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A Glimpse of Islam in Papua

In the cold Wamena city, right in the middle of Baliem Valley, Jayawijaya Mountain, the highest mountain and the only one covered with snow in Indonesia, there’s an interesting story, which can somehow describe the dynamic experience of all the people who live there. It’s quite a long time ago (around the1980s), so the details have been forgotten, but in general the memories are still intact.

One of my uncles, an employee in the Department of Religious Affairs, was moved to Irian Jaya (now Papua). Being an employee of that department was not really his dream, but he was thankful, especially when he found out that his position gave him a chance (or a “task”, more appropriate) to serve Islam and the ummah. He was active in several da’wah activities, which remained unchanged, when he was transferred to Wamena. However, it’s different in Papua, his activities soon stirred suspicion, especially with the Christian missionaries there. Christian missionaries run most of the vital infrastructure there such as clinics, schools, airplanes and helicopters, which made them indispensable by local authorities. My uncle did not stay there long as his assignment soon ended and he was transferred to another Religious Affairs office outside Papua.

A more fascinating story was found when I read the Hidayatullah magazine. Another employee of the Department of Religious Affairs experienced something quite similar to my uncle. This man, Abu Hassan, who is an ethnic Madurese, was not only an employee of that department, but also the head of the local MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – Indonesian Council of Ulama) in Wamena. What he did is far more influential than my uncle.

Merasugun Asso

Early one morning, a man (later known as Merasugun Asso) emerged from the jungle carrying firewood on his shoulder. He passed by Abu Hassan’s house and Mr.Hassan called him to buy his firewood. Abu Hassan asked Merasugun whether he could supply him firewood twice a week. Merasugun agreed, of course, because he did not then have to carry those heavy loads of wood the long distance to the central market and then also had a regular customer. Merasugun visited Abu Hassan’s house two or three times a week, their relationship soon improved not only as buyer and seller, but they began to be friends.

One day, Abu Hassan ordered a big quantity of firewood. It made Merasugun exhausted and he asked whether he could stay until lunch time. Abu Hassan agreed and let Merasugun rest in his house. When lunch time came, Abu Hassan told Merasugun to wait until lunch was ready, so he could go back to his village with a full stomach. Merasugun surely was delighted, but while waiting, the time for praying came (Dzuhur) and Abu Hassan had to leave his guest to pray.

Merasugun watched in amazement at what Abu Hassan was doing, and when Abu Hassan came back he could not resist to ask. Abu Hassan explained what he had just been doing while they ate lunch together. From that time, Islam became their topic of conversation every time Merasugun visited Abu Hassan’s house to deliver firewood.

Merasugun Wanted to be a Muslim

Months later, Merasugun came up to Abu Hassan and declared that he wanted to be a Muslim and that he also wanted to wear the clothes which Abu Hassan wore. After a few talks, Abu Hassan brought him to the local mosque and talked to the Imam about their intention. Soon, Merasugun Asso declared his conversion in public in the Wamena mosque.

Merasugun stayed for a while in Abu Hassan's house to learn more about Islam before he went back to his village. When he went back, it surely electrified his people, especially his chief (Merasugun is actually a close relative of his tribe’s chief). Merasugun was the kind of man who could not resist talking and he talked to almost everyone in his tribe about his new religion and about his new knowledge.

The Chief Embraced Islam

What Merasugun did was amazing! Soon the whole tribe, including the chief himself, embraced Islam and a lot of them came down to Abu Hassan to learn more about Islam. Unfortunately this situation, just like experienced by my uncle, caused resentment from the local church and Abu Hassan was quickly transferred (or expelled?) out of Papua, which left unfinished business with Merasugun and his tribe.

But Merasugun and his people kept their faith. They even built a small mosque in their village and enthusiastically invited some religious teachers to teach them. However, it did not last for long because of the resentment and physical threat particularly from O.P.M. (Organisasi Papua Merdeka - Papuan Liberation Organization). O.P.M. saw their choice to became Muslim as a humiliating betrayal of their struggle. News that O.P.M. was going to attack Merasugun’s village came in and out frequently, but nothing happened until one day when a hunter from Merasugun village saw a fully equipped O.P.M. camp near their village. The presence of these people, who repeatedly intimidated them, fully equipped with arms, was assumed as an act of war by Merasugun's people. Considering their lack of equipment, the chief decided to attack first to exploit fully the element of surprise, and they did. They attacked and surprised the O.P.M. camp annihilating almost everyone and everything there with very minimal casualties from Merasugun’s tribe.

That triumph stunned everyone confronting them. From that time Merasugun’s tribe lived almost a peaceful life. However, the loss of a figure like Abu Hassan made their knowledge of Islam quite insufficient. Time has worsened the situation now as Merasugun and the chief are old and they are not as energetic as before. Both of them have acted as the main guardians of Islam there. The people who opposed them don’t dare confront Merasugun’s tribe, because whoever came in contact with them, become frightened. So, important people, such as religious teachers who are essential for the improvement of their Islamic knowledge, were deterred from going to Merasugun’s village.

Hidayatullah Magazine

A journalist from Hidayatullah magazine, who finally reach Merasugun’s village, found a very sad reality there. The only mosque there still stood but was in disrepair because of the lack of maintenance and neglect. Most of the people, especially the young generation, knew very little about Islam and they had not strongly adhered to Islam like Merasugun or the Chief. Christian Missionaries still stay away from this village but they are very active in the surrounding villages. When we walked across those villages, a very clear contrast appeared between Merasugun’s village and the others. Common to all of the surrounding villages were well built and well maintained schools or clinics, most of the villagers could write and read, communication with the outside world was easy and access roads were quite good.

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