What is Religious Authority? Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia.

Date01 August 2022

What is Religious Authority?: Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia. By Ismail Fajrie Alatas. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021. Softcover: 268pp.

Throughout history, Islamic communities grew and developed along diverse trajectories. While some prospered, others withered. Some theorists hold that religious authority plays an important role in the sustenance of Islamic societies. However, within these societies there are varying levels of acceptance towards religious authorities, and this can determine whether Islamic communities expand or diminish. Ismail Fajrie Alatas' book, What is Religious Authority?: Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia, provides a fresh perspective on how religious authority is created and maintained in Islamic societies.

The book is based on the author's research into the historical and cultural practices of Islamic community leaders in Java, who sought to align community interests with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad so that the former could serve as sites for the transmission and social realization of the latter (p. 210). The main focus is on a Sufi leader of Arab descent from Hadramawt (Yemen), Habib Luthfi (b. 1947), who is still influential in Muslim communities in Indonesia today. Following Hannah Arendt's political philosophy, Alatas explains that a hierarchical master-disciple relationship in the Muslim community works to stabilize, centralize and expand religious communities (p. 136).

The author believes that contemporary Islamic societies across the world have experienced alienation from the prophet's life (sunna) in terms of role models as devout Muslims. Therefore, religious community leaders had to work hard to connect, reconstruct, select and represent the prophetic past as a model of action for their communities. The work carried out by religious community leaders has produced authoritative teachings and practices adapted to the context of specific communities--translating sunna practices into local practices. According to Alatas, lasting Islamic communities are built on efforts to construct cultural and political institutions that establish religious authority, or what he calls "articulatory labour": the labour of articulating the sunna and the community (p. 18). Alatas emphasizes that articulatory labour must adapt to the culture in which the community is located. To support this argument, the book is divided into two parts: "authority in motion", which...

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