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Da’wa and politics: lived experiences of the female Islamists in Indonesia


Stories about women activism in the Tarbiyah movement in Indonesia has gained scholarly attention. The existing literatures, however, tend to focus on the official discourses. This article discusses female members’ everyday experiences within the the liqo activity, as part of the Tarbiyah movement (circle of religious teaching). It examines the extent to which liqo members experience, receive, and practice the da’wa ideology designed by the Tarbiyah movement. It focuses on cadres’ stories about the lived experiences they have had through joining the liqo, with special reference to the female liqo group in Jakarta. Using ethnographic approach, data were collected through in-depth interviews with 26 female liqo members from a total of 45 interviewees and 15 observations of the liqo sessions. The study concludes that although the official form of religiosity, piety and political identity have been promoted by the Tarbiyah movement and its leaders, the experiences and practices of women revealed a heterogeneity and complexity of meanings of being in the liqo. This study attempts to contribute to the existing analysis of the da’wa (Islamic preaching and mission) and politics of a contemporary female Islamist movement with a case study of the Indonesian Tarbiyah movement.

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  1. By ‘individual piety’ here scholars typically mean the commitment to perform obligatory rituals such as the five-times-daily-prayers, reciting the Qur’an, fasting in the month of Ramadan, giving alms, and dressing and behaving in an ‘Islamic’ way. Strengthening individual piety, for the Islamist, is not only an obligation for Muslims, but also aims to protect them from being influenced by Western modernity. The concept of public piety also implies that there may be (often highly contested) attempts at the regulation and standardisation of practices that are regarded by particular constituencies as appropriately ‘pious’.

  2. The liqo was also called halaqah (Arabic for religious circle). The term liqo (meeting) and halaqah (religious circle) refer to the same weekly religious mentoring developed for the purpose of teaching the religious doctrine and ideology of the Tarbiyah movement. Although the term halaqah is mainly used in the Tarbiyah movement’s official books, I prefer to use the term liqo because my observations and interviews revealed that it is more widely used by the liqo community than the term halaqah.

  3. All the participants’ names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

  4. The daurah is one of the religious programmes run by the PKS under the umbrella of the Tarbiyah movement. The daurah programme also relates to the liqo, as both are used for spreading the Tarbiyah messages of da’wa. This is shown by the lessons in the daurah and liqo, which are mixed together in one manual book, called Manhaj Tarbiyah (2003, 2005). During my observation, however, I discovered that these two programmes have differences, especially in terms of their audiences and lessons. The audiences taught through the daurah are larger than those of the liqo. The audience of the daurah can also be of mixed gender, including both male and female Tarbiyah activists, and there are no limitations about which members (all levels in the liqo) can attend. The daurah lessons also cover larger and more up-to-date materials and agendas, including issues arising in the elections, other political discourses, and developing members’ skills. Thus, daurah can be seen as being more concerned with issues relating to public life than the liqo is.

  5. Other scholars also recognized the growing focus on the practices of religion in everyday life, which is becoming increasingly attractive in the broader field of the social sciences (see Hunt 2014; Kersten 2014; Jeldtoft 2011; Devine and Deneulin 2011). They explored the ‘everyday’ religion from various perspectives and different contexts such as Schielke, S & Debevec, L. (eds.), 2012.

  6. McGuire uses the term ‘lived religion’ for “distinguishing the actual experiences of religious persons from [the] prescribed religion of institutionally defined beliefs and practices” (2008:12). She highlights the idea that an “individual’s lived religion is experienced and expressed in everyday practices – concrete ways of engaging their bodies and emotions in being religious” (2008: 208).

  7. Mahmood (2005)‘s performativity has also used to understand the Tablighi Jama’at women in Indonesia and its self-transformation to be pious women (see Amrullah 2011).

  8. The DDII founded and led by Natsir (previously leader of Masyumi). Natsir provided an infrastructure for university students to manage their religious teaching and da’wa activism (see Kahin 2012).

