For many Muslims, the term alim (plural: ulama) refers to an Islamic scholar trained in the religious sciences. In the Indonesian context, he may be a pesantren graduate or an Islamic university alumnus. And he may fulfil one or more of several roles: teaching in a religious school, working in the religious establishment, serving as an imam in a mosque, and operating as an Islamic legal advisor. James Hoesterey's Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru examines an Indonesian Islamic icon who fails to meet most of the criteria listed above. The book analyses the rise and fall of Abdullah Gymnastiar, or "Aa Gym", as Indonesians affectionately address him. Aa Gym is a televangelist and businessman who utilized popular culture and the media to become an influential Islamic preacher and was between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s more popular than many traditional ulama in the country. His followers included politicians, Muslim leaders, foreign dignitaries, scholars, corporate trainees and "spiritual tourists". In the course of his research, Hoesterey followed Aa Gym during his tours across Indonesia (p. xviii). In this book, he traces Aa Gym's rise to fame in the post-Soeharto era, his heyday, and his fall from grace in late 2010, after he married a second wife.
Central to Rebranding Islam is the way in which Aa Gym cleverly reworked Islamic discursive traditions to create new images of the Prophet Muhammad. While all Muslims consider the Prophet God's messenger, Aa Gym went a step further by casting him as a "super leader" and a "super manager" entrepreneur. The book demonstrates that Western self-help psychology can be effectively amalgamated with Islamic psychology as a new form of Islamic preaching. Aa Gym's rise resulted from his ability to brand himself as a successful husband and entrepreneur.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on Aa Gym's redefinition of religious authority by incorporating [End Page 430] Islam with psychology through his television programme "Manajemen Qolbu" (MQ, Management of the Heart). The second section highlights Aa Gym's success in synthesizing Western self-help psychology with Islamic notions of equality and capital accumulation, and the preacher's emphasis on the Prophet's cosmopolitan traits. The third section examines the way that Aa Gym emphasized his own piety in the religious public sphere. The book then turns to the politicization of piety, and to Aa Gym's use of public ethics of vision and shame to take state officials to task. It tracks Aa Gym's downfall, after his female fans felt betrayed by his taking a second wife.
The author deserves much credit for the strong foundation of anthropological data that characterizes this book. He followed Aa Gym's team closely and travelled throughout Indonesia with his entourage. Hoesterey invested much effort observing the preacher's business networks and interacted closely with his management team. He noticed that Aa Gym's audience mostly comprised women attracted to his charm and to the traits of an ideal family man.
Rebranding Islam is also a notable contribution to the literature on religious commodification in Indonesia. It is important for its effort to understand alternative sources of religious authority in the world's most populous Islamic country. Aa Gym's rise demonstrates that tapping the religious sentiments of the masses and capitalizing on the growing Islamic business sector are enough to boost a preacher's religious standing. On another note, Rebranding Islam is also written in language accessible to readers beyond just specialists on Indonesian Islam.
For future research, scholars might draw comparisons between Aa Gym and other preachers and their business networks. Who are Aa Gym's rivals? How did the official ulama, those who work in the religious bureaucracy, or the religious elites from Indonesia's large principal Islamic organizations the Nahdlatul Ulama, the Muhammadiyah and the Ulama Council of Indonesia (Majelis Ulama Indonesia) respond to Aa Gym's rise and fall? Which groups treated Aa Gym as a threat and which as an...