Shaping Shiʿa Identities in Contemporary Indonesia between Local Tradition and Foreign Orthodoxy


In: Die Welt des Islams
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  • 1 1Ithaca, NY
chiaraformichi@gmail.com


This article reflects on the impact of transnational flows of students, pilgrims, and literature from Iran to Indonesia on the shaping of Shiʿa Islam in Indonesia since 1979, with a focus on the post-Suharto era (1998–2012) and the performance of ʿ Āshūrāʾ commemorative rituals. Since the early days of its Islamization, Southeast Asia has featured several literary and ritual practices rooted in a combination of Islamic and local traditions; most notable are those expressing patterns of pre-sectarian devotion towards the ahl al-bayt – drawing a parallel with Marshall Hodgson’s framework of ʿAlid piety (1955). Based on ethnographic and archival research, the author suggests that in the decades following the Iranian revolution some of these practices were abandoned in favour of a paradigm of devotion promoted by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The polarization of practices, and the relationship between organizations representative of these two approaches, is illustrated through an analysis of the performative means used to represent the tragedy of Karbala during ʿĀshūrāʾ events in Bandung, Bengkulu (West Sumatra), and Jakarta in 2011. In Bandung the play “Tragedi Karbala” was performed by a Sundanese theatrical group staging a local text; in Bengkulu the traditional Festival Tabot took place following a pattern determined by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture in the early 1970s but now under the sponsorship of the Iranian Embassy; the  Jakarta event featured a taʿziya troupe brought from Iran by the Embassy’s cultural office.


  • 3

    Valerie  J. Hoffman-Ladd, “Devotion to the Prophet and His Family in Egyptian Sufism”, IMES,24 (1992), 615–637. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer of this  Journal who pointed to me Devin Stewart’s “Popular Shiism in Medieval Egypt: Vestiges of Islamic Sectarian Polemics in Egyptian Arabic”, Stud. Isl., 84 (1996), pp. 35–66. Stewart’s study focuses on the usage of anti-Sunni vilification language in post-Fatimid Egypt to highlight how Shiʿa practices had not disappeared with the dynastic change; however, the key aspect of Hoffman-Ladd’s study here and Qasim Zaman’s below, and the case of Indonesia investigated in this article, all point to cultural practices shared by Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims transcending – mostly pre-dating – sectarian identification.

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  • 4

    Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shiʿi and Sunni Identities”, Modern Asian Studies,32 (1998), pp. 689–716. In Indonesia the expression is also known as syiah kultural, as discussed below.

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  • 6

    Marshall Hodgson, “How Did the Early Shiʿa Become Sectarian?”,  Journal of the American Oriental Society,75 (1955), p. 2.

  • 20

    Mohammad Atho Mudzhar, Fatwa-Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia: Sebuah Studi Pemi­kiran Hukum Islam di Indonesia 1975–1988 (Jakarta: INIS, 1993), pp. 114f.

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  • 25

    Robert Hefner, “Islam, State, and Civil Society: ICMI and the Struggle for the Indonesian Middle Class”, Indonesia,56 (October 1993), pp. 1–35.

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  • 44

    See Chiara Formichi, “Lovers of the Ahlul Bait”, Inside Indonesia, no. 105,  July–September 2011. Fieldwork notes, Bandung, 16 December 2010.

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  • 56

    Zainuddin Tamir Koto, “Tabuik Pariaman bukan Syiah”, Panji Masyarakat, no. 351, 22 February 1982, pp. 68ff.

  • 59

    Fieldnotes, Bengkulu, 2 December 2011.

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