Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Praying across borders

Praying across borders
Published: Aug 22, 2010

Doctrinal borders that divide traditionalist and modernist Muslims in Banjarmasin are breaking down, but slowly

Ahmad Muhajir

   Modernist preachers stand on a podium when delivering the Friday
   Ahmad Muhajir

The Abdurrahman Ismail mosque is located in the oldest Islamic campus in Banjarmasin, IAIN Antasari. People call it the ‘IAIN mosque’. It is relatively small compared to other mosques, and normally hosts only the students and staff of the campus. Its busiest hours are between 12.30 and 17.00, the times when people observe their daylight prayers (Zuhur and Ashar). It also conducts evening prayers (Magrib and Isya), but these are attended by the few people who are still on campus after hours. Like other mosques, it holds a Friday service each week.

Many newcomers to Abdurrahman Ismail are surprised at the way regular rituals are held in the mosque, which combines the ritual styles of the traditionalist old guard and the modernist new guard. This makes the IAIN mosque different from other Islamic prayer houses in the city. Abdurrahman Ismail tries to reach out to both these communities, which usually attend their own houses of worship separately and observe Islamic rituals according to their respective preferences. The accommodative approach towards ritual observation is a departure from the practice of the majority of mosques in Banjarmasin, where the general rule is to stick with one school of thought.

Blending traditions

The best example of the IAIN mosque’s combination of traditions can be found in the weekly Friday service. Four components, usually performed differently by the traditionalists and modernists, are mixed and matched. They are the number of prayer calls; the place from which a Friday speaker delivers sermons; whether or not the muezzin (person performing the call to prayer) asks the congregation to listen to the sermons that accompany the Friday communal prayer; and whether or not he leads a prayer recitation during the short break between sermons.

At the IAIN mosque, the muezzin summons the faithful to Friday prayer twice, following the tradition of the old guard. The modernists, in contrast, prefer to make only one call to prayer. But the modernists are not neglected, for when delivering the Friday sermon, the preacher stands on a podium which he ascends from the back. In traditionalist mosques, the Friday sermons are given from a pulpit called a mimbar, which one ascends from the front. Furthermore, the muezzin of the IAIN mosque does not announce the Arabic message known as the ma’asyiral, which functions to call the attention of the audience to the sermon. Nor does he lead a prayer recital when the preacher takes a compulsory break by briefly sitting between the two parts of the sermon. In these ways, the mosque follows modernist practice, for both the Arabic message and the prayer recitation are common elements of traditionalist practice. Overall, modernist tradition is more prominent at the IAIN mosque, but is not by any means the only tradition in evidence.

This practice is an acknowledgement of the heterogeneity of religious traditions amongst the IAIN community. The majority of the high ranking campus figures are modernist Muslims, while roughly two thirds of the students are from traditionalist families. Blending modernist and traditionalist ritual styles shelters the university from the impression that it is simply a modernist campus, which would discourage the predominantly traditionalist Muslims of South Kalimantan from sending their children to study there.

The blending of ritual styles acknowledges the heterogeneity of religious traditions found amongst the IAIN community

Although heterogeneous in many aspects, the province of South Kalimantan, of which Banjarmasin is the capital, is a stronghold for traditionalist Muslims. A recent poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) shows that almost 60 per cent of voters in the 2010 gubernatorial elections profess affiliation with the largest traditionalist Muslim organisation in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama. One could hardly expect that the traditionalists would make many concessions in those few ‘doctrinal negotiations’ that do take place.

The roots of difference

All these traditions differ from one another in minor and major ways, for they respectively defer to different doctrines. For instance, in the case of the Friday prayer call, the modernists uphold the example practised during the lifetimes of the Prophet Muhammad and his two senior companions, Abu Bakar and Umar. Conversely the traditionalists follow a policy that has been applied since the time of the third Caliph Utsman by adding another prayer call to give Muslims advance notice so that they can prepare for Friday prayer.

The different attitudes of muezzins about the use of the time between the two Friday sermons originate from the larger doctrinal issue of how a Muslim should recite prayers. This short break between the sermons is believed by traditionalists to be an ‘auspicious time’ to pray, and so they like to supplicate together as a group led by one person with a loud voice. That is why an old guard muezzin will read out a prayer during the break while people raise their hands in a praying gesture. The traditionalists believe that God grants mercy more liberally to Muslims performing their devotions in congregations, rather than those who observe them individually.

In contrast, the muezzins in modernist mosques will remain silent as the participants offer supplications individually without raising their voices. The modernists do not wholly reject the traditionalist doctrine of praying together. They still perform obligatory prayers in congregation. But apart from that, they choose to supplicate privately in accordance with the Qur’anic verse which reads, ‘Remember your Lord inwardly, in all humility and awe, without raising your voice’. Such disagreements help to explain why the two streams have separately established their own prayer houses and organisational frameworks.

Divisions that persist

According to some observers, these doctrinal tensions subsided after the 1970s, and the religious divides narrowed. Muslims of the two streams can now sometimes be seen praying in the one congregation, and engaging in joint socio-religious activities. Both parties have also increasingly softened their approaches to old but contentious issues such as independent reasoning (ijtihad) and strict adherence to a particular school (taqlid). There are signs of convergence.

But the blending of worship traditions found at the IAIN mosque is rarely encountered in South Kalimantan, and should be seen as an exception that responds to the unique, blended congregation that assembles there. Of the 977 mosques and smaller prayer houses in Banjarmasin, less than ten blend traditionalist and modernist ritual styles. Furthermore, some Muslims oppose efforts to accommodate diverse traditions. People direct pejorative comments at the practices, describing them as hybrid, strange, unclear, or even ‘sissy’.

Not surprisingly, these comments come from the purist and more conservative members of both groups. A metaphor used by a local modernist expresses it nicely: ‘It is natural that a garden will contain various flowers growing in different colours. But to avoid confusion, roses should look like roses, not like carnations’. This desire to perpetuate ritual differences does not lead to open conflict between Muslims in Banjarmasin, and they routinely attend their chosen mosques without any problems, but nevertheless, the distinctions persist because the community does not wish to let them go.

Ahmad Muhajir (hajir_banjar@yahoo.co.id) is a lecturer at STAI Al-Falah in South Kalimantan.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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