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Lia Aminuddin: Life after Eden (part one)

Raka Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, April 28, 2021  /  02:17 pm
Lia Aminuddin: Life after Eden (part one)

Self-styled queen: Lia Aminuddin, or Lia Eden, sits on her throne. Lia, who created the Salamullah faith, died on April 9, 2021 in near obscurity after achieving cult-like status in her Eden Community. ( of Komunitas Eden)

On a sleepy Friday morning two weeks ago, Lia Aminuddin, better known as Lia Eden or the self-styled “Queen of Heaven”, was found pale and unresponsive in her bed. An ambulance rushed her to a hospital in Jakarta, but nothing could be done. Lia Eden, the leader of a religious sect who had achieved cult-like status, had passed away, leaving her earthly throne vacant for the first time.

To some, she was a charlatan: A “cult leader” who had duped hundreds into parting with their money and leaving their lives behind to join her heretic group. To others, she was a cause célèbre, a litmus test for Indonesia’s young democracy and its supposed commitment to religious diversity. But to her followers in the Eden Community, Lia Eden was something else entirely: She was the archangel Gabriel reincarnate, empress of a kingdom on earth, the fount of all knowledge and a manifestation of the divine.

“We believed that Mother Lia was a physical vessel for the angel Gabriel,” said Syaefudin Simon, who was part of Lia’s religious community in 1997-2002.

“The Holy Spirit lived within her. When she gave her sermons, we saw Mother Lia’s body, but it was actually Gabriel speaking,” he said.

For years, Simon and other loyal followers grouped together, drawn to Lia’s radical spiritual messages, charisma and supposed magical healing powers. Her sermons attracted hundreds, including some of the nation’s leading intellectuals, revolutionaries and artists, bewitching a generation led astray by the nation’s socio-cultural changes.

But the tide turned as her teachings veered even farther into fringe religion. She became the target of unrelenting attacks by the religious and political mainstream. Her followers were ostracized, her teachings reviled, her public appearances ridiculed. She was jailed twice for blasphemy. Then she died, almost unnoticed, leaving behind a legacy more controversial than spiritual.

'Divine calling'

The story is that, one fateful day in 1974, an ordinary housewife was lounging at her in-laws’ when she saw a ball of yellow light hovering above her head. Some 20 years later in 1995, the ball of light returned, enveloping her while she was deep in daily prayer. It was the archangel Gabriel, she said, calling her to the divine.

Once a devoted housewife and a noted flower arranger with her own show on TVRI, Lia threw herself into a life of “mentorship with Gabriel”. In 1997, she claimed she had received a revelation: that she was Gabriel’s earthly wife and the manifestation of God in the world. Fusing Islam with selected wisdom cobbled from various world religions, she proclaimed her new belief system Salamullah.

Sect or cult?: Lia Eden leads a congregational prayer. Experts say that the syncretic Salamullah faith she created filled a vacuum that emerged during the political and social turbulence of the late 1990s. Sect or cult?: Lia Eden leads a congregational prayer. Experts say that the syncretic Salamullah faith she created filled a vacuum that emerged during the political and social turbulence of the late 1990s. ( of Komunitas Eden)

Lia Eden and her Salamullah faith emerged at perhaps the most turbulent time in modern Indonesian history. Reeling amid the monetary crisis with a government on the verge of collapse and the reformasi movement well on its way, Indonesia had been rocked to its very core. As the certainties of the old political, economic and social orders began to crumble, a desire for dramatic change and novelty took over. Salamullah filled this void.

“During the New Order, there was no religious narrative beyond the state’s narrative,” said Halili Hasan, research director at the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace. “So by the end of the regime, there was a sense of religious stagnation and spiritual emptiness in Indonesia’s urban populations.”

Salamullah thus presented a refreshing alternative.

“Lia Eden [offered] a physical manifestation of Imam Mahdi, a figure revered in many Abrahamic religions as the bringer of balance and peace in a time of chaos,” Hasan said. “For some, [the Eden Community] became a strange source of hope in turbulent times.”

The spiritual group then began scouting for members in the most unlikely of places: the flourishing intellectual scene.

“They would send letters to academics, [inviting them] to attend discussions on philosophy, politics and religious diversity. [...] Eventually, they became a regular presence and a source of fascination for intellectuals” recalled Alex Junaidi, director of the Journalists Alliance for Diversity (Sejuk).

“Rumors started to spread that Mother Lia was a person with many gifts, that she received revelations directly from God and that she could predict the future. They even said that when Gabriel ‘took over’ her body, her voice would change.” Junaidi said.

