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The Wali Songo (also transcribed as Wali Sanga) are revered saints of Islam in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java, because of their historic role in the spread of Islam in Indonesia. The word wali is Arabic for "trusted one" ("guardian" in other contexts in Indonesia) or "friend of God" ("saint" in this context), while the word sanga is Javanese for the number nine.
Although referred to as a group, there is good evidence that fewer than nine were alive at any given time. Also, there are sources that use the term "Wali Sanga" to refer to saintly mystic(s) other than the most well-known nine individuals.
Each man is often attributed the title sunan in Javanese, which may derive from suhun, in this context meaning "honoured".
Most of the wali were also called raden during their lifetimes, because they were members of royal houses. (See "Style and Title" section of Yogyakarta Sultanate for an explanation of Javanese nobility terms.)
The graves of Wali Sanga are venerated as locations of ziarah (ziyarat) or local pilgrimage in Java. The graves are also known as pundhen in Javanese.
The earliest Wali Sanga was Malik Ibrahim.: 241 He is thought to have lived in the first half of the 14th century according to "Babad Tanah Jawi" and other texts. In a transcription by J. J. Meinsma, he is identified as Makhdum Ibrahim as-Samarqandi. The most generally accepted history, supported by a reading by J. P. Mosquette of the inscription at Ibrahim's grave, identifies his origin from Kashan, modern day Iran. Syekh Jumadil Kubra and Malik Ibrahim are disciples of the Kubrowi Shafi'i school. Whose jurist is Mir Sayid Ali Hamadani Shafi'i (died 1384) of Hamedan, Iran. Malik Ibrahim belonged to a highly educated family in Kashan. His great-grandfather migrated from Samarqand. They were originally a converted Central Asian Muslim pir from Samarkand. With centuries of Turkish, Mongol and Ottoman rule over Middle East, many of them started claiming Sayyid ancestry to legitimize their rule over the population. According to author Martin van Bruinessen of the history of Islamic Java: the Syekh Jumadil Kubra, to whom all the saints of Java appear to be related with. It appears that this name, which almost certainly is a corruption of Najmuddin al-Kubra, has attached itself to various legendary and mythical personalities, who have a common thought that they are the ancestors or preceptors of the founders of Islam in Java - an oblique acknowledgement, perhaps, of the prestige of the Qubrowi in the period of Islamisation.
The Sufis themselves traced their ancestors to erstwhile Hindu and Buddhist Javanese Kings. Tracing the lineage earlier than Malik Ibrahim is problematic, but most scholars agree that his lineages are of Chinese descent and not Arab. Although his silsila are listed in various Javanese royal chronicles (such as Sejarah Banten) to denote ancestral lineage from erstwhile Hindu Kings, the term in Sufism refers to a lineage of teachers. Some of these spiritual lineages are cited by van Bruinessen in his study of the Banten Sultanate, particularly in regard to Sunan Gunung Jati who was an initiate of various Sufi orders.
Although popular belief sometimes refers to the Wali Sanga as "founders" of Islam on Java, the religion was present by the time the Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He arrived during his first voyage (1405–1407 CE). Many of the earliest Wali Sanga had Chinese ancestry both paternally and maternally; for example, Sunan Ampel (Chinese name Bong Swi Ho), Sunan Bonang (Ampel's son, Bong Ang), and Sunan Kalijaga (Gan Si Cang). The theory of Chinese maternal ancestry of Wali Sanga was publicized for the very first time in the book entitled "The Collapse of Javanese Hindu Kingdom" (1968), which states that the Wali Sanga are descendants of Chinese Muslims.
Dewi Candrawulan, a Muslim Princess from Champa, was the mother of Raden Rahmat (Prince Rahmat), who was later known by the name of Sunan Ampel. Sunan Ampel was the son of Malik Ibrahim, and the ancestor or teacher of some of the other Wali Sanga.
The composition of the nine saints varies depending on different sources. The following list is widely accepted, but its authenticity relies much on repeated citations of a handful of early sources, reinforced as "facts" in school textbooks and other modern accounts. This list differs somewhat from the names suggested in the Babad Tanah Jawi manuscripts.
