Seeking blessings: Participants of the Majelis Rasulullah congregation pray during a sermon at the Dalail Khoirot building inside a Defense Ministry housing complex in Kebayoran Lama, South Jakarta, on May 24. In the past several years, Jakarta has seen a rise in sermon groups led by young charismatic clerics of Arab descent who claim to be descendants of Prophet Muhammad. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)
Despite the inconvenience of the chaotic traffic jams that their mass prayers create, sermon groups led by clerics claiming to be descendants of Prophet Muhammad are gaining popularity among moderate Muslim youths in Jakarta and top politicians. The Jakarta Post’s Hasyim Widhiarto and Fikri Zaki Muhammadi explore the issue. Here are the stories:
Habib sermon groups have a distinctive feature that sets them apart from the others: They block roads to accommodate their audiences at the expense of motorists caught in traffic congestion that usually lasts for more than four hours.
Their leaders usually don Yemeni-style clothes and turbans, and attendees invariably come in big groups by motorcycle or bus, carrying flags depicting the name of their sermon group in Arabic.
Many members of the public often mistake them for members of the hard-line Islam Defenders Front (FPI) bent on violence.
But these sermon groups are far from the radicals that their attributes would have people believe.
There is, for example, no segregation between men and women during sermons, as can be seen in the absence of any partition separating the sexes during sermons. And it is common to see a married couple holding hands while listening to the sermon.
The clerics, who prefer to stay out of the limelight that mainstream preachers crave, usually discuss topics related to Prophet Muhammad’s deeds or the story of the Nine Holy Preachers, known locally as Wali Songo, who spread Islam in Java.
With the ability to gather thousands of participants, many politicians and high-ranking government officials regularly attended such sermons, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo and National Police chief Gen. Timur Pradopo.
In the past several years, Jakarta has seen a rise in sermon groups led by young and charismatic clerics of Arab descent, who claim to be descendants of the Prophet.
Pioneering the trend is Yemen-educated cleric Munzir Almusawa, 39, with his flagship Majelis Rasulullah sermon group.
Established in 1998, Majelis Rasulullah, literally meaning Prophet’s Assembly, is the biggest with more than 50,000 loyal followers.
The group currently organizes two weekly sermons — every Monday night, which used to be held at Al-Munawwar mosque in Pancoran, South Jakarta, and Thursday night at Dalail Khoirot Hall in Kebayoran Lama, South Jakarta.
This Monday’s sermon, however, was been relocated to the National Monument Square in Central Jakarta to accommodate more participants.
“I haven’t missed a weekly sermon in the last four years, and I definitely don’t want to miss this one,” Muhaimin, 32, a resident of Warakas, North Jakarta, said on May 7. “I usually bring my wife and children too, but today I didn’t have time to pick them up as I was a bit late in leaving my office.”
Although the sermon was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., Muhaimin, however, was not the only one to show up early.
Thousands of people, mostly teenagers, crowed the square’s south side, where a concert-size stage, equipped with high-tech and powerful lighting and sound system, stood in the middle of the crowd.
Two dozen giant projector screens were installed around the square to enable participants sitting far from the stage to see Munzir’s facial expressions.
Yudhoyono and several of his ministers attended Munzir’s sermon on Feb. 5.
Yudhoyono was also a regular participant of a similar sermon group, Nurul Musthofa, which was set up two years after Majelis Rasulullah.
The President’s last attendance was on Feb. 29, a few weeks before the group’s leader, Hasan bin Ja’far Assegaf, 35, was accused of molesting underage male students. While the case is still being investigated by the Jakarta Police, Hasan has repeatedly denied the allegation.
Nurul Musthofa claims to have about 50,000 followers.
The huge number of followers may in part be due to the cleric claiming direct lineage to Prophet.
Clerics use the title Habib, meaning “beloved”, before their names to indicate their direct lineage to the Prophet.
There is also speculation that intelligence agents are behind the forming of such sermon groups in a bid to counter radical groups, and that they help them garner supporters and funds over a very short period.
National Counterterrorism Agency chairman Brig. Gen. (ret) Ansyaad Mbai has not denied his agency’s engagement with such groups.
“We’ve indirect links with such groups because we have a similar mission to fight radical Islam,” said Ansyaad, refusing to comment further.
Indonesia, the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country, has seen growing radicalism over the past couple of years that has regularly ignited violence.
Intelligence agents have taken various measures to prevent the threat by “facilitating” moderate Muslim groups to compete with radical ones in luring supporters.
Majelis Rasulullah’s event coordinator and Munzir’s close aide, Syukron Makmun, denies that the group is a product of engineering.
He said the group’s success had not been achieved overnight, and that it took several years to finally come up with the concert-style sermon after running it as a small, door-to-door activity.
“When Habib Munzir started his preaching activities in 1998, the way he ran the sermon was actually no different from what other clerics of Arab descent did here,” he said.
“What makes him different is his focus on finding ways to attract teenagers to learn about Islam, since he believes they have abundant spirit and potentials to be actively involved in spreading the teachings.”
In terms of financing, according to Syukron, the group relies on donations from sermon attendees.
“Habib Munzir makes money through a family-owned plantation in Bogor, West Java,” Syukron said.
The group also sells various items, such as jackets, shirts, DVDs and large posters of Munzir, allowing followers, about half of them teenagers, to share a common identity and attributes with each other.
“Many participants, especially students and those in their 20s, told me that it was Habib’s youth and charisma that prompted them to join our congregation. I also heard some female teenagers say they attended sermons because of Habib’s good looks,” he said.
Munzir could not be reached for comment as he was recovering from brain inflammation.
Majelis Rasullulah’s success story has inspired Nurul Musthofa to try a similar recipe.
“We only use the best quality sound system for our sermons. It costs a lot but it’s totally worth it as all participants can enjoy the opening hadrah performance and clearly hear what Habib [Hasan] says,” Nurul Musthofa’s spokesman Abdulrahman said.
Hasan’s supporters are also mostly teenagers, according to Abdulrahman.
“Many people are interested in learning about Islam from Habib Hasan because of his charisma,” Abdulrahman said, adding that funding for the group’s activities came entirely from donations.
He also denied that the sermons often created traffic congestion, saying: “Jakarta’s traffic has always been crowded, with or without our sermons.”
In response to the phenomenon, University of Indonesia historian J.J. Rizal said residents of Greater Jakarta had no strong historical attachment to clerics of Arab descent because the influence of local clerics was relatively more dominant during the spread of Islamic teachings in the city in the past few centuries.
However, Rizal said the mushrooming of sermon groups managed by clerics of Arab descent was probably a result of the absence of a new generation of influential Betawi clerics.
“Since cleric Zainuddin MZ died last year, native Jakartans currently have no influential Muslim figure to identify with,” he said, referring to the Jakarta-born cleric who was known as the “one-million-follower preacher”.
Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR) chairman Lutfi Hakim said the groups had easily gained fame as they were able to accommodate the catharsis needs of teenagers.
“Sorry to say, but I think most teenagers enjoy riding without helmets in motorcycle convoys to sermons more than listening to the preaching,” Lutfi said.