Merle Calvin Ricklefs

Merle Calvin Ricklefs (1943–2019) was one of the most brilliant post-War historians of Java. Born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on July 17, 1943, Merle graduated from Colorado College in 1965 with a magna cum laude bachelor’s degree in history, and went on to earn his doctorate from Cornell University in 1970. His thesis was subsequently published in 1974 as Jogjakarta under Sultan Mangkubumi, 1749–1792—A History of the Division of Java. During his long and distinguished academic career, Merle taught at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (1969–79), Monash University (1980–93), the Australian National University (1993–98), and the University of Melbourne (1998–2005), where he was, respectively, director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (ANU) and foundation director of the Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Societies. Along the way he was also visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1983), and visiting professor of Southeast Asian History at the National University of Singapore (2006–11).

Fluent in Dutch, German, French, and Javanese as well as Indonesian, Merle set the benchmark for historical studies of pre-colonial (1200–1800) and colonial (1800–1942) Java. He was best known for his frequently republished History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1200, and his meticulously researched trilogy on Indonesian Islam: Mystic Synthesis in Java; A History of Islamisation from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries; Polarising Javanese Society—Islamic and Other Visions (c. 1830–1930); and Islamisation and its Opponents in Java: A Political, Social, Cultural and Religious History (c. 1830 to the Present). The latter, <>Islamisation and its Opponents in Java</>, won the George McT Kahin Prize in 2012 for “Best Book” on Southeast Asia. Merle’s panoramic vision encompassed a seven-hundred-year sweep of the history of the Islamization of Java beginning in the fourteenth century and bringing the story right up to the present day with the rise of identity politics and the process of religious transformation in Indonesia that followed the fall of General Suharto’s New Order regime on May 21, 1998. His last book in the trilogy was described by one reviewer as “the most masterful ever written on religion and politics in Indonesia.”