Religious Authority, Sunnah and Sufi Networks in Indonesia

In: Public Anthropologist
Asif Mohiuddin Academic Officer, Department of Islamic Studies, Faculty of Human Sciences, Sultan Idris Education University, Malaysia
Academic Officer, Department of Islamic Studies, Faculty of Human Sciences, Sultan Idris Education University, Malaysia

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Ismail Fajrie Alatas (2021). What is Religious Authority? Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia. Princeton University Press.

Religious authority is notoriously elusive and hard to define. According to Max Weber, authority refers to the capacity to command obedience without the use of coercive force.1 For him, the only thing that separates authority and power is the lack of coercion. However, in the current context, it might be hard to distinguish between the two. Religious authority can assume a multitude of forms and functions: the capacity to define true belief and practice, or orthodoxy and orthopraxy, respectively; to mould and influence the beliefs and behaviour of others; to recognise, isolate, penalise, or exclude deviance, heresy and apostasy and its agents and proponents. Religious authority also entails the ability or chance to determine the canon of authoritative texts and the acceptable means of interpretation in the monotheistic faiths built on revealed scripture.2 The book under review focuses on Islamic religious authorities and their involvement in fostering Muslim communities that centre upon Prophetic teachings, which can, despite this, differ greatly from one another. The book focuses on Muslim Sufis and scholars who, through perseverance and hard work, have succeeded in creating communities that may be used as venues for the dissemination and social manifestation of Prophetic teachings. These actors express particular and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the sunnah, which are the Prophet Muhammad’s normative teachings and practices (p.3). This book tells a polyphonic tale on how many sociocultural circumstances influence and shape the sunnah at its widest level. It contends that the mechanisms that continue to give the sunnah—and subsequently, Islam—its unique substance and force are those of translation, mobilisation, collaboration, rivalry and conflict. In question is the fundamental idea that there is not a single, universal Islamic ummah. Due to Talal Asad’s intervention, anthropologists now see Islam to be a discursive tradition that encompasses and links itself to the scriptures and to the growing forms of social practice.3 This book, in contrast to earlier studies, does not question how Muslim social behaviours are influenced by literary traditions at the outset. In place of existing fundamental texts, it departs from the idea of a vanished foundational past.

According to Hannah Arendt, authority is a hierarchical relationship that links a group of people with a foundational past, giving those in authority the power to transfer and convert that history into models for the present.4 Alatas contends that the authority of Islamic religious leaders is predicated on the acknowledgement of their connection to the Prophetic past and rests on a hierarchical relationship that enables them to articulate Islamic teachings without any coercion. This infers that establishing authority necessitates continuing labours for (re)producing and sustaining such a relationship. A relationship is not a given; it is an accomplishment, the product of contingent and precarious labour (p.4). The book gives serious thought to politics and infrastructure by concentrating on the networks, relationalities and labour that comprise religious authority and society. Politics is essential because building a community often takes place in social environments that are competitive, where rival Islamic groups have developed under the leadership of different religious leaders who assert distinct links to the Prophetic past. In a setting where nonreligious social formations such as governments and other power structures are simultaneously taking shape, community-building also takes place, leading to complex intersections, overlaps, tensions and conflicts. The issue of infrastructure is just as crucial as the politics of religious authority.

Building a strong foundation that connects religious leaders to the foundational past is essential to the development of an Islamic society. This will enable them to explain that fundamental history as sunnah for others. The book charts the journey and work of Ba ‘Alawī saints and scholars from the Hadramawt valley of Yemen to Java, Indonesia, in order to illustrate these broad ideas. The Bā ‘Alawīs, who claim to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad, have long moved from the Hadramawt to Southeast Asia. The Prophetic teachings and their social embodiment as sunnah were transmitted through the conduits that these mobile actors constructed by navigating complicated cultural landscapes (p.5). The Bā ‘Alawīs have largely been successful in maintaining eminence among local communities and being acknowledged as leading Islamic authorities.5 Thus, the author takes into account the ways in which Habib Luthfi and other Bā ‘Alawī saints and scholars like him have been able to become acknowledged as religious authorities. The author shows how Islam does not merely spread from the central lands, but is continually constructed in between various areas that have been traditionally stated as being peripheral.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part follows an articulatory paradigm that developed between Java and the Hadramawt. This paradigm was developed by Bā ‘Alawī Sufi scholar named Abdallah b. ‘Alawī al-Haddād (d. 1720), who worked hard to articulate the sunnah for the tribal people in the Hadramawt. According to the Alatas, Al-Haddād aimed to establish a unified Islamic authority that could transcend tribe particularities and reduce normative uncertainity in the face of persistent tribal disputes, anarchy and political unrest in the Hadramawt. The author claims that al-Haddād accomplished this by turning the lessons of the Prophets into understandable theological, legal and liturgical writings that were assumed to have global applicability. These writings were able to spread quickly across Hadramawt tribes in both urban and rural areas due to their modularity and simplicity. Through the efforts of travelling Hadramī scholars, the author charts the dissemination of this articulatory paradigm across the Indonesian Archipelago. The affluent Ḥaḍramī commercial diaspora funded these mobile actors to address what they saw to be a crisis of religion among their locally born children. As a result, Muslims in Java have fundamentally changed how they view and practice Islam (p.63).

Another most revered Sufi figure in Java today is the Hadaddian shaykh al-ta‘līm, Abdullah al-Attas (d. 1929). The author looks at how al-Attas came to be recognised as the main saint of a Javanese city after his death. In Java in the latter half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Al-Attas was one of several emigrating Hadramī scholars who fostered Islamic communities using the Haddādian curriculum (p.84). Al-Attas was raised by prominent Hadramawt scholars who had received their education under the tutelage of the then-dominant Haddādian paradigm. He was born in the hamlet of al-Hajarayn, Hadramawt, in 1839 and hailed from a family of learned Bā-Alawīs (p.88). Al-Attas’s youngest son assumed control of his position as a shaykh al-ta‘līm after his death in January 1929. Together with the sanctification of al-Attas, the mansab’s genealogical authority was established. Possession of tangible items connected to a mansab’s holy ancestors, such as prayer hats and beads, walking sticks, shawls, turbans, or rings, is one outward sign of a mansab’s genealogical authority.6 The mansabate group shrank as a result of the modernising trends among the Javanese Muslims. Many non-Bā ‘Alawi members of al-Attas’s-community, such as those from the Nahd and Ja‘da tribes, started to separate from the community and join al-Irsyad during the Bā Alawī-Irsyadi struggle.7

The second part of the book focuses on the development of a burgeoning Islamic community in modern Java. It starts with Habib Luthfi Bin Yahya of Pekalongan, a Bā ‘Alawī scholar who has attained the position of Indonesia’s foremost Sufi teacher. Habib Luthfi, who is revered by his followers as a living saint, is regarded as a leading figure in Islam, and not just his followers but also notable generals, legislators, academics and business leaders frequently seek his advice. Habib has made an effort to move beyond the dominant Bā-Alawī articulatory paradigm while still being inspired by the Haddādian paradigm by incorporating and combining many articulatory patterns that have traditionally existed in Indonesia.8 A small ground-breaking ceremony was performed at Noyontaan, a neighbourhood in Pekalongan, in November 1997, during the financial crisis that crippled Indonesia’s economy. During the crisis, such festivities were practically unheard of. Most building projects were put on hold due to the significant devaluation of the Indonesian currency. But it was precisely during that period of political and economic unrest that Habib Luthfi started a huge construction project to serve his expanding neighbourhood.

The author pays significant attention to Habib Luthfi’s labours as he developed an Islamic society (p.109). Despite the fact that he is a Bā ‘Alawī Sayyid, his father was not a scholar who could leave him a well-established community. As a result, in order to be taken seriously as a reliable link to the Prophetic past, he had to develop new relationships and integrate himself into established genealogy channels. He did this by exploring all of Java in search of instructors who might help him establish a connection to the Prophetic past.9 By utilising various genealogies, networks and itineraries of Islamic transmission, an ambitious scholar may establish a position of authority, as demonstrated by the example of Habib Luthfi (p.110). As such, it draws attention to the conceptual and practical importance of ancestry and migration in the development of Islamic authority. Different genealogies and itineraries of migration, as well as their contingent relationship, may, in turn, create different opportunities for articulation and lead to the emergence of various types of religious authority.

