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Lovers of the Ahl al-Bayt

Lovers of the Ahl al-Bayt
Published: Sep 25, 2011

Chiara Formichi

  The billboard at the entrance of the Islamic Cultural Centre in South Jakarta
Chiara Formichi

Shi’i communities spread from Sumatra to Papua and comprise at least one million followers, mostly concentrated in Jakarta, Bandung and Makassar. Although a small drop when compared to the ocean of 200 million Sunnis, they constitute an important component of Indonesia’s diverse religious landscape.

It is commonly assumed that Shi’ism spread to Indonesia as a consequence of the Iranian revolution, which in 1979 brought the fall of the French-educated Pahlevi Shah, the rise of Khomeini as the new national leader and the resurrection of Shi’ism as the state ideology. But as important as it has been, the revolution was not the only source of Shi’ism in Indonesia, where an alternative trajectory exists in the recasting of ancient genealogical and spiritual lineages.

Elements of Shi’ism – also referred to as ‘Alid piety, in reference to devotion to Imam ‘Ali, his sons Hasan and Husayn and their relatives – have been part of the archipelago’s cultural and religious landscape for centuries. Over time its characteristic features were largely absorbed into mainstream Sunni traditions. Yet in the last decade Shi’is have started carving a space for themselves as a well-defined religious group, establishing schools, mosques and civil society organisations, and thus strengthening their presence in relation to other members of the ummat.

A long history

Soon after the birth of Islam, with the institutionalisation of religio-political leadership after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim community split between those who supported the rule of Abu Bakr and those for ‘Ali ibn Abu Thalib, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. The latter eventually became fourth Caliph, but also first Imam of the Shi’a. The political conflict quickly turned into armed battle and until today the Shi’a hold the Caliph’s army responsible for the death of Hasan and Husayn.

Support for the rule of these descendants of the Prophet was voiced by various groups of believers. Devotion connected to the memory of ‘Ali and his family began to develop well before the formalisation of Shi’ism as a school of Islamic jurisprudence (known as fiqh), possibly as early as the seventh or eighth century. Shi’is often prefer to be referred to as ‘lovers of the Ahl al-Bayt’, based on a Prophetic tradition according to which Muhammad is said to have gathered his daughter Fatimah, her husband ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib, and their sons Hasan and Husayn under his cloak, and defined them as the Ahl al-Bayt (literally, People of the House).

Arab traders spread early forms of Shi’ism – involving the commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn – to Southeast Asia. This religious variation came to be defined by scholars as ‘proto-Shi’ism’ or ‘Alid piety’. Given the historical ties between the Middle East, Persia, South Asia and the islands of Sumatra and Java, some Indonesian Arabs suggest that their history as Shi’is goes back to ninth century Iraq, when Ahmad ibn ‘Isa al-Muhajir, the great-grandson of the sixth Imam, Ja’far as-Sadiq, fled from Basra to Hadramaut in South Yemen. Ahmad ibn ‘Isa’s descendants later travelled eastwards and reached Java, where many settled.

Family ties remained strong between the motherland in Hadramaut and Java, as pilgrimages to the shrines of the ancestors and the desire to be buried close to them ensured constant travels and exchanges. At the same time, these migrants took Javanese wives and conformed to local religious practices, facilitating their integration. According to some Arabs, this was how they began to lose their clear Shi’i identity.

This version of Java’s Hadrami past is far from unanimously accepted, as today the strongest opposition to Shi’ism comes from other, staunchly Sunni, members of the large community of Muhammad's descendants, the Sayyids. Yet the idea that Muslims in Java were connected to members of the prophet’s family also emerges in oral and manuscript traditions from the Sultans’ palaces across the island and beyond. The royal families of Cirebon, Yogyakarta and Sumenep (on Madura) are often mentioned as descending from the second and third Imams – Hasan and Husayn – through long lists of semi-historical figures, mostly religious preachers. A genealogical connection to the ‘Alids, then, feeds into the suggestion of an ancestral devotion towards them. Traces of ‘Alid piety are easily identifiable in contemporary Southeast Asia, but differ greatly from a Shi’i sectarian identity that is characterised by well delineated theology and jurisprudence, and a prescribed body of ritual.

Inspiration from Iran

The Iranian revolution had a major impact on the development of a Shi'i following in Indonesia. But the influence did not unfold according to the predictions of the New Order regime, which focused heavily on its potentially destabilising effect on the social and political order. This approach led to Shi’ism being labelled as a deviant sect and to a diffused sense among Sunnis that Shi’is were trying to ‘take over’.

The Indonesian press and mainstream Islamic organisations began to pay attention to the local spread of Shi’ism in the 1980s. Their reaction was typified by the 1984 Majelis Ulama resolution that declared Shi’ism a ‘deviant sect’. This was further reinforced as recently as 1997 when the government responded to pressure from some organisations and limited the activities of Shi’a pesantren.

A more lasting effect of the Iranian revolution has been the influence of translated philosophy and doctrinal literature. In ways comparable to the phenomenon of Islamic reformism that developed at al-Azhar in Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century, the post-revolutionary flow of printed material and students has facilitated the spread of Shi’ism and encouraged the reassessment of doctrines and rituals. This process began with a handful of committed individuals who travelled through Singapore, Pakistan and other Asian countries to Iran. Now every year over one hundred students from Jakarta, Sumatra and Makassar receive full scholarships to attend the religious seminary in Qum. They return some years later as religious teachers.

The works of Shi’i theologists and philosophers, distributed by Indonesian students returning from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, have stirred enthusiastic responses on university campuses. The egalitarian message of Mullah Sadra Mutahhari and the political views of Ali Shari’ati have been enthusiastically supported by those searching for a ‘pure’ form of Islam. The Islamic political order as it was implemented in Iran, inspired by social justice and high morals and aiming at cultural and economic emancipation from western powers, was more appealing for some than the sectarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is based on the creation of circles and ‘families’ of activists set apart from the rest of society.

A decade of renewal

Since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, the government has changed its approach to Shi’ism and the antagonistic attitudes described above seem to have disappeared from government policy. Although anti-Shi'a publications continue to thrive, relations between Sunnis and Shi’is have been, for the most, peaceful. Relieved of the stigma of ‘deviationism’, many Shi’is now openly look to Iran as the source of religious knowledge and ritual orthodoxy –  though not necessarily political order.

Iran’s defiance of the ‘capitalist west’ has lately been attracting attention in Indonesia. For those Indonesians who had a predisposition towards Shi’ism, the political stance of Ahmadinejad has facilitated a re-definition of ‘Alid piety closer to the Iranian model. This confluence of religious devotion and a strong political message is slowly exacerbating the gap between those who still strive to link contemporary devotion to ancient ritual and those committed to foreign-inspired orthodoxy.

The major channels for this renewal of Shi’i knowledge and ritual are religious schools and foundations. These schools teach fiqh, philosophy and history from both a Shi’i and Sunni perspective, with the addition of the specifically Shi’i discipline of logic (manteq) and attract students from all schools of Islam. Scattered across the archipelago, most of these centres are linked by way of marriage, lineage or pupil-teacher connections. In most cases Iran influences not only the pesantren and colleges, but also other informal centres of education, as their curricula are moulded on the religious seminary model.

It is impossible to determine how many foundations and pesantren are inspired by Shi’ism. Although the Indonesian Association of the Ahlul Bayt (IJABI) had set itself the task of functioning as an umbrella organisation to protect the various foundations, it has not succeeded in doing so. IJABI was established in 2000 by Jalaluddin Rahmat in West Java, with the endorsement of then President Abdurahman Wahid, but its claim of being the only Shi’a organisation has since been challenged by other groups. As a result, there is no organisation that gathers the whole community, which remains divided by ethnicity, religious training, ritual models and different ideas about the relation between morals (akhlaq) and jurisprudence.

It is more useful to analyse the fragmentation of Indonesian Shi’is by considering their preferences for local or foreign models. IJABI’s constituency focuses on local culture and traditions, differentiating itself from the fiqh-oriented pesantren and Iran-oriented education centres. This is not to say that IJABI does not recognise the role of jurisprudence in believers’ daily lives, or Iran as a hub of knowledge, but rather that its leadership subscribes to a pattern of devotion which prioritises indigenous traditions and heritage over external models of rituality.

A climate of hope

Recent trends in Indonesian Islam suggest that the motto ‘Unity in Diversity’ and other statements of religious tolerance apply more to the acceptance of new religions and alternative world-views than diversity within Islam. Yet Shi’a communities have gradually carved a niche for themselves and Shi’i events are slowly becoming accepted by mainstream religious institutions. In 2010, for example, commemorations for the martyrdom of Husayn (‘ashura) were held in Bandung at the city’s Centre of Islamic Dakwah, with the blessings of the Governor of West Java.

In fact, the Shi’as are arguably more divided among themselves – fragmented by their many identities – than they are opposed to Sunnis and the remainder of the ummat. Iran exerts a strong influence on Shi’i rituality and theology in some circles, but many Indonesian ‘lovers of the Ahl-al Bayt’ bridge the fault line of Sunni-Shi’i sectarianism. Their schools are open to all, respecting the co-existence of different religious traditions and demonstrating a commitment to improving the living standards of their surrounding communities.

This all suggests that Indonesia’s Shi’as have gradually carved a niche for themselves, finding a good degree of acceptance. Perhaps there is hope, yet, for true diversity.

Chiara Formichi (chiaraformichi@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor in Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. She has conducted research on Shi’a communities in Indonesia and Singapore since 2009, during a post-doctoral fellowship at the Asia Research Institute. Chiara is co-editor of the volume Shi’ism and Beyond: Alid Piety in Muslim Southeast Asia.

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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