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Oratorical Innovation and Audience Heterogeneity in Islamic West Java

From: Indonesia
Number 93, April 2012
pp. 123-145

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Recent writing about Islamic orators in Indonesia has highlighted an important if rather obvious aspect of their activity: social change creates audiences in new combinations with diverse needs for religious mediations by preachers with competencies that match the audiences’ novel preferences and requirements. James Hoesterey, for example, has highlighted the “innovative claims to religious authority” of the Bandung-based orator Aa Gym. The mediation of religious authority in Indonesia has conventionally been the domain of people formally trained primarily in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), and against this background Aa Gym has appeared as a new type of celebrity preacher who signifies a shift away from that tradition.1 In her writings about novel articulations of Sufism in Indonesia, Julia Day Howell has noted a growing urban audience for Sufism that recognizes “televangelists and professors” as credible religious mediators, despite their lack of formal religious qualifications. These “new-media,” “entertainer-preachers” break the mold of the classic or old-style religious scholar (ulama).2 Akh Muzzaki has noted the rising public demand for sermons by Surabaya’s university-based preachers, a class of expert mediators he contrasts with the leaders based in East Java’s traditional pesantren. By responding to changes in the “preacher’s social landscape,” the campus-based preachers break from traditional modes of oratorical mediation of Islam.3 These writings emphasize three points in common: the dynamic creation and recreation of audiences for Islam in Indonesia, the novel competencies that have arisen among preachers to make the mediations acceptable to these new audiences, and the ongoing, compelling grip of the kyai (pesantren leader) as the archetypal image of religious authority in Islamic life, including in the field of oratory.

Having recently completed a three-year research project about Islamic oratory in West Java (2007–11),4 I concur with these researchers’ identification of preachers’ emerging competencies as responses to social change. But their observations also lead to other questions about the practice of Islamic oratory that are at risk of being obscured by the novelty of the mediators on whom they focus. The research mentioned above dwells on the highest-profile manifestations of innovative preaching. Preachers such as Aa Gym, Arifin Ilham, Yusuf Mansur, and Jefry Al-Buchori have attracted attention for their undeniable novelty, something inseparable from their prominence in emerging media networks and the national celebrity system. But it is a mistake to think that sophisticated urbanites and users of modern media are the only audiences for oratorical innovation. In Bandung, I found that a sensitivity to cultural change and a willingness to develop performance strategies in response to it are necessary capabilities even for those mediators who style themselves on the model of the traditional kyai, and who find their core audience at preaching events held in villages—the social context that appears most clearly as a continuation of Indonesian pasts.

My argument here is that oratory taking place across the social spectrum succeeds as a medium for Islamic participation because orators are willing and free to shape their mediations in accordance with cultural particulars of their audiences and preaching contexts. The orators’ dynamic responses to cultural particularism constitute a general aspect of preaching that boosts its participation levels. I support this argument by contrasting preaching styles in two settings: first, in life-cycle and calendrical celebrations held in West Javanese villages, and, second, in bureaucratic workplaces. The former setting shows continuity with the past, while the second was, during the 1980s, a relatively novel context for preaching. In both settings, preaching performances are successful when preachers engage with the cultural particularisms of their audiences in their contemporary forms.

This tendency to diversity does not prevail across all Muslim-majority societies. Oratory is a relatively unregulated field of activity in post-Suharto Indonesia, something that cannot be said of other Islamic countries, such as Malaysia and Egypt.5 Simply put, in Indonesia, anybody whose talents and competencies are accepted by audiences can find success as a muballigh (preacher). When the field of preaching in Indonesia is surveyed, one finds that the range of acceptable talents and competencies is very broad, reflecting the freedom of the country’s muballigh to anticipate the needs, preferences, and likes of...


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