  9. The Tarbiyah movement in Indonesia, like Islamism in other countries, emerged and grew mainly in big cities as a response to social change and emerging political opportunities (cf. Wiktorowicz 2004; Fox 2012). Campus mosques in secular universities became the central hub of this activism with the main activity being the weekly study circle (liqo or halaqah).

  10. The regime banned the Masyumi, considering it as having an agenda for formalising shari’a that challenged the modern secular nation-state and issued the policy of NKK (Nomalisasi Kehidupan Kampus or Normalisation of campus lives) (see Effendyi 2003).

  11. Such as the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), the Hizbut Tahrir of Indonesia (HTI), and the Forum of Communication of Ahlussunnah Wal-Jama’ah (FKAWJ) (see Hilmy 2010; Hasan 2012; Jamhari and Jahroni 2004)

  12. The Crescent Moon Party (PBB) and New Masyumi Party) were founded following the liberalisation of the Indonesian political system, which guaranteed people’s rights to establish parties and social organisations (see Platzdasch 2009; Mietzner 2009).

  13. The PK “rebranded’ and changed its name to the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in 2004 because as the PK it had failed to meet the electoral threshold requiring all parties to get more than 2% of national votes. In the 1999 election, the PK only got 1.7%.

  14. We can also see this attempt in the case of the MB in Egypt who accommodated Christians. The MB has also formed electoral alliances with nationalists, secularists and liberals (see Leiken and Brooke 2007).

  15. These include Al-Muhajirun in the UK (Wiktorowicz 2005), Salafis and the MB in Jordan (Wiktorowicz 2001), the mosque or piety movement in Egypt (Mahmood 2005), and the Hizb al-Tahrir (Taji-Farouki 1996).

  16. Pondok Aren and Ciputat are two districts in the city of South Tangerang in Indonesia. Both districts are located very close to (‘inside’) the greater Jakarta metropolitan area, on the border area between Jakarta and Tangerang.

  17. To me, this seems to represent a kind of da’wa strategy, which I refer to as ‘da’wa by deception’, as the activists try to influence the people they are approaching but hide their real intentions and beliefs. They do not reveal their religious views or their da’wa until they feel confident that the individuals they are approaching are interested in learning about Islam through the liqo sessions.

  18. Restrictions on the number of trainees (mutarabbi) in religious circles are also used in the Egyptian MB (Mitchell 1993).

  19. Pengajian (Indonesian) is a religious learning group whose members specifically learn about the Qur’an, Sunna and other key Islamic subjects. Pengajian is usually attended by more than twenty people. It currently has several names, including majlis ta’lim (learning session).

  20. A similar number of liqo members were also found in other liqo groups that my interviewees (who are liqo trainees (mutarabbi or mutarabbiyah) in Jakarta and other cities such as Tangerang and Bekasi) were members of.

  21. I explain in the next section why these two women left the liqo, and only seven trainees thus remained in the group.

  22. My reflection is that this dress code and its performance represent a ‘marker of difference’ that makes it easy to identify liqo women in Jakarta public areas, such as malls or shopping centres, hospitals, street and offices, where their style of dress does not represent the mainstream clothing style for Muslim women.

  23. The liqo community have typical perspective on women’s dress codes, including the veil and headscarves, and the doctrinal reasoning that lies behind their choices and commitments.

  24. This system of shifting in role from a trainee (mutarabbi) to a mentor (Murabbi) is employed whenever a new small liqo group is established, with trainees always chosen to be new mentors by their liqo mentors.

  25. The Nurul Fikri learning centre is widely associated with the Tarbiyah movement, and was founded by Tarbiyah activists in 1985. The literature and the official website of the centre mentions that their motivation and purpose is to help students to develop their skills in order to enter top state universities after graduating from senior high school (see Damanik 2002). However, I observed that this institution as part of the da’wa strategy of the Tarbiyah movement. Evidence for this can be seen in the topics discussed among students of Nurul Fikri, the ‘typical’ books on Islam used by the Tarbiyah movement that are widely circulated among them (such as books written by the key figures of the MB and the PKS) and, of course, in the rules for behaviour and their physical performances of them, which all strongly relate to the Tarbiyah movement.

