There are few places in the world where Islam blended quite so exotically with local people and culture as in Indonesia. This mix is represented by Australasia’s early Muslim architecture. The Masjid Agung Demak, the oldest continually active mosque on the island of Java, is one of the best representative structures of early Islam in Australasia. It is also the location of the tombs of the Sultans of Demak, one of the largest and most important kingdoms in Indonesia’s history. Though it has long been surpassed in size and religious importance by more modern mosques, the Masjid Agung Demak is still highly honored and is considered by many to be the most important Islamic site in the country.
The history of Islam in Indonesia is closely tied to that of neighboring Malaysia. Around the same time Islam was spreading down the Malay Peninsula, it was being introduced to the islands of Sumatra and Java. For many years the Muslims of these islands were nominally subject to the religious authorities of Kota Bahru, which trained and sent many missionaries that helped to convert Indonesia to Islam. Nevertheless Sumatra and Java remained Buddhist-Hindu dominant until well into the 16th century.
The first major Muslim state in Indonesia was the Sultanate of Demak, which became one of the most powerful states in Java in the early 1500s. Although it survived barely fifty years before being replaced by the Kingdom of Pajang, Demak played a pivotal role in the expansion of Islam throughout Java and some of the nearby islands. By the time of its demise as a nation the majority of the population of Western Indonesia was Muslim.
The early history of Demak is rich in tales concerning the Wali Sanga, or Nine Saints. These nine missionaries were probably Sufi saints from India who came to spread Islamic teachings in Indonesia in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, some, or even all, may have had different points of origin. The Wali Sanga were instrumental in helping to set up the government of the sultanate, and may have even had a role in the establishment of the city of Demak. According to legend, one of them, Sunan Kalijaga, was partially responsible for the construction of the Masjid Agung Demak.
The Masjid Agung Demak was for many years the most important mosque on the island of Java and the largest in Indonesia. It was also the official mosque of the Demak sultanate, which more or less ended in 1548 after the rule of only three sultans. Despite the fall of the Demak dynasty, the city’s mosque retained its religious importance, and was for four centuries the most important minor Muslim pilgrimage destination in Australasia. Though it has long since been eclipsed by larger, more magnificent and more important mosques, the Masjid Agung Demak remains the religious heart and soul of Indonesia.
The Masjid Agung Demak is the prototypical Indonesian mosque. Built of exotic timber as opposed to stone, the Agung Demak relies heavily on the architectural styles of the Pacific islands rather than on anything from the Middle East, India or even Indochina. It is much more reminiscent of Indonesia’s Buddhist Temples. The construction workers were, in all likelihood, Buddhists or Hindus. For the most part, the current building mostly dates to the original construction sometime around the year 1500 AD.
The details of the mosque door and interior decoration betray the possible non-Muslim origins of the construction workers. Among the artistic touches are the depiction of animals, an extreme rarity for any mosque anywhere. The Masjid Agung Demak’s blue tilework may have been imported from as far away as modern-day Vietnam.
The Masjid Agung Demak is located close to the center of Demek, approximately 220 miles east of Jakarta. It is open to Muslims and Non-Muslims (the latter with restrictions). There is no cost of admission. Web: www.javatourism.com (official tourism website of the island of Java)
The island of Java boasts several of Indonesia’s most important mosques. The Masjid Istiqlal in the national capital of Jakarta was the world’s first truly modern post-war mosque, and is the largest Islamic religious building east of India. Indonesia’s other best-known older mosque is the Masjid Raya in Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra.