ISLAMIC CULTURE IN INDONESIA, MOSQUES AND THE HAJJ

ISLAMIC CULTURE IN INDONESIA

In Indonesia, advertisements for banks feature the faithful, singing and swaying as they walk to a mosque. On domestic flights that take place during sunset, the pilot announces the prayer time. McDonald's in Jakarta place curtains over their windows during Ramadan so fasting Muslims are not tempted and people eating inside don't offend those who are fasting.

Indonesia is a major Muslim nation where Islam is not an indigenous religion but was imposed by what some have called “Arab spiritual imperialists.” To some extent Indonesia, some scholars have argued, is an example of a society that turned to Islam partly to reject its past and its domination by oppressors that were deemed alien by local revolutionaries. But Islam in its way has also been alien to the culture, and under it arose the same injustices that motivated Islamic revolutionaries to begin with.

Mosques in Indonesia

Mosques are called mesjid, which literally means “to prostrate oneself in payer.” There are different types: 1) jami mesjid, used for Friday prayers; 2) musalla, used for prayer meeting Sunday through Thursday; 3) memorial mosques, used to honor Muslim saints; and 4) mashad, found in tombs. There are also special rooms in hotels, airports and other places for prayers.

The oldest mosques are in Cirebeon and Demak in Java and Palembang in Sumatra They have multiple stories, which some scholars have argued is an effort to connect them with Mr. Meru of Buddhism and Hindusim.

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Mosque Etiquette

Mosques and shrines are sometimes not open to women or non-Muslims. One should ask for permission before entering. Those that do welcome women or non-Muslims expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosques provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.

The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreign visitors can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf in a place with a number under it.

Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Koran, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Koran on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down. Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.

Labuhan Ceremony on Java

In Indonesia, you can find devout Muslims that leave votive offerings, venerate idols and objects and recognize and honor a pantheon of Buddhist, Hindu and local gods. The annual labuhan ceremony to honor Ratu Kidul, the goddess of the Indonesian seas, begins with a turbaned priest reciting a Muslim prayer and presenting offerings of silk, curry, bananas, hair and toenail clipping from the Sultan of Yogyakarta to the goddess, which are carried in a procession and deposited in the sea by Muslims, who then take turns lighting incense at strange-shaped rock that is the focus of the cult. Muslim participate in similar rituals to honor local volcano gods.

The Economist reported: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” the turbaned priest begins in the orthodox Muslim style. But that is as far as orthodoxy goes. As the annual labuhan ceremony unfolds, he blesses the various offerings the Sultan of Yogyakarta has prepared for Loro Kidul, the goddess of the surrounding seas: silk, curry, bananas, hair and toenail clippings. [Source: The Economist, May 29, 2003 |+|]

“The goddess, apparently, will be pleased with these items when they are carried in procession to the sea and thrown in, as will another local deity, who receives similar gifts tossed into a nearby volcano. The 200-odd participants, at any rate, seem happy with the proceedings: they bow their heads during the blessings, and take turns lighting incense at a curiously-shaped rock that is the focus of the cult. Later, some even charge into the foaming ocean to pluck a lucky banana from the waves. |+|

“This ritual has more to do with Java's Hindu and pagan past than with the professed religion of the vast majority of the island's inhabitants, Islam. Votive offerings, veneration of objects or idols and, above all, any hint of polytheism are anathema to most Muslims. Yet many Javanese happily describe themselves as Muslim, attend mosques and fast during Ramadan, while continuing to practice the folk religion of their forebears. The sultan himself, Hamengkubuwono X, a respected politician often mentioned as a possible president, takes pride in the preservation of local rituals while maintaining a reputation as a devout Muslim. This laxity about doctrine has given rise to the notion that Indonesian Islam in particular, and South-East Asian Islam in general, is more tolerant and less prone to extremism than that of the Middle East.” |+|

Problems Involving Indonesian Pilgrims at the Haj

Several hundred thousand Indonesians go on the Hajj every year. Indonesia annually provides the greatest number of pilgrims to Mecca. Smaller pilgrimages in Indonesia may also be made to graves of saints, those believed to have brought Islam to Indonesia, Sunan Kalijaga being the most famous.

In 1974, 460 Indonesians died of exposure from camping outside during the cold Saudi winter. On July 2, 1990, 1,426 people, many of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis, were trampled in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to the holy sites in Mecca. On May 1994, 270 people, most of them Indonesians, were killed in a stampede at the stoning site in Mina. In 1998, 180 people were killed. Most were Malaysians and Indonesians, many of them elderly.

In 2007 hungry Indonesian pilgrims staged a minor revolt riot during the haj. The Jakarta Post reported: “We should be ashamed that the Saudi government had to distribute free food to 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims, who were left without food for almost 30 hours over the weekend. This fiasco caused hundreds of the Indonesian pilgrims to lose their temper during the wukuf, a key ritual of the haj which requires all pilgrims to contemplate and exercise restraint. Religious Affairs Minister M. Maftuh Basyuni was quick to apologize for the incident and admitted to mistakenly handpicking a company inexperienced in catering for such large numbers of people. One or several people must be held accountable for the incident, but punishing a few people will not solve the main problem, which is the government's historic monopoly of haj services. For more than 50 years the government has served as both the regulator and operator of the pilgrimage. [Source: Jakarta Post, January 5, 2007]

Haj Mismanagement and Corruption by Indonesia

According to Jakarta Post: “Almost every haj season is marked by problems, ranging from poor services to allegations of graft. However, the government, including post-Soeharto administrations, has continued to ignore these yearly problems and has kept its monopoly intact. But this is really not surprising, given that the haj is a lucrative business involving nearly US$600 million every year. [Source: Jakarta Post, January 5, 2007 <>]

“The government monopoly, combined with too much discretion given to the Religious Affairs Ministry and a lack of transparency, has left the haj program susceptible to corruption, inefficiency and poor services. The Supreme Audit Agency has consistently ranked the Religious Affairs Ministry as the most corrupt ministry in the country, though, strangely, very few officials from the ministry have ever stood trial for graft. However, the religious affairs minister during the Megawati Soekarnoputri administration, Said Agil Hussein Al Munawar, was sentenced to five years in prison last February for embezzling haj funds. <>

“It was during Said Agil's tenure that the government was forced in 2003 to cancel the trips of 30,000 people who had already registered and paid their haj fees. The problem was that the minister had increased Indonesia's quota of pilgrims without first consulting the Saudi government, which oversees the haj. Said Agil's imprisonment, past incidents and the recent catering debacle underline the ministry's incompetence in providing haj services. <>

“Indonesia could follow the lead of neighboring Malaysia, where haj fees have continued to fall without compromising the first-class services Malaysian pilgrims receive. Malaysia has set up a non-bank financial institution called Tabung Haji to manage haj funds and administer the pilgrimage. Not only does this institution manage haj funds, it also contributes to economic development in the country through investments. As a result, Malaysian pilgrims pay less to go on the haj but enjoy better and more convenient food and lodging than Indonesian pilgrims. <>

“The government has no choice but to relinquish its long-standing control over haj management, because it is from this government monopoly that all the problems spring. One other consequence of haj management reform, if it materializes, is that questions could be raised about the relevance of the Religious Affairs Ministry. Such a debate should be encouraged, because religion is a private matter that must be free from state intervention.” <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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