Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia

Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia

by Anne Rasmussen

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Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Contemporary Indonesia takes readers to the heart of religious musical praxis in Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Anne K. Rasmussen explores a rich public soundscape, where women recite the divine texts of the Qur'an, and where an extraordinary diversity of Arab-influenced Islamic


Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Contemporary Indonesia takes readers to the heart of religious musical praxis in Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Anne K. Rasmussen explores a rich public soundscape, where women recite the divine texts of the Qur'an, and where an extraordinary diversity of Arab-influenced Islamic musical styles and genres, also performed by women, flourishes. Based on unique and revealing ethnographic research beginning at the end of Suharto's "New Order" and continuing into the era of "Reformation," the book considers the powerful role of music in the expression of religious nationalism. In particular, it focuses on musical style, women's roles, and the ideological and aesthetic issues raised by the Indonesian style of recitation.

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Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia

By Anne K. Rasmussen


Copyright © 2010 Anne K. Rasmussen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94742-9


Setting the Scene


During a visit to Indonesia in October of 2004, I was trying to make the most of my last day in the country. After a week in the relative calm of East and Central Java, where I had toured with the Kiai Kanjeng ensemble, the return to Jakarta assaulted my senses. Although I had lived there for two years (1995–96 and 1999) and had returned for shorter visits on several occasions in 2003 and 2004, the intensity of the traffic seemed overwhelming after traveling around the Javanese provinces.

I was hoping to be on time for a gathering of alumnae and teachers from the women's college, Institut Ilmu al-Qur'an (IIQ), who were commemorating the death of Ibrahim Hosen, the founder and former director of the institution. Part of the memorial gathering, I was told, would be the collective recitation of the entire Qur'an. Khatam al-Qur'an, as performed in this particular setting, entails the recitation of the entire Qur'an by thirty reciters all at once. Although I had heard khatam al-Qur'an before and had recorded it in 1999 at the home of Ibrahim Hosen, the wonderful cacophony of thirty voices, each one reciting one of the thirty parts (juz') of the Qur'an in a fast melodic patter, was something worth witnessing again. I made my way to Ciputat in a taxi from Depok, where I had met with some singers that were part of an Islamic music festival.

As I approached the house on foot, I could hear that the khatam al-Qur'an had finished just as I arrived. I was disappointed, but I was also hungry, and I knew that there would be refreshments at the event as well as several old acquaintances to greet. Furthermore, I would meet up with Ibu Maria Ulfah. Somehow the trek would be worth it. I took off my shoes and entered the house. Polite greetings and chatter followed. Ibu Maria, who had just arrived from a wedding in which she had been engaged as a reciter, confessed that she, too, had missed the whole thing. She then began to explain to me, with some urgency, something that included the following bits of information:

"... spoken English ..."
"... video conference ..."
"... native speaker ..."
"... just a few minutes ..."
"... now!"

Although many consider me fluent in Indonesian, and I can usually make myself understood, cultural knowledge, or the ability to understand what is going on in a particular situation, when processed through the filter of Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian national language, often reveals itself to me in bits and pieces, particularly in a socially dense setting (as opposed to a one-on-one conversation). We mingled a little more, and Ibu Maria once again tried to explain what it was that she wanted me to do.

I still had a few appointments in Jakarta that afternoon and evening, and I should have been on my way, but spending just a few more minutes at the gathering seemed harmless enough. Inevitably, one of the things that researchers can offer the communities within which they work is knowledge of the English language. However unglamorous it may seem to the anthropologist in search of more meaningful engagement, teaching English, translating the local spoken language into English and vice versa, reviewing translated documents, fixing the grammar and syntax of English song lyrics penned by hopeful songwriters, and various related tasks are among the valuable commodities of exchange that we can, and that I could, offer to our hosts in the field. Although at the outset of this project, in early 1996, I initially resisted the role, I had become accustomed to the request to provide services as an English-language specialist.

We moved from the living area of the house into one of its wings, which Ibrahim Hosen's daughter, Nadirsyah Hosen, explained they maintained as a library. A long table was piled high with materials, mostly photocopied articles and notebooks; several metal bookcases occupied the center of the large space. There was a white board and markers, a couple of computers, and a television, which was on, although no one seemed to be watching it. A cart containing a sound system was rolled into the library and a microphone was produced. I was still under the impression that someone wanted to videotape me speaking English so that students could study the pronunciation and cadence of a native speaker. But the task at hand was far more interesting.

Several of the college students at IIQ were involved in an international forum that was to be held by videoconference in just a few days among female college students in the American Midwest and those in the Muslim world. The students had been preparing position papers that addressed American power, foreign policy, global security, and the war in Iraq. Among their questions were: Was America's export of democracy appropriate for all countries? Was it appropriate for America to police the world? What about preemptive strikes? What kind of a message do they send? What about the American government's disregard for the United Nations' rules of engagement and war? What about the enormous economic and cultural influence that America exerts on the world? All of these specific issues related to a larger and more speculative topic: "The Role of Women in Foreign Policy."