  26. See also Clark’s discussion in Wiktorowicz (2004:171).

  27. Based on official documents published by the PKS and my interviews with leaders, I found that the ‘approaching familiars’ strategy, or recruitment through personal relationships, was most used by the liqo-Tarbiyah movement during its emergence in the 1980s and through until the 1990s. However, this approach has recently been used in tandem with other ‘public’ approaches. The leaders of the movement, however, still consider the ‘private’ recruitment pattern as being more successful than ‘public’ recruitment in pulling individuals to the liqo.

  28. The discourse of ‘conversion’ is common in Western sociology of religion. It does not always involve literal conversion to a different religion, but can often be about changes of ideology, mind, and practice. In Britain, people become ‘born again Christians’, which refers to a change in their religious beliefs and attitudes and/or practices. In the United States in the 1970s, a growing number of young well-educated people began converting to the ‘New Religious Movements (NRMs)’ and they were very visible in public places – on the streets – where they sold flowers and candles and invited young people to their centres. The growing trends of conversion amongst young people led to the idea that the trainees of various NRMs were being brainwashed through various techniques. For further discussion of ‘conversion’ in the Western context see, for instance, Barker (1984). Conversion in the West also includes conversion to Islam, of course. Nehemia Levtzion in “Conversion to Islam (1979)”, however, differentiates between conversion and adhesion. Conversion usually involving individuals in a ‘reorientation of the soul’ and in a commitment to a new way of life and adhesion typically a communal process entailing ‘the acceptance of new worship as useful supplements and not as substitutes” to what went before. Thus according to Levtzion:‘Islamisation of a social or ethic group is not a single act of conversion but a long process toward greater conformity and orthodoxy’ (1979: 21). In my opinion, the discourse of conversion is similar to the spirit of da’wa in Islam, which aims to make the beliefs and practices of Muslims better, and includes the da’wa of the Tarbiyah movement/the PKS in Indonesia. See, for instance, Poston (1992) and Janson (2003).

  29. See also Asyari and Abid (2016) on how the Tarbiyah movement expanding its network through marriage.

  30. The role of husband in converting their wife into a religious movement has also revealed by Amrullah (2011). She found that women she studied joined the Indonesian Tablighi Jama’at to obey their husbands’ commands.

  31. This book, first published in 2005, contains 566 pages, and is one of the PKS’s key texts on movement ideology. Produced by Media Insani Press, it is managed by the PKS’ Division of Cadres. The PKS leadership expects that it will be the key volume used for the instruction and guidance of members in all lessons taught among the Tarbiyah cadres. The back cover of the book confirms that the Manhaj Tarbiyah is ‘developed to be a da’wa curricula for cadres’ training’ (DPP PKS 2005: back cover). One of the Tarbiyah mentors told me, that:“I am very happy to have this book because it contains very detailed curricula, and has learning steps for every stage of the liqo”.

  32. Further elaboration on Tarbiyah movement activities such as mukhayam, mabit, etc., see Salman 2006.

  33. Levels of the trainees are; the beginner level (Kader Pemula), youth level (Kader Muda), intermediate level (Kader Madya), mature level (Kader Dewasa).

  34. Furthermore, the texts (maraji’) used for teaching these subjects are mainly the works of ulama and ideologues whose backgrounds and orientations link closely to the Islamist ideas of the MB in Egypt and related movements. Some of those cited most routinely are: Sa’id Hawa (1935–1989) (Al-Islam), Abdul Karim Zaidan (1917–2014) (The Principles of Da’wa), Mawdudi (1903–1979) (Islamic Principles), Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (b.1926) (Characteristics of Islam), Abdullah Muslih and Shalah al-Ashmawi (Islamic Principles for Life), and Abu Bakar al-Jazairi, (The Guidance of Muslims’ Lives). Thus, repeated reference to the works of these Islamist ideologues in the liqo constructs an ideological framing that connects the leadership, mentors and members of the Tarbiyah movement to the global Islamist movement in general and the MB in particular. Although most of these references in the Manhaj Tarbiyah are mentioned by name in Arabic, the movement typically uses translations of the originals in Indonesian for teaching and learning. This indicates that only a small number of the liqo community knows Arabic. Moreover, Arabic is not taught much and even mentors do not necessarily know Arabic.

