presence in Bali. Pak Toyeb could rest, and he passed away in peace a few years ago.

The saints, meanwhile, being saints, attracted worshippers, all the more so they help obtain God’s blessing and protection. Most of the worshippers are Moslem, but in some instances, like for example in Seseh – not far from Canggu — Balinese may come to present offerings to a saint who is just – to them — another ancestor. And the guardians of the tombs, now mausoleums, are also Balinese. Only the busloads of Javanese buses and their veiled pilgrims remind us that we are dealing with a specific Moslem cult.

Yet, don’t think that all Moslems agree with the cult of saints. Pak Toyeb and his Sufistic followers have of course found the right verses to justify their quest. But other Moslems, more rigorist and literalist in their approach, not only disagree but accuse the saints’ worshippers of betraying the Faith. In Indonesia, those “rigorists” only accuse. But elsewhere they act. In Saudi Arabia they have destroyed all the remaining mausoleums of the founders of Islam. In Iraq and elsewhere, their fate is worse.

So you, Australians, Frenchmen and other Westerners, if 20 years from now a few Moslems take it upon themselves to discover the tombs of their Moslem holy forebears in the outskirts of Paris or the Australian desert, don’t see ill in it. They are at least as tolerant as you are!


 Text By Jean Couteau

Jean Couteau

Jean Couteau

An observer of Bali for over 40 years, Jean Couteau is a graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and former lecturer at the Denpasar Institut Seni Indonesia. He is a reputed specialist on Balinese culture, having authored: Puri Lukisan (2000), Un Autre Temps: Les Calendriers Tika de Bali (2004) Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali (2013, with Georges Breguet), and Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali (2018) – to name but a few. He is a multilingual writer, contributing for Indonesia’s national paper, Kompas, with his column “Udar Rasa” published in the Sunday cultural page (in Bahasa Indonesia). He also contributes a monthly cultural piece for NOW! Bali.