The Phenomenon of Slawatan — A Contemporary Islamic Ritual Performance by Habib Syekh and Four Organizations (2012-2015)

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019, 08:31 WIB

Ebrima Sarr (Gambia, Batch 2012)

This article is a summary of my doctoral dissertation which focuses on the phenomenon of Slawatan as a contemporary Islamic ritual performance by Habib Syekh and other organizations, such as Ahbabul Musthofa, Majelis Dhikr Al Khidmah, Pondok Pesantren Nurul Haromain and Majelis Al Ukhuwwah. During the period of this study, the organizations in this research have been guided by Habib Syekh, Kyai Hasanudin, Kyai Sirojan and Sholeh Ilham. Three organizations and one Pesantren were observed, from 2012 to 2015. They are Ahbabul Mustapha, Al Khidmah, Pondok Pesantren Nurul Haromain and Majelis Al Ukhuwwah. These organizations were selected because they serve as symbolic representations of the Slawatan ritual in various communities. 

The study has ritual as its theoretical framework and employs methodological strategies of field research such as: participant observation, interviews and discussion.The theoretical framework builds on the approach to ritual theory drawn up by scholars, such as Mark Woodward,  Clifford Geertz, Catherine Bell, Bronislaw Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, George C. Humans, Edmund Leach, Nancy D. Munn, Davis-Floyd, Lisa Schirch, Raymond Firth and others, the work offers a broader explanation of the essentials of the ritual phenomenon of Slawatan that has been transformed by Habib Syekh, with new innovations and performances that are attracting a large following day after day. Further, the interpretative framework helps to advance the researcher’s main academic argument, that is, in recent years Indonesia has experienced religious change, part of which includes the phenomenon of Slawatan, a popular, pious, ritual practice and performance. 

The word Slawatan is derived from the Arabic word ‘Salah’ which is translated to mean the five daily obligatory prayers in Islam.[1] In Indonesian, Slawatan is derived from Sholawat (prayers).  In the beginning this form of ritual phenomenon was conducted with different forms of Islamic piety parts of which include ‘Maulid Nabi’ (celebrating the birth of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam). The celebration includes recitation of poetry, praising the prophet and his family. Poetry and songs praising the Companions of the Prophet, Saints and religious leaders were later included.  The commemoration comes in various forms such as giving food to the poor, doing Dhikr (veneration of the name of Allah) by praising Allah, and sending prayers of blessing upon His messenger, and listening to the life histories of the Prophet.[2]

Habib Syekh bin Abdul Kadir Assegaf is a charismatic religious leader who was born in 1961, in Solo (Surakarta), a city found in the Central Java Province in Indonesia.Habib Syekh started his Slawatan performances at a young age, after receiving religious education and blessing from his father and uncles.  He has a large following, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands, at times in a single night of Slawatan.The finding shows that some participants also come to Slawatan to listen to the preaching in order to increase their knowledge of the life of the Prophet, His family and companions, and Sufi saints. Other topics of spiritual, social, political, cultural and educational matters are covered by Habib Syekh and other Kyai. Pro-peace preaching motivates participants, both adults and young people, to reject all forms of violence and be more religiously tolerant.

A Sufi is a person who practices Sufism. In recent years, there has been special interest in the changing landscape of late Sufism in the last two decades. According to Von Schlegell (2002) this is a ‘Neo-Sufi’ notion, in which 18th-century Sufis shifted their doctrines and practices from the, ‘union with God’ to, ‘union with the figure of Muhammad’ (Von Schlegell, 2002: 578).  Furthermore, Neo-Sufism produces transcendent and immanent spiritual concepts in human life and create space for social solidarity. 

The findings demonstrate that the performance of the ritual phenomenon of Slawatan as part of Neo-Sufism creates a space where people undertake social action and connect with one another to conduct Dhikr, chant, share food and interact with members of their particular social stratum. Slawatan performance enhances social solidarity and improves people’s understanding of other groups. Other common social actions taking place during the ritual phenomenon of Slawatan include the: blessing of newborn babies, holding of religious weddings, prayers for the dead and general festivities of food-and-drink sharing after the ritual performance. The advancement of the public sphere has fashioned new platforms, giving society power and access to places where there is more freedom to express oneself. In conclusion, the findings reveal the multiple motivations of followers from different communities, and are the following: 

1) Habib Syekh contributed to a large extent in shifting the performance of the Slawatan from its mainstream base in traditional Pesantren and made it more accessible to the general public. Not only personally, but through his organization, Ahbabul Musthofa and his links to the other organizations previously mentioned. 

2) Habib Syekh, Majelis Ahbabul Musthofa, Majelis Dhikr Al Khidmah, Pondok Pesantren Nurul Haromain and Majelis Al Ukhuwwah performances contributed socially by bringing people from all walks of life and many different backgrounds to a combined gathering. This adds to: peaceful relations, mutual understanding, progress and learning from one another. People are not polarised or isolated.

3) The phenomenon of the ritual performance of Slawatan contributed religious knowledge and spiritual experiences, entertainment and economic benefits to its followers, thereby helping to: alleviate poverty, improve education and reduce religious intolerance.

4) It stresses the importance of the Islamic religion and its Sufi tradition in accommodating: economics, business, and society in good relationships. For instance, as a businessman, Habib Syekh benefits from his followers’ perceptions of his integrity and reputation, which increases his business standing and translates into economic benefit for him with a considerable increase in his wealth and popularity, somewhat like a celebrity singer or actor in the Western world. Habib Syekh has, since this study started, extended his small compound to a larger complex and become exceedingly well known in Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

5) Importantly, participants have also benefitted economically, which helps in poverty reduction in the Southeast Asian countries mentioned.

6) Habib Syekh’s transformation of Slawatan performance as an event that promotes: social solidarity and inclusion, business enterprises, peace and education through Dakwah has been adopted by: Majelis Ahbabul Musthofa, Majelis Dhikr Al Khidmah, Pondok Pesantren Nurul Haromain and Majelis Al Ukhuwwah. These organizations have extended performances to various places in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

7) Furthermore, Habib Syekh’s and the Kyai’s steadfastness in preaching the importance of peace during the ritual performance of Slawatanis very acceptable to followers, and thus provides a welcome antidote to the rising tide of religious conservatism.

8) The socio-political and economic aspects previously mentioned are of great interest and importance to people’s lives and are indeed vital for the present and future of many Southeast Asian countries, including the currently, largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, and therefore, peace, in this very significant, important part of the world and its neighbors, countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. For example, a result of the study showcases the role of Pesantren Nur Haromain in using Slawatan to assist in the de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and mental health of religious extremists and ex-criminals

9) Finally, new theoretical contribution of this dissertation is the study of Slawatan as ritual, Slawatan as a communication and Slawatan as performance.



[1] Woodward, M., Rohmaniyah, I., Amin, A., Ma’arif, S., & Coleman, Diana Murtaugh, Sani Umar, M. 2012. Ordering what is right, forbidding what is wrong: two faces of Hadhrami Dakwah in contemporary Indonesia. Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, 46(2). p.126.   Note: In the Qur’an, the word ‘Salah’ of which Slawatan might have been derived also has a combined meaning of 'saying the benediction' and performing the ritual prayer. 

[2] See: Marhaba Ya Mustapfa. 2014. “Mawlid.” Marhabayamustafa.wordpress.