  35. Under the subject of aqidah, for instance, the trainees are expected: “1) to understand the comprehensiveness of Islam compared to other religions; 2) to believe that Islam is a perfect way of life; and 3) to fully accept and obey Islam so as not to practice any other way of life except Islam” (DPP PKS 2005: 46). This emphasizes that Islam is a complete doctrine and way of life including social, economic, and political as well as religious dimensions in the style of classic statements of Islamist ideology. Again in a style typical of classic Islamism, it also draws sharp boundaries between Muslims and others, warning Tarbiyah members not to adopt other ways of life.

  36. All quotations from these texts (Manhaj Tarbiyah) were all my own translations and not those of the authors.

  37. Da’wa is part of a traditional education in Indonesia taught in both traditional and modern schools. Da’wa in these schools is taught in a general sense for nurturing Islamic virtue among its students. However, in the hands of modern Islamist da’wa activists such as the Tarbiyah movement, this subject has a new significance and a more powerful meaning as an active da’wa particularly focused on rejecting Western culture and strengthening weakened Islamic identities.

  38. Through this lesson, the trainees are expected: (1) to understand factors that led to the weakness of Muslims and make every effort to solve the problem; 2) to understand the role of Tarbiyah (education) and harakah (movement) in solving this problem; and 3) to believe that the only way to solve this problem is through joining the Hizbullah (warrior of Allah), that is through joining the Tarbiyah movement (DPP PKS 2005: 161–173).

  39. The purposes of this subject as written in the text are that the trainees are able: 1) to recognize various groups or organizations that aim to destroy Islam from both inside or outside Islam, 2) to understand the purposes, strategies and activities of these organizations, and 3) to explain the danger of these organizations to Muslim fellows and to respond to these organizations effectively (Manhaj Tarbiyah 2005:545–546). Key literature (maraji’) used for this subject are Ghazwul fikri (Hasan al-Banna), Ghazwul fikri (Mawdudi), 70 years of Ikhwanul Muslimin (Yusuf al-Qaradawi), Invasi Pemikiran or the Invasion of Thought (Abdus Sattar), Du’at la Qudhat/Preachers not Judges (Hasan al-Hudaibi), and Manhaj Haraky (Mustafa Munir Ghadban).

  40. During my observation at the women’s liqo group, the issue of ghazwul fikri was often raised by the mentor, and used to analyse any topic she was teaching. In interviews with mentors from different and more advanced liqo groups, I found that this is something that is done with senior members as well as beginners. This was indicated by the fact that interviewees often responded to my questions by making connections to ghazwul fikri, even though I did not ask them about its connection with the topics they were talking about. This suggests that the concept of ghazwul fikri has a significant influence on the community of the Tarbiyah movement as a whole.

  41. For those who strongly hold the idea of ghazwul fikri, globalization or Westernisation is perceived as a threat. Bruinessen (2013) further explains various forms of Western cultural invasion such as popular music, dance and movies, popular culture and dress styles. Certain religious thought such as liberalism, secularism and the idea of pluralism are included as Western cultural invasion.

  42. I heard the claim from other mentor or trainer that the trainees will also be taught other Qur’anic verses clarifying this issue in the next levels of their liqo sessions in order to make them not generalise that all of Jews and Christians are the enemy of Islam.

