“Satan’s Sermon: A late-19th-century Javanese Elite Objections to the Spirit of the Age”
The purpose of this research project is to examine the satirical nature of the Sĕrat Jiljalaha, a narrative poem in Javanese verse (tĕmbang macapat) which was composed sometime in the last quarter of the 19th century by a Yogyakarta palace official called Raden Riya Ranadiningrat (d. 1910). It was published in Javanese script under the pseudonym of “Aboe R…..” in 1895 by Van Dorp in Semarang. The title Sĕrat Jiljalaha can be interpreted as a Javanese rendition of the 99th chapter of the Qur’an, viz. Sūra Zilzālahā which takes its name from a word in its first verse: “When the earth is shaken violently in its (final) quaking” (iḍā zulzilati l-arḍu zilzālahā).
This chapter deals with the Day of Judgment, in which the cited opening verse refers to “the dead being thrown out of their graves” (Abdel Haleem 2005:431).
Whereas Muslims consider the Qur’an to be the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, the Sĕrat Jiljalaha is presented as a translation in Javanese of a message originally delivered by the devil to his followers. Perhaps Ranadiningrat was inspired by the Wasīyatu l-Nabī or Last Admonition of the Prophet, recast here in a black parody. Anyhow, as a statement on the title page of the 1918 version explains, the Sĕrat Jiljalaha was meant to provide “good instructions” (piwulang sae), but these were “turned upside down” (walikan). In a modern-day catalogue, the text is likewise described as to be about “bad things which should better be avoided by people” (Saktimulya 2005:87). However, as I hope to make clear, this text does not so much address “perennial” problems of good and evil but rather makes use of religion-related ideas and ideals as “weapons”
or “tools” in the social and political vocabulary of a particular historical period, viz. the era of high colonialism in Java.
According to the Dutch Javanist Jan Brandes (1894:508), the Sĕrat Jiljalaha displays “a certain degree of humor,” but as I see it, its humor is of a parodist nature and more likely to evoke a grimace than a laugh.
Javanese society was going through rapid changes in the 19th-century colonial context. The Sĕrat Kala Tiḍa or Poem of a Time of Darkness by the Solonese court poet Ranggawarsita (d. 1873) is perhaps the best-known expression of discontent with the situation at hand, but the Sĕrat Jiljalaha shows that such feelings must have been quite widespread among the traditional elite. The Yogyakarta palace official Raden Riya Ranadiningrat even goes so far as to liken the manifold changes (economic, social, political, etc.) set in motion by Dutch colonialism to evils propagated by the devil himself. Satan’s sermon in the Sĕrat Jiljalaha illustrates that the Javanese world itself had become perverted. Written by a member of the traditional elite, the religious context of an epic struggle between true and false belief is strongly concerned with the social order which had been upturned. A moralistic-didactic text pertaining to the state of affairs in Java, the demons threatening to take full control turn out to be very concrete, viz. not only the Dutch but even more so the Chinese outsiders.