One theory about the variation of composition is: "The most probable explanation is that there was a loose council of nine religious leaders, and that as older members retired or died, new members were brought into this council". However, it should be borne in mind that the term "Wali Sanga" was created retroactively by historians, and so there was no official "group of nine" that had membership. Further, the differences in chronology of the wali suggest that there might never have been a time when nine of them were alive contemporaneously.
At first, it was not easy for Islam to enter and thrive in the archipelago. Even in the historical record, in a span of about 800 years, Islam had not been able to establish a substantial presence. Notes from the time of the Tang Dynasty of China indicated that merchants from the Middle East had come to the kingdom of Shih-li-fo-shi (Srivijaya) in Sumatra, and Holing (Kalingga) in Java in the year 674 AD, (i.e. in the transitional period of Caliph Ali to Muawiyah). In the 10th century, a group of Persians called the Lor tribes came to Java. They lived in an area in Ngudung (Kudus), also known as Loram (from the word "Lor" which means North). They also formed other communities in other areas, such as in Gresik. The existence of the gravestone of Fatimah binti Maimun bin Hibatallah in Gresik, dated to the 10th century AD, is considered evidence of the incoming migration of the Persian tribes.
In his notes, Marco Polo relates that when returning from China to Italy in 1292, he did not travel via the Silk Road, but instead traveled by sea towards the Persian Gulf. He stopped in Perlak, a port city in Aceh. According to Polo, in Perlak there were three groups, namely (1) ethnic Chinese, who were all Muslims; (2) Western (Persians), also entirely Muslim; and (3) indigenous people in the hinterland, who worshipped trees, rocks, and spirits. In his testimony, he said regarding the "Kingdom of Ferlec (Perlak)" - "This kingdom, you must know, is so much frequented by the Saracen merchants that they have converted the natives to the Law of Mohammet — I mean the townspeople only, for the Java hill-people live for all the world like beasts, and eat human flesh, as well as all other kinds of flesh, clean or unclean. And they worship this, that, and the other thing; for in fact the first thing that they see on rising in the morning, that they do worship for the rest of the day.
One hundred years after Polo, the Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng He (鄭和) came to Java in 1405. When he stopped in Tuban, he noted that there were 1,000 Chinese Muslim families there. In Gresik, he also found there were 1,000 Chinese Muslim families, with the same amount reported in Surabaya. On Zheng He's seventh (and last) visit to Java in 1433, he invited his scribe named Ma Huan. According to Ma Huan, the Chinese and the Arab population of the cities on the northern beaches of Java were all Muslim, while the indigenous population were mostly non-Muslim as they were worshipping the trees, rocks, and spirits.
Early in the 15th century, Ali Murtadho and Ali Rahmat, sons of Malik Ibrahim, relocated from the Kingdom of Champa (Southern Vietnam) to Java, and settled in the Tuban area, precisely in the Gesikharjo Village at Palang District. Malik Ibrahim was buried there in 1419. After the funeral, both of his sons then heading to the capital of Majapahit, as their aunt (Princess Dwarawati) was married with the King of Majapahit. And by the King's order, both of them then were appointed as officials of the Majapahit Empire. Ali Murtadho as Raja Pandhita (Minister of Religion) for the Muslims, while Ali Rahmat was appointed as Imam (High Priest for Muslims) in Surabaya. Ali Rahmat was known as Raden Rahmat (Prince Rahmat), who then became Sunan Ampel.
Multiple sources and conventional wisdom agree that the Wali Sanga contributed to the propagation of Islam (but not its original introduction) in the area now known as Indonesia. However, it is difficult to prove the extent of their influence in quantitative terms such as an increase in the number of adherents or masjids in the areas of their work in contrast to localities where they were not active.
Some of the family relationships described below are well-documented; others are less certain. Even today, it is common in Java for a family friend to be called "uncle" or "brother" despite the lack of blood relationship.
Information about Wali Sanga is usually available in three forms:
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