May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Writing for God

Writing for God

Piety and consumption in popular Islam

Amrih Widodo

   Freedom of choice: Islamic publications at a book fair
   Amrih Widodo

By February 2008, the novel Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) had been republished 30 times since its launch in December 2004. It has sold more than 400,000 legitimate copies and an unknown number of pirated ones. In 2005, The Muslim women’s weekly Muslimah chose it as Indonesia’s ‘Favourite Book’ of the year, defeating the latest Harry Potter volume by four votes. The movie bearing the same name hit the cinemas in March 2008. It beat many Hollywood movies at the box office, gaining an audience of more than 4 million people. A special viewing was organised for President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono and his family, who invited his cabinet ministers and members of the diplomatic community in Jakarta.

Politicians from Islamic parties and Muslim leaders of all leanings, members of various Islamic prayer groups, students belonging to various Islamic organisations and ordinary Muslim teenagers in urban areas have not escaped the Ayat-Ayat Cinta fever either. They have declared the film and the novel a must-see and must-read for Indonesian Muslims. It seems that if you haven’t read it, and if you didn’t cry when you saw the movie, then there must be something wrong with you as a Muslim.

The author of the novel is Habiburrahman El Shirazy, a graduate of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. He was brought up in the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) culture of Demak, Central Java. He is well-versed in traditional Islamic studies such as hadith (traditions of the Prophet), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Qur’anic exegesis. What has made Ayat-Ayat Cinta so wildly popular is its recipe of combining a melodramatic love story with a stylish manual for living in an Islamic way.

The main plot of the novel is a love story, an Islamic romance, between Fahri, an archetypical smart, pious, and knowledgeable graduate student of Al-Azhar University, and four beautiful women who adore and desire him as their husband. He marries the rich Turkish-German beauty Aisha and in doing so breaks the heart of his Coptic Christian neighbour, Maria. Angry from losing Fahri to another woman, the third woman Noura sends Fahri to jail, accusing him of raping her. At the end, Fahri marries Maria as his second wife to save her from her illness, and in turn she gives testimony to free him from prison. Throughout this multiple-angled love story and a series of coincidences, El Shirazy invokes Islamic teachings as written in the Qur’an, hadith and other sources, translating them into ordinary language applicable to real cases encountered in everyday life. The reader will find in the story Islamic solutions for many day-to-day problems, such as romantic male-female interactions, inter-religious relations, polygamy, and the position of women in Islam.

El Shirazy has finally demonstrated how to successfully mix Islam and melodramatic romance to create a bestselling benchmark for Islamic fiction

Believing that serving God is the ultimate purpose of human life, El Shirazy contends that the sole purpose of his art is to serve God. Hence, he says, his novels should be for the propagation of Islam. To some readers, his works might seem irritatingly tedious and preachy, but it should be kept in mind that there is a huge mass of readers who have been yearning for something like this: a ready-to-use manual drawing on Qur’an-based codes of conduct for everyday life. El Shirazy shrewdly weaves such a manual into the twists and turns of soap opera-style conflicts, to allow readers to weep through an Islamic catharsis of suffering and love until the book’s final triumph - Fahri’s release from prison and his happy marriage with Aisha, which is achieved with the help of Allah. Other writers have gained some success writing Islamic popular novels. However, El Shirazy has finally demonstrated beyond doubt how to successfully mix Islam and melodramatic romance to create a bestseller.

The post Suharto mediascape

The collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in May 1998 has drastically changed the character of Indonesian political culture. After three decades of state-dominated political culture, now Indonesia has a cultural scene in which identity politics is prominent. Minorities and other groups whose shared interests, ideologies and identities were marginalised and oppressed during the Suharto dictatorship have been taking advantage of the newly liberated public sphere and mediascape to assert their presence and participation in national public discourse.

   Islamic fashion is big business
   Amrih Widodo

The unexpected and radical liberalisation of the media, the dramatic expansion of the broadcast sector and the establishment of private cable television during Habibie’s interim presidency created a media explosion and elevated the media industry to a new level of unprecedented market competition. John Olle reported in 2000 that, facing a market saturated with politically oriented tabloids containing sensational coverage of current affairs, many tabloids changed their strategy to focus on sizzling topics such as crime, mysticism, entertainment, and sex in order to maintain sales.

This radical change of the mediascape and the political regime has several implications for the development of Islamic popular culture. The massive circulation and broad exposure of sensational and sensual tabloids in major cities in Indonesia has created a ‘moral panic’, especially among certain Muslim organisations and activists who view media liberalisation as signaling an offensive and immoral process of westernisation and secularisation that threatens Islamic values. And this liberalisation took place in a context where there had been greater Islamic revivalism, a growing Muslim middle-class, and greater outward displays of piety for more than a decade. The scene was set for a backlash, a backlash in which concerned Muslims would themselves take control of the production and consumption of media and popular cultural products.

Self-help and chicken soup

The profile of Islamic book sales has changed a lot in Indonesia over the decades. While translations of Arabic language scholarly texts used to dominate the market, now there are also huge sales of popular, everyday, mass-produced and entertaining books, comics, stories and magazines. The last ten years especially have witnessed the explosion of self-help and ‘chicken-soup for the soul’ type books written from an Islamic perspective.

