The genuine Islamic nature of ritualised adat is probably best seen in the commemoration of either Islamic holy days or holy months. It is difficult to trace historically, when this type of ritual began. Rippin indicates that activities such as mawlid festivals for celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad were not fully established until about the thirteenth century A.D.[19] But commemoration of other days have explicit scriptural roots in the Qur'an and the Hadith, suggesting that it was already being practiced when the Prophet was still alive.

In dealing with this subject, I am more concerned with how the commemorations are performed than with their historical origins, although the latter can not be ignored. There are at least four months in Islam which bear commemorative significance because they are claimed as sacred; they are: Dzu'l-Qa'idah (Kapit), Dzu'l-Hijjah (Raya Agung), Muharram (Sura) and Rajab (Rejep). These are respectively the eleventh, the twelfth, the first and the seventh month of  the Islamic and Javanese lunar calendar.[20] During these months Muslims are forbidden to engage in warfare unless forced into it for reasons of self-defence. This reckoning is rooted in the Holy Qur'an, saying:

“The number of months (in a year) in the sight of Allah is twelve; so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth. Of them four are sacred; That is the right religion, so wrong not yourself therein …”[21]

The Qur'an, in fact, does not mention these specific months, it is the commentators who instigated so.

Along with these sacred months there are other months in which certain day(s) are held by many Muslims as being holy and on which they make celebration. They are: Safar (Sapar), Rabi' al-Awwal (Mulud), Sya'ban (Ruwah) and Ramadhan (Puasa), being respectively the second, the third, the eighth and the ninth months of the Javanese calendar. This makes eight out of the twelve months that have commemorative significance of one form or another. By means of commemoration or celebration, attachment to a Muslim identity is expressed. The significance, of these months can be traced in Islamic history rather than in any formal scriptural ordinance. The general pattern of commemoration and celebration of Islamic holy days consists of one, or a combination, of the following: invocation, fasting, non-obligatory prayer, recital of the Qur'an, recital of the biography of certain religious figures or of the related stories which sanctify that particular day or month, and offerings of food or other material. Although not necessarily, more often than not, celebration is accompanied by some form of feast. Currently, as a result of recent development, the commemoration of Islamic holy days focuses on pengajian (a  public speech) given by an orator intentionally called for this purpose. Pengajian reduces the many different forms of commemoration to a uniformity in which variations and differences are apparent only in the references, content and messages of the speaker.


Suroan means celebrating or commemorating Suro or Sura. Etymologically, the word sura, in old Javanese (Kawi), means giant; in Sanskrit it means god or goddess, powerful, brave, warrior, monkey.[22] It is difficult to relate directly these meanings to this context. The most likely explanation is that it is local reference to the Arabic term ‘Asyura referring to the tenth (day) of Muharram. The first day of the month is, therefore, the new year and its celebration commemorates the new year of the Islamic lunar calendar. Its reckoning started on the day when the Prophet Muhammad and his companions fled from Mecca to seek refuge in Medina in AD 622. This refuge is referred to as hijrah, hence the calendar's name is derived and usually linked with the starting point for the rise of Islam and its historical upheaval.[23] A wise adaptation of the older Javanese calendrical system (tahun Saka) into the Islamic one was made in 1663 by Sultan Agung of Mataram with the Javanese starting point set at AD 78.[24] Under the new system the first month of the Javanese calendar coincided with the first month of the Islamic ones.

In Cirebon, Suroan refers to either the first or the tenth day of Sura or Muharram. Along with the New Year celebration of the Javanese Islamic calendar the first of Sura is also acclaimed as the Hari Jadi (the Founding Day) of the city of Cirebon. The story goes back to the legend of 15th century Cirebon when Walangsungsang, son of Prabu Siliwangi, King of Pajajaran, and his younger sister Rarasantang, left the Pajajaran palace. In his nine-month adventure Walangsungsang obtained a wife, Indang Geulis, daughter of Sang Hyang Danuwarsih, a Hermit at the mount of Maarapi. He, his wife and his sister reached Pasambangan where they studied the Islamic faith with Syeikh Datu Kahfi and Syeikh Nurjati, religious teachers of Arab origin. After two years of study, Walangsungsang established a settlement at Kebon Pesisir on the southern side of Amparan Jati hill near the shore, some 5 km east of Pasambangan. A calculation made by the Committee for the history of Cirebon determined that this establishment occurred on 1 Sura around AD 1445. Walangsungsang also built a place of worship named Tajug Jalagrahan, the oldest prayer house in Cirebon. Later, the settlement grew into a busy village and was visited and settled by people of various races, religions, languages, customs and means of livelihood. The village was then called Caruban which means the melting pot of various people.

