During the rallies for the 1997 Indonesian general elections, one could witness small groups of Muslim youths visiting the house of Ibu Alfiyah Muhadie in Yogyakarta. Dressed in green campaigning outfits, their motorbikes not yet roaring, they filed through the house, bowing before Ibu Alfiyah to ask her blessing for the upcoming event.
When the campaign turned violent and several youngsters were wounded in skirmishes with members of the opposing Golkar party, a delegation came to ask Ibu Alfiyah's advice: Was it wise to continue campaigning or not? Without hesitation, she said they should continue, because it was one of the few ways available to express their political preference publicly.
Last April Major-General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law, sought her spiritual advice during a self-publicising tour of Muslim dignitaries. Ibu Alfiyah did not hesitate to query him about his family connections.
Ibu Alfiyah is a female Muslim preacher, a muballigha of the 'Aisyiyah movement. She is also a social activist especially interested in women's rights, and one of the leaders of 'Aisyiyah. 'Aisyiyah is the branch for women of the reformist Muhammadiyah movement that at the moment counts around 28 million members.
Founded in 1917, 'Aisyiyah did not start on the basis of lofty theories, but was born out of its environment's needs and the plight of Muslim women. Apart from training female preachers, 'Aisyiyah started out by setting up Muslim pre-schools (frobel) in 1919, the first prayer house (musholla) for women in 1922, and literacy courses for women.
Since then it has initiated scores of other projects such as orphanages, birth clinics, programs for preventive health care, and a school for training nurses. Changing with the needs of the times, 'Aisyiyah has expanded its activities and moved into new areas of work. But in spite of its perpetual growth, its first department, for preaching (tabligh), has remained the most important.
Ibu Alfiyah was born in Banyumas, Central Java, around 1918, in a devout Muslim family of Qur'an teachers. Her father was a teacher of Islam who spent twelve years in Mecca, where he became acquainted with modernist ideas of Islam.
When he returned to Indonesia, Muhammadiyah had not yet been founded, but he immediately started to disseminate his new-found ideas through his teaching in the Islamic school (pesantren). He passed away when she was only six years old, but Ibu Alfiyah credits her father for instilling into her basic philosophies about religion, ethics and society.
Apart from his religious teaching, he would take her for rides in the countryside and draw her attention to the plight of the poor and undernourished around them. Ibu Alfiyah's mother taught her the Qur'an, and took all the children on the Hajj when Alfiyah was only ten years old. That experience gave her a deep respect for the Prophet Muhammad: 'When I saw all those sand hills that he had to cross in order to spread the message of Islam, I understood how strenuous his mission must have been.'
After finishing elementary school, Alfiyah was sent to Yogyakarta to enter the Muallimat teacher-training school. Muhammadiyah had opened this school in 1924 in order to create female cadre for its 'Aisyiyah movement. During these years Alfiyah was never far from Muhammadiyah, since she boarded with the widow of Achmad Dahlan, its founder.
According to Ibu Alfiyah, at that time she devoted herself to intensive Qur'an study and the interpretation of its message. Her whole life she would use this method of self study and interpretation when preparing for a preaching tour or for new projects to be launched by 'Aisyiyah.
After graduating she returned to Banyumas where an 'Aisyiyah branch had just started. Together with the Muhammadiyah school teacher Raden Sudirman (1916-1950 - the future general whose role in the Indonesian army was pivotal during the independence war against the Dutch), and his wife, Ibu Alfiyah went into the villages around Banyumas to preach reformist Islam.
Her message boils down to a type of Islamic liberation theology. According to Ibu Alfiyah, the villagers could be rehabilitated if they would 'open their hearts' and 'use their mental faculties (akal)' to accept God. By becoming a devout Muslim they would understand that in the sight of God everybody is the same. Rich people are not of a higher race than poor people. There is no need to be ashamed of being poor. Apart from this she upholds that the truth should always prevail and never be covered up because of fear.
Excuse not to marry
About this same time, Ibu Alfiyah set up office in her mother's house and hired a secretary in order to disseminate Islamic teaching by writing. She became one of the editors of Suara 'Aisyiyah, the movement's monthly magazine since 1926.
