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Open Access The birth of the abangan

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The birth of the abangan

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One of the great topics in the study of Javanese society is the distinction among santri, abangan and priyayi that was posited by Clifford Geertz in his book The religion of Java (1964). For many western observers at the time this was a momentous insight into an exotic culture. Although several Dutch and Indonesian authorities objected to some aspects of the Geertz depiction, it was immensely influential. Today, more than four decades after the publication and five decades after the fieldwork, the terms santri, abangan and priyayi frequently appear in the literature. From the historian’s point of view, a flaw lurks in the Geertz analysis and in that of many of his critics. That is, the analysis and its subsequent use and discussion by others has remained insufficiently historical. Javanese society has been as dynamic as any other. As I hope to show in this article, the distinction that Geertz drew between the two categories of religious identity in his trichotomy – santri and abangan – were not wrong, but were historically contingent.

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