The celebration of the New Year and the Hari Jadi of Cirebon is, however, significant only among the kraton (court) circle and, currently, the local Government. Among the kraton circle, as Siddique noted, the celebration is performed by the reading of Babad Cirebon (Cirebon Chronicle) at the kraton and a procession to the grave complex at Astana Gunung Sembung. For the local government, on the other hand, Hari Jadi is more like a civil festival than a religious one. Its celebration, which is officially organised by a committee specially set up for that purpose, takes a few weeks. Sports competitions and arts festivals, especially local arts such as Tarling opera, wayang golek, topeng dance and serimpi, are the  most important parts of the program. It culminates at night when a ceremony and display is held for the competition and festival winners. On the same night there are also open stages in front of Kecamatan and other government offices where these entertainments are performed.

The sanctity of Muharram appears from the very name of the month in that, the Arabic word Muharram, exactly means “that which is made sacred” (derived from haram, meaning sacred). In addition, there is also a possibility that the name ‘Asyura is related to ‘asyu-nura (also Arabic) meaning those who have obtained divine light.[25] According to local belief, the day of ‘Asyura, which falls on the tenth of Muharram, recalls a number of important events. It traces the history of the great monotheistic traditions. On 10 Muharram the first apostle of God, Adam, was sent to earth; God gave His grace to Adam and Eve when they sought repentance after being thrown out of paradise; Henoch (Idris) was endowed by God with a noble position; Noah and his disciples touched land safely with their ark; Abraham was saved without harm after being burned by the King Namrud of Babylon; Moses got revelation directly from God in the Sinai desert; Joseph was set free from jail and his name was cleared of the accusation of having raped Zulaikha, the then Egyptian King's wife. Yacob recovered from serious eye disease; Jonas came out safely from the belly of a sea monster (the giant khut/nun fish). The day of ‘Asyura also coincides with the recovery of Job (Ayyub) from serious cholera; it is the reunion of Jacob and Joseph after separation for forty years; it is the birth day of Jesus and his Ascension to heaven; it is also the day when the Prophet Muhammad married Khadijah; it is the day of the creation of the heavens, the earth, the Pen (Qalam), and of Adam and Eve.[26]

To commemorate so many important events the Cirebonese perform slametan or sedekah, which according to their belief is one form of ibadat (in the broader sense). They offer bubur sura or bubur slabrak to be distributed to neighbours and close kin. Bubur sura or bubur slabrak is a rice flour porridge with coconut milk containing various food-stuffs. The message behind this act is clear. The porridge (bubur) itself, which is white in colour, symbolises the day of ‘Asyura, which is holy, whereas the various foodstuffs contained in the bubur symbolise the various events that occurred on the day they are celebrating. But who, when and where the adat of offering bubur sura in celebrating ‘Asyura was began is unclear. Man Kasman (57 years), a batik maker, speculates that it was initiated by a wali.

While claiming that there is nothing wrong in having a slametan by offering bubur sura, even it is considered good because it is basically sedekah, and has become good adat, some fairly knowledgeable and devout individuals like Man Hawari (42 years) a thoughtful trader at Sumber Market, and others, suggested that the celebration of ‘Asyura would be better if it were conducted by performing some devotional undertaking such as fasting, voluntary prayer, reciting special invocations (du'a) called du'a ‘Asyura after sunset prayer, feeding orphans and giving other forms of sedekah. He said that according to his Kyai when he was in Pesantren Leler in Banyumas (Central Java), doing these things on the day of ‘Asyura is religiously meritorious.[27] Slametan, practiced by offering bubur sura, are still common in Trusmi. Pak Satira (38 years), a kerosene peddler, rarely does the prescribed prayers but he feels obliged to offer bubur sura to his neighbours and close kin because he  thinks it is the easiest and most convenient way with which to express his obligation to remember God (kanga isling Ningi Pyengana).


Saparan commemorates Sapar (Safar), the second month of the Javanese Islamic calendar. Sapar is locally known as the mating season for dogs, the locally considered unclean animal, and thus marriage is not recommended. Beside this, Sapar is believed to be the month in the year where frequent accidents, disasters and bad luck may occur (wulan kang akeh blai) especially on the last Wednesday of the month (Rebo Wekasan). It is not clear why or how this belief arose, but referring to the warning of some gnostics (ahl al-Kashf), Al-Dairaby declares that each year God reveals 350,000 accidents or disasters; most of which occur on the last Wednesday of Sapar. This makes the day the most precarious day of the year. A suggested attempt to avoid disaster is to perform a four-unit prayer, at each unit, after the Fatiha, the practice is to recite respectively Surah al-Kautsar (QS:108) 17 times at the first unit, al-Ikhlas (QS:112) five times at the second unit, al-Falaq (QS:113) once and an-Nas (QS:114) once respectively at the third and fourth unit and conclude with a special du'a of ‘Asyura.[28]

People take extra caution on this month by minimising long distant travel, dangerous work and sinful acts. Doing religiously good work such as helping others and giving sedekah, especially to orphans and widows, is highly recommended. In accordance with this, during the month of Sapar the Cirebonese have three peculiar popular traditions of commemoration: Ngapem, Ngirab, and Rebo Wekasan.

