Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 30, November 2012

Women's Majelis Taklim
and Gendered Religious Practice in Northern Ambon

Phillip Winn

  1. Majelis taklim are regular gatherings for religious learning and performance that have become widespread among Muslims in contemporary Indonesia, gaining prominence also in public discourse about national religiosity. The rapid increase of majelis taklim over the last decade, particularly among Muslim women, has been linked to the 'Islamic revival' in Indonesia—a global trend involving Muslim populations worldwide engaging more overtly with issues of religious identity and practice. In this context, the expression 'revival' rarely suggests the reinvigoration of longstanding practices, but typically denotes the displacing of local traditions by more scripturalist or theologico-legal orientations, which in turn are often depicted as universal or international expressions of Islam.[1] A key assertion I wish to make here is that the recent spread of majelis taklim across a range of settings in Indonesia need not be linked to new concerns about universality or orthodoxy, but can act to reaffirm extant expressions of Muslim religiosity. In this sense the impact of the global Islamic revival in Indonesia should be understood in general terms as involving new public demonstrations of religious sensibility, rather than necessarily introducing innovative forms of religious practice.[2] Importantly, these newly visible sensibilities are not homogenous and neither are the forms of public they engage. Notions of a newly Islamised 'national public sphere' in Indonesia somewhat analogous to civil society may well be less relevant to particular acts of religious self-presentation than other forms of real or imagined publics.[3]
  2. This article explores a case in point: women's majelis taklim in the Leihitu area of Ambon Island in eastern Indonesia.[4] The emergence of such groups in this locale is certainly linked to national visions of contemporary Muslim women. However, the core activity of majelis taklim in Leihitu involves a longstanding practice in that setting: recitation of Arabic-language religious texts in order to gain religious merit, in particular a genre known as barzanji. I argue that majelis taklim should be understood primarily as vehicles for (re)presenting long-extant modes of devotional performance in Leihitu as being compatible with contemporary forms of Muslim identity. In doing so, these groups reaffirm the Islamic credentials of their communities. At the same time, majelis taklim have increased the participation of women in public and semi-public devotional recitation as well as its frequency of occurrence; a situation that is subtly transforming normatively gendered forms of local religious practice.

    Majelis taklim in Indonesia
  3. It would be difficult to find a clearer indication of a resurgent interest in religion among Indonesian Muslims than the contemporary proliferation of majelis taklim throughout the archipelago.The origin of this expression (also rendered as majelis ta'lim and majlis talim) remains obscure, as do its earliest contexts of use.[5] Often glossed as 'Islamic study or reading groups,' majelis taklim are also described as religious learning forums, preaching gatherings, public meetings for Islamic and/or Qur'ānic studies, private gatherings for religious teaching, and as salon-style religious discussion groups.[6] These diverse labels illustrate the varied character of activities taking place under the majelis taklim rubric, which can involve widely different scales and settings: from public lectures by popular preachers at major city mosques attended by thousands of people, to an intimate group of friends conversing together in a private dwelling. Majelis taklim gatherings occur in the meeting rooms of office blocks, major shopping centres and hotels; Indonesian embassies across the globe routinely host majelis taklim attended by staff and local expatriates.
  4. The core practices shared by majelis taklim involve prayer and the use of one or more Arabic-language religious texts. This does not mean that all or even any of the participants in a given gathering are able to understand Arabic. Texts are frequently recited rather than translated or discussed. Another general feature is an educative dimension. Participants usually view majelis taklim as enhancing their proficiency in being Muslim in some respect. This might involve gaining direct advice from a respected figure on living a more devout life, improving skills in religious practice, or enlarging one's knowledge of theological interpretation.
  5. For Indonesian Muslims, forms of religious education outside formal institutions that utilise Arabic texts are not a new phenomenon. Qur'ānic recitation classes for children are an especially widespread tradition, quite often occurring in the home of a neighbour who is not paid for the task. Generally this activity is known as pengajian (or pengajian Qur'ān)—a label that may also be applied to forms of adult religious training.[7] And alongside the expansion of majelis taklim has been a recent growth also in majelis dhikr (or zikir), groups which specialise in the repetitive recitation of Arabic religious formulae.[8] majelis taklim can be distinguished from these kinds of gatherings on two grounds. Firstly, the breadth of activities incorporated into individual majelis taklim groups is much greater—from exegesis of religious materials and discussion of social issues to public education campaigns, welfare and charity efforts, exhibitions of Islamic fashion and even rotating credit associations (arisan), the latter aimed at providing each member in turn with a small amount of capital provided by the others. Secondly, there has been a tendency for the label majelis taklim to be applied mainly (or even exclusively in some Indonesian locales) to groups of women. Indeed, majelis taklim has been referred to as 'a religious meeting for women only,' as 'pengajian for women,' and as 'traditional Muslim women's groups.'[9]
  6. This perspective of majelis taklim might be linked historically to informal learning sessions conducted by religious boarding schools (pesantren) in Java for small groups of girls in the period before female students were formally admitted to such schools.[10] Later in the 1920s the women's associations of the national Muslim organisations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah began organising informal groups of adult women for religious instruction and as a vehicle of outreach and religious proselytising (dakwah) addressing, for example, the conduct of prayer and techniques of ritual cleanliness. In NU circles in particular, the usual name for these gatherings was majlis ta'lim. Individual groups were often initiated and led by nyai, the wives of pesantren heads (kyai) and this is true of many women's majelis taklim in Java today.[11] Activities of this sort also likely underpin past associations in Java between majelis taklim and the poor (as well as with pesantren).[12] But while the connection with women remains, present-day majelis taklim groups have shed any link to an impoverished, uneducated underclass.
  7. From the 1990s onwards, large gatherings of women's majelis taklim groups became increasingly visible in the national media. The most well-known organisation involved in such events is Badan Kontak Majlis Taklim or BKMT (Majlis Taklim Networking Organization), established in Jakarta in 1981 by representatives from several hundred individual groups. This is a period also often regarded as marking the onset of the Islamic revival in Indonesia in its most popular form, linked to the rapid expansion of campus-based dakwah activity influenced by currents of reform in the Middle East.[13] BKMT embodied aspects of that trend. From its beginnings the organisation encouraged members of majelis taklim to engage in diverse arenas of social action in order to overtly express religious commitment.[14] As forms of prominent, publicly expressed Muslim religiosity in Indonesia multiplied and gained purchase in the popular imagination, participation in majelis taklim attracted considerable legitimacy as a vehicle for religiously engaged contemporary Muslim women to contribute to national life. From being a tool for spreading basic religious instruction among disadvantaged women, majelis taklim became a major medium through which committed Muslim women could champion a national culture of renewed public religiosity. Members of majelis taklim were increasingly represented in media reporting and by politicians and other public figures as exemplars of active, religiously aware Muslim women and the groups themselves as agents of national social and moral development.
  8. These ideas were regular themes across a series of large BKMT assemblies that took place at Jakarta's main sports stadium during the 1990s. By 1998, immediately following the resignation of Suharto, the founding chair of BKMT Tuti Alawiyah was appointed State Minister of Female Empowerment in the Habibie government. More recently Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono publicly praised the national role of majelis taklim at a Qur'ānic recitation festival attended by ambassadors from predominantly Muslim nations:

      I invite all Muslims to continuously improve the quality of their faith [iman]. Let us build a culture of reading, memorizing, studying, understanding and practicing the Qur'ān through creating majelis ta'lim in small prayer-houses and mosques [everywhere].[15]

  9. The growth of majelis taklim in Indonesia has been extraordinary. At the twentieth anniversary celebration of the formation of BKMT in 2001, some 140,000 members of women's majelis taklim gathered at Jakarta's largest sports stadium.[16] By 2006, the Directorate of Islamic Education estimated that 153,357 majelis taklim existed throughout the country with a combined membership of nearly 10 million people.[17] In 2009, Tuti Alawiyah—still chair of BKMT—claimed 14 million women in affiliated majelis taklim groups across thirty-one provinces. At a BKMT New Year prayer event in 2010 at Jakarta's national mosque (Masjid Istiqlal), the Minister of Religious Affairs within a newly installed cabinet chosen by the recently re-elected President Yudhoyono addressed a large audience drawn from 50,000 majelis taklim. As he stood at the main podium a giant banner immediately behind and above him overtly proclaimed the extensive horizons of BKMT: 'Islam is the Solution for Advanced Civilization and Humanity' (Islam Adalah Solusi Bagi Kemajuan Peradaban dan Kemanusiaan).
  10. Majelis taklim might well be the 'largest [category] of religious-based women's groups in Indonesia' today.[18] They have become an important expression of popular Muslim religiosity, a major vehicle for shaping religious knowledge and social values and for scholars, a key symbol of 'new piety' among contemporary Muslims in Indonesia linked to reflexive engagements with religious identity among the new Muslim middle class'.[19] But while majelis taklim groups have certainly burgeoned among the relatively affluent, they are in no way restricted to this segment of the population, as Lies M. Marcoes observes: 'they are just anywhere, they emerge spontaneously and are firmly rooted in society.'[20] A great range of individuals and organisations now make use of majelis taklim in Indonesia, whether in dakwah efforts aimed at reforming everyday religious practices, in outreach and recruitment of new members, or in pursuing goals of broader socio-political transformation.[21] At the same time, one unpublished study has argued that majelis taklim usually remain closely tied to the religious orientations and social concerns of specific founders.[22] In order to understand the role of majelis taklim in shaping expressions of Muslim religiosity in Indonesia today, close attention needs to be paid to the social contexts in which majelis taklim are embedded and to the particular character of their activities. The remainder of this article presents such an analysis of majelis taklim on the north coast of Ambon Island in the eastern Indonesian province of Maluku.

    Majelis Taklim in Leihitu
  11. Ambon Island consists of a northern and a southern peninsula (jazirah) linked at one end by a narrow isthmus. The larger, northern peninsula is widely referred to as Jazirah Leihitu; the smaller to the south simply as Leitimur. The population of Leitimur is ethnically diverse, with a substantial population of Christians; the city of Ambon—capital of Maluku province—is located here; as is the main port. By contrast, the population of Jazirah Leihitu is largely Muslim; on its northern coastline wholly so.[23] Settlements have a lengthy association with Muslim trading networks in and beyond the archipelago which pre-date the arrival of Europeans by many centuries. By the fifteenth century the north coast had established itself as a regional hub with strong links to key centres of Muslim trading activity and religious learning in Java's northern port cities.[24] Just when indigenous Muslim communities first emerged is unclear, but in all likelihood this locale was among the earliest in the region in which such a process occurred.
  12. The north coast of Jazirah Leihitu today is divided between eleven 'traditional villages' (negeri adat), a formal status assigned by regional government that has now replaced the desa of the New Order period.[25] Locally, they are simply known as negeri. Together, the eleven negeri comprise a single administrative sub-district (or kecamatan) also named Leihitu, consisting of some 9,000 households and 47,000 people.[26] The area is substantially rural, with extensive stands of tree-crops (notably cloves, nutmeg and more recently cacao) as well as groves of sago trees and vegetable gardens. But Leihitu is also not remote; Ambon city is easily reached via abundant buses and micro-buses. Numerous government employees commute daily to Ambon from settlements in Leihitu, women carry local produce to urban markets at daybreak, and students at city-based universities and technical colleges also travel the route regularly.
  13. The negeri of Leihitu are multifaceted social, cultural and administrative entities, incorporating what might be termed 'core' and 'peripheral' communities. The latter consist largely of in-migrants from outside the immediate region (mainly from southeast Sulawesi). This group represents a significant proportion of the total population of the region; their settlements dot the coastline between core communities. But my focus here is with the core communities, whose residents are predominantly Ambonese with descent links to local clans in each negeri (of which there are generally several). Traditions concerning these clans and the pre-colonial polities with which they are associated give shape to the territorial claims of present-day negeri and provide the source of 'traditional' status. Archaic settlements were originally located in adjacent mountain areas and it is here that accounts suggest local people first began to embrace Muslim religious practices, erecting the first mosques at locations which remain revered and ritually significant.
  14. Across Leihitu, majelis taklim are associated strongly, if not exclusively, with women. All such groups are said to have emerged relatively recently over the last several years. Individual majelis taklim tend to be connected with a specific neighbourhood (kampung or kompleks) within negeri, frequently bearing its name and drawing largely on its residents; in this way some are also linked to local groupings of clans known as soa.[27] A precise count of majelis taklim is difficult; not all are active and information about this status varies. The maximum number of majelis taklim claimed by an individual core community in Leihitu was eight and the fewest three, so across the area it is possible that around sixty groups exist. According to informants, nearly all members of majelis taklim are married, with few very young women involved. My own direct observations were that members tend to be aged in their thirties to fifties. Given the demographic character of Leihitu negeri, a reasonable estimate then would suggest one in ten women aged above thirty years were likely to be involved in a majelis taklim group, and perhaps more.[28] The groups generally have around twenty members, including formal office-bearers: a chair, secretary and treasurer. However, these are relatively nominal positions and the groups are certainly not hierarchical. Majelis taklim in Leihitu consist of women who know each other well as neighbours and/or relatives.
  15. On ordinary occasions majelis taklim groups generally meet at the home of a member. Gatherings are said to coincide with major periods free of household duties or outside work (as has been observed in Java).[29] For Leihitu women the main blocks of such time occur immediately after midday prayer (salat Duhur) and also after completion of the two evening prayers Maghrib and Isya (the first beginning around 6.30 p.m., the second an hour later). The latter is especially common timing for any protracted activity, such as when a speaker is invited to deliver an address (ceramah). At gatherings I observed in two neighboring negeri, women met in the front guest area of a house or its verandah, seated on mats on the floor, encircling narrow rectangular white cloths bearing plates of fruit and cake. Clothing was more formal than the everyday, of the sort linked in local terms with religious activity incorporating head-cloths in a variety of styles (none with face-coverings). Each individual placed a small amount of money on arrival in a receptacle (around two thousand rupiah). Half of this was to defray the costs of refreshments (if the host chose to retain it), with the remainder being added to group funds for the purchase of items required by the group, such as printed texts.
  16. The principal activity of majelis taklim in Leihitu combines the educative and performative: members learn together to pronounce and recite (but not translate) Qur'ānic and non-Qur'ānic Arabic-language religious texts. Recitation sessions are opened and closed by prayer. Animated conversation takes place among the women before and after recitation, but a general effort was made to avoid interruptions or distractions while the recitation was actually in progress; rowdy children were hushed. Informants suggest that the most regularly recited Qur'ānic text is Sūrat 36 Yā Sīn.[30] But the most common form of recitation involves non-Qur'ānic materials known as barzanji, a term which in its the broadest sense refers to a collection of several literary works concerning the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
  17. The barzanji texts used by majelis taklim in Leihitu are well-known among Muslims throughout the world because of their association with annual celebrations of the birth of the Prophet (in Indonesia known as Maulud, Arabic: mawlid). Barzanji texts have been described as essential to Muslim religious observance in the sense that they are regularly recited by Muslims throughout the world, fully or in part, on occasions not confined to the celebration of Maulud. Two of these texts are especially prominent in Indonesia: Mawlid Sharaf al-Ānām (from an unknown author) and the Mawlid al-Barzanjī (written by the Medina scholar Ja'far al-Barzanjī). Both are contained in common commercially published collections of maulud texts often entitled Majmūat al-mawālid wa-ad'iyah (Compilation of mawlids and prayers) found in many different editions and formats across the archipelago.[31] While their performance has wide acceptance in Indonesia, here, as elsewhere, there is a range of views concerning their theologico-legal status within Islam and the appropriateness of particular contexts and forms of performance.[32] There are also specific regional variants in the practice, notably the melodies used and the relative participation of men and women. One author suggests that the particular popularity of barzanji recitation is a distinctive feature of Muslim religiosity in eastern Indonesia.[33] However, ethnographic accounts of the practice in the region are rare.
  18. Recitation of barzanji by Muslims in Leihitu most often consists of the Mawlid al-Barzanjī; Sharaf al-ānām is significantly longer and tends to be reserved for the annual all-night celebration of Maulud itself. In Leihitu these texts are referred to as barzanji and syarafal anam respectively. Across Leihitu barzanji forms part of the more elaborate (and hence costly) style of marking two key life-course events: an infant's first hair cutting and marriage. This former association seems relatively widespread, certainly in eastern Indonesia. I have observed recitations of this sort at several locations across Southeast Sulawesi and Maluku. The use of barzanji at weddings appears to be less common. Ideally, the performance is timed such that the groom and his accompanying party arrive just as the recitation reaches a key passage that refers to Muhammad's birth, a point in the recitation in which assembled participants will always stand.[34] The arriving group members find their places and join in the final sections of the recitation. The groom's public agreement to the marriage covenant (i.e. the akad nikah) begins soon after. At these celebratory life-course events, barzanji is predominantly or exclusively recited by men. However, there are numerous contexts where women also perform barzanji, whether by themselves or alongside men.
  19. People in Leihitu sometimes arrange a barzanji recitation as fulfillment of a vow or intention (niat), for example linked to the successful outcome of some effort or enterprise. When the host of such an occasion is a woman, those reciting may be mainly women. Another established practice involves reciting barzanji at the home of an individual engaged in the pilgrimage to Mecca. This occurs during each evening of their absence. When the pilgrim is a woman, once again those reciting may consist largely of women. Nowadays, members of majelis taklim are prominent participants on both types of occasion. It is evident that barzanji in Leihitu is not linked specifically to women, as is sometimes the case among Muslim groups. Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that the practice is especially popular among women.[35] According to my informants, this is in part because barzanji is not viewed as subject to religious prohibitions that prevent menstruating women from reading/handling the Qur'ān or engaging in daily prayers (or entering a mosque). But other gendered dimensions of religious practice are also important.
  20. Men in Leihitu engage regularly in a much larger range of public religious performances than women, not only in the community mosque (e.g. at communal Friday prayers), and at wedding ceremonies or funerals, but notably also through all-male sessions of prayer and recitation known as tahlil.[36] In Leihitu these occur frequently as an integral part of a wide variety of community, clan and family-linked activities. For the bulk of Leihitu men, tahlil in one form or another is likely to be their most common form of religious activity, more than daily prayers (which are frequently overlooked) or even Friday communal prayer (which can be poorly attended). Another feature of religious practice in the core communities of Leihitu is that women do not generally pray in the main negeri mosque, instead they utilise small purpose-built structures (musholla) located elsewhere.[37] At major religious festivals (such as Eid al Adha or Eid al Fitr) women do gather at the main mosque and perform prayers with men, but they are seated in a separate area usually at the building's rear or even outside, screened from the men by a large white curtain.[38] By contrast community recitation of barzanji on the occasion of Maulud brings women and men together in a shared space within the main mosque. And while male figures lead this recitation, women play a very active part, particularly in collective responses.[39] Wives of pengajian teachers or women who teach pengajian themselves may well rise to their feet when others are sitting, urging those present—children and adults alike—to perform the collective responses with more gusto. Barzanji at Maulud provides a periodic opportunity for women to engage in a public religious performance at the very centre of their community.
  21. Barzanji then, has a long association with public and participatory expressions of Muslim religiosity by Leihitu women. However, the practice generally involved men leading women in the recitation, often current or retired mosque officials. One elderly informant in negeri Kaitetu recalled from his childhood a group of women gathering annually at a nearby beach to recite barzanji on the twentieth day of the month of Safar—an occasion known as Mandi Safar, marked by communal bathing in the ocean.[40] The informant's father would lead this group. Majelis taklim groups maintain women's involvement with barzanji, which was described by members as their most frequent form of activity. But the number of women directly involved has expanded, as has the frequency of performance and the scope of women's participation.
  22. Referred to locally as baca barzanji (literally reading barzanji) the practice involves reciting a series of Arabic passages of varying length, separated periodically by a number of collectively repeated phrases conveying praise, gratitude and respect to God and/or the Prophet.[41] However, terms like reciting and reading fail to capture the energetic character of the performance. While a baca barzanji consists in large part of a series of Arabic passages recited by individuals, these are regularly punctuated by repetitive phrases referred to as zikir (Arabic: dhikr) which are collectively sung, and hence known as barzanji 'songs' (lagu).[42] These zikir 'songs' are accompanied by rhythmic strikes on shallow tambourine-like goatskin drums (rabbana), several of which are shared out among the group. To be carried out well in local terms the zikir component of barzanji must be lively and enthusiastic (bersemangat) both in voice and in percussive accompaniment. The rabbana are gripped firmly in one hand and struck sharply with the heel of the other, at times very rapidly. Informants emphasise that the louder and more powerful these strikes, the better. Meanwhile, those without rabbana often join in by slapping the ground or a leg. Well performed zikir is seen as invigorating, and helping those who attend the all-night festivities of Maulud to maintain attention. The combination of liveliness and tunefulness make lagu barzanji one of the most relished genres of religious performance in Leihitu among adults and children alike. Any performance inevitably draws spectators, who quietly hum, nod or even softly sing along.

    Figure 1. Performing zikir as part of a barzanji recitation by a majelis taklim.
    Photographer Phillip Winn, Kaitetu in Leihitu, Ambon, October 2009.

  23. So while majelis taklim are acknowledged as relatively recent activities, informants often stated that the groups are new in name only. They point out that the practice of reciting barzanji has existed in Leihitu over generations, as has Qur'ānic recitation—the other activity of the groups. Apart from occasional recitations of the popular Yā Sīn (Sūrat 36), majelis taklim sometimes also undertake to recite the entire Qur'ān during the fasting month of Ramadan. Another longstanding devotional practice in Leihitu, this recitation occurs in private dwellings as well the origin houses of individual clans (rumah tua). Each evening of Ramadan a single section (juz) of the Qur'ān is recited in sequence, so that by month's end the thirtieth and final section can be read at a ceremony marking its completion (khatam), adding to the general celebration of Idul Fitri. Majelis taklim groups sometimes arrange this so that each evening's reading occurs in a different member's home in order that all participating households share the envisaged benefits (with the final evening's khatam occurring in the community mosque).

    Emergence of majelis taklim
  24. Informants across Leihitu negeri unanimously agree one does not need to be in a majelis taklim group to engage in barzanji or Qur'ānic recitation. Why then, did such groups emerge? People commonly provided three key rationale: 1) majelis taklim create additional occasions for religious recitation (which is a good thing in itself); 2) groups attract funds from a range of sources; 3) they increase occasions where 'housewives' (ibu rumah tangga) can enjoy activity outside their homes. The first point reflects an established view that recitations of berzanji or the Qur'ān generate religious reward (pahala) or blessings (berkat) for participants, in this life and/or the afterlife. In the first instance this could include a range of material benefits, for example avoiding ill health and ill will, attracting luck or generosity and assistance from others. Rewards in the afterlife are less explicit, but ultimately relate to making up for one's sins (berdosa) and therefore facilitating entry to paradise (surga). The existence of majelis taklim groups mean that recitations occur more frequently than before and involve more shared participation, both of which are viewed as unequivocally positive. The more recitation the more pahala, and the more involved, the more the rewards are shared.
  25. This second rationale might seem to speak more to material concerns than the religious. But informants readily interpret funds, donations and gifts directed to majelis taklim as direct manifestations of pahala. These are received from a range of sources, including regional and local government, campaigning politicians and also non-government organisations. Women's majelis taklim throughout Indonesia now form a widely recognised point of contact for those with an interest in social programs, particularly relating to gender. In the jargon of community development majelis taklim are regarded as 'local stakeholders.' Finally, as one informant noted in straightforward fashion, attending a majelis taklim gathering is 'better than just sitting around the house.' As institutional recognition of the groups has expanded, so have opportunities to participate in larger scale events involving travel, for example to urban centres such as Ambon city or even on occasion to Masohi on Seram Island, the capital of the administrative district (kabupaten) which takes in Ambon (Central Maluku). Such occasions generally mark religious festivals and may involve more than one majelis taklim group; once again these are organised and funded by government, political parties or community organisations.
  26. Institutional interest in the presence of local majelis taklim also make them desirable to negeri administrations, which form the main conduit for receiving and distributing monies to local groups including funds for travel, to purchase sets of texts or rabbana, or matching sets of 'Islamic clothing' (busana Muslim).[43] No doubt this has assisted their growth. I found examples of negeri administrators who openly encouraged the formation of majelis taklim via wives or female relatives in order to secure a share of such benefits for women in their negeri. An associated, but less overtly acknowledged dimension involved competition between negeri as well as neighbourhoods or soa within negeri. Access to tangible benefits plays a part in this, but equally there is a common concern to maintain the standing of one's community in relation to others, especially neighbouring negeri. Informants regularly expressed satisfaction at the number or quality of majelis taklim in their community, or commented that the women in their neighbourhood had not been slow in becoming involved in the trend.
  27. The increasing visibility of majelis taklim via national media sources is clearly also important, as is their endorsement by government figures as a desirable feature of national culture—indeed, one that should be emulated. Some women recalled hearing about majelis taklim initially through social contacts, particularly family or friends in Ambon city. There were also examples of in-marrying women from urban centres such as Makassar (Sulawesi) who initiated local majelis taklim. But many informants credited television with their initial awareness of majelis taklim groups, citing especially the presence of majelis taklim members in the studio audiences of televised religious programs, readily identified by their matching busana Muslim, or 'uniforms' (seragam). One television preacher especially popular among Leihitu women was Hj. Dedeh Rosyidah, co-host of a television talk-show called Mamah dan Aa' (screening on the national Indosiar network). Known as 'Mama Dedeh,' Hj. Rosyidah was widely admired for her unaffected and direct style of speaking.[44] On the program she responded to questions from telephone callers as well as from members of an audience that consisted largely of women's majelis taklim. As an audience member stood to ask a question, the name and locale of her group was identified in a screen caption.
  28. The national prominence of women's majelis taklim, as a popular expression of public religiosity among Indonesian Muslims, has clearly played a key part in their emergence in Leihitu. All negeri assert a deep-seated connection to Islam based on local narratives concerning the arrival of proselytising figures in the remote past. In a pattern shared throughout central Maluku, sites associated with these figures and their activities (known locally as keramat) are widely venerated, as are a range of negeri and/or clan heirlooms that attest to this history.[45] In creating local majelis taklim, Leihitu women are publicly reaffirming the Muslim identity of their communities in contemporary national terms to envisioned public audiences real and imagined, inside and outside of their negeri.

    Religiosity, gender and modernity
  29. At a national level in Indonesia, majelis taklim groups are certainly implicated in new intersections of religion and politics that are situating women at the centre of narratives of morality and nation.[46] Parallels exist with accounts of an increase in 'public participation and public piety' among Muslim women elsewhere as a marked effect of the global Islamic revival.[47] And there are prominent instances where Muslim women in Indonesia find themselves cast as barometers of their society's 'civilisational status' much as described in other national contexts.[48] Is it possible to suggest then, that as a national phenomenon majelis taklim in Indonesia are disseminating new models of 'ideal moral womanhood' linked to novel frameworks of normative piety? In my view, generalisations of this kind are not tenable given the diverse range of activities occurring under the rubric of majelis taklim. Their impact on local understandings of religion and related expressions of gender will vary according to the form these groups or gatherings take, alongside their relation to key social and cultural aspects of the contexts where they occur.
  30. There are important differences for example in the form taken by majelis taklim in Leihitu and those described for Java—the focus of most analysis of majelis taklim to date. In the latter case, women's majelis taklim are frequently linked to a founding teacher-scholar referred to as an ustadz (male) or ustadzah (female).[49] The wives of kyai (pesantren heads) are especially prominent in this role, as they have been historically in women's religious education in Java. Indeed, wider traditions surrounding pesantren likely play a critical role in shaping the character of many Javanese majelis taklim. Kyai in Java have long been influential figures in religious matters, particularly in rural areas, whether as local guardians of orthodoxy and morality or in mediating between local populations and the outside world.[50] Similarly, Marcoes argues of Java that: 'the atmosphere of the majlis ta'lim and other pengajian tends to lend the religious teachers speaking there a certain charisma and authority.'[51] Over time particular ustadz/ah can build sizeable popular followings and attend a number of different majelis taklim every week. Some individuals earn a comfortable living through the payments they receive at each session; 'star' ustadz/ah in Jakarta can be quite wealthy.[52] Crucially, such figures inevitably shape the educative dimensions of the majelis taklim in which they are involved, for example in choosing texts for reading and in providing thematic interpretations and commentaries as foci for discussion. Under these circumstances majelis taklim members become passive recipients for instruction rather than active discussants. Indeed, Farid Muttaqin argues that shared loyalty to an ustadz/ah is an important feature of majelis taklim in Java, forming the key source of continuity within individual groups.[53]
  31. By contrast pesantren have been relatively unimportant in Maluku, with very few existing even in major centres. Leihitu has one such institution, established as recently as 1987, which no longer functions as a pesantren.[54] Among the majelis taklim I observed, the closest position to that of a teacher or instructor was a member acknowledged by others as being skilled in reciting Arabic-language text. Such a woman usually possessed some level of previous experience in recitation, perhaps as a former participant in school-based competitive Qur'ānic recital or in running a village pengajian Qur'ān class for children. She tended to lead the prayers associated with opening and closing a gathering, but responsibility for assisting others in learning or improving recitation was shared by the women in the group. The main modes of instruction involved example and also gentle correction or prompting from group members. In Qur'ānic readings (such as Sura Yā Sīn), groups often recite together as a whole. In barzanji, each of a series of passages are recited by individual members. In the performances I attended I would watch women following the recitation—fingers running along lines of Arabic script, mouths moving silently or softly enunciating words in conjunction with the person reading. If someone faltered over a difficult sentence or word, other women would quickly add their voice; mispronunciations were also corrected immediately. After the recitation, as refreshments were shared, women would animatedly discuss their efforts, expressing frustration or satisfaction and drawing comments and advice from others.
  32. Importantly, none of the Arabic texts involved in recitations (Qur'ānic or non-Qur'ānic) were ever translated. Neither did I encounter any use of exegetical religious materials by majelis taklim. Informants made no references to such material, or to instances of commentary or interpretation within their majelis taklim concerning the religious significance of the passages recited. According to my informants, majelis taklim are concerned wholly with recitation, a situation confirmed by my own observations and consistent with longstanding conventions of village-based religious learning (such as pengajian Qur'ān). Understanding the literal meaning of religious texts is not seen as necessary. Indeed, mosque officials in Leihitu negeri, as in most Muslim communities throughout Maluku, are unlikely to be able to translate Arabic, though a range of specific terms are widely understood, along with certain phrases or even the gist of short passages.[55] By contrast an ability to recite Arabic is highly valued. To this end almost everyone in Leihitu attends pengajian as a child, learning to recognise and pronounce Arabic and recite the Qur'ān, most often at the house of a neighbour. However, this early training is generally lost by adulthood. Through regular participation in tahlil, married men develop a working memory of the range of Arabic religious passages in routine use, but there are few opportunities for women to gain similar skills.
  33. Against this backdrop, majelis taklim in Leihitu have the character of women's self-education groups, enhancing their practice and confidence in Arabic recitation. They represent an opportunity for local women to (re)acquaint themselves with these skills via the assistance of other women: their friends, neighbours and relatives. Far from being dominated by the perspectives of a founder or instructor, Leihitu majelis taklim have an egalitarian and participatory character. One significant consequence of the lack of a founding ustadz/ah figure is a general absence of authoritative theological discourse. In comparison, Anna M. Gade's depiction of Sulawesi women involved in practicing Qur'ānic recitation involves considerable emphasis on idealised expressions of religious piety linked to instruction in conventions of stylistic orthopraxy. This resonates with broader research concerning the involvement of Muslim women in religious revival movements in Indonesia and elsewhere (notably Saba Mahmood in Egypt).[56] These accounts involve contexts where women's religious learning is mediated by teachers (often holding institutional qualifications) who invoke strongly normative frameworks in relation to affective experience. As a result, individual efforts at cultivating theologically appropriate emotional states, such as 'fear' or 'awe,' emerge as a prominent theme.
  34. By contrast, no explicit discourse concerning the proper expression of pious sentiment was evident among members of majelis taklim in Leihitu. The feeling most readily and frequently referred to by my informants in respect of their involvement in a majelis taklim group involved pleasure in newfound or growing competence in reciting Arabic text, and also being in the company of other women. Indeed, the social element of majelis taklim seems a critical aspect of their appeal. Interestingly, in discussing majelis taklim in Java Marcoes refers to the 'value of simple amusement' in meeting with other women in order to exchange news and views, while Mona Abaza muses that the gatherings may well be 'a pleasant way of spending time.'[57] My informants highlighted both aspects of majelis taklim—as occasions for sociality and for developing new skills—as key sources of positive feelings. In my view these form essential elements underpinning women's continuing commitment to the groups.
  35. Women regularly expressed a degree of surprise that reciting Arabic text was not as difficult as they had anticipated. Several women declared that they now gained as much enjoyment from reciting individual passages of the barzanji as they do from participating in the collective zikir. A common practice among majelis taklim in conducting a baca barzanji is to share individual passages among members of the group simply by allowing whichever woman first begins to read its opening words to continue. However, in one of the groups I observed directly these passages were allocated in order of seating. In querying this difference I was told that as members of the group increased in confidence and skill they began competing for the longest and most complex passages. Two or more women would begin to recite such passages simultaneously, with neither willing to give way. The system of allocating passages by seating order was started to avoid this situation and to fairly distribute the more sought-after passages. One member observed that as a result she always counts heads on her arrival at a gathering in order to choose a place to sit where one of the longer passages was likely to fall, and maintained others did the same. Laughing, she mimicked the dismayed looks whenever late arrivals upset careful seating strategies.
  36. Members of majelis taklim were concerned with fluent recitation, but this was linked to the potential of their practice to generate religious merit (pahala) through pleasing God, rather than with enacting conventionalised ideals of piety or demonstrating personal commitment to religious observance. The chief obligations for Muslims most frequently cited in Leihitu included refraining from eating pork (as well as dog); undergoing circumcision; joining the annual fast (puasa); paying the annual zakat; undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) if wealth permits; and performing the five daily prayers (salat/sholat).[58] The vital element that demonstrates intent to become a 'better' Muslim in local terms involved more strictly observing daily prayers. Local informants—including active participants in majelis taklim—commonly admitted that their own salat was often fairly irregular. A widespread expectation was that those who had completed the pilgrimage should make a special effort in performing salat as well as attending Friday communal prayer, and that the elderly generally also do so.[59] But for everyone else, engaging in regular daily salat was acknowledged as a challenge due to the demands of everyday life; women in particular cited their domestic responsibilities (such as childcare, washing clothes and preparing meals).
  37. At one majelis taklim gathering I attended an ustadz was also present by invitation to deliver a religious address (ceramah).[60] Following a group recitation of Yā Sīn he quickly honed in on this very issue. Observing that people had a great deal of energy for barzanji, he gently chided his audience for the common lack of comparable enthusiasm in performing daily prayer, despite its relative brevity. Indeed, while describing barzanji as entirely laudable, he emphasised that salat was the key to religious life and he also drew attention to what he described as the secret of all powerful figures in the Islamic world: waking at night to perform sholat malam as a supplementary prayer to the obligatory five.[61] Informants generally agreed that it would be better, as Muslims, if they were to more regularly observe daily prayers, and none claimed that recitation could replace or substitute that obligation. However, there were suggestions that as a source of pahala, recitation of the Qur'ān or barzanji might balance shortcomings in other areas of religious observance.

    Local iterations
  38. Majelis taklim elsewhere have been seen as empowering women through increasing their knowledge of a range of social issues, as well as boosting women's participation in the public arena.[62] Equally, majeklis taklim led by religiously conservative ustadz/ah can propagate narrow views concerning women's social roles.[63] In Leihitu I would suggest that majelis taklim have not substantially changed the shape of women's lives in either sense. As noted, ustadz/ah of any sort are largely absent from majelis taklim and Ambonese Muslim women are generally not highly constrained by private/public spatial dichotomies.[64] Leihitu women commonly engage in efforts to generate family income, and they are core participants in the collective activities surrounding a range of religious ceremonies and life-passage events linked to extended family, clan and community. Family matters (such as marriages or deaths) can involve travel to locations across Ambon Island and, given the historical mobility of Maluku people, to other areas of the archipelago.
  39. A more reasonable suggestion is that majelis taklim have expanded opportunities for Leihitu women to participate in a public sphere less directly related to obligations of family and clan. But importantly, this occurs in a form broadly consistent with an existing community imaginary of gendered devotional practice. New contexts of public performance linked to majelis taklim enlarge an existing, gendered Islamic public sphere in Leihitu, increasing but not radically transforming women's mobility and visibility. At the same time, public performance by majelis taklim involves (re)enacting key elements of Muslim religiosity in Leihitu as participating in a national Muslim imaginary.[65] In this way majelis taklim offer access to new nationally symbolic terms of Muslim religiosity, while simultaneously resisting the rupture with tradition that numerous researchers associate with emerging forms of 'pious subjectivity' throughout the region.[66]
  40. Majelis taklim can be seen as a key vehicle for Indonesian Muslim women—nationally and locally—to navigate what Nilüfer Göle has referred to as the 'constant oscillation between affirmation of authenticity and globalization of modernity' involving a 'creative tension between the affirmation of specificity and [of] general principles.'[67] Majelis taklim in Leihitu effectively dissolve tensions between the authenticity of local tradition and the universality of Islamic modernity. Gathering to recite barzanji is a practice Leihitu women have been involved with over generations, one they associate firmly with the Muslim world as a whole. That the practice now occurs under a new label publicly attests to the contemporary Islamic credentials of the women involved and their communities; a symbolic benefit that reinforces general community regard and support for the groups.
  41. But while majelis taklim in Leihitu provide a new context for reiterating normatively gendered forms of religious practice, there are also signs the groups may be subtly altering aspects of the existing character of those norms.[68] In addition to expanding the frequency of devotional performance such as baca barzanji, membership in majelis taklim has also enlarged the scope of participation in such performance by the individuals involved; notably from collective zikir to solo recitation of barzanji passages. The increased fluency in reciting Arabic that members of majelis taklim are demonstrating in public appears to be creating opportunities for individual women to access highly valued forms of religious knowledge associated with less public contexts.
  42. In recent years a large amount of esoteric Arabic-language religious material, including prayer-formulae, has circulated in Leihitu (and Maluku generally) as photocopies, printed pages from websites and as internet downloads to mobile phones. Much of this material is linked to a mystical benefit of some sort, often in fairly general terms (e.g. protection, good fortune, attracting positive regard) but sometimes linked to quite specific outcomes, such as healthy eyesight for one year; generating the equivalent pahala of twelve years of regular daily prayer; or preventing death from illness. Commonly, they take the form of sunat and wirid—respectively, non-obligatory and supererogatory prayers. The first is typically used between standard daily salat; the second consists of passages or phrases that may be appended to daily prayers, often involving a specific number of repetitions (hence some wirid are also referred to as zikir). Both draw on diverse sources, including sections of the Qur'ān, hadith and salawat.
  43. Several women in majelis taklim informed me that they have accessed this kind of material as a way of practicing or testing their skills, and seeking associated benefits. Some of this circulates among members of individual majelis taklim. One woman described assisting her husband during a serious illness by utilising sunat she had obtained from another member of her group. But though people do suggest the new material can be effective, more valued examples of Arabic prayer-formulae are in written form and carefully guarded within family lineages, reputedly over generations. The abundance of the newer Arabic material, and the fact it often incorporates romanised transcription (representing the sound or pronunciation of the Arabic script) tends to undermine its perceived potency. By contrast the 'heirloom formulae,' usually held by elderly men, are inevitably in Arabic script alone and notoriously difficult to obtain. In the past, relatively few could read them in any case. The older men would need to be approached by individuals (usually relatives) seeking their assistance.
  44. Public demonstrations of skill in Arabic recitation combine with more private, individual acts using sunat and wirid to strengthen local respect for the knowledge (ilmu) one may develop as a result of participating in majelis taklim.[69] In the past, the role of bearing valued religious knowledge was a difficult one for women to obtain in Leihitu, associated more with spirit possession than individual effort in learning. As a direct result, one informant confided that she had been recently approached by a close male relative for assistance in learning to recite hand-written Arabic prayer-formulae found in an exercise-book belonging to his great-grandfather that he had inherited from his recently deceased father.
  45. In an interesting turn, I found newly formed men's majelis taklim in two different Leihitu negeri. The men involved openly cited the example of women's groups and acknowledged that their own skills in reciting Arabic was in danger of falling behind. I attended the first baca barzanji gathering of one of these groups, which consisted of seventeen men including some relatively senior, respected figures in the community. Two had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. The group was initiated by an elderly retired primary school principal, along with a neighbourhood pengajian teacher. It was soon apparent that despite regular participation in tahlil, most of the men present were unable to read written passages with any fluency. Efforts were frequently faltering and uncertain, while more than a few avoided reciting altogether (though everyone joined in familiar zikir). The retired principal and the pengajian teacher were each forced to read several passages in order to complete the recitation, despite urging others to do so.
  46. It is common knowledge in Leihitu negeri that not all men are equally skilled at reciting Arabic text. Nevertheless, the general prominence of men on public religious occasions in Leihitu can make it discomfiting for an individual man to openly reveal a personal lack of ability. And other normative expectations may well limit the participation of some men in majelis taklim. One evening as I sat making conversation in the street with several neighbours in a Leihitu negeri, a recently formed men's majelis taklim began a barzanji recital at a house nearby. Once again, several locally influential figures were participating, including in this instance the village head and his secretary. At the sound of a particularly animated zikir we all fell silent, and I commented on what seemed to me to be a well-performed sequence. One of those present, a man in his early thirties, agreed; but after a significant pause, he added: 'Yes it's certainly a nice thing to listen to. But those men are the leaders (pemimpin) of this community; maybe it's better for them to be thinking of ways to improve people's lives rather than reciting barzanji.' The criticism likely had several sources, but included a sense I encountered in other communities that the increased efforts in devotional practice associated with majelis taklim ought to be regarded by prominent men (including mosque officials) as tangential to their main focus, which in broad terms might be described as participation in a civic realm. It remains to be seen, then, whether men's majelis taklim in Leihitu will become as numerous or as widely accepted as the women's groups.

  47. If analysis of the majelis taklim phenomenon in Indonesia requires a working definition of such groups, I would suggest the following: majelis taklim comprise a regular gathering of adult Muslims outside formal educational contexts with the broad aim of enhancing aspects of their engagement with religion. But the nature of the practices engaged in, along with implications for personal and collective expressions of religious identity all require careful exploration in terms of the specific forms of learning and performance that occur. These will inevitably vary with social and cultural contexts, as will relationships to locally longstanding expressions of religiosity (particularly where majelis taklim groups do not include charismatic founder-teachers).
  48. I have argued here that the general impact of the Islamic revival in Indonesia is best understood in terms of widespread (re)engagements with religious identity in relation to diverse Muslim publics—including the immediate, tangible and local, in addition to the remote, imagined and national (or international). That women on the northern coastline of Jazirah Leihitu on Ambon Island began to form majelis taklim groups can be linked in the first instance to the greater prominence of public religious sensibilities in contemporary Indonesia, disseminated in part through national media. But majelis taklim in Leihitu also highlight the ways in which global and national currents are always instantiated locally and therefore generate varied responses. I suggest that the conduct of women's majelis taklim in this locale draws on existing understandings of efficacy in devotional practice rather than on newly amplified concerns with religious obligations, theological expressions of piety, or ideals of Islamic orthodoxy (particularly those couched in universal scriptural and/or theologico-legal terms).
  49. Reciting Arabic religious texts to generate beneficial religious merit (pahala) is a very old expression of Muslim religiosity for women in Leihitu. But while in general terms the activities of women's majelis taklim groups reflect existing norms of gendered religious practice in Leihitu, the process of reiterating these norms through the new medium of majelis taklim—resulting in enhanced individual skills in recitation—has enlarged local expectations regarding women's religious knowledge. At the same time, in at least some cases, these new skills are being readily turned to engaging esoteric local texts (previously the domain of older men). This highlights the potential for contemporary shifts in religious practice in Indonesia to remain as enmeshed with specific local contexts as they are influenced by new intersections of national religious and political discourse concerning Muslim women.


    [1] Benjamin Soares and Filippo Osella, 'Islam, politics, anthropology,' in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, N.S. (2009): S1–S23, p. S13

    [2] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 3.

    [3] This could also include 'counter-publics.' See Nilüfer Göle, 'Islam in public: new visibilities and new imaginaries,' in Public Culture vol. 14, no. 1 (2002):173–90; Michael Warner, Publics and counterpublics,' in Public Culture, vol. 14, no. 1 (2002):49–90.

    [4] I draw here on ethnographic investigation of Muslim religiosity in the Leihitu locale over a three-month period in 2009. A key focus involved activities surrounding the major religious festival of Eid al-Adha; an interest in majelis taklim emerged as research progressed.

    [5] The phrase combines two Arabic terms: majlis + talim, literally a council or assembly + education or learning, but the phrase is not in common use in Arabic-speaking countries. One plausible suggestion is that it has its source in the multilingual roots of Betawi Malay in Jakarta. See Lies M. Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher and feminist movement,' in Muslim Feminism and Feminist Movement (South-East Asia), ed. Abida Samiuddin and Rashida Khanam, Delhi: Global Vision Publishing, 2002, pp. 253–90, p. 262.

    Mona Abaza, 'Markets of faith: Jakartan da'wa and Islamic gentrification,' in Archipel, no. 67 (2004): 173–202, pp. 174–77; 188–89, describes a regular majelis taklim in Jakarta that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century (led by the prominent Hadrahmi figure Habib Ali al-Habsyi Abaza) and notes the historical overlap between Betawi and Hadrahmi Arab populations. This particular majelis taklim, based at the Kwitang Mosque, involves large numbers of both men and women, seated in separate areas.

    [6] See for example Pieternella van Doorn-Harder, Women Shaping Islam. Reading the Qur'an in Indonesia, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006, p. 242; Julian Millie, '"Spiritual meal" or ongoing project? The dilemma of dakwah oratory,' in Expressing Islam. Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, ed. Greg Fealy and Sally White, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008, pp. 80–94, p. 80; Sonja van Wichelen, 'Reconstructing "Muslimness": new bodies in urban Indonesia,' in Geographies of Muslim Identities: Diaspora, Gender and Belonging, ed. Cara Aitchison, Peter Hopkins and Mwi-Po Kwan, Aldershot Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007, pp. 93–108, p. 93; Farid Muttaqin, 'Progressive Muslim feminists in Indonesia from pioneering to the next agendas,' MA thesis, Centre for International Studies, Ohio University, n.d., p. 97, URL:, site accessed 16 April 2010.

    [7] Robert W. Hefner, 'Islamic schools, social movements and democracy in Indonesia,' in Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia, ed. Robert Hefner, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009, pp. 55–105, p. 59.

    [8] These may or may not be linked to training in a specific tarekat (or Sufi) tradition; see Arif Zamhari, Rituals of Islamic Spirituality. A Study of Majlis Dhikr Groups in East Java, Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010.

    [9] Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher,' p. 65; Lies M. Marcoes, 'The female preacher as a mediator in religion. A case study in Jakarta and West Java,' in Women and Mediation in Indonesia, ed. Sita van Bemmelen, Madelon Djajadiningrat-Nieuwenhuis, Elspeth Locher-Scholten and Elly Touwen-Bouwsma, Leiden: KITLV Press, 1992, pp. 203–28, p. 209.

    [10] Eka Srimulyani, 'Muslim women and education in Indonesia: The pondok pesantren experience,' in Asia Pacific Journal of Education, vol. 27, no. 1 (2007): 85–99, p. 86; Hefner, 'Islamic schools,' p. 62.

    Srimulyani suggests sessions of this sort led to the founding of the first pesantren for female students (in the 1930s). Similar public sessions of religious instruction continue to be offered by many pesantren on a regular basis as a service to their surrounding community, and these are sometimes referred to as majelis taklim (as well as pengajian).

    [11] Van Doorn-Harder, Women Shaping Islam, p. 215; Marcoes, 'The female preacher,' pp. 209–10.

    [12] Abaza, 'Markets of faith,' p. 183.

    [13] James, J. Fox, 'Currents in contemporary Islam in Indonesia,' Paper presented at Harvard Asia Vision 21 Cambridge, Mass., 2004, pp. 7–10, URL:, accessed 22 March 2009; Martin van Bruinessen, 'Genealogies of Islamic radicalism in post-Suharto Indonesia,' in South East Asia Research, vol. 10, no. 2, (2002): 117–54, pp.132–34.

    [14] Lugina Setyawati, 'Adat, Islam and womanhood in the reconstruction of Riau Malay identity,' in Indonesian Islam in a New Era. How women Negotiate their Muslim Identities, ed. Susan Blackburn, Bianca Smith and Siti Syamsiyatun, Clayton: Monash University Press, 2008, pp. 69–96, p. 91.

    [15] Luhur Hertanto, 'SBY: Hidupkan Majelis Ta'lim,' detikNews, June 2007, URL:, site accessed 8 April 2010.

    The relevant extract of Yudhoyono's speech reads: 'Saya ajak segenap kaum muslim senantiasa meningkatkan kualitas keimanan. Mari kita budayakan kembali membaca, menghafal, mengkaji, memahami dan mengamalkan Al Qur'an dengan menghidupkan kembali majelis ta'lim di surau-surau dan masjid.'

    This news report has been widely reproduced across the websites and blogs of majelis taklim groups.

    [16] 'Enthusiastic mothers gather at stadium for prayers,' the Jakarta Post, July 2001, URL:, site accessed 7 February 2010.

    [17] Ginda, Karakteristik Majelis Taklim Al-Muhajirin sebagai institusi pendidikan Islam non formal di Manado Sulawesi Utara, Fakultas Dakwah dan Ilmu Komunikasi, Riau: Universitas Islam Negeri Sultan Syarif Kasim, n.d., p. 2 , URL:, site accessed 7 March 2010.

    [18] Muttaqin, 'Progressive Muslim feminists,' pp. 65, 124.

    [19] Abaza, 'Markets of faith,' pp.182–83; Noorhaidi Hasan, 'The making of public Islam: piety, agency, and commodification on the landscape of the Indonesian public sphere,' in Contemporary Islam, vol. 1, no. 3 (2009): 229–50, p. 237.

    [20] Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher,' pp. 260–61.

    [21] As just one example, the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera)—Indonesia's most electorally successful Islam-themed political party—actively organises majelis taklim. According to Hasan ('The making of public Islam,' p. 14) this is in order to target household women, professionals and a broader audience as part of a long-term vision of Islamising the Indonesian social sphere. The observation doubtless applies to many other reform-minded religious organisations that also utilise majelis taklim, some of which engage in trenchant criticism of existing political arrangements in Indonesia.

    [22] Ginda, Karakteristik Majelis Taklim, p. 2.

    [23] Until the Moluccan conflict of 1999–2003, a small community of Christians known as Dusun Hila Kristen existed at the border of negeri Hila and negeri Kaitetu. Its population (some 550 people) fled the area after attacks occurred shortly after the outbreak of the first riots in the city of Ambon. They currently reside in Laha, at the southern side of Jazirah Leihitu.

    [24] See G.W.J. Drewes, 'New light on the coming of Islam to Indonesia?' in The Propagation of Islam in the Indonesian-Malay Archipelago, ed. Alijah Gordon, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 2001, pp. 125–55.

    [25] This forms part of a process of province-wide administrative reform in response to broader national regional autonomy legislation, aimed at reshaping institutions of village governance through incorporating specific elements deemed to be part of the traditions of local communities. The District (Kabupaten) of Central Maluku (Maluku Tengah) is one of the first regions within Maluku province in which such changes are being implemented.

    [26] Note there are fewer than 9,000 houses; multiple household homes is a feature of Ambonese social life. Hereafter, Leihitu refers to the coastal sub-district, and Leihitu to the peninsula as a whole.

    [27] Soa is a term with a complex history in the Maluku region. Generally, it is less a typological category than a term that encapsulates a range of linked socio-political ideas. See Chr. van Fraassen, Ternate, de Molukken en de Indonesische Archpel. Van Soa-organisatie en Vierdeling: Een Studie van Traditionele Samenleving en Cultuur in Indonesi, Leiden: Proefschrift Rijksuniversiteit. In Leihitu (as in many other locations) soa may signify territorial or politico-administrative units as well as descent-based groups. In an everyday sense this is reflected in the use of soa names for neighbourhoods within a negeri. This may or may not be understood locally as reflecting historical patterns of clan residence.

    [28] According to data held by the Kecamatan office, approximately 7,500 women in the core communities of Leihitu are aged between 22 and 59 years of age, while 1,260 are 60 years or older. Using the middle figure both from the estimated number of majelis taklim across these communities and for the usual number of members in each group, total membership would comprise some 8 per cent of women in these two age divisions. Given that women under 30 are included in the initial division, the proportion of adult married women who have participated in majelis taklim would likely be higher than this.

    [29] Marcoes, 'The female preacher,' p. 210.

    [30] That is, in the sense of a passage specifically chosen for recital. The first Sūrat of the Qur'ān, Al Fatehah, featured in the brief prayer that bracketed the session.

    [31] The most widespread version I came across in Leihitu was printed and published by the company Kharisma Abadi in Surabaya (with no date of publication); see also Nico Kaptein, 'The berdiri mawlid issue among Indonesian Muslims in the period circa 1875 to 1930,' in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, vol. 149, no. 1 (1993): 124–53, p. 126.

    [32] Kaptein, 'The berdiri mawlid,' p. 126.

    [33] Anna M. Gade, Perfection Makes Practice. Learning, Emotion and the Recited Qur'ān in Indonesia, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004, p. 11.

    [34] See Kaptein, 'The berdiri mawlid.'

    [35] For example compare Marion Holmes Katz, 'Women's Mawlid performances in Sanaa and the construction of "popular Islam",' in International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 40 (2008): 467–84.

    [36] Tahlil is a multivalent, generic expression in Indonesia usually referring to a series of recited phrases, many of which are drawn from the Qur'ān, in addition to lengthy forms of zikir which include, but are not limited to, the phrase: La ilaaha illallah (There is no god but Allah). Numerous printed publications provide standardised forms of tahlil. Nevertheless, the specific content and/or sequence of recitations vary considerably across Indonesian locales, as do contexts of use. Several specific forms of tahlil exist among Leihitu negeri, some of which are associated with specific clans and/or soa.

    [37] There are exceptions. Negeri Kaitetu has two mosques, one of which is well-known as the oldest extant mosque in Ambon, if not Maluku. Both these mosques have dedicated prayer-leaders (imam). On normal occasions women use this mosque for individually performing salat outside the home; on Fridays men rotate communal salat between the two mosques; women attend whichever is not in use by the men. At negeri Asilulu a new community mosque is being constructed with two floors, the highest of which is to be reserved for women's use.

    [38] Eid al Adha = Feast of Sacrifice, known in Indonesia also as Hari Raya Haji. Eid al Fitr = the Festival marking the closing of the Ramadan fasting month (in Indonesia known as Idul Fitri and as Hari Lebaran).

    [39] Gade cites an unsourced report that in Ambon, persons of both genders are able to recite barzanji together, and notes: elsewhere in Indonesia this has not been the case. In my own experience this practice certainly extends also to the nearby Banda Islands, and hence perhaps to central Maluku—or even Maluku—as a whole (Perfection Makes Practice, p. 12).

    [40] Mandi Safar once occurred widely on the north coast of Leihitu as it did in Java, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Linked to the well-being of the community and the individuals involved, in particular locales it may have also involved bathing in rivers. In most Leihitu negeri this no longer occurs, though a version is said to persist in Hitu Lama and Hitu Messen.

    [41] The order and number of these longer passages vary, according to the decision of those present—somewhere between eight and fifteen are commonly used. It should be noted that while collections of Mawlid texts themselves are somewhat standardised in content across Indonesia, the common forms of sequencing this content in any given locality varies, so that a good deal of page-turning, both forwards and back again, is usually involved.

    [42] Some of the phrases take the form of salutations addressed to the Prophet, and these can also be referred to as salawat.

    [43] The character of the clothing encompassed by the category busana Muslim in Indonesia varies, for both women and men, in relation to a number of factors—regional traditions, fashion and shifts in the views of locally influential figures. In the case of matching clothing work by majelis taklim, these generally involve a head-cloth of some form in combination with body covering garments.

    [44] In addition to her television broadcasts, Hj. Rosyidah regularly provides religious lectures (ceramah) to majelis taklim groups.

    [45] See for example, Phillip Winn, 'Tanah berkat (blessed land) and the source of the local in the Banda Islands, central Maluku,' in Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land. Land and Territory in the Austronesian World, ed. T. Reuter, Comparative Austronesia Series, ANU E Press, 2006, pp. 61–81.

    [46] Monika Arnez, 'Empowering women through Islam: fatayat NU between tradition and change,' in Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 21, no. 1 (2009): 59–88, p. 24; Rachel Renaldo, 'Muslim women, middle class habitus, and modernity in Indonesia,' in Contemporary Islam, vol. 2 (2008): 23–39, p. 3.

    [47] Lara Deeb, 'Piety politics and the role of a transnational feminist analysis,' in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 15, no. s1 (2009): s112–s126, p. s116; Mahmood, Politics of Piety; Nasir, Kamaludeen Mohamed, Alexius Pereira and Bryan Turner, Muslims in Singapore: Piety, Politics and Policies, New York: Routledge, 2010.

    [48] Deeb, 'Piety politics,' pp. s114–s115.

    [49] The term muballigh (preacher) is also common, see Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher.'

    [50] Ina Slamat-Velsink, 'Traditional leadership in Rural Java,' in Leadership on Java: Gentle Hints, Authoritarian Rule, ed. Hans Antlöv and Sven Cederroth, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996, pp. 33–56, p. 40; see also Endang Turmudi, Struggling for the Umma: Changing Leadership Roles of Kiai in Jombang, East Java, Canberra: ANU E Press, 2006.

    [51] Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher,' p. 256.

    [52] Abaza, 'Markets of faith,' p. 183.

    [53] Muttaqin, 'Progressive Muslim feminists,' p. 124.

    [54] Named Nurul Tsaqalain (Light of the two treasures, i.e. the Qur'ān and hadith), this school is located in negeri Hila and was originally established as a branch of Yayasan Pesantren Islam (YAPI) in Bangil, east Java, founded by the eminent Indonesian-Arab figure Husein bin Abu Bakar Al Habsyi.

    Several years ago declining student numbers saw it seek and receive state recognition as a madrasah, facilitating the recruitment of teachers and the participation of students in national examinations. It now conforms broadly to the curriculum of other madrasah in Indonesia (private and public); nonetheless, it is still widely referred to as the Hila pesantren. In 2009, student enrolments consisted of 163 SD (primary) level students and 116 SMP (middle school) level students, with plans to expand in 2010–11 to include SMR (senior secondary) students.

    [55] This is largely as a result of affordable, mass-produced pamphlet-books featuring Indonesian-language translations alongside commonly utilised Arabic texts (in both Arabic and transliterated Latin scripts). However, similar translations and transliterations were not present in the barzanji books I saw being utilised by majelis taklim in Leihitu.

    [56] Gade, Perfection Makes Practice, pp. 167, 214–15; Saba Mahmood, 'Feminist theory, embodiment, and the docile agent: some reflections on the Egyptian Islamic revival,' in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 16, no. 2, (2001): 202–36, p. 203; Mahmood, Politics of Piety, p. 123.

    [57] Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher,' p. 264; Abaza, 'Markets of faith,' p. 182. In Jakarta, Abaza links this pleasure to the presence of a charismatic (male) ustadz, referring in rather glib terms to the power of seduction as an important factor in the ability of ustadz to draw crowds of women who are the most susceptible, basically middle-aged women facing marital crisis (p. 183).

    [58] This list includes four of the five acts widely referred to among Sunni Muslims as the Pillars of Islam. Note that in Leihitu negeri the term zakat usually refers to zakat fitrah—an obligatory payment made by Muslims at the end of Ramadan directed towards particular categories of people. In local terms orphans, widows and newly converted Muslims are all among the most readily cited categories of recipient, with payment made in the form of specific quantities of rice. Much of this is deposited at the negeri mosque for later distribution, though some individuals direct their zakat individually (often to family members who fit a specific category, e.g. a widowed mother or aunt). See also Franz von Benda-Beckmann and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, Social Security Between Past and Future, Berlin: Lit verlag Dr W. Hopf, 2007, pp. 159–83.

    [59] It seems to me that this issue of shifting emphases in religious practice over the lifetime of individual Muslims is as generally under-studied as the effects of personal vicissitudes. For example, see Edward Simpson, 'The changing perspectives of three Muslim men on the question of saint worship over a 10-year period in Gujarat, Western India,' in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 42, nos 2/3 (2008): 377–403.

    [60] In Ambon, the honorific ustadz usually denotes an individual with experience of advanced religious studies—particularly at a State Islamic Studies Institute (Sekolah Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri, STAIN) or Islamic University (Universitas Islam Negeri, UIN)—and especially those who are involved in disseminating religious education in some form.

    This particular individual was the head of the former pesantren Nurul Tsaqalain in negeri Hila (see note 54 above), and occasionally attends majelis taklim in the area of this school as a guest speaker. He is not paid for doing so. As a child he attended after-school religious instruction at Nurul Tsaqalain, later studying at YAPI in east Java, before undertaking studies at a STAIN in Ambon. In 2009 he was pursuing a Masters degree at UIN Alauddin in Makassar.

    As the only widely acknowledged ustadz in the Leihitu area he regularly travels between local mosques during Ramadan as part of a team providing religious lectures (known as a safari ceramah). The ustadz manner of preaching is admired locally: unaffected and using numerous practical references to everyday life. Arabic quotes concerning hadith or matters of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) are far less prominent in his addresses than a folksy mix of Ambonese Malay combined with terms drawn from local Leihitu languages. He is also notably pluralistic in outlook, referring to all four established Sunni schools of Islamic law in addition to Shia traditions, and endorsing many local customs (adat) as containing positive religious value.

    [61] His words, 'Tidak ada satu tokoh dunia dari dunia Islampun yang dia bisa hebat tanpa melakukan satu rahasia kekuatan, ya itu: sholat malam' (There is not one single prominent world figure anywhere in the Islamic world who became great without practicing a powerful secret, namely: sholat malam).

    [62] Van Doorn-Harder, Women Shaping Islam, pp. 215–16.

    [63] Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher,' pp. 280–83; Muttaqin, 'Progressive Muslim feminists,' pp. 64–65. See also Lily Zakiyah Munir, 'The Koran's spirit of gender equality,', Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Deutsche Welle, the Goethe Institut and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, URL:, site accessed 5 March 2010.

    [64] See Srimulyani, 'Muslim women and education,' p. 120.

    [65] Nilüfer Göle, 'Islam in public: new visibilities and new imaginaries,' in Public Culture, vol. 14, no. 1 (2002): 173–90, pp. 176–77.

    [66] See for example Rachel Rinaldo, 'Muslim women, middle class habitus, and modernity in Indonesia,' in Contemporary Islam, no. 2 (2008): 23–39; also Bryan Turner, 'Introduction: the price of piety,' in Contemporary Islam, no. 2 (2008): 1–6.

    [67] Nilüfer Göle, 'Snapshots of Islamic modernities,' in Daedalus, vol. 129, no. 1 (2000): 91–117, p. 92.

    [68] This is a process somewhat consistent with Judith Butler's take on 'performativity,' 'iterability' and 'subjectivation.' See Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 99.

    [69] Marcoes, describes women in the Bogor-Sukabumi region of West Java referring to their attendance at majelis taklim as 'seeking knowledge,' in the sense of 'supernatural solutions to pressing problems facing them.' See, Marcoes, 'Muslim female preacher,' p. 264. A common practice involved carrying small containers of water to gatherings in the expectation that the water would gain special beneficial properties as a result of being present.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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