Opening with a discussion of a controversial painting by the contemporary Muslim cleric and artist, Mustofa Bisri, this essay reflects upon the role that artistic expression can play in the spiritual life of Javanese Muslims. The focus of the essay turns upon an exploration of the performance of Sufi poetry (suluk) in song and dance as it is portrayed in the Sĕrat Cĕnthini, an early nineteenth-century masterpiece of Javanese literature that narrates the imagined adventures of several seventeenth-century wandering students of Islamic religion (santris). These poems, activated through their performance by both men and women as a form of devotional practice, disclose the embodiment of spirit that characterized much of the metaphysical life of Javanese Sufis in earlier times and that still reverberates into the present.
As a contribution to the study of emotions and ambience in Javanese literature, drama, and culture more generally, I argue that there is a Hamza affect, or more precisely a complex affect-in-action paradigm, which is intrinsic to how plots in the epic of Amir Hamza are built. In the sixteenth-century Java Sea world, where this paradigm was established, it stood out, as other narrative works featured rather different relations between feeling and action. This paradigm became typical of Javanese Hamza storytelling. It found its way into puppetry with other narrative repertoires as well, and helped to promote an action-oriented sensibility in society.