Hearing Allah's Call

Preaching and Performance in Indonesian Islam

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Julian Millie
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , September
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Julian Millie’s latest book presents a richly-textured and critically insightful ethnography of Islamic preaching in contemporary Indonesia. The specific site of this study—the city of Bandung, West Java—presents complex contexts for such a study since it is both a center of Sundanese cultural production and a major hub of modern Islamic reformism. Millie explores a contested soundscape of popular oratory, listening carefully to both preachers and their audiences with specific attention to gender dimensions, as well as to the articulation of religious and aesthetic ideals that inform diverse personal preferences for styles of sermonizing. 

On the one hand, Millie provides vivid descriptions of the ways in which some of the city’s popular preachers employ poetry, song, humor, satire, critical commentary, and pop culture references across a multilingual (Sundanese, Indonesian, and Arabic) set of registers through highly entertaining “virtuoso” performances that help them to “lift religious observance above the often difficult conditions of everyday life” for their mass audiences (4). On the other hand, the book also presents a nuanced window onto the world of Islamic reformist leaders advocating a contrasting ideal of “restrained and orderly” sermons (47). Through both ethnographic accounts of their preaching sessions and extended conversations with the local leaders of Islamic organizations, Millie presents a subtle treatment of “elite misgivings” over the influence of popular preachers (3), and the implications of aesthetic choices for the conveyance of Islamic religious teachings. He then critically reflects in insightful ways on what debates about preaching styles might reveal about the “processes by which Islamic forms and practices are organized into ones that are acceptable publicly, and others that are not” (5).

The case studies at the center of this book are of two preachers representing very different approaches to Islamic oratory. The study is developed out of critical analyses of particular sermons set within a richer ethnographic context of close interaction with both of the preachers, as well as with diverse segments of their popular audiences. This not only serves to provide evidence in support of Millie’s analysis, but also makes accessible to students and researchers some illuminating examples of Islamic preaching in contemporary Southeast Asia, which are further supported in this book by the inclusion of appendices that provide rich illustrations of the materials discussed in chapters in English translation. 

The ethnographic approach to preaching taken in this book is one that goes well beyond the analyses of both semantic content and classical homiletics regarding contemporary Muslim preachers as “embedded listeners” (166). This provides a critical framework for understanding the dynamic relationships between speakers and audiences that are constantly recalibrated in ways that shape both the form and content of popular sermons in Bandung. The book thus addresses broader questions around styles of communication, and what they mean for public life.

After presenting rich case studies of preachers who embody very different ideals of Islamic sermonizing, the last two chapters turn their attention toward the ways in which diverse styles of preaching serve to shape the contemporary Islamic public sphere. In Bandung, considerations and manifestations of both piety and artistry are dynamically reconfigured within what Millie describes as a “successful project of public Islam” (167-68). Here, the book’s regional focus is important, signaling “a distinction between two different listening subjects: a media consumer attuned to norms of national publicness and one engaged in daily undertakings of an embodied nature” (24). Millie evocatively demonstrates the ways in which Muslims there “feel comfortable embodying both subjectivities, but are aware of the difference between them” (24). Elsewhere, however, he also recognizes the compelling effect that discourses on “protecting Islam” have on many Muslims in contemporary Bandung (172), in ways that appear to lend something of a higher standing to the ideals of more sober sermonizing advocated by some of the city’s prominent organizations for Islamic religious reform. 

Bandung is, after all, an important historical center for influential Islamic reform movements, including the DDII (Dewan Daʿwa Islamiyah Indonesia) and Persis (Persatuan Islam), publishers of the journal Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender)Persis in particular is known for their uncompromising positions on matters of ritual purity and public manifestations of piety and moral rectitude. As Millie notes, in such contexts pragmatism and accommodation to the emotive pleasures of aestheticized performances can be regarded as a “misdeed” in Bandung (141). The long history of Persis in the city has thus left a significant impact on its residents—to the extent which, Millie argues, even those who are enthusiastic listeners at the virtuoso performances of popular preachers simultaneously recognize the validity (if not to say superiority) of the staid forms of propagation characteristic of sermons at Persis events. 

This last observation raises a whole host of different questions that should serve to stimulate new lines of critical investigation. In particular, it opens up a potentially fruitful space for discussions of contemporary manifestations of the navigation of productive “contradictions” in Islamic belief and practice that are analogous in some ways to those that have been engaged by the late Shahab Ahmed in his discussion of historical Muslim experiences in the pre-modern traditions of the “Balkans to Bengal” complex (What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton University, 2015). Millie’s book thus presents readers with both rich ethnographic material from contemporary Indonesia, and stimulating critical reflections on modes of cultural production and religious communication that are potentially important for scholars working on contemporary Muslim societies well beyond the borders of Indonesia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Michael Feener is Sultan of Oman Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julian Millie is associate professor of anthropology at Monash University. He is the author of Bidasariand  Splashed by the Saint.


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