In an urban neighbourhood in eastern Java, hundreds of religious students, or santri, arrive at a pesantren (boarding school) owned and run by the family of a charismatic preacher, Nyai Nisa. She is a popular figure, aged in her 40s, with hundreds of supporters who appreciate her speeches for their wisdom and for the feminist orientation of her religious thought. The santri have come to this family-operated pesantren because it is also the home of a tarekat (Sufi order). They will attend courses of study that last for days, weeks or months depending on their spiritual needs.
The pesantren-based tarekat run by Nisa’s family is distinctive when compared with similar institutions in Java: the school’s history has been turbulent because the women active within it have opposed widely-held ideas about gender. The stories told by Nisa and other women at the pesantren reveal lesser-known experiences of Sufi women that significantly contrast to the idealised spiritual image of Sufis, who are usually male. Apart from this, the pesantren is different because it includes an asylum that caters to the needs of the mentally-ill.
In the spiritual cave
Nyai Nisa’s tarekat is a branch of the Naqsyabandiyah, the world’s largest Sufi order. Like most of Indonesia’s many Sufi orders, this one has adapted to its local cultural context, which means that its traditional teaching practices, material and structure have changed to varying degrees over generations. The pesantren attracts people from all over Indonesia, who come and go in their hundreds, and even some from as far away as Malaysia and Brunei. It offers a standard Naqsyabandiyah observance referred to in east Java as prihatin, which its adherents consider an important exercise in the pursuit of divine knowledge.
Here, prihatin means ‘to go within’ by ‘going without.’ The prihatin process confines seekers of the truth to ‘the cave,’ symbolically named after the cave in which the Prophet Muhammad meditated and received some early revelations. The ‘spiritual cave’ is a vacant room in a gender-segregated dormitory, which seekers share with up to ten others, sleeping on carpets without pillows or sheets. Talking is banned, and seekers are confined to their own room and to the women’s compound. The minimum time required in 'the cave' is three days, and some stay for 40 days or several months – it depends on the needs of the seeker. In this way, there is a constant stream of people coming and going, so it is hard to know exactly how many are there at any given time.
Fasting is required between sunrise and sunset, and since bathing is not allowed during the day, it is performed after midnight, when seekers endeavour to cleanse their inner and outer dimensions in order to know their ‘inner lights and spiritual guides’. The aim is to ‘go within’ in order to feel who one really is. Ideally, santri enter the compound on a Wednesday night when an initiation takes place after the evening prayer. When confronted with the hardships they will experience in prihatin, some women decide to proceed no further.
Women perform prihatin for a number of reasons. Some seek enlightenment, others want to heal themselves. Many women are widowed or divorced, and some tell stories of arranged marriages in which they experienced repeated marital rape when they were as young as ten years of age. Several women explained how they killed their own newly-born babies to lighten their heavy loads as Javanese wives and mothers. Others spoke openly of their sexual desires for married men and how these desires crystallised as they went deeper into themselves during prihatin.
Seekers do not pay for the experience, but contribute some money for the food, which is supplied twice a day when they open and break the fast. Food is cooked by full-time santri who board for free at the pesantren and work as household staff, a typical pesantren arrangement. This traditional structure is centred on the house of the mursyid (spiritual leader), which is located between the male and female compounds.
The mursyid lives with his wife and children in the house, while members of the pesantren’s staff have separate living quarters near the communal kitchen at the back of the property. Female santri are traditionally segregated from the males, and do not have the same access to the mursyid as male santri. It is therefore very common for the mursyid’s wife, known as ‘bu nyai’, to play an important role in the daily interactions with female santri. Yet Nisa’s pesantren is different, because its history shows its women to be more than functionaries in a male-dominated structure.
A history of female leadership
The family pesantren has been in operation since the early 1900s when Nisa’s grandfather established it with his wife, Siti. After his death, Siti inherited the leadership for 30 years. Her leadership conflicted with the conventions of the genealogical lineages from which pesantrens derive authority as inheritors of august forebears. Recognised Sufi tarekat are parts of international networks legitimated by male mursyid or syeikhs who form a chain of spiritual transmission that goes back to the Prophet Muhammad. As a rule, therefore, it is males who lead Sufi tarekat in gendered spiritual lineages.
A division of the Nahdlatul Ulama organisation is responsible for recognising the authenticity and correctness of the tarekat, including the Naqsabandiyah order. Nisa’s grandmother’s leadership, however, seriously jeopardised the legitimacy of the family’s tarekat, and it was classified as sesat (deviant) until her son, Nisa’s father, succeeded to the leadership upon Siti’s death in the 1960s. With a man back in control, the pesantren’s status was restored and it began operating in line with the standardised rules of the Naqsyabandiyah order.
Nisa’s brother is the current leader of the pesantren, but what makes this pesantren unusual is that its staff and students recognise Nisa as the inheritor of her grandmother’s leadership ability. Inspired by her grandmother’s example, Nisa established her own small pesantren which she runs and manages on her own in another city in Java. But she continues to play an important role as spiritual leader of the women’s section in her family’s pesantren.
Women in Southeast Asia have an elevated social status in contrast to other Asian societies such as in India and China, and it is not uncommon for women to assume high positions in spiritual matters in the non-formal spheres of religious practice. Nisa’s grandmother was recognised for her spiritual abilities by her husband, a charismatic Sufi syeikh. He entrusted her with the leadership of hundreds of santri, who remained loyal by seeking her counsel and guidance during her 30 year leadership. Both men and women were initiated into the tarekat under her guidance.
The making of a nyai
As a nyai, the female equivalent of the kiai, Nisa performs a similar role to that of her grandmother, and implements a feminist approach that was shaped by her experiences with her father and his four wives, and by the severe segregation rules she grew up with at home as a child. Nevertheless, she takes care not to challenge strict interpretations of Islam that prevent women from leading men in religious and spiritual matters.
As a child she was rebellious, running away from home several times. She fled for good when her father arranged for her to marry a kiai who already had three wives. She was to be the fourth. The teenager finally returned home after living with relatives for a year, and married the son of a high-profile governor. Having been raised in the pesantren, she had no secular education, but her new status as the wife of a governor’s son allowed Nisa to follow in the footsteps of her grandmother by preaching and teaching, and she generated a large following over the years.
Women perform prihatin for a number of reasons. Some seek enlightenment, others want to heal themselves
The pesantren also specialises in spiritual healing of mentally-ill patients. These patients are moved to a separate section of the pesantren in a village out of town. This special asylum has a high success rate in restoring mental health, thereby gaining ongoing support from locals, who firmly believe in the efficacy of its Sufi healing practices. The site has been associated with ‘healing the mad’ since Nisa’s grandparents led the pesantren, and its reputation has grown because of the many successful healings of mentally-ill individuals who took part in periods of prihatin. The spiritual manager of the asylum is a disciple of Nisa’s father. He has four wives who assist him to take care of the 100 mentally-ill people in his care.
In addition to her formal tarekat duties such as opening the initiation ceremonies and preparing women for what will take place during prihatin, Nisa is a spiritual guide and counsellor for women. Many people visit Nisa, seeking her blessing, prayer and advice, and she considers her vocation to lie in guiding women to feel Allah’s love. Her family’s pesantren provides a feminine space for healing under the leadership and guidance of advanced women Sufi practitioners.
Bianca J. Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Brunei Darussalam. She researches the gendered dimensions of (re)Islamisation in Indonesia’s pesantren, tarekat and spiritual movements.
This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.