Indonesia's habib preachers draw thousands of devotees

Hundreds of thousands of followers in Indonesia gather regularly to hear the habib, drawn not only by the preachers' claims of their descent from the Prophet Mohammed but because their sermons are viewed as a path to an Islam unsullied by politics.

Police estimate as many as 1.5 million people attended one recent prayer meeting at the National Monument in Jakarta.
Toni O'Loughlin for The National
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JAKARTA // Hundreds of thousands of youth are flocking to hear the teachings of Indonesian preachers who claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed.

Cloaked in traditional Islamic garb, the habib, whose ancestors hailed from Hadramaut in Yemen, are modern pop preachers who deliver sermons of Quranic verse mixed with familiar catchphrases such as those from Indonesia's version of American Idol.

"It's like going with the wind," said Ahmad al Jufri, 29, at the end of a gathering where thousands sat in the street rocking to the rising tempo and rhythms of the final prayer one Saturday evening in the south of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.

Similar to football fans off to a match, these devotees flock to the weekly meetings, sporting the insignia, embroidered in gold, of their beloved preacher on jackets and flags as they force their way, astride motorbikes, through Jakarta's gridlocked traffic.

Usually the prayer meetings are held in neighbourhood mosques, where young believers cram together and spill out into the surrounding streets, watching and capturing, with their mobile phones, the habib's image as it is projected on large screens and beamed into the surrounding alleys.

On a recent evening when several habib shared the stage, the numbers were so great they filled the zone around the National Monument in central Jakarta, with police estimating there may have been as many as 1.5 million people in attendance.

When the habib arrived, as they often do, in a procession of cars, lights flashing, sirens sounding, the crowd surged forward, pushing against the chain of bodyguards that blocked their path, straining to be closer to the preachers.

"We have to secure the area because there are so many habib. People want to shake hands and touch the body of the habib and get a blessing," said Wisnu, 20, a volunteer security guard who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

"Of course they are excited, these preachers are from Yemen. They are the descendents of the Prophet so you get more hikmah," Wisnu said, using the Arabic word for wisdom. In the eyes of these youth, the habib, with their assumed natural connection to the Arab world, light the path to a more pure form of Islam, unsullied by politics.

"Most habib I know don't take political sides," said Yayan, who at 34 is one of the older devotees in the crowd. It is not that Yayan believes politics should be separated from religion. "Ulama [the religious community] and umaro [the political community] can work together," he said.

However, they should not make "provocative" speeches, he said, indirectly referring to firebrand clerics such as Habib Rizieq Syihab, the head of the puritanical paramilitary Islamic Defenders Front, which has been fuelling Indonesia's growing religious intolerance.

Habib Munzir al Musawa, among the most popular of the clerics, is overtly apolitical, and sometimes ecumenical in his sermons. He has claimed to have an active following of about two million mainly young people, who regularly attend his prayer meetings.

But he has said he has many more followers who connect thanks to modern technology.

Using mobile phones, the internet and social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, he bypasses the traditional religious power networks around religious schools to communicate directly with young believers and build a mass following.

Regardless of the actual numbers, Indonesia's politicians recognise Habib Munzir's political clout and regularly seek his endorsement by appearing next to him on stage where he forbids partisan speeches.

Yet this embrace of the habib is relatively new.

Once derided by Indonesia's hero of independence and first president, Sukarno, for idolising human beings, the Yemeni minority community was, until the 1990s, shunned as foreign especially because they were Arab.

"When I was growing up people called me Arab," Ismail Fajrie Alatas said. Mr Alatas, who claimed to be a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, said Arabs were seen, until the 1990s, as outsiders like the vilified Chinese. In turn, the Yemenites rejected the eclectic mix of practices in Indonesian Islam as "bida", unacceptable religious innovations.

But this stand-off is breaking down with Indonesia's ongoing Islamic revival of the past 10 to 20 years, said Mr Alatas, who is a PhD candidate in the University of Michigan's anthropology and history programme.

The Yemenites have also relented. In Bali, Habib Munzir dropped Allah from his sermons and instead referred to The Creator to accommodate his Hindu audience on the holiday island. Cutbacks in scholarships from Saudi Arabia for foreign students to study in Mecca, and growing numbers of Indonesian students studying in Yemen after the country's reunification, have also helped build bridges.

"The source of knowledge of Islam is in Yemen," said Heru, 22, who was waiting for the prayer meeting at the National Monument to start.

Mr Alatas, who has been writing about Indonesia's Yemeni community since 2005, said the habib followers are searching for authenticity in a modern world.

"It's an Indonesian movement but it is also about asserting Arabness. The movement is a reaction to rising consumerism and the hedonistic lifestyles of the big cities.

"But at the same time it thrives on consumerism. The habib has become the new idol."

In turning to the Arab world for an unadulterated connection to God, these devotees are also being led back to their Indonesian Muslim roots.

Inspired by Sufi tradition, Habib Munzir al Musawa, often finishes his prayer meeting with a pilgrimage to the grave of a Muslim cleric or national hero, a practice typical of Indonesia's traditional attempt to combine the teachings or practices of differing religions.

But amid an upswing in religious intolerance and violence, he is careful to avoid antagonising increasingly active Muslim hardliners.

"Some ulema like to be with me because I look Arab and because I'm considered a descendent of the Prophet but others reject me. The best method of proselytising is to teach non-political lessons because [to do otherwise] could alienate some," he said.