Indonesia: As Volcano Erupts, a Spiritual Loss

President Obama was in Indonesia this week, but was forced to cut his trip short. As of this writing, Indonesia’s Mount Merapi is still spewing clouds of ash into the sky, and the death toll from the eruptions that began two weeks ago has grown to 191, with more than 350,000 people displaced.

Gunung Merapi (“The Mountain of Fire”) is the most active volcano in Indonesia and one of the most active in the world. Merapi is located approximately 30 kilometers north of Yogyakarta, a city of approximately 500,000. On clear days, views of the mountain dominate the northern horizon. Merapi is always at least somewhat active. It “smokes” every day. In the more than thirty years that I have been visiting Yogyakarta, I have never seen Merapi without a plume of smoke rising from the summit.

There are many in Yogyakarta who understand natural disasters in religious ways. Merapi holds a special place in the mystical variant of Islam that is common in the area.

It is widely believed that there is an invisible North-South Axis that begins at Merapi’s summit, passes through the palace and terminates on the coast. The volcano is the abode of Sunan Merapi, the southern coast is the home of Gusti Kangeng Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Ocean. Both are powerful Muslim spirits. It is understood that on the Day of Judgment at the world’s ending, a lava flow beginning at the peak of Mount Merapi will flow through Yogyakarta, destroying the Sultan’s palace and ending in Ratu Kidul’s domain in the Southern Ocean.

Here, a major eruption is a religious crisis as well as a natural disaster.

Mbah Marijan was among the victims of he recent eruptions. He was eighty-three years old, and the juri cunci of the volcano, a “guardian of the key,” responsible for maintaining a relationship to the spirits of the mountain, and caring for the paths leading from the base to holy places near the summit. He was also one of the local leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization.

He became a media star in 2006 when he refused orders to evacuate his village on the slopes of the mountain at the time of the last major eruption. At the time he explain that he had a responsibility to remain on the mountain to pray for the safety of the people of the community and the Sultanate. He gained particular notoriety for his statement that he did not take orders from the current Sultan, but only from his late father. He became something of a folk hero for his courage and was widely believed to have enormous spiritual powers. He appeared in advertisements for a popular brand of sports drink together with nationally known athletes. The advertisements suggested a relationship between the athletes’ physical prowess and Mbah Marijan’s spiritual power.

I met Mbah Marijan only once, less than two months ago. He was a very deeply religious man in a very Javanese way. He was a pious Muslim and at the same time deeply attached to Javanese tradition. He felt that his fate was closely tied to the mountain, and that he was obligated to remain there no matter what the risk. He was also totally loyal to the current Sultan though he continued to insist that he would only take orders from his father. His house was filled with a combination of Muslim and Muslim-Javanese artworks and ritual objects. Posters of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, portraits of past Sultans of Yogyakarta and a palace calendar hung on the walls.

There were also ceremonial umbrellas and other ritual objects in the receiving room of his house. Despite his newfound fame, Mbah Marijan lived very simply and used much of what he earned from advertising contracts to build a mosque near his house. He also built a church for Christians in the area.

Mbah Marijan described himself as simple man from a village with little formal education. He claimed that his decision not to evacuate in 2006 was motivated by a concern for his duty and a desire to do what he could for people in the area. He denied that he had any special powers. He could speak Indonesian, the national language, but usually chose to speak only Javanese. He said that he spoke only in Javanese because it was appropriate for his position in the Javanese ritual system and because he did not wish to be a national figure or tourist attraction.

In his final conversation with Indonesian reporters Mbah Marijan reaffirmed these beliefs. He told reporters that:

“I still feel at home here. If I go to flee, then who would take care of this place?”

He also encouraged local residents to take all necessary precautions, stating:

“I ask the citizens to obey orders from the government and say your prayers to God for salvation and Merapi not to ‘cough.’”

Unfortunately Merapi coughed. It is said that when Mbah Marijan’s body was discovered that he was prostrated in prayer. Many people have mentioned that this is probably how he wanted to die, and that it was a good way for a Muslim to die. Many other stories are now circulating about his death. One is that the hot gases came into his house while Mbah Marijan was praying and that they could not enter his room until he had finished. Others state that he was fully aware that he would die as the result of the eruption, and that he chose to remain on the mountain so that his prayers might save others.

Many people now wonder what will become of Yogyakarta and its people because he is no longer here to protect them. Some say that the series of natural disasters that have struck Indonesia in recent years are a sign that the end of the world and the Day of Judgment are at hand. Others report having visions or dreams in which victims ask them for prayers. Some survivors tell miraculous stories of be warned by spiritual beings of the coming danger and being told to pray and recite the Qur’an. One family who lived only a few hundred yards from Mbah Marijan’s compound escaped with only minor injuries after heading such warnings.

Despite dangerous conditions more than a thousand people including national and local political figure, one of the Sultan’s bothers and representatives of major Muslim organizations joined in funeral prayers in the village cemetery near his home. Special prayer services were also held in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and in cities and villages across the country. His grave will almost certainly become a pilgrimage site.

Mbah Marijan was also eulogized in the Friday sermon at the campus mosque at Gadjah Mada University. He was described as a simple and pious man who tried to do the best that he could for the people and who was, in this respect, very different from local and national politicians.

The mayor of the village of Umbulharjo, close to Mbah Marijan’s compound stated:

“We have lost the figure who has been a ‘role model,’ who we could always ask for advice. We pray that the spirit Mbah Maridjan is acceptable in the sight of Allah, that his charity and worship be acknowledged and his sins forgiven.”

These sentiments have been echoed on testimonials broadcast repeatedly on Indonesian television. The theme of these messages is that the nation has much to learn from his dedication to principle and simple lifestyle. This is often contrasted with the extravagance, corruption, and single-minded dedication to self-promotion of political and business elites. Even Islamist groups who normally denounce beliefs like Mbah Marijan’s as “unbelief” rushed to embrace his memory.

This is a face of Islam that people in the United States and other Western countries too rarely see. News of Islam too often repeats stereotypes of violence and extremism, projecting the views and acts of a tiny minority onto approximately twenty percent of the world’s population. Mbah Marijan’s Islam was local. Few Muslims outside Yogyakarta share his concern with Merapi.

There are many, including some in Yogyakarta that regard his, and similar local interpretations of Islam as heretical or deviant. This view is especially common among modernists and fundamentalist who tend to understand Islam in global terms and as a single, unified system of doctrine and ritual practice.

There are, at the same time, hundreds of millions of Muslims for whom Islam is as much a local as it is a universal faith and for whom devotion to God and concern with local modes of spiritual and religious practice are inextricably linked.

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