Ngapem refers to apem, baked or steamed cakes made of lightly fermented rice-flour. Apem are to be eaten with kincah (a dark brown liquid made of palm sugar and  coconut milk). According to Man Syapi'i (62 years), an ex-farmer and trader, ngapem, a special feature for slametan on Sapar, is just like any other slametan. Along with its social function of maintaining brotherhood and community bonds, it has at least two other functions. The offering itself is religiously meritorious because it is one form of sedekah. The type of food, as in other slametan, contains a symbolic message. In this case, a pair of apem and kincah remind recipients, neighbours and close kin, to be cautious because it is Sapar, the month with many misfortunes. Apem symbolises the flesh or the body. When it is eaten it must be put into the kincah symbolising blood and thus reminds recipients of the possibility of the body falling into some misfortune.

Another informant said that ngapem is a relatively recent tradition initiated and spread from the court (kraton). Its root go back to the early decades of the 18th and 19th century Java when the Dutch attempted to suppress Islam and to spread Christianity. Muslims mostly failed in their resistance against the Dutch, the kafir (infidel). The failure of the Cirebonese revolt led by Bagus Serit and Bagus Rangin in 1818 is said to occur on Sapar. Because of military inferiority, the kraton, to keep functioning, had no choice but to use a double standard. While accepting negotiation and cooperation with the Dutch, it simultaneously spread enmity among the people to encourage them to oppose the Dutch. One means of doing this was to commemorate Sapar, the month of misery, by symbolising the Dutch as apem which must be crushed to bloodshed, kincah.

Because Sapar is a precarious month, a sudden death through accident or whatever is considered quite probable, especially on Rebo Wekasan. This is extremely unfortunate if it happens to someone who is in a sinful state. To anticipate this possibility and the coming of Rebo Wekasan, Sunan Kalijaga, who was believed to have stayed in Cirebon to learn Islam from Sunan Gunung Jati, carried out an extra bathing for purification with his disciples at the Drajat river in preparation for  their religious devotion and repentance including ratib or tahlil.[29] This act was followed by others in subsequent years until finally it became adat. Until now, around Rebo Wekasan people go to Kalijaga to perform ziarah at the petilasan (a remnant of dwelling) of Sunan Kalijaga. After ziarah, those who wish can go up the river in decorated boats, which is a recent development, and bathe at the site where Sunan Kalijaga and his disciples were believed to have bathed. This adat is called ngirab meaning originally, ‘shake something to remove the dirt on it.’ In this case it probably means removal of one's sins, a symbolic act of repentance. Currently, there are some people who take this adat as having serious spiritual meaning, but for the majority it is just a cheerful picnic or a form of annual recreation to forget about the miserable month of Sapar.

The story of Sapar would be incomplete without touching upon the Rebo Wekasan which is its most crucial day. There is nothing special with the day except that, from the break up of night prayer (Isya) until dawn (subuh), youngsters, especially those who usually sleep in the tajug where they study the Qur'an (ngaji), split into groups of four to ten, and march from house to house chanting repeatedly in front of each door in chorus. Whenever they reach a house they chant: “wur tawur nyi tawur, selamat dawa umur”, meaning “sow up Madam, may you be safe and have long life.”[30] The host then opens the door and, before giving them some money, asks: “Whose santri are you?” The group members answer by mentioning their Qur'anic teacher from whom they learn the Qur'an or, when they do not belong to any tajug, they answer: “Blok-an,” meaning “on a Block-basis,” and then mention the name of their hamlet. This means that the group is formed on a local basis,  the hamlet where they live, rather than on a tajug. They do this mostly for fun taking advantage of the prevailing adat. The money they get is distributed among themselves and used for their own purposes, most of them say for “jajan” (buying snacks).

The story of the origin of this practice is probably more interesting than the adat itself. The practice is generally attributed to the legendary figure of Syeikh Siti Jenar also known as Syeikh Lemah Abang alias Syeikh Datuk Abdul Djalil alias Syeikh Jabaranta. Once, according to legend, he was a member of the council of Wali Sanga (Nine Wali or Saints). But later he was sentenced to death by the wali tribunal for being accused of teaching Sufi doctrine publicly, including to laymen who were really unprepared to receive it. This resulted in the laymen misunderstanding the real Sufi doctrine. They by-passed the syare'at (syari'ah), the prerequisite for taking a mystical path. His teaching therefore was thought by the wali council to be dangerous for the establishment of syare'at and the development of Islam as a whole. At a trial held at the Agung Mosque, it was said, Syeikh Lemah Abang could not deny this allegation, thence the death penalty was decreed and Sunan Kudus carried out the execution using Sunan Gunung Jati's keris (dagger), Kentanaga. Syeikh was buried at Pemlaten, a grave complex in the southern city of Cirebon. After his death many of his followers, the abangan (followers of the teaching of Lemah Abang) felt a deep loss and emptiness.[31] Sunan Kalijaga suggested and it was  agreed by Sunan Gunung Jati that under the guise of miserable Rebo Wekasan, the abangan group were advised to wander from house to house praying for the safety and long life of the villagers; in return the villagers were also advised to provide them with alms. Year after year such a practice was performed not only by the followers of Lemah Abang but also by the students at many tajug and other youngsters as well and, at last, became an adat.

