With approximately 90 percent of its population of more than 200 million identifying as Muslim, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Nevertheless, stories from the ancient Hindu and Buddhist history of Indonesia persist in popular puppet performances in Java. A more recent repertoire of Muslim and indigenous Javanese stories also exists. Plays depicting the exploits of Amir Hamzah, the uncle of the prophet Muhammad, are popular in the rod puppet theater (wayang golek) of central and northern coastal Java.
In this cycle of stories, called wayang menak, Amir Hamzah becomes the king of Arabia and must defend himself against the attacks of neighboring powers. He travels widely, encountering many obstacles in his attempts to spread Islam. Amir Hamzah’ s loyal companion and master spy, Umar Maya, often accompanies him. One of their chief enemies is Patih Bastak, whose name in Arabic, Bakhtak, means “ nightmare.” Scholars believe that these stories developed in the sixteenth century. They were later compiled in a manuscript called the Serat Menak.
Although there is literary evidence of the use of puppet theater centuries before the establishment of Islam in the 1200s, most puppet masters (dalang) believe that puppet theater was introduced to Java by the nine Muslim saints said to have converted the island’s people. These dalang see no contradiction between this belief and the fact that puppet theater stories are often Hindu in origin, and that some characters portrayed may stem from animist roots. Nor do the dalang find it odd that the philosophy espoused in puppet theater has connections to Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam. The Javanese see these elements as part of a pool of diverse beliefs— all of which ultimately derive from the same source. This approach is echoed in ancient Javanese literature, which describes all religious traditions as different paths toward the same God.
Some scholars have suggested that the stylization of the puppets shows the impact of Islam. A comparison of the puppets shown here from Muslim Java and those of the adjacent Hindu island of Bali shows the Javanese figures to be less naturalistic, having elongated arms and facial features.