Religious Piety in Aceh, Indonesia


A Review of Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia, by David Kloos. 

Becoming Better Muslims offers deep insight into the origins and contested and constructed nature of religious piety in Aceh, Indonesia. In the dissertation, Kloos asks how individual Acehnese Muslims practice and experience their religion, and how they influence the process through which ‘official’ norms are established. The dissertation consists of eight chapters including the conclusion. Chapters 2-4 offer historical analyses while chapters 5-7 are based on ethnography conducted in both rural and urban areas in Aceh. The project is generally based on a combination of archival research and anthropological fieldwork, conducted between 2008 and 2010 in Aceh.

Chapter 1 offers the conceptual and theoretical framework. In studying the religious practices of ‘ordinary Acehnese’, Kloos utilizes the concept of ‘religious agency’, which emphasizes how ordinary Muslims in Aceh make sense of and articulate their piety. In doing so, it also focuses on the dynamic, tripartite relationship between normative Islam, the state, and individual religiosity. Both state and religious agencies penetrate, alter and restrict individual spaces while individual religious agencies make use of state and officialized norms and discourses to achieve and fulfill their goals.

Chapter 2 discusses representations of authority and religiosity in Acehnese works of epic poetry (hikayat) from the early seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century. Compared to the seventeenth century hikayat, eighteenth and nineteenth century epic poems contain distinct references to the emergence of an individualized ethics which is instructive in the development of a sense of moral responsibility. Such changes coincided with the fragmentation of the Sultanate state, an increase in cash cropping, and the emergence of the ulama as a social force in rural areas.

Chapter 3 deals with the colonial period (1890-1942) and the imagination of the Acehnese as a ‘pious’ people. This chapter demonstrates how Aceh as an ethnic, religious, and geographical entity was constructed both by Dutch colonialism and religious movements. The first half of the chapter examines the nature of Dutch colonialism in Aceh while the second half of the chapter deals with Islamic activism and, in particular, the establishment of Persatuan Ulama Seluruh Aceh (All-Acehnese Association of Ulama), an Islamic social movement created by reformist ulama. Dutch colonialism implemented an Aceh policy that consisted of three elements. First, ‘Adat chiefs’ were allowed to function as self-rulers in return for their loyalty. Second, Dutch colonialism enabled the transition from military rule to civilian rule. Third, Dutch colonialism cracked down on every form of resistance in Aceh. In implementing this, the colonial government distinguished between ‘good Islam’ and ‘bad Islam.’ A state-sanctioned discourse of Islamic orthodoxy was created, reproduced, and elaborated. Although the PUSA was an anti-colonialist organization, both the PUSA and Dutch colonialism imposed orthodox Islam as an official identity of Aceh.

Chapter 4 looks at PUSA’s legacy in the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. This chapter focuses on the sub-district of Indrapuri where the PUSA ideologue Teungku Hasballah Indrapuri was based from the 1930s until the mid-1950s, and where Daud Beureueh declared his allegiance to the Darul Islam revolt in 1953. The main content of this chapter is based on field notes of the late Chandra Jayawardena, a Sri Lankan born, British-trained anthropologist. By examining village life, Kloos examines how reformist practices that represented ‘purist Islam’ were embedded, negotiated, and adapted by ordinary villagers. Scriptural Islamist norms were initiated by the PUSA and advanced by state and non-state groups and individuals. In this process of religious standardization, the role of state was critical and double-sided: the state reinforced normative pressure while providing a space for reinterpretation. It was how ordinary people gained considerable agency to negotiate officialized norms of Islam.

Chapter 5 explains the changing nature of religious authority in Aceh by focusing on the tension between the leaders of the Dayah Hidayat – a large traditional boarding school adjacent to kampong Juroung – and ordinary villagers. The tense relationship was due to the fact that most villagers found dayah leaders to be interfering in village affairs. It was also called ‘a crisis of solidarity’ as villagers and dayah leaders became disconnected. This crisis affected the nature of religious leadership in Aceh. Unlike the past, religious leaders took state resources to address their moral leadership. At the same time, ordinary villagers made use of the framework of the state in contesting norms and values related to issues like community, shame, wealth, and punishment.

Chapter 6 looks at the relationship between Eri, a young Acehnese man living in a tsunami affected neighborhood in the city of Banda Aceh, and his parents. This chapter emphasizes that for many Muslims moral ideas and practices are characterized not by a simple choice between ‘scripturalist piety’ and ‘local tradition’ but by ambiguity and ambivalence about Islamically defined moral behavior. This chapter also shows that a personalized ‘religious agency’ is constrained by historically contingent process.

Chapter 7 deals with different ways in which Acehnese Muslims engage in personal processes of ethnical improvement. Ordinary people actively selected and appropriated discourses of state Islam whenever they made decisions, approached dilemmas, or justified behavior. In order to show this, the author discusses the lives, thoughts and practices of Rahmat, Yani, Aris and Indra. Each of these cases address a particular dimension of the way in which the problem of ‘sinfulness’ is constructed.  This chapter draws attention to the dialectical relationship between the ‘officialization’ of Islam and the personal project of ethical improvement.

In the conclusion, Kloos recaptures the main theme of the dissertation. He rejects a view that treats the majority of Acehnese as passive players in the making of their own future. Instead, he argues that ordinary Muslims in Aceh possess individual religious agency, and that this enables them to negotiate the changes wrought on society by the state and religious institutions. This dissertation shows that the particularities of Muslim personhood in Aceh cannot be explained by their ‘piety’ but by their everyday interaction with the forces of normative Islam.

Eunsook Jung
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Primary Sources
Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Jakarta (ANRI)
Arsip Daerah in Banda Aceh
The Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Carribean Studies in Leiden.
Nationaal Archief, The Hague
The Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Den Haag
Participant observation in Aceh

Dissertation Information
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Leiden. 2013. 260 pp. Primary Advisor: Heather Sutherland & Henk Schulte Nordholt.

Image: photograph by author.

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