The story of Syeikh Siti Jenar or Lemah Abang seems to be the most obscure of the many legends of Javanese wali. He is very popular but nothing is known about him except his heretical mysticism and his open spreading of it. An example of the mystical flavour of Lemah Abang's heresy is indicated in the episode of how the wali council called Lemah Abang to come to the wali court. This episode is fairly well known in Cirebon, and dominates the whole story. The following is a concise summary of the episode given by Siddique:

He was accused of publicly teaching a doctrine which could be summarised thusly: All that exists is a reflection of God, and because man exists, he is also a reflection of God. He was accused of heresy, and was invited to the wali council to explain his actions. He replied: “Syeikh Lemah Abang is not here, only God is here.” The council sent another messenger to address himself to God, whereupon Syeikh Lemah Abang answered: “God is not here only Syeikh Lemah Abang is here.” They then sent a messenger to ask for both God and Lemah Abang, and he had no choice but to follow them. At the meeting he failed to prove that his teachings had not led his pupils to false practices, like ignoring the five prayers, he was condemned to death and executed by Sunan Kudus …[32]

Beside these stories, it is interesting that along with the probable connection between his name (Lemah Abang) and the well known term abangan,[33] some other intriguing questions remain unresolved.

Based on Pustaka Negara Kretabhumi, one of the many Cirebonese Chronicles, T.D. Sudjana wrote an historical novelette about the political turmoil in Cirebon which happened preceding the execution of Lemah Abang. In his account, among other things, the army commander of the Kingdom of Cirebon, Adipati Carbon, son of Pangeran Cakrabuana (the founder of Cirebon), son of Prabu Siliwangi of Pajajaran, faced a serious dilemma having to choose between loyalty to his king and to his mystical teacher (guru or Syeikh) to whom he had performed bai'at (religious vow). While the king, his own cousin, Syarif Hidayatullah, had earnestly entrusted him with the security and welfare of the whole kingdom, the Syeikh (Lemah Abang), on the other hand, urged him to take power by overthrowing the ruler. To show that it was serious, Lemah Abang, on this occasion, came to Cirebon Girang, where Adipati Carbon resided, with Kebo Kenanga, Lord of Pengging (Central Java), and his army. The reason advocated by Lemah Abang for overthrowing the ruler was appealing. Adipati Carbon's father, Pangeran Cakrabuana, who had established the Cirebon kingdom, had been at fault in giving the throne to Syarif, his nephew, rather than to his son, Adipati Carbon himself while, in fact, it was he who was the right heir of Cirebon and the great Pajajaran kingdom. In his puzzle, the Adipati performed a prayer and then tawajuh (meditation to recall his Syeikh). He saw, in his contemplation, the figure of his Syeikh smiling at him cynically, but then the figure grew smaller and smaller and finally, turned into a jasmine (melati) before the figure disappeared, leaving only the jasmine fragrance, which he could still smell even when he was completely awake. After meditation, he felt, his inclination to  follow his Syeikh's instruction to rebel weaken. No sooner, had he decided what to do than his deputy, Ki Gedeng Cirebon Girang, brought him a message calling him to come immediately to the Agung Mosque where the wali council held an assembly. He went there immediately and found his Syeikh had already died. After burial he proposed a name for the site where his Syeikh was buried, “Pemlaten” or “Kemlaten”, meaning the place of melati (jasmine), in commemoration of his sight of the Syeikh during his contemplation.[34]

The reliability of this story as an historical fact, whose main source is babad, is open to question, but the story illustrates the possibilities of new interpretations of Syeikh Lemah Abang. It is widely believed that all wali, including Syeikh Lemah Abang, were Sufi but, unlike other wali who were Sunni, Lemah Abang was said to belong to the Syi'ah Muntadzar sect who hold 12 Imam as their legitimate leaders. He came to Java from Baghdad and held a doctrine that claims that the Imam should be the supreme political figure in the state. Beside, Lemah Abang is considered to have held the wujudiyah Sufi doctrine, the same doctrine held by Al-Hallaj.[35] In the Babad Tanah Jawi he is said to have won converts of a number of rulers and their subjects in Pengging, Tingkir, Ngerang and Butuh.[36]