By bringing to light the issue of infrastructure—which Arendt did not adequately address in her work but which still plays a crucial role in the construction and diversification of religious authority—the case of Habib Luthfi, according to the author, further complicates her theory of authority. He argues that various infrastructures form various hierarchical connection outlines and open up various articulatory possibilities (p.136). The Sufi order (tariqa),10 which has long supported stable hierarchical relationships and promoted the dissemination and social embodiment of the sunnah, is the subject of the author’s attention. He contends that the idea of religious order may be used to explain non-Christian religious institutions even if recent scholarship has questioned its analytical validity. The Sufi order is described by the author as an organising mechanism—more specifically, as a collection of conceptual and physical frameworks that functions to convert unstable networks into an enduring religious community that is based on the hierarchical connection between a Sufi master and his disciples. A Sufi order’s collection of new and inherited infrastructure can function to consolidate, stabilise, concentrate and develop a religious community when it is skillfully orchestrated by the master. Habib Luthfi has been making an effort to build partnerships with various governmental agencies in Indonesia for more than three decades. With the use of these ties, he has been able to serve as a theological counsellor to a range of state officials, including mayors, district leaders, governors, generals and cabinet ministers (p.162). The author notes how various articulatory efforts have enabled the habib to form relationships with the state and, in turn, use the state as a foundation for religious authority. These connections have made it possible for him to plan religious gatherings through which he articulates the sunnah to a larger audience, frequently at the cost of other Muslim leaders.

As stated by the author, Habib Luthfi has been able to intervene on behalf of others to rechannel state power through alliances with the state. Due to the need for state institutions to collaborate with religious leaders and their congregations in order to maintain their presence, achieve certain objectives and wield certain forms of power, such relationships were made possible. According to the author, by looking at the articulatory work that unites state institutions and religious groups, we may identify the actual procedures that have permitted the state to be replicated in various social formations, which then act as venues for and conduits for the exercise of state authority (p.164). In fact, Indonesia has seen a tremendous rise in Islamic religious tourism during the past twenty years.11 For instance, the yearly celebration of the Bā ‘Alawī scholar-poet ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Habashi in the Central Javanese city of Solo draws over 200,000 pilgrims from all over Indonesia, resulting in a three-day event that sees the circulation of more than 200 billion rupiah (about $14 million) (p.185). Semarang is not a well-known pilgrimage site, in contrast to Solo. Prihadi and Habib Luthfi have been collaborating to reclaim Semarang’s pious history in order to maximise the city’s potential. Hasan b. Taha Bin Yahya’s tomb was built with assistance from the local administration, which also provided funding for the inaugural celebration in 2018.

According to Alatas, Habib Luthfi has spent more than two decades trying to resurrect holy histories that have either been forgotten or undocumented in historiography. For Luthfi, Muslims have a duty to protect and preserve their past for future generations. He contends that Muslims must write their own history, particularly in light of the fact that Indonesia’s pious past has been hidden, if not outright obliterated, by national and colonial historiographies. Luthfi has succeeded in doing this by designating old unmarked graves as saintly tombs, giving them recognisable histories and genealogy and establishing memorial ceremonies.12 His birthplace of Pekalongan is only one of several Indonesian cities where such work is performed. The Sufi master has generally had success due to his partnerships with governmental actors who, like Mayor Prihadi, were eager to profit from the growth of religious tourism in the nation. According to Habib Luthfi, the closeness and connectedness that allow Muslims to viscerally feel as a part of a transgenerational relationship connecting them to the Prophetic past are made possible by holy shrines.13

His work, as per Alatas, has been mostly focused on the hagiographical writing of his own obscure and undocumented ancestors. The Sufi master uses both ancient and contemporary sources while composing their hagiographies to produce a cohesive collection of manuscripts, tombs and oral histories that corroborate one another. The author presents Habib Luthfi not only as a member of the Naqshbandī-Khalidī and Shadhili silsilas but also as the lineal descendant of a long-forgotten Bā-Alawī saintly dynasty that was connected to both the Haddādian scholars and the Javanese royal dynasty.14 Therefore, under the guidance of Habib Luthfi, the hagiography serves to articulate conflicting genealogies and itineraries of Islamic transmission. The fusion of multiple genealogies of Islamic transmission in Habib Luthfi, in turn, enables him to position himself as the living end of various historical itineraries that link the present-day Java to the Prophetic past (p.187).

This book offers a thorough examination of the concept of articulation, enabling scholars and researchers to create a nonhistoricist interpretation of Islam and Islamic history. It helps them to view Islamic history and society as a set of exchanges, disputes and ongoing transactions among Islamic groups that have been put together via various articulatory practices. Even though these groups are very independent, they nonetheless communicate with one another through encounters or conflicts. These interactions, whether friendly or hostile, are what distinguish these Islamic communities from one another in a significant way. It serves as an example of how the sunnah may accommodate and adapt to cultural specificities, individual requirements and the ups and downs of daily life. The sunnah may manifest externally through contrasts and even opposites, rather than just being a collection of universally applicable common, consistent and disseminated rules. The book makes the case that there are several ways to express the sunnah, all of which may be regarded as accurate and authoritative by virtue of their link to the Prophetic past. As a result, various Muslim leaders compete with one another in the religious market in order to retain and grow their respective communities. The book also demonstrates how different Sufi saints have successfully built and expanded their communities with the aid of governmental actors, which has allowed them to gain recognition as leading Islamic authorities in Indonesia. With this sociocultural capital at their disposal, they have started a project to write the hagiography of their little known and unrecorded ancestors. They can portray themselves as the culmination of many authentic Islamic transmission lineages that link modern Java to the Prophetic past thanks to this hagiographical composition. The author does a fantastic job of concentrating on Islamic universality, which has as its core the work of consistently articulating the sunnah and the community. While each social realisation of Islam is unique and may differ from the others, they are all historically tied to and evolved from one foundational moment of Prophetic labor. Labor is the actual action that reproduces these distinct social realisations of Islam. The book should be of a significant interest to Southeast Asian studies scholars, Islamic studies experts and audiences interested in sociology and anthropology of religion.


Krämer, G and Schmidtke, S. (2006). Introduction: Religious Authority and Religious Authorities in Muslim Societies. A Critical Overview. In: Kramer, G. and Schmidtke, S. eds. Speaking for Islam: Religious Authorities in Muslim Societies. Brill, p. 2.


Ibid.,p. 3.


Asad, T. (1986). The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Occasional Papers, Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, p. 14.


Arendt, H. (1968). Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Penguin, p. 122.


Bang, A. (2003). Sufis and Scholars of the Sea: Family Networks in East Africa, 1860–1925. Routledge, p.33.


Alatas, I. (2014). Pilgrimage and Network Formation in Two Contemporary Bā ʿAlawī Ḥawl in Central Java. Journal of Islamic Studies 25 (3): 298–324.


Laffan, M. F. (2011). The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past. Princeton University Press, p.57.


Alatas, I. (2015). They Are the Heirs of the Prophet: Discourses on the Ahl al-Bayt and Religious Authority among the Bā ʿAlawī in Modern Indonesia. In Chiara Formichi and R. Michael Feener, eds. Shiʿism in Southeast Asia: ʿAlid Piety and Sectarian Constructions. Oxford University Press, pp. 139–164.


Birchok, D. A. (2015). Putting Habib Abdurrahim in His Place: Genealogy, Scale, and Islamization in Seunagan, Indonesia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 57 (2): pp. 497–527.


Voll, J. (1994). Islam as a Special World-System. Journal of World History 5 (2): 213–226.


Ho, E. (2006). The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean. University of California Press, p.21.


Gellens, S. I. (1990). The Search for Knowledge in Medieval Muslim Societies: A Comparative Approach. In: Dale Eickleman, D. and Piscatori, J. eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. University of California Press, pp. 50–65.


Ricci, R. (2011). Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia. University of Chicago Press, p. 196.


Sayeed, A. (2013). Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam, Cambridge University Press. p. 43.

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