Ahmad Muhajir, Norshahril Saat – A young and energetic Indonesian preacher is reclaiming the moderate ground from conservatives, using a sublime mix of online propagation and accommodative views.
Podcasts and online videos constitute the modern currency for religious conversations in Indonesia today, and a young Indonesian preacher has been banking on these platforms effectively to reach out to the young. Merdeka.com, an online news portal in the country, has dubbed Habib Husein bin Ja'far al-Hadar "the habib for the millennials". The story of the 35-year-old may inspire other habaib to alter their preaching strategy.
The habaib (plural for habib) pride themselves as members of the Prophet Muhammad's household. They are generally traditional in outlook, dress, and mannerisms. But some among them, including Habib Hussein, are breaking ranks with their community to appeal to younger audiences, thwart conservatism online, and reclaim the discursive space for moderates.
Muslims regard the habaib as conveyors of the Prophet's "blue blood". The men carry the term "Syed" or "the honourable" in front of their names, while women use "Sharifah". The preachers among the habaib usually wear long garments, robes, and the serban (turban), demonstrating their Arabic identity and keeping with the Prophet's tradition. The habaib are generally non-political, preferring to congregate in their reading circles, reciting praises to the Divine and the Prophet, and discussing topics on spirituality and rituals. However, some notable habaib in Indonesia do not conform to this moderate and quietist image. One example is Habib Rizieq Shihab of the violent and conservative Islamic Defender's Front (FPI).
While remaining steadfast in keeping with the non-combative habaib tradition, Habib Hussein has repackaged his sermons through comedy and effective use of social media. He attenuates his persona as an Islamic scholar and broaches religious and non-religious topics, including pop culture, in his talks on YouTube.
Other notable Indonesian habaib such as Habib Rizieq Shihab from Jakarta, Habib Syech from Solo, or Buya Yahya from Cirebon continue to don the traditional dressing, but Habib Husein prefers to show up in baju koko or batik, combined with a sarong, demonstrating Javanese identity.
Habib Husein's online push and appeal to the young happened by chance. He ventured into online spaces after feeling that Indonesian mosques did not give him enough space. He posits that it is instructive for contemporary preachers to populate YouTube with positive religious content. In an interview with podcaster and celebrity Helmi Yahya in August 2021, he added that the medium for da'wah (the preaching of Islam and exhortation to submit to Allah) in the past had been either "khitobi (oratory) or kitabi (through writing). Now, there is a third, YouTuby, meaning using social media".
Habib Husein has garnered 1.08 million subscribers for his first YouTube channel 'Jeda Nulis' (A Break from Writing) which he started in May 2018. He has created and co-created more than 600 videos across three YouTube channels, cumulatively attracting 134.5 million views.
But the significance of Habib Husein lies not only in his family lineage, active collaboration with celebrities, and online presence, but in his moderate outlook.
He is slow to pass judgement on non-practising Muslims, agnostic individuals, and people of other religions. Comparing da'wah to Google Maps, he contends that "[Google Maps] shows you one possible direction to your destination, but if you do not follow it, it will show you alternative routes".
Habib Husein also prefers dialogue, and is never forceful in pushing his point of view. "We differ but can co-exist" is the underlying philosophy of his thinking. He would seek for common ground rather than sharpen differences.
Importantly, rather than keeping himself in the company of other habaib, Habib Husein readily shares the same stage with celebrities on and off camera. He is also known for entertaining quirky questions in jest.
Recently, Habib Husein and two stand-up comedians, Coki Pardede and Tretan Muslim, collaborated to develop a YouTube channel to discuss questions many other preachers might consider insensitive. The two stand-up comedians have an extensive fan base. The programme has wide outreach, with the final 24 latest episodes attracting more than 34 million views. Some questions raised during the programme did not irk him:
"In the Hereafter, could the people in heaven Whatsapp the people in hell?"
"If someone is called habib because he has the Prophet's bloodline, would an ordinary person become habib after getting a blood transfusion from one?"
"If the animals sacrificed during Eid Adha will be our rides to paradise, can we choose the fast runner like a cheetah, instead of cows and lambs?"
Habib Husein feels that through comedy, he can make his points of view clearly to the young, and Muslim preachers should not be seen as attacking other religions. Interestingly, one of the comedians is a self-proclaimed agnostic who thinks that life would be wonderful if more people tuned in to listen to Habib Husein's views about differences.
Habib Husein is a sterling example of a young preacher willing to go beyond the confines of identity-conscious habaib traditions. In this day and age, the medium of religious propagation and the appeal of the preacher cannot be separated from the quality of content. In Indonesia, humour, the arts, and culture are part and parcel of social and community life. But moderate habaibs must also venture out of their quietist cocoons to wrestle back Islam from the conservatives. Preachers should not limit themselves to the confines of organisational and institutional structures, and be prepared to go solo.
[Ahmad Muhajir is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.]