Hearing Allah’s Call by Julian Millie

In the city of Bandung in West Java province, sermons are not just reserved for mosques for Friday prayers. Muslim speakers who exhibit great virtuosity as performers are in great demand for all kinds of events, from celebratory life cycle celebrations to motivational sessions in companies and other organizations.

Hearing Allah’s Call explores a number of entertaining and evocative oratorical styles as well as the social importance of preaching. Similar to American preachers who make Sunday sermons enjoyable for rural and urban Americans, Julian Millie, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Australia’s Monash University, spent 14 months studying how popular preachers captivate audiences by exhibiting presentations of extraordinary novelty, sheen and luster.

This book is not about all Islamic preaching in Indonesia which is too diverse and broad a subject to be analysed in a single volume. It’s also not about ritual preaching that occurs in the Friday congregational prayer. Instead this innovative study has a regional and ethnic focus, as it addresses only the way Islamic preaching is practiced in everyday life in Bandung and its surrounds where thousands of weddings and circumcisions take place among the Muslim population every day.

West Java is the ideal place to conduct research on Islamic preaching. In most of the region’s communities, everybody is a Muslim – about 97% of the province’s population of 43 million. Verses and sayings from the Koran as well as the acts of the prophet provide material for orations and reinforce and authenticate this population’s strict Islamic observance.

The Sundanese are regular participants in daily routines of prayer, worship and study. In sermons, Islam’s teachings are not distant and unattainable but are movingly shared with audiences who are clearly stimulated and entertained. Attendance at sermons does not require listeners to possess a high degree of Koranic literacy and preaching events are frequent and easy to get to in the company of family, friends and neighbors. These events are performed not just in mosques and Islamic schools but also in parks, fields, sports arenas, street corners as well as in government and corporate offices where preachers are welcomed for the bravura, color and boldness of their performances.

West Java is home to many talented preachers who make successful careers from reaching out to listeners and in some cases drawing huge audiences. When celebrated preachers are advertised, it’s not uncommon that crowds of over 5,000 people gather in a venue awaiting his entry. A preacher’s popularity also creates a widespread demand for cassettes and videos of his sermons. Celebrity preachers often appear on regional and national TV.

Preachers communicate by mobilizing many voices, languages and registers, not all of them necessarily religious, that play on their audiences’ emotions by turning an ironic, playful lens on contemporary society. Some have introduced physical theatre and mimicry into their performances.  A typical sermon is full of surprises and engages intimately with its listeners emotionally, culturally and socially.

A preacher’s verbal skills and artifices can transfix audiences by mimicking television voices that are instantly recognized from local or national media. Sermonizers can replicate the sounds of motorcars, sing popular Sundanese songs like pop divas, recite religious verses with great skill and emotion, play musical instruments. They restore a bored or fatigued audience with doses of humour, in-jokes, double entendre, putting them into a state of sustained hilarity or move them to tears.

Women listen in far greater numbers than men to preachers, even at events intended for both men and women. Whereas the men generally move little from a basic sitting position, the women’s section is a moving field of rolling, undulating bodies ringing with laughter. This is the case even in a petrified society in which men’s leadership is rarely questioned, where polygamy is common and where women have less freedom than men to attend events. This phenomenon can be explained in large part by women’s awareness of their roles and responsibilities as mothers and educators, compelling them to attend pious routines more than men.

The lack of restraint in women’s responses almost insures that the event will be lively. Well aware of the large proportion of women in the audience, a preacher often prioritizes women’s responses. A successful male preacher often feminizes his performance to accommodate his female listeners who respond enthusiastically to his dramatized imitations of a complaining, overworked woman or his melodramatic caricature of an unhappy, desperate or distraught housewife. At many preaching events, the layout of the space also recognizes women as shoppers.

A Pasar Kagetan (“Surprise Market”) is set up consisting of small stalls selling products primarily of interest to women, such as clothing, fabrics, perfume and cooking utensils.

This book is remarkable in that it covers a subject that is rarely dealt with, especially by academics. One couldn’t possibly study all the forms of preaching and settings     where preaching takes place in Indonesia, but the Sundanese preaching styles observed in Hearing Allah’s Call are similar to those practiced elsewhere in Indonesia.

The work’s rich and original ethnography is full of insightful, thought-provoking details that will appeal to students of anthropology as well as those intrigued by contemporary Islamic societies. By focusing sympathetically on the religious oratorical presentations that enliven everyday life for West Java’s Muslims, this book changes the way we think about Islamic preaching.

Hearing Allah’s Call: Preaching and Performance in Indonesian Islam by Julian Millie, Cornell University Press 2017, ISBN-978-1501713125, paperback, 276 pages, dimensions 16 cm x 23 cm.


Review by Bill Dalton

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