The young women were well prepared. They had taken on this work as an independent study under the tutelage of Nadirsyah Hosen, and their photocopied articles in English were marked up with translations and notes. After they turned on the microphone, the first student read her position paper on preemptive strikes and why Muslims have bad feelings toward America. She was poised and her pronunciation was generally excellent. The second read from a document that was not as well written but still did admirably. They then brought out a tiny portable cassette recorder to capture my comments.

I thought it best to reread their documents aloud and suggest alternate phrasings where appropriate. As I clearly pronounced the titles of the students' pieces, I found myself completely overwhelmed by a bundle of emotions. My throat tightened as I swallowed hard and tried to keep my composure. These young women, all of them students at an institution that may appear (to both Westerners and Indonesians) to promote conservatism and conformity veiled in the authority of an androcentric religious cultural system, were in the eye of the stormy questions of the day. These questions, although they may have been nascent when I began visiting this college for qur'anic studies in December of 1995, had none of the implications that that they did on this day in October of 2004. The United States was enveloped by the post–9/11 culture of fear; in Indonesia, three terrorist bombings (in Bali on October 12, 2002; in Jakarta, at the Marriott Hotel, on August 5, 2003; and at the Australian embassy, on September 9, 2004) tarnished the image of Indonesia in the eyes of the Western world, reducing tourism by six million per year and preventing even students and musicians from acquiring visas to the United States. We were all victims of the preemptive American war in Iraq.

As I had traveled nonstop around Central and East Java and Jakarta the past several days, it had seemed to me that everyone was pleased with the results of the recent democratic and direct election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, often referred to as SBY (pronounced ess bay yay), in an election that had been held on September 20, 2004, just a few weeks prior to my visit. Eighty percent of the population participated in the voting process peacefully and without incident. The election, although not an automatic guarantee of reformasi, the reformation that was supposed to follow the thirty-two-year tenure of the autocratic president Suharto, provided some hope for political stability, a better economy, security from Islamic extremism, and reduction of "korupsi, kolusi, dan nepotism" (KKN, pronounced kah kah enn), or "corruption, collusion, and nepotism," which, many believe, continues to impede the country's progress. The election of Yudhoyono as the fourth new president in six years was certainly proof that, at the very least, a democratic election process was on solid ground. My own obsession in October 2004 was, of course, with the final laps of the race between John Kerry and George Bush for the American presidency, a contest that would inevitably have ramifications not only for me but also for the young women I was coaching.

As an American in Indonesia it is impossible, even in the most fleeting and informal of exchanges, not to engage almost immediately in the political realities of our contemporary world. As someone who has spent considerable time in Indonesia, I find it difficult not to address the stereotypes and fears that many Americans have about Islam, Muslim Indonesia, and Muslim women in teaching and public presentations. Although I am essentially a researcher of cultural ritual and musical expressions of Islam in Indonesia, the political periphery inevitably became central to the project.


This book is about Islamic performance in Indonesia and the roles that women play in the expressive and ritual culture of religion. The book is organized into six chapters. Following this introduction, chapter 2, "Hearing Islam in the Atmosphere," describes the soundscape of a cultural-religious sphere that emanates from and broadcasts to various realms of Indonesian society. The third chapter, "Learning Recitation: The Institutionalization of the Recited Qur'an," illustrates student-teacher relationships in a variety of contexts of teaching, practicing, and experiencing the recited Qur'an. Chapter 4, "Celebrating Religion and Nation: The Festivalization of the Qur'an," describes the religious festivals and competitions that reward and encourage Islamic performance as an act of civic duty and patriotism. In chapter 5, "Performing Piety through Islamic Musical Arts," I look at the various strains of Islamic musical arts—from devotional song to multimedia performance and commercial production—that occur in the contexts introduced in the first four chapters. Chapter 6, "Rethinking Women, Music, and Islam," focuses on issues of gender and religious practice by revisiting many of the people and events introduced throughout the ethnography and by evaluating issues of motivation, agency, and access in light of the literature on women in Islam, and on music and gender, and by taking into account the activist voices of Jakarta feminists.

