May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Chanting for piety

Chanting for piety
Published: Jan 10, 2011

Arif Zamhari

   Engrossed: the ritual of Mujahadah Kubrah is a powerfully emotional event

‘I joined the Salawat Wahidiyah because my family, from my grandparents to my parents, have been members and have practised chanting for a long time. Now, I feel that by practising the teachings of Salawat Wahidiyah and reciting the salawat (prayers in praise of the Prophet) my heart becomes peaceful, I can study easily. I become much more conscious of Allah. If I had not joined the group, I would not have become as good a Muslim as I am now. I believe that my spiritual teacher will guide us to come to know God.’

These words were spoken by Sofi, a 20 year old woman from Malang who studies Islamic law at the Salawat Wahidiyah Islamic College located in Kedunglo, Kediri, East Java. Salawat Wahidiyah, which means ‘Praise the One God’, is one of the largest mass chanting groups in Indonesia.

Although increasing numbers of Indonesian Muslims, particularly women, are joining chanting groups like the one Sofi describes, they attract little publicity. Even in Indonesia details about the groups and what they do are not widely known. While the effort to become more mindful of God and closer to Him has much in common with the aims of Sufism (mysticism), these groups differ in important ways which make them more accessible to women.

Flexibility of chanting groups

In addition to the Salawat Wahidiyah group, many other chanting groups have proliferated since the 1990s throughout Indonesia. For instance, in almost every kampung in major cities like Jakarta women’s groups meet to chant and pray together. When they have finished chanting, women stay to hear a lecture delivered by a religious teacher.

Anyone may join these groups, the only requirement being a desire to learn how to recite the chants and prayers of the group. There are no age or gender restrictions, with teenagers joining in with adults. There is also no exclusivity of membership, so people may belong to more than one group.

The founders or leaders of each group provide the words or texts for the chants and prayers. While these words are taken from the Qur’an and compiled into a particular order by the leader, the movement does not claim that this compilation was received in direct transmission from the Prophet Muhammad.

Differences with Sufi practice

The growth of groups like Salawat Wahidiyah has been a by-product of the growth over the past decade of widespread popular interest in the general concept of Sufism or Islamic mystical practice. The famous Sufis of medieval Islam founded schools of physical and mental practices which were beyond the capacity of the majority of Muslims. These practices were designed to bring the worshipper increasingly close to God over the period of his or her life. Followers recited and mastered specialist texts preserved through a strict chain of transmission between Master and seeker. Some of the traditional schools of Sufism as developed in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent are still practised by devotees in Indonesia. Membership is open to everyone as long as he or she meets the particular requirements of the groups.

The challenges and stress of modern life have rekindled interest in Sufism among Indonesia’s urban, book-buying, Muslim middle class. Quick to identify this marketing opportunity, the large publishing networks such as Gramedia, Gunung Agung and Wali Songo have published books which describe Sufi practices to improve piety. The books address topics such as how to cure vices, how to prepare for death, how to achieve humility in prayer, and how to manage the heart. Such books sell well.

Some of those attracted to Sufi-inspired books seek to join formal Sufi groups which are also growing in both urban and rural areas. The largest groups, the Qadiriyah/Naqshabandiyah, Naqshabandiyah, Tijaniyah, and Shatariyah attract members who participate in their rituals and devotions on a regular basis. The most obvious differences with chanting groups are that members are usually over 40 and take a vow of allegiance to the Master or leader of the group. As well, the texts used for prayers and rituals are said to have been transmitted to the leader of the group in an unbroken chain from the Prophet Muhammad.

The Salawat Wahidiyah movement

Compared with formal Sufi groups, the chanting groups demand less time and less rigorous practice from their followers. Their openness and accessibility to all ages and sexes has made them attractive to large numbers of Muslims. In Jakarta, for example, besides the Salawat Wahidiyah there are several large religious chanting (zikir) groups such as Majlis Zikir Majlisrasulullah led by Habib Munzir Al-Musawa, Majlis Zikir Nurul Mustafa led by Habib Hasan Assegaf, and Majlis Zikir Az Zikrah led by Arifin Ilham (whose ritualised weeping practices are broadcast on television).

   Members of Salawat Wahidiyah waiting for Mujahadah Kubrah rituals to begin
   Arif Zamhari

The Salawat Wahidiyah group has registered members right across Java as well as in provinces elsewhere in Indonesia. It was established in 1963 by the late Kyai Abdul Madjid (1916-1989) and made its headquarters in the Kediri district of East Java. After Kyai Abdul Madjid’s death, members of the Salawat Wahidiyah venerated him as a wali (saint). Leadership of the group then passed to his eldest son, Kyai Abdul Latif Madjid, who is the current head.

Members are organised according to village, sub-district, district and central levels. Each level is registered with the central headquarters and the movement’s funding is based on voluntary donations from members. These are collected monthly by local coordinators who place charity boxes in front of member’s houses and collect the donations each month. A proportion is transferred to the headquarters with the remainder being used for the benefit of the local office.

Salawat Wahidiyah activities

The largest event organised by Salawat Wahidiyah is the Mujahadah Kubrah (grand ritual event). It is held twice a year and usually takes place in the courtyard of the Islamic Boarding School of Kedunglo where the head office of Salawat Wahidiyah is located. Members of Salawat Wahidiyah come from all over Indonesia and overseas to participate. Large marquees are set up to hold the participants, covering all parts of school yard. A special podium is provided for the religious teachers who will lead the rituals and give special talks.

