The career of the late Zainuddin MZ, known as a preacher to a million followers, tells us about another side of Indonesian Muslims’ religiosity.
Indonesians are fond of religious preachers. Religion, and religious piety, has dominated the public for a long time. Religion is a vital element to control Indonesian politics.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Indonesia witnessed several religious preachers who came and went. Good fortune sided with those who entertained the public with religious jargon and terms. These preachers mixed the ingredients of religious advice and humor, which were easily understood by Indonesians.
From the 1980s to the early 1990s, Zainuddin was a rising star. His speeches were broadcast on radio and TV, and were recorded in cassettes and CDs, which are still widely sold. Nobody could mistake Zainuddin’s voice — the ways in which he greeted the audience, told funny jokes, and closed speeches.
Additionally, some preachers were often critical of the New Order regime. I still remember that when I was in senior high school, a mosque in my village had difficulty getting permission from the local authority to invite a preacher, who had a reputation for his harsh criticism of the New Order regime’s policies on Islam.
Indeed, Soeharto was careful about “political Islam” and any seeds of radicalism, which might endanger the government. Police often monitored religious ceremonies. Religious preachers were often accused of inciting hatred against the government. Any use of religion in public was deemed dangerous.
On the other hand, religious speeches were indeed essential elements in various Islamic ceremonies, such as the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad ( Maulid ), memorizing the day the Koran was sent down to earth ( Nuzul al-Qur’an ), and the evening journey of the Prophet to Jerusalem and the heavens ( Isra Mi’raj ).
As far as the public is concerned, Syukran Makmun came prior to Zainuddin’s fame. But Makmun’s hoarse voice is often monotonous. His jokes are not always funny. By contrast, Zainuddin successfully managed his tone. He created many amusing anecdotes.
Zainuddin’s career is perhaps comparable only to that of Abdullah Gymnastiar, aka Aa Gym, who, unlike Makmun and Zainuddin, was not trained at a traditional religious boarding school ( pesantren ).
Besides Aa Gym’s charisma, and his calm and tranquil performances on the stage that charmed Indonesian Muslims, particularly women, the media contributed greatly to Aa Gym’s success. Indeed, it is the media and method, not particularly the message, which played a vital role in Aa Gym’s public show.
Whereas Zainuddin’s speeches often contained theological and complicated religious matter, Aa Gym’s messages are often modest, humble and plain, dealing mostly with ordinary daily life.
Later generations of public religious preachers, from Arifin Ilham, Hariyanto, Yusuf Mansur, Mamah Dede, Jefry al Bukhori, to Maulana, more or less walked in Aa Gym’s footsteps. Instead of religious messages, most of them exploited the media to cover their stage performances.
Religious sermons, like soap operas, comedy shows, and other TV programs, have turned out to be public entertainment.
Note that the media, which raised the figure of Aa Gym, also caused his tragic fall. His second marriage, which cannot be accepted by his first wife, was blown up. Thus, the media played a critical role in the rise and fall of
Indonesian religious preachers.
The role of religious preachers in the Indonesian public domain indicates that the people still deemed oral traditions as higher than reading. To listen to preachers giving speeches entails less effort than reading books. In various ceremonies, religious speeches were important elements that some people enjoyed. They seemed thirsty for religious advice and humorous anecdotes. Struggling with their own hard lives, they wanted to listen to the stories of an eternal comfortable life in paradise in the hereafter.
However, not only do most preachers undermine life in this world — which is indeed temporary — compared to the eternal world after life, they also ridiculed science, logic and reason. On the pulpits, many preachers challenged scientific discoveries, which, according to their belief, were untenable. They then called upon the audience to return to “piety” and religious dogma. They stressed that human reasoning can never surpass religion.
Indeed, religious speeches have nurtured conservatism, fundamentalism and even radicalism.
Many commentators and pundits have so far concluded that radicalism is not an indigenous character of Indonesian Islam. Many have pinpointed that radicalism in the country came from outside influences brought by transnational organizations and networks, such as the Jamaah Islamiyah ( JI ).
However, we should not neglect the role of religious preachers’ messages broadcast for more than three decades on radios and TVs every day. People are used to listening to religious dogma, which they prefer to logic and reasoning.
The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta.