What is Islam in Indonesia? Whenever you find an article about Islam in Indonesia, it’s usually accompanied by a photo of a woman or a man wearing Islamic costume, the woman in a jilbab (headscarf) or long, white mukena (gown), the man in sarung and peci (cap). Muslims are often depicted praying or preaching.
As if that’s all Muslims do. As if these are the only types of Muslims in Indonesia. Religion is about faith and the spirit. There is nothing in the Qur’an that says you have to wear a particular outfit or hat to win God’s approval. It’s not what you look like, it’s who you are.
Neng Dara Affiah, one of my best friends, and I are two very different types of Indonesian Muslims. We look so strikingly different. I am tall and Neng is petite. I wear make-up and jewellery but Neng never does. I like to dress smartly and wear figure-hugging clothes. Neng, however, dresses in modest, loose-fitting trousers and tops, in plain colours. She has short hair that she covers with a jilbab. Mine comes down almost to my waist and is never covered. No wonder everyone stares when they see us together!
Neng says that wearing a jilbab makes it easy for her to be accepted in Muslim communities when she does grassroots gender training, gives seminars or attends Qur’anic recitals and other religious meetings. She’s used to wearing a jilbab, because she comes from a strong pesantren tradition in Labuan, Banten. Whereas I’m used to wearing tank tops.
Our spiritual connection
Like Neng, I’m also a Muslim from West Java. Although we do occasionally speak to each other in Sundanese, it’s not culture and ethnicity that makes us friends. We have an intellectual and spiritual connection. We both have a thirst for knowledge and believe in democracy which, however flawed, is still better than authoritarianism, whether religious or otherwise.
I admire Neng for her understanding of Islam, both as scripture and practice. I admire the way that, because of her village origins and her academic achievements, she can move between two worlds. And I admire her role as one of the heads of Fatayat NU, the women’s wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, which works to empower Muslim village women.
Through Neng I first experienced the beauty of Islam, and understood its spirituality and the subtle complexity it has in Indonesia. The essence of Islam, like any other religion, is its spiritual aspect. In Islam it is possible to be close to God, to have a personal relationship without intermediary, institutions, clerics or rituals. This is why Neng constantly stresses that in Islam, everyone is equal in the eyes of God, irrespective of race, class, gender or position. Neng believes that Islamic fundamentalism is unsuited to Indonesia. Her Islam is open to people with differing backgrounds, views and ways. While others merely see me as intellectual and sensual, she sees my spiritual and even ascetic side. And she admires my attitude of trying to surrender everything to God, which she says is the essence of Islam.
Could anyone see what we have in common, if they saw us standing together? Would they even guess we share the same religion? Most Indonesians would not because, unfortunately, Muslims in my country are becoming increasingly concerned with formalism — surface things like clothing and rules, rather then spirituality and faith.
It is true that Islam is a religion that concerns itself with all aspects of life, both mundane and sacred, but it is contextual in many of its precepts and rules. Islam can also be very open and flexible. Even on the issue of religious freedom and belief in God, it is amazingly flexible. Rather than determining a worldly punishment for converting from Islam, many Qur’anic verses assert that all human beings are free to believe or not: ‘Let him who wills believe in it [Islam], and let him who wills reject it’ [18:29]. So let’s try and see the spiritual in people and not judge them by what they wear!
Julia Suryakusuma (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Sex, Power and Nation (2004).