Becoming Better Muslims

Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia

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David Kloos
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia, David Kloos examines how ordinary Muslims navigate the standardization of religious norms by state and religious authorities. He does so through a carefully drawn ethnography of individuals and local communities in Indonesia’s Aceh province, a region popularly known for its Islamic piety and the recent proliferation of Islamic law (135). Aceh is, therefore, a critical case. If common assumptions hold, the agency of ordinary Muslims in Aceh should be highly restricted. Instead, Kloos finds that individuals have “considerable” religious agency, (re)negotiating and (re)appropriating the norms of state and religious authorities to suit their own journeys of ethical improvement. Ethical formation is informed not just by standardized religious norms, but by life experience and reflections on perceived moral failings. Paradoxically, then, Kloos argues that “universalizing norms and structural constraints posited by the state and organized religion” both limits and enables religious agency (1). 

The book is structured in two parts. The first part is historical. Chapter 1 unpacks how colonial processes led to an understanding of Aceh as exceptionally pious, even as the religious practices of ordinary Acehnese were pluralistic and syncretic. Chapter 2 explores how villagers negotiated and navigated the late colonial period to the early New Order era, as state authorities and Islamic reformers were increasingly embedded at the village level. By showing how villagers continued to carry out traditional religious practices impugned by authorities, and how they used the state to meet their own interests, Kloos highlights villagers’ religious agency. He therefore highlights how religious norms emerge from interactions between the state, religious authorities, and ordinary people. 

The second part of the book uses contemporary examples from the author’s fieldwork to show how individuals navigate the increasing presence of standardized religious norms in Aceh and the factors that shape their religious agency. Chapter 3 uses data from a village in the district of Aceh Besar to shed light on intergenerational differences in perceptions of state and religious authority. Complicating ideas that the imposition of religious norms are a top-down process, and that the Acehnese are inclined to oppose the state, Kloos demonstrates how young people in Aceh view the state as a resource. In other words, the state is not simply seen as a disciplinary body, but also as an arena of opportunity. Chapter 4 further extends the ideas of religious agency and the importance of life stage in processes of ethical formation. This chapter focuses on how a son’s adherence to standardized global Islam is received and accommodated by his parents in their own processes of ethical formation. Kloos shows how the parents’ own past life experiences mediate this process of accommodation. Finally, chapter 5 brings together discussions of religious agency and life stages to challenge assumptions about religion as merely a disciplinary force. Although state and religious norms identify and seek to eradicate the “problem” of sinning, the individuals in this chapter view past moral failures as crucial to their own ethical development. It is in this space of reflective and ethical decision-making that individuals can exercise their own religious agency. Perceived moral failures are simply opportunities to become better Muslims. 

Becoming Better Muslims makes several important arguments. First, as an Indonesianist, I appreciate Kloos’s critique of stereotypes of Aceh as a region of exceptional piety and fanaticism. Eri, Meli, Yani, and Indra have much in common with the people I met and interviewed in my own research in other parts of Indonesia, leading me to rethink my own assumptions about Aceh. By showing his interlocutors as agentic individuals doing the best they can to improve their ethical selves, Kloos successfully moves the study of Aceh beyond the common refrains of violence, tragedy, and piety. This is a significant contribution. 

Second, the finding that age, generation, and life stage are important in shaping religious understandings of morality and ethics is agenda setting. While some scholars have offhandedly identified age as an important factor in forms of religious action, Kloos is unique in systematically considering the effects of generation and age on religious orientations. I agree with Kloos that reductionist accounts of gender and Islam or class and Islam cannot explain divergent patterns of behavior within groups. That being said, I would have liked to see an extended discussion about the intersectional nature of identities on ethical formation. Kloos does acknowledge that gender and class identities influenced religious experience (123), but spends little time unpacking the messy and unpredictable ways that these identities intersect with age and generation. For example, it would have been interesting to consider how concerns about veiling by Meli (an older woman from the lower middle-class) and Yani (a young woman with economic resources) was colored by age, generation, gender, and class. 

Finally, the most intriguing argument Kloos makes is that the imposition of Islamic norms by state and religious authorities both limits and enables religious agency as it creates space for individuals to negotiate, appropriate, and choose which of the norms to employ in their journeys of ethical improvement. The most convincing evidence of this argument is the compelling story of Yani, who Kloos notes was “one of the harshest critics of the implementation of sharia law among my regular interlocutors,” but still did not find the requirement to veil as excessively constraining (167). It would, however, have been useful to hear narratives of religious agency from especially vulnerable groups, as it would help identify the boundaries of the argument. For example, how much religious agency do members of the LGBT community or members of so-called “deviant” sects perceive themselves as having? 

Overall, Becoming Better Muslims is an important book. Kloos’s argument has far-reaching implications for thinking about Islam, ethics, and Indonesia more generally. It should be widely read. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jessica Soedirgo is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Kloos is a Researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden.



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