The Wali Songo are revered throughout Indonesia as the wise men who brought Islam initially to Java but ultimately throughout the isles. Wali, which is used today to denote a civic leader as in Wali Kota or Mayor, Songo means nine. History though likes to play tricks with us and while their legacy is clear who they were and indeed how many there were is less clear. They rose to prominence along the north coast of Java as the Majapahit empire, predominately Hindu, was fading.
Sunan Gunung Jati
As well as being active in early Muslim entities such as Banten and Demak, Gunungjati is credited as the founder of Cirebon, another port city on the north coast of Java, some four hours from Jakarta by rail. Some stories have him coming from the Bogor area, others from Aceh. Some sources also call him Fatihillah who fought the Portuguese in the early 16th century. His tomb lies north of Cirebon alongside the tomb of his first wife who was Chinese.
Kudus is in Central Java just to the east of Semarang. The town was founded by Sunan Kudus who also built a mosque here called Masjid Al-Aqsa after the one in Jerusalem using, rumour has it, doors from a Majapahit palace. His tomb lies behind the mosque and every year on 10 Muharram in the Islamic calendar the curtains round the resting place are changed. The date is interesting as it is a holy day in the Shia calendar when they recall the martyrdom of Hussain and maybe is a legacy of Persian traders in far off days.
This chap is believed to be the son of a Hindu Princess from Balambangan and a Melakan missionary. He studied in Melaka and is credited with spreading Islam east to Sulawesi, Lombok and Malaku. He also studied under Sunan Ampel and married his daughter. He stayed in East Java and started schools in Gresik, just north of Surabaya.
Just north of Kudus, nearer the coast, lies the town of Demak. It was Demak who finally overthrew Majapahit and became the leading power in the region, rivaling Banten. Masjid Agung here is reckoned to be the oldest mosque in Java, built in 1466. Legend has it the mosque was constructed in one night by the Wali Songo and one of the pillars was made by Sunan Kalijaga using scraps of wood welded together. Many early Demak leaders are buried by the mosque while Kalijaga himself was buried a couple of miles away in Kadilangu.
He was born in Champa somewhere in South Vietnam but found his way to Surabaya. He is believed to have been the leader of the Wali Songo and his mosque, Masjid Ampel, is considered one of the most important in Surabaya. Two other Wali Songo were Bonang and Drajad who were sons of his, while as we have seen he was close to Sunan Giri. He was regally well connected with family ties to both Majapahit and the Sultan of Demak.
Thought to be a son of Sunan Kalijaga, Muria is seen as sympathetic to Javanese culture and used traditional methods like gamelan and wayang in his teachings which appealed to the lower levels of Javanese society where he spent much of his time.
Maulana Malik Ibrahim
The first of the Wali Songo, his origins are unclear. He died in Gresik in 1419 and his tombstone was shipped in from Gujerat where it had been intricately carved from white marble.