Cornell University Press has just published Hearing Allah’s Call: Preaching and performance in Indonesian Islam. Anthropologist Birgit Braeuchler interviewed the author, Julian Millie, of Monash University, about his new book.
Birgit Braeuchler: Your preparation for this book included fourteen months listening to Islamic sermons in West Java. I imagine there must be many preachers there, simply because there are so many Muslims in that part of Indonesia—about forty million in a province not much bigger than the island of Hawaii. But let me ask . . . the title of your book emphasizes performance. Why is that concept such a big part of this project?
Julian Millie: I work with colleagues at the State Islamic University in Bandung. A couple of years ago, students in the Islamic predication program helped us do a survey about the features that made preaching successful amongst West Javanese audiences. They went to their home villages, and came back with their reports. According to almost all of these surveys, a sermon was successful if the preacher was able to hold the audience’s attention for its duration . . . In other words, the students regarded a captivating sermon as a successful one.
Birgit Braeuchler: Holding listeners’ attention is the main thing?
Julian Millie: That’s right. Early on, I realized this was important, for this kind of evaluation points to skillful speaking, which of course is a kind of performance, and this is an essential ingredient of preaching in Indonesia. In fact, skill in speaking sustains the whole thing. People love listening to preaching because it enables fulfillment of a Muslim’s desire and obligation to worship, but also because preachers make worship such a pleasing and moving experience. So, the early chapters of the book engage with preachers who succeed with skillful speech in different ways.
Birgit Braeuchler: Is this not controversial? The diversity of preaching styles in Indonesia is amazing, and surely not everybody is happy with the popularity of some of the preaching types you mention, such as child preachers, Chinese-convert preachers, ex-rock star preachers and so on.
Julian Millie: Absolutely. I have explored this quite deeply in the book. The main objection to flashy preaching in Indonesia is made on the grounds that it prevents Islam from being a beneficial influence in society. Academics and activists, in particular, focus on listeners’ sensory and emotional responses to preachers. The laughing and crying of listeners is held against the medium as a useful thing. These West Javanese Muslims are deeply convinced that Islamic projects can lead to progress in social and political problems, and to them, all that enjoyment signals something is going wrong. So the main objection to artifice in sermons is based, I conclude, on concern for a progressive public subjectivity.
Birgit Braeuchler: But only elites are concerned with concepts like subjectivity!
Julian Millie: Of course, for the mass of West Javanese Muslims, a good preacher is one who conveys Islamic learning, but who does so in captivating ways. When communities hold a celebration, say for a circumcision, they know that a skillful preacher will fill the venue, drawing young and old. This participation signals a successful event for them, but not for people who connect Islam to progressive social and political projects.
Birgit Braeuchler: So, am I hearing that Hearing Allah’s Call is a book about village Islam?
Julian Millie: Not at all. What really surprised me was how preachers have high access to so-called “modern” settings like corporate premises, municipal institutions, educational institutions and so on. This is something I observed in Bandung, the capital of West Java. People there are strongly committed to public displays of piety, so they have moved Islamic routines into these “secular” sites, and it is mainly preachers who are the agents of this. This calls for a special kind of preaching, for these are heterogeneous audiences, and they need preachers who can step around potential divisions in the audience members.
Birgit Braeuchler: You have a chapter specifically on women as listeners. Why?
Julian Millie: The case of women listeners brilliantly demonstrates the way preachers accommodate listeners in their actual situations. It is to do with mobility. In comparison with men, West Javanese women cannot enjoy as many public activities, but in attending preaching and other religious events, they enjoy a relatively high level of mobility. So preaching is a significant element of women’s lives, not just as a pious exercise, but also as a form of expanded sociability.
Birgit Baeuschler is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Monash University.