Muludan and Rajaban

M(a)uludan means celebrating m(a)ulud (from Arabic, mawlid, meaning birthday), the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on 12 Rabi'al-Awwal (Mulud), the  third month of Javanese Islamic calendar. Although the Prophet is also believed to have died on the same date of his birth date, his death is not significant in this celebration. Rajaban, on the other hand, means celebrating the event which happened on Rajab, the isra'-mi'raj or the Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad from the mosque of Al-Haram in Mecca to the mosque of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, and then to seven heavens, which occurred when the Prophet was 51 years and 9 months old, on the night of 27 Rajab (Rejep), in the seventh month of Javanese Islamic calendar. Both months (Mulud and Rejep) are probably, the two most significant months in Cirebon after the Fasting month.

Like Grebeg Mulud or Sekaten at the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java, Cirebon has its own Grebeg, called the Panjang-Jimat festival, held simultaneously at the three kraton, Kesepuhan, Kanoman and Keceribonan on the 12th of Mulud each year.[37] The festival, which attracts many people, from almost every stratum of Cirebonese society, has been described by Siddique who interprets it as a part of the machinery for the maintenance of the symbolic universe of Sunan Gunung Jati.[38]

The festival consists of highly ritualised procedures pregnant with symbolic expressions. In the first place, it represents an expression of both solemnity and gaiety at the same time, due to the birth of the Apostle of God in this world. The focal point of the festival is a ceremony in the Kraton, followed by a carnival carrying the panjang jimat (long amulets), and other pusaka (heirlooms) from the Bangsal Agung Panembahan to the Langgar Agung at 9.00 p.m, and back to the Bangsal Agung Panembahan at 11.00 p.m. At the Langgar Agung, before returning to the Bangsal Agung, aysraqalan is held led by the kraton religious officials  (Penghulu Kraton).[39] Sega rasul (literally means ‘apostle rice,’ a special rice cooked with turmeric and spices), is then served to those present. The crowd struggles eagerly to get a portion, even a small one, of this rice for its barakah (divine blessing).[40] The preparation for the whole procession begins on the 15th of Sura with the cleansing and painting of the kraton and the heirlooms (pusaka), done mainly by voluntary workers.[41]

The main item exposed at the carnival is the panjang-jimat, the main pusaka, large oval Chinese porcelain plates, with symmetrical decoration of kalimat syahadat (Kalimah Syahadah), written in ornate Arabic scripts, which are believed to have been brought by Sunan Gunung Jati himself. Concerning the festival, Pakuningrat S.H, the Sultan of Kesepuhan, in his speech on the ceremony at the kraton main hall, Bangsal Prabayaksa, on September 10, 1992, explained among other things that the festival is nothing but a reminder to all. He said panjang means long or unceasing, jimat stands for si (ji) kang diru (mat) , the one that is solemnly preserved that is, the Kalimat Syahadat as it is written on the plates. The Panjang-jimat festival, thus, symbolises our concern for life-long and unceasing preservation of the Kalimat Syahadat, or the religion of Islam.

The carnival is basically an allegoric dramatisation of the momentous event when the Prophet was born. There are at least 19 important items at the carnival; one item follows the other and each is preceded by someone carrying lighted candles. The first is a man with a lit candle stick in his hand, who acts as a servant (khadam) walking to give light to the second item, two men who walk after him. One man  carrying a spear, represents Abu Thalib, the Prophet's uncle, and the other, an older man, represents Abd al-Muthalib, the Prophet's grandfather. They are walking at night time to send for a midwife. Next comes a group of men bringing ornamental decorations called manggaran, nagan, and jantungan symbolising the honour of Abd al-Muthalib's personage. A woman with a brass bowl (bokor) containing coins comes next, symbolising the dignity of the midwife; after her is a woman, bringing a tray with a bottle of distilled rose fluid (lenga mawar) to symbolise amniotic fluid (ketuban). This fluid is placed preceding the dignified newly born baby who is represented by the Sultan himself.[42] A tray containing goyah flower, paste and the powder of traditional herRebo Wekasan medicine held by a woman follows to symbolise the placenta. The penghulu kraton is seen acting as the one who cuts the umbilical cord. The core of the carnival is the exposition of panjang jimat, which comes to be the 12th item in the procession, like the 12 Rabi'al-Awwal or Mulud, the birth-day of the Prophet, whose mission is to propagate the syahadah. Each plate is cared for by two men with two escorts signifying a great concern with the syahadah; all of the carriers are kaum (care takers) of the Great Mosque, whose special duty is to be the guardians of the enactment of syahadah. The panjang jimat are seven in number signifying the kalimah syahadah is everyone's safe guide to pass the seven stages of the eschatological ladder (martabat pitu), one of the main doctrines of the Syattariyah order, the order traditionally maintained by the kraton.