  43. Ahok (Basuki Tjahaya Purnama) is a Chinese and Christian former governor of Jakarta (2014–2017) that accused of blasphemy in 2017. He was convicted of blasphemy because of his speech made during his visit/pre-election campaign in September 2016. In his speech, he implied that Muslim leaders were trying to trick Muslim voters by using a Qur’anic verse to argue that Muslim should not vote for a non-Muslim leader. This case sparked protests and demonstration in Jakarta as they believe that Ahok’s speech insulted Islam.

  44. The aqidah is related to the basis of faith in which Muslims conceptualise their perception of God. For instance, aqidah explains the tenet of the oneness of God as Tawhid (the unity of God). Tawhid is the belief that distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims, such as Christians, Jews, and Hindus. The importance of this topic is confirmed in statements by liqo activists from all levels of seniority. Tifa, one of my participants says:“The materials at the beginning of the liqo mostly talk about the very basic and important topics such as Tawhid (the concept of the unity of God), Shahadatain (the two phrases of the testimony of faith), and Qada and Qadar (God’s determination)”.

  45. The three early generations comprising the first generation – the sahabah (the Prophet’s companions); the second generation – the tabi’un (those who lived one generation after the Prophet’s companions); and the third generation – the tabi’ at-tabi’in (the generation after the tabi’in).

  46. Salaf is taken from the Arabic root which means ‘to precede’. In the Islamic lexicon, this word refers to al-Salaf al-Salih – the virtuous companions of the Prophet Muhammad – i.e. the three generations of Muslims that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad (Rippin 2005).

  47. In an interview that I conducted with a senior liqo mentor, he noted that people around him frequently label him and his liqo group as the Salafi.

  48. For the liqo community, klenik refers to cultural ‘deviations’ that influence the Islamic beliefs of Muslims. For other people, klenik refers to Javanese mysticism, which is heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

  49. Both are Qur’anic (Q 31:13 and Q 4:60; 116) words that imply the same meaning: “a grievous crime”.

  50. The liqo community shares common concerns with other revivalist organisations such as the Muhammadiyah about aqidah being free from klenik, and this fits with the core revivalist belief that “the rejuvenation of Islam was to be achieved through a return to the universal core teachings [of Islam], free from distorting influences of socio-cultural innovation” (Mandaville 2007:44).

  51. Her grandmother’s belief here is basically a ‘superstition’ – an ‘irrational’ belief in supernatural powers relating to receiving good and bad luck.

  52. Ibadah means ‘ritual’, and refers to the codified procedures that express human beings’ relationship with God. In Islam, ibadah involves the profession of faith, prayer (shalat), fasting (shaum), the giving of alms (zakah), and pilgrimage (hajj) (Rippin 2005).

  53. Juz (Arabic, plural: ajza) literally means ‘part’. The Qur’an is divided into thirty parts.

  54. Shaum (Ar), puasa (Ind) is fasting or the abstention from all food, drink and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. There is an obligatory form of shaum, which includes fasting during Ramadan, and a non-obligatory form of shaum, which involves choices such as fasting on Mondays and Thursdays.

  55. Shalat (Arabic and Indonesian) means ‘prayer’. The ritual required in Islam is that of five specific periods of prayer a day.

  56. Tahajud prayer is a voluntary nightly prayer that Muslims perform in addition to their five obligatory prayers.

  57. Dzulhijjah is the last month in the Islamic calendar. The name of the month refers to the annual worship of Muslims ‘Hajj’ (pilgrimage).

  58. Mubah is an Arabic term that refers to an action that is neither recommended nor forbidden. It is, therefore, religiously neutral.

  59. Al-Yaom al-Arafah (the day of Arafah) is the day of 9th Dzulhijjah, on which it is recommended that Muslims fast.


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I am indebted to Sean McLoughlin and Dina Afrianty for their valuable comments on an earlier version. Errors, if any, are solely mine.

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Correspondence to Ai Fatimah Nur Fuad.

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Fuad, A.F.N. Da’wa and politics: lived experiences of the female Islamists in Indonesia. Cont Islam 14, 19–47 (2020).

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  • Liqo
  • Tarbiyah movement
  • da’wa
  • Women
  • Islamism