Mosques and Imams: Everyday Islam in Eastern Indonesia

19th May 2021

Mosques and Imams: Everyday Islam in Eastern Indonesia, edited by CHL Emeritus Professor Kathryn Robinson, was recently published by National University of Singapore (NUS) Press. The book comprises a number of ethnographic studies of Muslim communities throughout Eastern Indonesia, with a particular focus on those impacted by the Islamic cultures of South Sulawesi (Bugis and Makassar).

There is a degree of anxiety about ‘Islam’ in western countries—including Australia, which goes along with ignorance of how Muslim peoples encompass their religious beliefs and practices in everyday life. These anthropological studies fill this void, addressing the richness of everyday Muslim lives and the certainty with which they embrace their localised religious practices. The preponderance of studies of Indonesian Islam are concerned with current ‘Islamist’ politics (contestations over Islamic precepts as a basis of politics and government) or provided accounts of Muslim lives in the central and western parts of the archipelago (especially Java and Sumatra), but these studies look to Islam as it moved through the eastern archipelago, from the west but also the east. A specific focus of the book is on forms of religious authority, in particular the role of hereditary imam, a position that reflects the manner of subsumption of Islam into the divinely descended courts of Bugis and Makassar societies.

Unlike many edited books, the authors in this volume worked closely together at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the precursor to CHL. Many of the authors are Indonesian nationals who undertook PhD studies at ANU on scholarships from both the Australian and Indonesian Governments. Most notably, they all came out of the Islamic educational stream and married this formal theological scholarship with their anthropological training at ANU. Under the umbrella of an ARC Grant (DP0881464 Being Muslim in Eastern Indonesia), which funded one of the PhD scholars, and alongside CIs Kathryn Robinson and Andrew McWilliam, and Senior Research Associate Philip Winn, all authors attended regular project seminars. They read a common body of literature on topics such as Islamic Studies, anthropology of Islam, Indonesian Islam, which turned into thesis writing seminars after fieldwork. As a CI, Kathryn was able to visit all of them in their field sites. This regular seminar attracted PhD scholars form other areas of ANU, such as Political Science and Asian Studies; academic colleagues such as George Quinn, Campbell Macknight and Wendy Mukherjee also contributed to the development of ideas.

The concepts thus developed exemplified the transdisciplinary ‘Area Studies ‘approach, while the ethnographic studies, the emphasis of everyday lives and practices, placed the research squarely in the camp of Anthropology. The concept of the regular seminar and the idea of undertaking many local studies of Islam in a defined area drew on practices initiated by James J Fox in the mid 1990s, to develop a similar comparative perspective on Islam in Java. It was a wonderful journey for Kathryn, with her understanding illuminated by the deep theological understandings of the PhD scholars. Professor Robert Hefner of Boston University, an internationally acknowledged leader on studies of Indonesia Islam sees this project developing a new approach in the Anthropological studies of Islam in Indonesia’s Islamic universities.

The video of the book launch, produced by NUS Press, is available here. It comprises a number of short videos from Professor Michael Feener (Kyoto) and Bob Hefner, as well as short videos from some of the authors. It is introduced by Dr Benjamin Hegarty (University of Melbourne) and Professor Kathryn Robinson.

"This book launch video will prove to be a very valuable teaching resource." — Associate Professor John McCarthy, Crawford School

Visit the NUS Press website for a copy of the book.

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