After the panjang jimat come a succession of other items; two men carrying jars containing beer to resemble the after-birth blood, followed by another two, each carrying a tray with a bottle on it, containing another type of beer which symbolises phlegm. A pendil (rice-cooking pot) containing sega-wuduk (spiced rice cooked with coconut milk), is carried by a man to symbolise the suffering of the mother at giving birth. Next to the pendil comes a tumpeng (rice-mount) with roasted chicken, called  sega jeneng (the rice of naming) symbolising thanksgiving (syukuran or slametan) for the birth of the baby. This slametan, at which the baby's name is given, is usually offered when the umbilical cord dries and is pulled off (puput).

The last three items at the carnival are first, eight cepon (huge bamboo baskets) signifying the eight attributes of the Prophet. Four of these attributes are sidiq (truthful), amanah (trustworthy), tabligh (conveying), fathanah (intelligent). All are the ‘must attributes’ (sifat wajib) attached to the Prophet. The other four are the negation of these attributes, the ‘must not attributes' (sifat mustahil). They are kidzib (false hearted), khianat (betraying), kitman (corrupt), baladah (stupid). Each cepon is full of rice indicating prosperity and God's Grace for the whole world (rahmatan lil-'alamin). Next, come four meron or tenong (large round containers), representing mankind as created from the four elements, soil, water, air and fire. Another informant said they represent the four closest companions of the Prophets, the four Caliph, Abu Bakr, Omar, ‘Utsman and ‘Ali. Finally, there are four dongdang, also a type of large container, symbolising the spiritual elements of mankind consisting of Spirit (ruh), Words (Kalam), light (Nur) and witnesses (Syuhud) for the existence of God the greatest. Another informant said, they symbolise the four schools of Islam (madzhab): Maliki, Syafi'i, Hanafi and Hanbali.

Similar festive processions of smaller size and different style, mainly centred on the cleansing and exposition of pusaka to the public also occur at some kramat (shrines), such as Astana Gunung Jati on the 11th, at Panguragan on the 12th, at Tuk on the 17th and at Trusmi on the 25th of Mulud each year.

People in the villages also celebrate mulud in their own ways. The most common features are marhabanan (the ricital of marhaba or ‘welcome’), which is similar to asyraqalan, and pengajian (public speech). Pengajian range in intensity from the simplest and informal, involving only a small group and a local kyai sitting  together at a tajug or a mosque, to a glaring festive and formal assembly, attracting thousands of spectators with a famous speaker.


Another important month after Mulud is Rajab, which is commemorated by means of Rajaban. In Cirebon, Rajaban mostly involves pengajian but unlike muludan whose main theme is the birth of the Prophet, the main theme of rajaban centres around the Ascension of the Prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem on which the Qur'an (S 17:1) says:

Glory to (Allah) who did take His servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque (Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (the mosque of al-Aqsa), whose precincts We did Bless, in order that We might show him some of Our signs: for He is the One Who hearth and seeth (all things).

Concerning the Ascension of Muhammad to heaven, Adnan mentions among other things a tradition transmitted by Al-Ghaiti as a scriptural basis, saying:

“And then he (the Prophet) was given (by God) means of Ascension to where the spirits of Adam's descendants go.”[43]

While there is a disagreement among intellectuals on the nature of the Ascension, whether it involved physical or spiritual Ascension, the local belief definitely follows the traditionalist contention advocated in many pengajian, claiming that the Ascension involved the whole entity of Muhammad's human nature as a “servant” which therefore comprised both his spiritual and physical elements. They consider the phenomenon of Muhammad's Ascension as a catalytic test-case to determine whether or not a believer is sincere. An example of a sincere believer is  Abu Bakr as-Shidq (the first Caliph) who accepted the story without reserve merely because the story came from the Prophet. Many others did not believe because it was technically impossible. What had happened during the prophesy, it is said, can also happen now. The phenomenon is, according to Pak Sa'id (53 years), an office clerk at Kecamatan Weru, unthinkable and thus, beyond human rationality. Sincere believers will accept it, whereas non-sincere may reject it. For those who believe in it regard the Ascension as the work of God, rather than the work of Muhammad. Nothing is impossible when God wishes it. Many proponents use the achievement of advanced space technology, which was unthinkable a few decades or centuries ago, yet has now become reality, as support for the acceptability of the Ascension. Traditional pengajian, on the other hand, taking the event for granted as a part of Islamic belief, recount a detailed story of the Ascension, including how the Prophet underwent a heart operation from Jibril prior to his Ascension, met with the previous prophets in the heavens during the journey and then went back to Mecca with a prescription from God for the Muslims to observe the five daily prayers. The name of the month Rajab (Ra-Ja-B) itself, which they claim as consisting of three Arabic letters ra [R], jim [J] and ba [B], substantiates the event. Each letter stands respectively for R-asulullah (the Messenger of Allah), J-ibril (Gabriel) and B-uraq (the vehicle for Ascension).

