Ben Arps

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2018/2019
discipline Southeast Asian Studies
Professor of Indonesian and Javanese Language and Culture, Leiden University

Research project

An Arab Hero Criss-Crossing Asia in Java: The Epic of Amir Hamzah in the Narrative Economy of 16th-Century Java


A key aspect of culture is narrativity (the quality of being a story or like a story). Crystallized in stories proper, narrativity also manifests itself in cultural patterns in other domains, from ritual procedures to perceptions of self. It is especially under conditions of cultural encounter, where distinct narrative modes of making sense of the world meet and sometimes clash, that the significance of narrativity comes to the fore.


In Southeast Asia, Islamization and European colonization have been among the most profoundly transformative historical processes. Narratives and narrativity were central factors in these processes of social, cultural, political, and religious change. In turn, narratives and narrative patterns can be used, retrospectively, to understand the depth and extent of this historical change.

The foundations for this sea-change were laid in Java in the sixteenth century, when Islam firmly established itself not only along the north coast (where it had become increasingly powerful over the 1400’s) but also in the interior, and when the Iberian presence in maritime Asia became more and more noticeable. Nonetheless, this period in the history of Java, and the regions of which it was part is heavily underexplored. Where narrativity is concerned, 1500’s Java is decidedly a vast unknown.

Original Javanese documents from this period are indeed utterly rare. One particular palm-leaf manuscript, among the oldest extant codices inscribed with a text in Modern Javanese, which has been kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford since 1629, affords a splendid opportunity to use an original artefact as the focal point for exploring the narrative economy of Java in the 1500’s.


The aims of the research project are twofold.

(i) The first is to prepare an edition with English translation and annotations of this unique codex. The text belongs to the Hamzah complex of narratives. While this is known to scholarship and the public especially from the Persianate world, it is also prominent in certain Southeast Asian languages. The hero is Ḥamzah ibn ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib, an uncle and contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad. The Bodleian manuscript recounts a string of exciting adventures during Hamzah’s adult life. This text is the earliest known Hamzah narrative in Javanese.

(ii) The second part of the project is contextualization. In line with a conception of philology—which, as should be clear, furnishes this project’s disciplinary background—as the artefact-focused study of worldmaking, the aim here is to locate the manuscript’s narrative in the realm of narrative worldmaking in 15th-century Java, of course with the requisite attention to earlier history as well as translocal connections.




Ben Arps is Professor of Indonesian and Javanese Language and Culture at Leiden University. He holds a Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from Leiden University.

Ben Arps works at the interface of the humanities and humanistic social sciences. What fascinates him most is worldmaking by means of language, performance, and media, especially in encounters between religious and intellectual traditions. He has particular interests in the theory and methods of philology (conceived as the artefact-focused study of worldmaking); the theory and methods of Area Studies; narrativity in culture; Islam; audio media and audioscapes; and the relevance of the past in and for the present. Geographically and culturally, his research centres on Indonesia and the Malay world, with a core interest in Java and its diasporas. He teaches about Southeast Asia.


Selected publications


'Drona’s betrayal and Bima’s brutality: javanaiserie in Malay culture', in W. van der Molen & D. Choo Ming (eds), Traces of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Javanese and Malay literature, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, 2018, pp. 58-98.

Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind: The Javanese Shadow-Play Dewa Ruci Performed by Ki Anom Soeroto. A Study in Performance Philology, NUS Press, Singapore, 2016.

'Osing Kids and the Banners of Blambangan: ethnolinguistic identity and the regional past as ambient themes in an East Javanese town', Wacana, vol. 11, n. 1, 2009, pp. 1-38.

'How a Javanese gentleman put his library in order', Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, vol. 155, n. 3, 1999, pp. 416-469.

'The Song Guarding at Night: grounds for cogency in a Javanese incantation', in S. C. Headley (ed.), Towards an anthropology of prayer: Javanese ethnolinguistic studies / Vers une anthropologie de la prière: études ethnolinguistiques javanaises, Publications de l’Université de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, 1996, pp. 47–113. 


senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Indian Philosophy and Intellectual History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Regional Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Mathematics