Nancy Florida

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2018/2019
discipline Literature
Professor of Javanese and Indonesian Studies, University of Michigan

Research project

The Metaphysical Poetry of M.Ng. Ronggasasmita, A Sufi Sage of Early Nineteenth-Century Java


My project focuses on the metaphysical poetry of a Sufi sage from the Central Javanese palace of Surakarta in the early nineteenth century. The poet, one M.Ng. Ronggasasmita, was a member of Java’s most celebrated family of literati: the Yasadipuran-Ronggawarsitan family. In 1815 he compiled a compendium of Sufi songs (suluk) that he titled Suluk Acih (Songs of Aceh). Ronggasasmita indeed composed this volume, not in Java, but in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, where he was inadvertently stranded on his way to make the hajj in Mecca. A man who was to disappear into exile some ten years after writing these poems owing to his involvement in a major rebellion, Ronggasasmita was a follower of the Shaṭṭāriyya tarékat (or Sufi order). In addition to historical contextualization of the poet and his thought, my project will include annotated literary translations and critical analyses of at least two complete poems in the Acehnese compilation: the 324-line Suluk Acih proper, which forms the title poem of the compilation, and the 340-line Suluk Martabat Sanga (Song of the Nine Levels [of the Prophetic Being]).


These two poems together reveal the movement of a particular Javanese Sufi practitioner through both local and trans-regional religious networks: combined they contain a haunting, if brief, account of the author’s sojourn in distant Aceh along with a description of his early educational journey through a series of spiritual guides in Java. The poems also provide complex critical stances on Sufi practices, teachings, and understandings in early nineteenth-century Java. My study will provide analyses of the poet’s renderings of these practices, teachings, and understandings as they lie situated both in the local context of early nineteenth-century royal Java under the shadow of ascendant colonialism, and in the translocal contexts of Sufi discursive traditions that were dominant in the premodern Muslim world. Finally, I will argue that although these Javanese metaphysical texts may, at times, appear to diverge from what might be called “mainstream” Sufi discourse, the suluks are not best approached as examples of some peculiar form of Javanese syncretism. Rather, by treating these works as local manifestations of traditions that belong to universal Islam, I hope to demonstrate instead that the notion of such syncretism itself is one that invites serious reexamination.




Nancy Florida is Professor of Javanese and Indonesian Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. She holds a PhD in History from Cornell University. Nancy is a historian of colonial Java and postcolonial Indonesia who is dedicated to a dialogic engagement with Indonesian subjects, living and dead. Her current research concerns problems of history, politics, and Islam in the manuscript literature of colonial Java along with narratives of violence and trauma in postcolonial Indonesia.


Selected publications


'Syattāriyya Sufi Scents in the Literary World of the Surakarta Palace in Nineteenth-Century Java', in M. Feener & A. Blackburn (eds), Buddhist and Islamic Orders in Southern Asia, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2018, pp. 153-184.


Javanese Literature in Surakarta Manuscripts (3 volumes), Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, Ithaca, 1993; reprint 2000; reprint 2012.


'A Proliferation of Pigs: Specters of Monstrosity in Reformation Indonesia', Public Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, 2008, pp. 497-530.


'Writing Traditions in Colonial Java: The Question of Islam', in S.C. Humphreys (ed.), Cultures of Scholarship, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997, pp. 187-217.


Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future: History as Prophecy in Colonial Java, Duke University Press, Durham/London, 1995.



senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Art History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Philosophy
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS)
discipline Linguistics