One of the most important pioneers of such books has been Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar, the charming television preacher known affectionately as Aa Gym. He successfully transformed himself into a religious celebrity, Indonesian icon, and Islamic name brand. His bestselling books offer general advice linking tips for practical everyday living with quotations from religious texts. This type of self-help book with an Islamic perspective is currently in high demand.

The moral panic described above and the fact that there was a real lacuna of Islamic children’s and teen books have induced the emerging Islamic publication industry to target these groups as consumers. Abu Al-Ghifari, a self-taught writer who saw this lacuna as a business opportunity, started a small publishing company, Mujahidin Press, in 2002 to publish his own writings. The titles of his bestselling books are eye-catching as they respond to the kinds of problems that teenagers currently face: Kudung gaul, berjilbab tapi telanjang (Trendy head covers: donning jilbab, naked nonetheless), Remaja korban mode (Teenagers as fashion victims), Gelombang kejahatan seks remaja modern (The tides of sexual crimes of modern teenagers), Muslimah yang kehilangan harga diri (Muslim women who have lost their self-respect), Menggapai surga dengan tulisan: kiat menjadi penulis sukses, panduan untuk generasi muda Islam (Reaching heaven with your writing: Tips to be a successful writer, a guide for the Muslim young generation). His website indicates that in less than five years his business has expanded into media, training, internet, and insurance under the umbrella of the Mujahidin Group. Al-Ghifari’s books tend to take a didactic tone, warning of the danger of modernity while presenting Islam as the norm, and self-help as the solution.

The last ten years especially has witnessed the explosion of self-help and ‘chicken-soup for the soul’ type books with Islamic perspectives

In a global context where discourse about is Islam is often framed in the language of security and violence, popular Islamic books present a totally different style and tone. They stress keywords like love, happiness, heart, beauty, dreams, hope, prayer, light, success, and self-reliance.

A virtual writing community

Forum Lingkar Pena (Pen Circle Forum or FLP) is as an example of a familiar post-colonial phenomenon whereby small cultural movements emerge as responses to an authoritarian post-colonial regime and globalisation. A small group of book lovers formed FLP on 22 February 1997 out of their concern for what they saw as a lack of interest among Indonesian students in reading and writing, and the real need for ‘inspiring, objective and responsible’ reading materials. FLP aims to provide guidance, training, and a forum for youngsters who want to develop their writing potential and enlighten society through their writings. Initially led by Helvy Tiana Rosa, a lecturer at the Faculty of Letters, University of Indonesia, FLP expanded very quickly to become the best organised and biggest mailing-based writers’ forum in Indonesia. With more than 5000 members from diverse backgrounds and professions, about 500 of whom are active writers who have been published in local media, it has branches in 23 provinces in Indonesia and 8 branches abroad. The author of Ayat-Ayat Cinta, El Shirazy, is an FLP member who was active in the Middle-Eastern branch. Even though FLP’s statute states that membership is open to anyone regardless of religious background, the themes of the 200 books they produce in the last ten years indicate that FLP is Islamically oriented.

Self-reliance seems to be FLP’s essential characteristic, as FLP operates mainly on membership fees, without any sponsorship from the publication industry. Such self-reliance has given FLP members freedom to write on whatever topics and in whatever styles they wish. FLP has gained a reputation which helps its members to have their works published, but it has also begun to cooperate with more established publishers. It has been so successful in creating a community of young writers that the weekly Tempo magazine called FLP ‘a factory of fiction writers’. Despite its achievements in terms of membership, publications and sales, some commentators have criticised FLP for relying more on propagation than on creativity, and there has been internal criticism among members of the mailing-list that the forum has served more for community cohesion and providing personal or business information rather than critically appraising the publications.

Islamic popular culture

Ten years after the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian rule, Indonesia has seen a phenomenal transformation of Islam into popular brand names for material, media and cultural products. Entrepreneurs have used Islam productively to imbue material goods with both religious and economic value. This is a seemingly odd combination which also signals a radical change in the relationship between religion and capitalism in Indonesia. New Islamic literary trendsetters and new communities of Muslim writers aim to challenge what they see as the materialism, hedonism and immorality in Indonesian literature. They especially oppose the ‘sastra wangi’ (fragrant literature) in which women authors speak openly about sexuality and the sensual body in their works, topics almost totally avoided in Islamic literature. One ironic outcome of this Islamic resistance, however, is that it opens up a path for the establishment of an Islamic consumer culture.

The success of Ayat-Ayat Cinta and FLP books also means that Islamic literature is moving from the margins to the mainstream. Such a movement entails a tension over whether the new Islamic literature will be an alternative literature focusing on propagation of Islam and serving as a defense against Western cultural hegemony and secularisation, or whether it will primarily serve to produce consumable Islamic texts and publications that are desired commodities and symbols of education, affluence and lifestyle. The fact that popular Islamic literature aimed at the propagation of Islam has been used by the publishing industry to identify a new cultural market means Muslim writers will have to deal with an inevitable question: Do they write for God or for money?     ii

Amrih Widodo ( lectures in Indonesian language and Southeast Asian popular culture at the Australian National University. You can see a trailer for Ayat-Ayat Cinta at

Inside Indonesia 93: Aug-Oct 2008

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