In the history of Java the Wali Sanga, or Nine Saints, are well-known for the spread of Islam. They were the Islamic leaders at the time of arrival of Islam in Java. The Nine Walis were revered as Islamic scholars, because not only did they possess great knowledge on religious affaires, they also possessed spiritual powers.
The origin of the word ‘Wali‘ derives from the Arabic ‘walla yu walli‘, which means ‘to provide power’, or ‘to give authority’. In Indonesia the term ‘Wali‘ is described as follows: ‘a powerful person’, or ‘a person to whom authority is given’. Also, a Wali is a person beloved by God, someone to whom authority is given by God; a religious person, and a leader among people. There are still more definitions of the word ‘Wali‘, however, the aforementioned definitions are what describe the meaning best in the historical context of 15th century Java up till now. The word ‘sanga‘ (sometimes also ‘songo‘) means ‘nine’ in Javanese. Thus, ‘Wali Sanga‘ means the ‘Nine Walis’, or ‘Nine Saints’.
There are many stories in which the Walis play an important role, often with a rather mystical message. For example, the construction of the Great Mosque of Demak which was completed by Sunan Kalijaga in a single night. Though there is no doubt about the truth of their existence, for in fact there is many historical evidence that proves that the Nine Walis – the pioneers of Islam – really have lived in the 15th century in Java. Their actual graves in West, Central and East-Java are still there today. Also, the mosques they built during their lives testify the truth of their existence.
In spite of the Sunans’ fame and respect among the people, they did not, however, ruled Javanese society. The ruling authorities, nonetheless, considered the Walis to be their Elders as well as advisors in religious and spiritual affaires. And in this field they had absolute power. The Walis’ advice, instructions and even their way of thinking received a lot of attention, thereby they could also exercise indirect influence on the ruler’s non-religious decisions.
The Wali Sanga in Person
Though it is said there were actually more Walis being part of the original group of nine, we will focus here only on the nine most well-known members of the Wali Sanga.
Maulana Malik Ibrahim
Sunan Maulana was also known as Maula Maghribi, or Syekh Maghribi. Generally, Sunan Maulana is considered to be the ‘father’ of the Wali Sanga. It is not exactly clear as to where Sunan Maulana came from, but it is said that he came either from Persia, Turkey or North-India. Neither is it certain as to when he came to Java, though it estimated that it should be around the year 1404. As one of the pioneers of Islam, Sunan Maulana resided in East-Java, and attracted followers in Gresik – the place where he passed away in 1419; today his grave in Gresik still is an important pilgrimage site.
Sunan Ampel’s other name was Raden Rahmat. He was one of the first to be held responsible for the spread of Islam in Java. It is believed, that Sunan Ampel was the spiritual power behind Java’s first Islamic Kingdom of Demak.
Sunan Bonang’s real name was Raden Maulana Makhdum Ibrahim. He was responsible for the spread of the Islamic doctrine in East-Java, primarily in the area of Tuban and surrounding region. His standpoint was that the belief in the Taq’hid and the Ma’rifat is based on the perfection of knowledge.
Sunan Giri, also known as Raden Paku, established a meeting place in Giri, from which an Islamic boarding school developed. In that time, the place Giri was regarded as the centre for Islamic studies. People from all backgrounds came to Giri in order to receive instructions in Islamic doctrine by Sunan Giri. He taught his students various Islamic child plays, like Jetungan, Gendi Gerit and Jor, through which he arose religious awareness of the Islam among his followers. He also used the singing and recitation of Islamic hymns as an effective means for the spread of Islam.
Sunan Drajat, also known as Syarifuddin, was the second son of Sunan Ampel, and the younger brother of Sunan Bonang. He received his religious training directly from his father. Once he had successfully mastered his father’s teachings, he moved to the region of Paciran. After about two years, he already had many followers. He also built a mosque in 1502. Sunan Drajat was well-known for his engagement in social activities and charity projects.
Sunan Kalijaga, or Kalijogo’s, other name was Raden Mas Syahid. He had the reputation of the Wali with a great mind. Sunan Kalijaga was the most well-known Wali of the time. He paved the way for the Islamization of Java by the establishment of the Muslim State of Demak, after having successfully conquered the Hindu Kingdom of Majapahit. He developed the Islamic culture in Java through performance of Court ceremonies, wayang (traditional shadow puppet play) and the selametan (ritual meal). His strategic efforts were efficient and received a lot of attention from the people because of his successful adaptation of the way in which he preached the Islam to the local Javanese community. In his style of teachings Sunan Kalijaga combined the already existing Javanese traditions and customs with the new customs of Islamic tradition. People saw Sunan Kalijaga as a tolerant and tactful person, and for this very reason he became a highly respected Wali in the eyes of the people in the local community.
Sunan Kudus’ name was Ja’far Shadiq. In the eight century there also lived a Wali by the name of Ja’far Shadiq in Iran. During his lifetime, Sunan Kudus of the Wali Sanga, taught people in the region of Kudus and Central-Java about Islam. His expertise was Religious Studies, tahid, usul, hadits, logic and fiqih in particular. Regarding his efforts in the spread of Islam in Java, Sunan Kudus’ story is no different from that of other Walis; he, too, continuously adjusted his political vision to the local environment. One of his strategies was to avoid that Hindus would feel offended by the Islamic teachings. It is said, that one day Sunan Kudus was traveling on a long journey; when he ran out of water, a man gave him cow’s milk to drink. As a reward for the man’s noble deed, and also due to the fact that cows are considered sacred animals according to Hindu tradition, Sunan Kudus thus put a ban on the slaughter of cows. After he passed away, Sunan Kudus was buried at the mosque of Kudus.
Raden Umar Said, who later became known as Sunan Muria, most likely was the son of Sunan Kalijaga. During his lifetime, Sunan Muria was mostly active in the area of Mount Muria and nearby places, like Pati, Juwana, Kudus and Jepara. As a loyal follower of the Kingdom of Demak, he played an important role in the construction of the Great Mosque. Sunan Muria’s style of teaching was particularly favored among peasants, fishermen, sailors and the lower class citizens in society. He had a great sympathy toward many traditional Javanese cultural elements, such as the gamelan orchestra, and which he used as a means for the spread of Islam. This, of course, lead to an increase in his popularity and respect among the local people, because many people used to visit gamelan events - the same holds for wayang performances, as was cleverly noticed by another Wali, namely Sunan Kalijaga.
Sunan Gunung Jati
Apart from Sunan Gunung Jat’s real name, which was Syarif Hidayatullah, he had many other names as well. Sunan Gunung Jati played an important role in the spread of Islam in West-Java.
 Solichin, Salam, 1960: ‘Sekitar Wali Sanga‘. Yogyakarta; p. 65 and 67.