As an ethnomusicologist I am concerned with sound, how it is generated and experienced, and the kinds of aesthetic and literal meanings that it generates. Music and musical performance are rich fields for interpreting both the ongoing Islamization of the archipelago and the indigenization of the religion in the region. Women are clearly players on the stage of Islamic creative and performing arts. Their activities as qur'anic reciters, moreover, in the culture of the Qur'an as it is lived in Indonesia, are indeed a distinctive feature of this region, where the word of God is embodied and enacted by women. Encoded in the sound of the recited Qur'an, considered to be something of exquisite beauty in and of itself, is its meaning, a phenomenon to which Indonesian women also have access. Knowledge of and about Islam through its texts is something that has always been associated with a learned elite in Indonesia. I contend that women, because they are so active as reciters, are part of that elite, even if they are only producing the message to be interpreted by others. In many cases, however, women are reading, reciting, questioning, and teaching these texts on a variety of levels, even if it is by their own example as devout working women rather than distilled into formal lessons or prepared messages. Pieternella van Doorn-Harder's recent work on the women of the two largest Muslim social organizations in Indonesia has contributed definitively to my sense that women contribute significantly to the study and interpretation of Arabic texts that have been considered authoritative in Indonesia for at least five hundred years. That they develop the skills to delve into these texts in Arabic—a language that is not accessible to most Muslims, except as ritual performance—means that they also are developing a proclivity toward questioning texts in Indonesian or even English, as the young women were doing in the opening scenario of this chapter.


Since Indonesian independence in 1945, the political climate in Indonesia has enabled an increasingly favorable context for the performance of Islam. Although the New Order of Suharto, president of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, eschewed even the idea of an Islamic state, religious belief, albeit accommodating and pluralistic, was conceived as one of the five pillars of Pancasila (or Panca Sila), the guiding paradigm for Indonesia. Yet as Suharto's thirty-two-year tenure progressed, his outward expressions of piety became characteristic of his reign.

Contemporary scholars have remarked that Suharto's post-1965 New Order government (Ordre Baru) promoted Islamic practice in order to gain political support from Muslims without moving toward a scripturalist interpretation of the religion as a blueprint for civil life (Madjid 1996; see also Abdurrahman 1996 and works by Hefner and Federspiel). Just one of the signals of the promotion of Islamic practice in the public domain is the way in which the speech of officials—from politicians to teachers, and from radio disc jockeys to news anchors—is peppered with Islamic greetings in Arabic, a marker that assumes a common denominator of religious affiliation and piety. The required greeting in a formal context is "Assalamu alaikum wa rahmat-illa Allahhi wa barakatu" (peace be upon you and the mercy of God and his blessings). Officials and community leaders, however, often continue their acts of language showmanship, if they are able, with several additional lines of formulaic and pious Arabic speech.

The embrace of Islamic culture in the public arena has intensified religious life among all classes, most notably among the elite. For example, reflecting on his experience as a tour guide for Haj Plus, a deluxe package tour for the haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Abdurrahman writes of the middle and upper classes as groups seeking religious and social identity through Islamic practices quite distinct from those of their peasant countrymen (Abdurrahman 1996, 117). "Pilgrimage Plus" tours include five-star hotel accommodations, shopping excursions, and spaces in which pilgrims can indulge in non-pilgrim-like behavior, such as smoking and wearing makeup. Other relatively new practices, apparent among Jakarta's middle and upper classes, include the adoption of varied styles of veiling and Muslim fashion among women from many communities. Busana Muslim or busana Muslima (Muslim clothes or fashion, particularly for women) is now a big business for designers and forms a separate department in most clothing stores (see Tarlo and Moors 2007; Smith-Hefner 2007). Islamic music, formerly heard in ritual contexts and only among particular constituents, is now created and produced by the stars of the mainstream media and broadcast in five-star hotels and shopping malls. And religious music videos may be seen daily on many television stations and almost continuously during the month of Ramadan. Government-sponsored celebrations as well as competitions in qur'anic recitation and related arts "festivalize" religion in acts of nation building that appeal to national and local governments, commercial sponsors, and an interisland viewing audience that cuts across socioeconomic class.

In spite of the rigorous policies of censorship that were in place during Suharto's tenure, evaluating of the effects of the so-called "guided democracy" of Suharto's New Order has become a national pastime. One recurring theme among Suharto's international cadre of analysts, in the press, in academia, and even on the street, has been the escalation of religious practice since the latter part of Suharto's New Order and continuing through the 1990s. As the subsequent period of reformasi unfolded, the position of the various post-Suharto governments regarding religious practice and government support of religious activities and institutions was also a subject of speculation and critique. In fact, anticipating and evaluating the changing presidential guard—from Suharto to B.J. Habibie to Abdurrahman Wahid, then to Megawati Sukarnoputri and finally to S.B. Yudhoyono—during the period of my ethnographic research (1996–2005) has been a productive catalyst for the discussion of government patronage and its intersection with religion among myself and the many consultants who have taught me about their lives and concerns. Although establishing clear relationships between the policies and rhetoric of the government, their effects on religious life, and people in the profession of religion is impossible, a dynamic theater of government and its patronage of, or reaction to, all things Islamic is a great source of speculation, evaluation, and debate.


Excerpted from Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia by Anne K. Rasmussen. Copyright © 2010 Anne K. Rasmussen. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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"Highly recommended."—Choice

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Meet the Author

Anne K. Rasmussen is Associate Professor of Music at the College of William and Mary.

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