With respect to asyraqalan (the recital of asyraqal badru ‘alayna) or marhabanan conducted mainly during the month of Mulud and Rajab, it may be requested by an individual who invites his neighbours to come to his house or tajug for that purpose, or by common agreement, it may be held at the desa mosque. In either case, the participants sit together on mats in rectangular formation. In their midst there is a jar containing pure water and a tray containing flowers and perfume. Some Arabic books, Al-Barzanji are placed on benches or pillows in neat cases. When they think that most expected participants are present, the performance starts.  There is a lack of formality in it although the solemnity is significant. Sometimes, men and women are simultaneously involved, but they are separated by a curtain. In most cases women have their own group and do it at different occasions. When it is about to start, incense is sometimes burned and the fragrance helps intensify the spiritual atmosphere.

A set of Al-Fatiha is recited whose merit is directed to the Prophet, his wives, his descendants, his companions, and his followers dead or alive. Then the leader, one who is well acquainted with Al-Barzanji and having a good chanting voice, takes the first recital of Arabic lyrics of twelve verses taken from Al-Barzanji or Mawlid al-Diba ’i. Each contains appeals to God to give the highest dignity to the Prophet, his ancestors and his descendants, and merit to his companions, his followers, participants in the gathering and all Muslims. The first verse reads as follows:

Oh God [please] exalt Muhammad - oh God [please] exalt him and give him peace.[44]

This verse is repeated by others in chorus; the same verse is also chanted in response to the leader each time he finishes reciting each of the twelve verses. When this is over, they move to reciting the poetic narrative of the family background of the Prophet before he was born: of his parents, his ancestors, his clan and the situation of Mecca at that time. The recital is done by several people one after another in turn and when the recital comes to a verse which speaks of the eventual birth of the Prophet, all participants rise up, standing to show spontaneous respect, honour and joy, while chanting another verse in chorus:

Allah exalts Muhammad, Allah exalts him and endowed him with peace.[45]

While standing solemnly, the leader chants the following verse and the others repeat: 

Welcome the light of the eyes, welcome grandfather of Husein,
Welcome and best regard, welcome the best propagator.[46]

This verse is repeated again and again by all participants in response to the leader each time he chants a verse. Sometimes a participant takes the initiative to change the melody, after shouting in Arabic: “O God, (please) exalt Muhammad,” the other reply: “(Certainly) God exalts him and endows him with peace.” Then he starts with further chants in a new melody. The first four verses of the lyrics translate as follow:

O, Prophet peace be upon you, O, Apostle peace be upon you,
O, Beloved peace be upon you, Allah's exaltation be upon you.

Already arises the full moon upon us, thence [all other] lights are dimmed, the most beautiful thing we have seen, is the sight of you oh the most cheerful face [47]

No less than 22 verses are chanted in various melodies before they sit again to conclude the performance with a du'a. When the du'a is finished, some participants take some flowers and/or drink the water; foods are also served by the host. After eating and chatting they stand up asking permission to leave the house, and the host answers them with thanks. Some hosts provide brekat some others do not.[48]


Ruwahan commemorates Ruwah, the eighth month of Javanese calendar which coincides with Sya'ban, the eight month of the Islamic calendar. The Javanese  ruwah, may be derived from Arabic ruh (pl. arwah), meaning spirit. According to popular belief, on the night of 15th, the mid of the Ruwah (Nisfu Sya'ban) the tree of life on whose leaves the names of the living are written is shaken. The names written on leaves that fall indicate the mortals who will die in the coming year.[49] Not surprisingly, a number of people use the day to commemorate the dead or to visit the graves.[50]

Conforming to this tradition, a hadith transmitted by Tirmidzi states that on the night of Nisfu (mid of) Sya'ban God descends to the lowest heaven and calls the mortals in order to grant them forgiveness. An informant in Cirebon called this month panen pangapura (the harvest time of forgiveness) and thus, it is a good time for those who wish forgiveness. After sunset prayer of the 15th day of the month (limalase ruwah) or Nisfu Sya'ban, the devout will read the Surat Yasin (Sura 36 of the Holy Qur'an) three times and fast on the day. For most village people, Ruwah is known as the month for dedonga (to utter du'a) and ngunjung (literally meaning ‘to visit’). Led by the Kuwu (Desa Chief) and elders, they visit the graves of their ancestors, especially the founder of the desa called the Ki Gede or Ki Buyut if the founder was a man or Nyi Gede or Nyi Buyut if the founder was a woman. Sometimes this procession turns into a carnival.