A pattern began to emerge. Salamullah would proselytize to the intellectual and cultural elite, who would use their influence in turn to spread the word to others. Small wonder, then, that Junaidi compared Salamullah’s strategy to the way Scientology wields its star power to bolster its public image.

“Intelligent, respected members of society came to their meetings and joined them. Their members included famous writers, pilots at the national airline and psychologists with a nationally syndicated column,” he recalled, adding that even nuclear scientists were among the group’s members.

Simon was one of them. Then a respected journalist at the national newspaper Republika, he was invited by a friend to attend one of Lia’s sermons, called “sapaan” (greetings).

Lia’s house on Jl. Mahoni in Central Jakarta had become a bustling hub of the curious and the devoted alike.

“We were interested because we had never seen someone combine the wisdom of the Koran, the Bible, the Tripitaka, the Torah and many other holy books to explain a single issue. She had a universal perspective. She wasn’t stuck on one religion,” he said.

In a country with a long tradition of syncretism, Lia’s message of moving beyond the constraints of a single religion to regain a sense of universal spirituality struck a chord with many.

At her “greetings” sessions, Lia would begin by dispensing wisdom before falling into a trance.

“She was half lucid throughout the sapaan. One day, she was explaining a verse in Tripitaka and she began speaking in perfect Sanskrit. Except Mother Lia didn’t know a word of Sanskrit!” She then emerged from her stupor, confused, and asked her followers what had just happened.

Lia also claimed to be a miracle healer. According to Simon, her reputation was such that the country’s most prominent poet, W.S. Rendra, became a regular presence at her sapaan, seeking a remedy for a long-term illness. After he was miraculously “cured”, other literary doyens followed suit, among them Arswendo Atmowiloto and Danarto, with the latter eventually joining the group.

Growing cultism

By the early 2000s, though, Lia’s more autocratic side began to emerge.

“At first, people were still allowed to wear hijab and have their own religions, even though they had joined Salamullah. But then Lia declared that they had to renounce their old religions and only follow her teachings,” said Simon.

Perhaps motivated by the religious violence and terrorism that rocked Indonesia in the early 2000s, Lia abruptly declared that world religions had become the source of all evil and that mankind needed to “transcend” religion.

Worldly sanctuary: Followers of Lia Eden (right, foreground) clap at her home in Central Jakarta, which once attracted noted intellectuals and politicians.Worldly sanctuary: Followers of Lia Eden (right, foreground) clap at her home in Central Jakarta, which once attracted noted intellectuals and politicians. ( of Komunitas Eden)

“Her teachings began to contradict her followers’ conscience,” said Junaidi. “They saw her as a miracle woman at first, but the reality was different.”

Horrific stories began to circulate among the group, some no more than exaggerated rumors, some true.

“People who left the community told me members were encouraged to hurt and burn themselves. One was even sworn into a pact of silence,” Junaidi recalled.

This was Simon. After speaking too much during a sapaan, an irritated Lia told him to “stop speaking” for a month, which led to complications in his job as a journalist. While Simon denied that a culture of violence existed in the community, he confirmed the “ritual cleansing by fire” that had long been held to be mere rumor.

Simon said that Salamullah members would come forward during these confessional rituals and profess their sins. The culpable part of their body would be dabbed with oil, and then lighted.

“For example, if your eyes have seen things they shouldn’t, they would ‘burn’ your eyes,” he said. “In the right hands, the fire would be just a spark. It was hot, but it didn’t actually burn.”

But the ritual didn’t always go smoothly. Simon recalled a young student from Bandung who admitted to a life of seeing sin and whose eyes were dabbed with oil and set alight, which burned her face. “They took her to the hospital with burned eyelids. It was a shame. She was a beautiful woman,” he said, expressing horror at the recollection.

By 2002, Simon had enough and left the group. “It had descended into a cult, not so different from Aum Shinrikyo in Japan. We had to prostrate ourselves before [Lia] every time she passed us. We called her Your Majesty at first, but then I learned that people had to call her ‘Queen of Heaven’,” he said.

The notorious Japanese cult was responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway. The courts convicted 13 cult members and sentenced them to death, with the last six executed in 2018, including its leader.

Simon had no way of knowing it at the time, but Lia Eden’s story had just begun.

Salamullah would emerge from obscurity in the succeeding years to become a national sensation. But behind its budding popularity was a complicated web of forced marriages, economic ruin and a sensational celestial divorce.

Look to part two tomorrow, which delves into Lia Eden’t complex legacy through the words and recollections of her former followers.