History, Memory, and Islam Through the Animal: The Zoomorphic Imaginary in Cirebon

History, Memory, and Islam Through the Animal: The Zoomorphic Imaginary in Cirebon
Tan Zi Hao


Animals, when mined for metaphors, are good for commemorating and make good custodians of spirituality. Focusing on Cirebon, this thesis explores how history and memory are recounted through the prism of the animal, which I call the “zoomorphic imaginary”. Situated along north coastal Java, Cirebon belongs to the pesisir area where Islam was established around the 15th century. The main instigator of Islam is Sunan Gunung Jati, who is one of the revered Nine Saints of Java (Wali Songo) and the progenitor of Cirebonese royalty. Known in local tradition for their cultural flexibility, Wali Songo’s successful proselytism is frequently attributed to their ability to assimilate Islam into pre-Islamic local belief. The bulk of animal imagery in Cirebon has to be considered along this line of understanding. The zoomorphic imaginary may be permeated with pre-Islamic materials, but the narratives conveyed through it are resolutely Islamic. This thesis focuses on the latter in order to bring to light how Cirebon’s past and its legacy of Islam are navigated through shifting aspirations.

From tigers, to elephants, to shrimps, and composite beasts, the zoomorphic imaginary presents an array of creatures with which to extol Islam and to reminisce about Cirebon’s past. Often idealised, this past is as historical as it is present. It harks back to a specific time period from the 14th to 16th centuries, when Cirebon was an Islamic centre and a burgeoning port that drew traders and travellers from across the Indian Ocean. In this regard, the zoomorphic imaginary becomes a means by which historical and spiritual knowledge of the past is accessed, narrativised, and commemorated. Broadly organised under four main chapters, the animals to be discussed in this thesis are presented in a consecutive sequence of steps in the deepening of Islam, before ending with a look at how narratives of Islam and the idealised past are being promulgated today. Tigers, as animals that herald the triumphant beginnings of Islam, lead the way. Upon the initiation into Islam, exemplary animals follow as purveyors of Islamic wisdom. This sequence of intensifying spirituality then culminates in animals that have attained nothingness through self-dissolution. Finally, this thesis turns to three zoomorphic vehicles to reveal how history and memory of Islam are activated, spectacularised, and sustained through zoomorphism. By looking into the zoomorphic imaginary, this thesis argues that animal imagery enriches the memorisation of Islam’s historic moments and renders abstract concepts in Islam intelligible and memorable. Operating as a mnemonic device, the zoomorphic imaginary reveals a site where history and aspiration are mutually constitutive and a past that is creatively remembered.


Tan Zi Hao

PhD defended at

National University of Singapore, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Department of Southeast Asian Studies




Southeast Asia


Art and Culture