   Female students of Pesantren Kedunglo weeping during Mujahadah Kubrah

Members are encouraged to weep in a practice known as mujahadah. The louder they weep, the deeper is their regret for their misdeeds. They cry because they feel that they have sinned against God, the Prophet, parents, relatives, teachers, leaders, and other creatures, and this has impeded their striving for greater closeness to God and the Prophet. Weeping is a sign that people have seriously acknowledged and repented their sins and misdeeds. People who are unable to weep during mujahadah are considered to suffer from ‘stubbornness’, and this stubbornness is itself a result of sin.

Not all Muslim teachers accept the practice of weeping. They argue that the Prophet did not teach this practice and that it arose later in Islam and therefore should not be condoned. Salawat Wahidiyah teachers, however, provide theological arguments based on the traditions of the Prophet and the views of authoritative Muslim scholars to support the practice. They argue that weeping for the purpose of inducing humility is strongly recommended by the Prophet. On the other hand, they agree, crying just ‘for show’ is strongly prohibited in Islam.

Kyai Abdul Madjid, founder of the Salawat Wahidiyah, ensured that women should have the same opportunities as men during the Mujahadah Kubrah. Unlike many other zikir groups, he also allowed women to lead the chanting rituals, not only for women pilgrims but also for male pilgrims. Perhaps as a result of this ‘equal opportunity’ policy, almost as many women attend the Mujahadah Kubrah as do male pilgrims. In many Sufi groups and in some other chanting groups, events and rituals are dominated by older men.

All Salawat Wahidiyah followers, both men and women, have equal opportunity to shake hands with their leader and to kiss his hand

During the Mujahadah Kubrah, male and female pilgrims are separated by a low curtain or screen placed between them. In this way they observe modest behaviour between the sexes without the women being relegated to a space behind the males, as is common in many other groups.

On the day following the Mujahadah Kubrah all Salawat Wahidiyah followers, both men and women, have equal opportunity to shake hands with their leader and kiss his hand. After the dawn prayer they sit in a long line to wait their turn. The leader sits in front of his house while pilgrims shake his hand one by one and then kiss it. After kissing the leader’s hand, many pilgrims cry hysterically and faint. The opportunity to touch and meet directly with their leader is the highlight of the event for many of them. In the broader Sufi tradition, it is commonly believed that physical contact with the Master will strengthen confidence and enthusiasm and result in special blessings.

In addition to this Mujahadah Kubrah event, the members of Wahidiyah are strongly encouraged to practice mujahadah rituals every day.

Specific rituals for women

During the Mujahadah Kubrah event, women members of Salawat Wahidiyah have their own schedule of mujahadah rituals. They say their own zikir and prayers. This activity is carried out in order to purify the heart and obtain closeness to God. They recite Salawat Wahidiyah texts (prayers in praise of the Prophet Muhammad) in a congregation led by a female religious teacher. Unlike the compilation of Qur’anic phrases that is commonly recited, these women use a salawat text written by the Wahidiyah’s founder, the late Kyai Abdul Madjid. Like their male fellows, women are encouraged to weep during mujahadah.

Before the mujahadah gathering ends, women preachers deliver religious lectures on a range of topics. Even though the topics are diverse, the common theme conveyed during the lecture is how to strengthen one’s identity as a Salawat Wahidiyah follower.

Attracting criticism and reaction

The increasing popularity of chanting groups has attracted the attention of some ultra-conservative Muslim organisations. Sometimes labeled ‘neo-revivalist’ groups, they are influenced by the strict puritanism of the Salafi movement and argue that Islam does not allow chanting out loud. That is, the repetition of zikir must be done silently in the mind and heart. They express their criticism through lectures in mosques and radio broadcasts as well as in books and pamphlets.

   Preserving modesty: male and female participants in Mujahadah Kubrah separated by a low curtain
   Arif Zamhari

In September 2007, however, one well-known ‘neo-revivalist’ organization, the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front), took the criticism one step further and launched a physical attack on the Salawat Wahidiyah offices in Tasikmalaya, West Java. They also set fire to the home of the leader of the Salawat Wahidiyah there.

Other groups like the Majlis Dhikr Az-Zikrah, AA Gym’s Managemen Qalbu , ESQ Ari and Ginanjar, have also been accused of practising un-Islamic behaviour in the form of their chanting groups. But unlike Salawat Wahidiyah, these groups have not been physically attacked by neo-revivalist groups. The criticism has been expressed ideologically through the publication of books and lectures in mosques.

Equal opportunity

During the past decade, there has been a proliferation of Sufi groups, religious chanting groups, religious courses, and Islamic public teaching held in five star hotels, private companies and private offices in urban centres. Women are actively involved in each of these forms of devotion and in the search for religious knowledge. In some specialised groups such as the Salawat Wahidiyah, women have equal opportunities with men to join the movement and participate in its practices and rituals. They have also developed their own form of practice which is led by women and taught by women. Criticism of these practices has so far failed to deter the women from participating and finding their own form of spiritual expression and support.

Arif Zamhari ( is an anthropologist whose book Rituals of Islamic Spirituality: A Study of Majlis Dhikr Groups in East Java has recently been published by ANU Press (August, 2010). He lectures at Pesantren Al-Hikam in Malang and the State Islamic University in Malang. He is currently a Yale World Fellow at Yale University.

This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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