In Kalitengah, the villagers held ngunjung by making a marching visit. They took a six kilometre route from the desa to the Astana Gunung Jati grave complex, where the founder of the desa, Nyi Gede Kalitengah, is buried, just outside the east wall of Sunan Gunung Jati's shrine. The one-hour march was attended by  approximately 300 people, men and women of various ages, led by the kuwu and local elders. The focal point is not the march itself but the dedonga. Some people carried foods partly to be offered to the key bearer (juru kunci) of the Astana grave complex, partly for their own consumption after the break up of dedonga. At Astana they first visited Sunan Gunung Jati's grave, sat on the floor in front of the third door of the nine-door shrine and prayed there by reciting tahlil. The door is normally closed but on this occasion, as a service to Kalitengah people, it is opened. No one is allowed to step beyond this limit, they only look at the ascending pathway to Sunan Gunung Jati's tomb.

After this, they went to Nyi Gede Kalitengah also to perform, tahlil, the same thing as they did in front of Sunan Gunung Jati's tomb. One of the elders, Pak Suganda (57 years), an army veteran, explained that the purpose of the ngunjung is to express thankfulness to Nyi Gede, who first came to Kalitengah and settled there. At this ngunjung ceremony they ask God to pardon all her sins and give her a good life in the hereafter. Beside this, they also believe that by carrying out this action, if God so wishes, it is not only Nyi Gede who will obtain merit but also those who pray for her and inhabit the desa because what they do is a good thing.

The reason for choosing Ruwah for carrying out this ritual, according Pak Suganda, is unclear except that it has become their adat, and they feel there is no reason to change or abolish it, as “there is nothing wrong with such an adat.” I saw there were also groups from other desa who did the same thing and explained its purpose in about the same way. As an expression of their respect some groups even choose this event as a good moment to renovate their Ki/Nyi Gede's shrine. Another informant said that taking the middle of Ruwah to visit the graves has its root in various traditions of the Prophet. One of these traditions is based on a story telling that once, on Nisfu Sya'ban, the Prophet secretly went to Baqi’ (a grave complex in Medina) and prayed there so intensely with his tears flowing. Ali, his companion and  son-in-law, followed him secretly and watched from a distance what the Prophet did. Seeing that the Prophet cried, Ali came and asked why. The Prophet explained that it was the night of forgiveness of sin (lailat al-bara'ah) and he (the Prophet) was praying for forgiveness from God for his ancestors and believers who might have sins. This indicates also that Islam, in its own way, has a form of ancestor cult.


Along with the traditions surrounding the fasting month (Ramadhan) and riaya, there is Syawalan or Raya Syawal for celebrating Syawal (Syawwal), the tenth month of Javanese Islamic calendar. For the pious, beginning on the day after the end of Ramadan, they fast for six more days. Raya Syawal, the 8th day of Syawal marks the end of the fast. The celebration is made by going to the Astana Grave complex for a ziarah (visit). On this occasion all the nine doors along the ascending pathway to Sunan Gunung Jati's tomb are opened to give way for the three Sultans of Kesepuhan, Kanoman and Kecirebonan and their families, who make a visit to Sunan Gunung Jati's tomb. The visit is made after attending a ceremony at each of the kraton. They come there still in their formal kraton clothing. Upon their return from ziarah to the kraton, a crowd struggle to shake hands with them. Sultan Kanoman and his family, in particular, hold a slametan attended by Astana custodians. Siddique (1978:136) claims that through this procession and visitation, the sultans’ position at the apex of the religious hierarchy among the kraton milieu is reaffirmed.

Among the mass of the populace who come and go there on that occasion, flocking around the burial complexes, at the square, at the mosque, at Gunung Jati, on the street, numbering as many as 150,000 people, most people pay no attention to the Sultans and their consorts. Along with dedonga, they would rather take the occasion as a recreational opportunity to enjoy the gathering and to see the beautiful  panorama toward the sea from the top of Gunung Jati. It is true that the presence of Sultans is a special attraction for many people, but more importantly the two lawang pungkur (back doors) at the left and right wings of the grave complex, leading to the graves of Ki or Nyi Gede of various desa are also opened and thus they can ascend and descend around the grave complex at the top of Gunung Sembung from one lawang pungkur at the east wing to another one at the west. They therefore come to Astana on Raya Syawal for dedonga at three tombs: at Sunan Gunung Jati's, at the Ki or Nyi Gede's who are buried at Gunung Sembung, and then across the main road up to the hill of Gunung Jati, at Syeikh Datuk Kahfi's. Syeikh Datuk Kahfi is known as the first Islamic teacher who came from Arabia to Cirebon in the early 15th century and resided at Gunung Jati where Rarasantang, Sunan Gunung Jati's mother, and her elder brother Walangsungsang, learned Islam. Upon his death the Syeikh was also buried there. Another occasion like Syawalan also occurs on the 11th of Mulud and the 10th of Raya Agung.