For nearly three decades she expounded her views through this magazine, with topics such as the proper behaviour for a Muslim woman, comments on feminist movements, and the appropriate diet for babies. Alfiyah's office work also served as an excuse not to marry in a hurry, protecting her against the family's frequent nagging about this topic.
When she finally married her batik merchant husband, a Muhammadiyah member, in 1946, she moved to Yogyakarta, to a house near the mosque (the kauman), still one of the strongholds of the movement.
Having three children and a husband did not deter her, however, from embarking on new 'Aisyiyah enterprises. As the movement spread outside Java, its members had to be visited in places like Bengkulu, Padang and Jambi. Since most of the other members were not prepared to take on such long journeys, Alfiyah often undertook them on her own.
It was not until 1966 that 'Aisyiyah became an independent organisation. Yet, in Muhammadiyah parlance, it is still meant to take the position of an Islamic spouse. On the face of it, 'Aisyiyah is indeed a subordinate, somewhat dull affair. By contrast to, for example, the outspoken chairman of Muhammadiyah, Amien Rais, few people can recall the name of 'Aisyiyah's current chairwoman, Elyda Djazman.
This low profile is very much in tune with the women's own desires. According to them, they will lose their sincerity or devotion to the work, their ikhlas, if they are too much in the public eye.
'Aisyiyah's bureaucratic antics leave little room for spontaneous actions. Ibu Alfiyah keeps providing 'Aisyiyah with ideas for new developments, but she admits that at times she had to act on her own.
For example, when most Indonesian Muslims still maintained that birth control was forbidden because the purpose of marriage was to produce offspring, Ibu Alfiyah preached that the Qur'an exhorts believers to take good care of their children. The quality of care diminishes with the number of children a woman bears. Eventually, 'Aisyiyah and Muhammadiyah joined these discussions and officially sanctioned birth control.
When in late 1965 'Aisyiyah did not dare to approach female communist party (PKI) members, Ibu Alfiyah went to Solo to visit PKI women waiting to be sentenced. They had to be given spiritual advice, she said, 'because they were on their way back to Allah.'
Ibu Alfiyah's compassion for women has occasionally led to involvement in events that took on national dimensions, such as the 'Sum Kuning case.' In 1970 a girl called Sum Kuning was raped by the sons of local dignitaries. The moment this news was known, Ibu Alfiyah went to the hospital to hear the girl's story. She made Sum describe her attackers.
Later, the dignitaries whose sons had committed the rape denounced Sum's story as a lie, and turned a bakso soup seller into the scapegoat. But trying to intimidate Sum into accusing him failed, as Ibu Alfiyah was one of the people who convinced Sum to stick to the truth and not be scared by the high positions of the perpetrators. Ibu Alfiyah served as witness during the court case.
Although her involvement in this case was not condoned by 'Aisyiyah, she convinced them to put up a loudspeaker outside the court room so that the crowds who had gathered on the street could hear what was going on.
Now, in her old age, Ibu Alfiyah is back in the villages again. Five years ago, 'Aisyiyah started a new project called 'village development'. It strives to empower village women by preaching Islam in such a way that it can be turned into a motivational force toward economic development.
The rest of her time Ibu Alfiyah spends being a consultant to the current leaders of 'Aisyiyah. Her main criticism toward them is that they are too career-minded, and seldom find time to go out and meet with deprived Muslims themselves.
She organises Qur'an studies for muballighat three times a week at her home. She is moved by a deep concern with contemporary family life. She constantly admonishes young mothers not to neglect their kids. She brings her point home by inviting celebrities such as the poet Emha Ainun Najib to her house to answer her questions about subjects such as the moral state of society, and how to prepare kids to face the challenges of modernisation.
It is no wonder that Ibu Alfiyah's life as a preacher has become a model in 'Aisyiyah circles. It is characterised by integrity, honesty, and by the quest to uplift people, both spiritually and in substance. According to Ibu Alfiyah, this is the only way we can live fully on earth, with the ultimate goal: 'To be in paradise together.'
Nelly van Doorn is a Dutch lecturer at Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta.