This was a procession of Majelis Taklim Nurul Musthafa, one of many new Muslim study groups that appeared in the late 1990s. Since 1998, Habib Hasan bin Ja’far Assegaf has been proactive in visiting slums on the outskirts of Jakarta, preaching to the youth. Over the years, the Bogor-born preacher’s network has expanded and the once modest Nurul Musthafa now attracts literally thousands of devotees to its weekly gatherings.
Most of Habib Hasan’s followers are young people who come from the lower rung of the social hierarchy. In the meetings, the young and charismatic Habib Hasan leads his congregation in reciting Sufi liturgical texts and poetry, complete with drums and fireworks. Far from being radical or anarchic, however, the Nurul Musthafa study group has been proactive in steering the youth away from the more radical elements of Islamic activism.
The name of the study group, Nurul Musthafa (Prophetic Light), refers to the Sufi cosmological concept of the pre-existing light of the Prophet Muhammad as a direct manifestation of the divine, which was then carried on by the prophet and his descendants. An energetic speaker who combines religious learning with showmanship aided by high-tech stereo amplification, Habib Hasan has been successful in captivating his audience.
In this study group, time-honored Sufi tradition and authority are cast anew through direct access to the youth facilitated by technology and modern organizational models. Although the means of conveying the message has changed, the form of authority itself remains the same. In this way, Habib Hasan is able to harness the support of the youth from lower economic and educational backgrounds, while excluding those with higher education.
The reason for Habib Hasan’s failure to garner support from educated youth is his inability to present his message in a way that is palatable to the reformist religious discourses dominant among university students. The fragmentation of Islam into various ideologically conflicting groups means that traditional scholarship has ceased to be the only authoritative source of religious knowledge.
Such is the case among the secular university-educated students who are more attracted to Salafism and favor direct access to the scriptures. With inclinations to international revivalist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir, these students have become increasingly hostile to local variants of Islam and pursue an agenda of Islamizing Indonesian society.
Rather than advocating for the implementation of Islamic law or the establishment of an Islamic state, Habib Hasan is seemingly more interested in reconstituting South Jakarta — a part of the capital known for its nouveau riche inhabitants and glaring entertainment spots — into a sacred space.
Such a process is undertaken precisely through the motorcades and processions replete with devotional chants (zikir). This mobile zikir can be seen as an interruption; an interjection into the dominant spatial configuration. Following from the oft-quoted dictum that God remembers the place where his name has been called out, the procession can be viewed as a process of remaking the secular space into an Islamic one.
By leading his mobile rituals through South Jakarta, Habib Hasan is temporarily transforming the space into a sacred site, akin to a site of worship. In the course of the processions, his followers are able to sacralize the space through devotional gestures and visible spirituality on Saturday nights, when the middle and upper-class youth of Jakarta are on their way to the entertainment complexes.
There is also a temporal dimension to this performance. Many people I know express apprehension toward Habib Hasan and his followers, mainly for creating traffic jams on Saturday night. This, I would argue, is where the efficacy of Habib Hasan’s movement lies. By staging the motorcades, Habib Hasan is not only sacralizing space, but he is also able to inflict a temporal caesura to the dominant time, by freezing the movements of people on the road going elsewhere.
It is important, however, not to perceive Habib Hasan’s followers as automatons. The motorcades should not be seen as uniformly conceived and consisting of people with a shared agenda. Aryo Danusiri, an anthropologist who is currently studying Habib Hasan and his followers, opines that the motorcades can be seen as a tactic by lower-class youngsters from the outskirts of Jakarta to establish their visibility in South Jakarta — a space dominated by the more prosperous — thereby equipping them with a sense of strength and centrality. In other words, the motorcades empower these young people and bestow visibility in a space usually dictated by the wealthy.
Finally, however one chooses to interpret Habib Hasan and Nurul Musthafa, one thing is clear. By establishing this movement, Habib Hasan has been instrumental in attracting thousands of youth to his peaceful Sufi teachings, thereby channeling them away from the more radical elements of contemporary Islamic activism.
Writen by Ismail Fajrie Alatas
(a doctoral student in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.)