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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 134-136

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Book Review

The Seen and Unseen Worlds in Java, 1726-1749: History, Literature and Islam in the Court of Pakubuwana II

The Seen and Unseen Worlds in Java, 1726-1749: History, Literature and Islam in the Court of Pakubuwana II. By Merle C. Ricklefs. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. Pp. xxiv + 391. $36 (cloth).

In reconstructing the court life and Javanese worldview of the second quarter of the eighteenth century, Merle Ricklefs in The Seen and Unseen Worlds in Java uses Javanese literature of the period as well as earlier works that underwent editing and reinterpretation at the time. This is not a simple or easy task, for Javanese literature is filled with obscurities and hidden meanings. Yet Ricklefs leads his readers through the complexities of the major works of the time with consummate skill and care. This reviewer has never seen Javanese literature employed more skillfully to reconstruct the spiritual structure and mental outlook of a bygone time and place for which few other records exist. The "unseen" world of cosmic forces, made manifest through literature, assumed a primary place in defining the nature of kingship. In itself, Ricklefs's unique methodology is a significant contribution to the historian's craft in discovering the religious and mystical forces shaping the Javanese past. Historians with a specialty in Javanese history will want to follow every intricate detail of this historical masterpiece.

This reconstruction of the life and culture of the Javanese court of the kingdom of Mataram during the reign of King Pakubuwana II is given broader significance by the temporal events of that reign. King Pakubuwana II was a weak ruler unable to exert his authority on the political forces that led to the destruction of his court and the division of the kingdom. Although his individual shortcomings played a large part in these disasters, the nature of the court and its worldview, which surrounded and dominated him, contributed mightily to the outcome.

Two factors of broader significance and therefore of more immediate interest to practitioners of world history are the integration of [End Page 134] Islam into non-Arabic societies and the forces in non-Western societies that enabled imperialism to win ground. In the story of the Javanese court of Pakubuwana II these two factors are essential ingredients. These subjects have interested historians in many parts of the world at many different times and lend themselves easily to comparative analysis. One will find a case study of these factors in this book.

Islam began to take hold in Java probably in the fourteenth century and found acceptance in its mystic or Sufi form. Mysticism was already well known and practiced in Java, for the Old Javanese Hindu works, such as Bima Suci, Arjunawiwaha, and Ramayana, also contained mystical truths resembling those found in Sufism. One of these, central to Javanese court thought, is the doctrine of the unity of lord (gusti) and servant (kawula), which had come to be viewed as the unity of God with humankind, whom He had created as his servants. The court literature that Ricklefs analyzes illustrates a combining of the two literary genre into a single tradition; the early Hindu-based literature now comes to be seen as Islamic. Thereby the king becomes responsible for the maintenance of the true Islamic faith as well as, in a mystical sense, being one with his realm and people, just as all of humankind was in a mystical sense one with God. The seen and the unseen world are combined in the perfect Sufi king who must preserve the sanctity of both. This mystical combination of new and old beliefs has been known to occur in other parts of the world as well.

Unfortunately Pakubuwana II was not a strong enough vessel to manage this role of the perfect Sufi king, though not for want of members of the court, especially his grandmother, to make him fit. He did quite well in...