May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The shadow of the Ayatollah

The shadow of the Ayatollah
Published: May 19, 2012

Indonesia’s Shi’i community is struggling to find the right balance between local traditions and its fascination with Iran


Chiara Formichi

The Iranian theatrical troupe performs
Chiara Formichi

‘One of the beauties of this world is cultural difference. I have noticed differences in Sumatra, but the Tabot ceremony is very similar. Differences are the result of time. We are sad, we remember the martyrdom, but then each place is different. The essence is the same, but it is packaged with local traditions. The content is still Husayn, but its expression reflects local culture.’

It was with these words that the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran addressed a crowd of Indonesian students at the local tertiary institute for Islamic studies in Bengkulu on the sixth day of Muharram in the 1433 Hijri year (2 December 2011). The Ambassador, together with a high-ranking cleric – who is also the resident director of an Islamic institute in Jakarta – accompanied an Iranian theatrical troupe to Bengkulu. The troupe performed a ta’ziyeh, the Persian version of the Tabot, with three actors and two musicians reciting Farsi verses and playing out the martyrdom of Husayn at the hand of Shamir, commander of Caliph Yazid’s army. The Iranian delegation was also accompanied by a conspicuous number of Indonesian Qumiyyin, graduates of the Iranian religious seminary school in Qum. The Qumiyyin were tasked with the role of explaining the scenes as they unfolded, and translating the subsequent debate focused on the meaning of Ashura for non-Shi’is. The debate also canvassed the role the Tabot plays in Bengkulu in the social, cultural and political education of the faithful.

The next day the troupe performed in the main square as part of the ‘Tabot Expo’. Amid excitement and fear, the play was interrupted by the Tabot procession, which was carrying its banners whilst frantically dancing in the rain to the rhythm of dol drums. The procession stormed on and off the stage and the performance resumed, as the crowd danced and shouted ‘Ya Husayn!’ evoking the spirit of Ashura.

An imported ritual

The Tabot tradition arrived in the eighteenth century with South Asian Muslim migrants brought to Sumatra by the British. It depicts the killing of Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, as it occurred in 61 Hijri (680 CE) at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq. The ‘tragedy of Karbala’ establishes Husayn as the prototypical martyr, who faced death to defend his companions, his family, the will of Muhammad, and ultimately the truth.

It is around this message that in 1979 Khomeini rallied thousands of Iranians to revolt against Shah Pahlevi, and a couple of years later against Saddam’s army. Khomeini invoked the duty to sacrifice oneself in the name of justice and truth, with the reward of Paradise. Iran has played an increasing role in shaping Shi’i identities in Indonesia in the last couple of years. Larger numbers of Indonesians now graduate from the seminary in Qum, but more go to state universities across the country to study Persian language and literature, and Islamic politics and history. It is within this expansionist frame that an Iran-Iraq inspired rituality is spreading through the archipelago. Iran’s focus on educational exchanges and training of the religious elite bears resemblance to the method used by the Saudi Wahabis.

But in Bengkulu, the Tabot ritual is a cultural emblem, its symbol carved on the city’s crest. What’s more, it involves the entire population, regardless of religious beliefs. The Ambassador was clear in his respect for cultural difference, praised its richness and called for its preservation. At the same time the very presence of the delegation is an attempt to reinsert religion in the Tabot tradition.

Struggles over Husayni piety

In Bengkulu, the desire to bring the religious significance of this ‘cultural’ tradition back to the surface has allowed for cooperation between two otherwise opposing approaches to Husayni piety, two streams of the ‘lovers of the Ahl al-Bayt’. Frictions between devotees focusing on a broader appreciation of Alid piety – a group that also includes some Sunnis – and those promoting instead specifically Ja’fari fiqh are completely gone. They share the common goal of reversing the state-guided process of acculturation of this tradition.

But the cleavage between these two streams was clear on Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, when Jakarta and Bandung hosted their respective events. The Jakarta event was presided over by the silent presence of two Iranian clerics, an Ayatullah and the Hujjatul Islam who had accompanied the ambassador to Bengkulu. In Bandung, the event welcomed two representatives of West Java’s Christian congregations as ‘guests’. This was a radical change from the previous year, when an Ayatullah gave the concluding speech at Bandung. Intriguingly, both events hosted theatrical depictions of Husayn’s martyrdom. Strikingly, the Iranian Farsi-speaking ta’ziyeh troupe performed again in Jakarta, its counterpart in Bandung was a Sunni, Sundanese-speaking, company.

Both performances stirred emotion in the crowds, with men sighing, women crying and children screaming as Yazid’s army beheaded the dead body of Imam Husayn. Those in attendance in Jakarta violently beat their chests at the cries of ‘Ya Husayn!’ under the Garuda insignia having dutifully sung Indonesia Raya Those in Bandung stared at images of despair and violence from the Bahraini Shi’i uprising, and quietly cried hearing the story of Zainab’s love and grief for her slaughtered brother.

Searching for compromise

Ahlul Bayt circles in Bandung and Jakarta are gradually growing apart, as they look for new followers in different environments. The ‘traditional’ stream centred in Bandung finds acolytes in the surrounding rural area of Priangan, where Ali is looked up to as a key player in the transmission of Sufism and as a charismatic leader. Similarly, Husayn evokes a genuine commitment to the humanitarian cause of defending one’s companions and family. Jakarta, the centre of political power exposed to international dynamics, is aligning with Ja’fari expansionism and Indonesian Muslims’ increasing fascination with Iran’s president, Ahmadinejad. Devotees of the Ahl al-Bayt’ become converts to Shi’ism and dedicated practitioners of Ja’fari fiqh, learning Farsi, and going to Iran and Iraq on pilgrimage and holiday.

Ashura 1433 brought to the fore these communities’ struggle to strike the right balance between national values and local tradition on the one hand, and the authority of Iran and the power of transnational Islamic brotherhood on the other.

Chiara Formichi ( is Assistant Professor in Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. For a detailed discussion of the distinction between the cleavage among devotees, see ‘Lovers of the Ahl al-Bayt’.

Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-Jun 2012

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