Conference on “Religious Authority in Indonesian Islam: Contestation, Pluralization, and New Actors”

Religious authority has never been monolithic and, in Sunni Islam, it has always been decentralized and contested (Azra 2010; Feillard 2010; Mandaville 2007; Norshahril 2018). Like in many other religious communities, the fragmentation of religious authority has become a feature of Islam throughout its history. In this modern day and age, the intensity of the contestations among the different religious elites is likely to grow. In Indonesia, at least three factors have significantly influenced recent contestations within the Islamic religious arena: globalization, post-Reformasi democratization, and the growing number of private television stations and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube).

Religious authority is conventionally based on “the interaction between text, discursive method and personified knowledge, with constructions of the authoritative in Islam seen as combining these ingredients to varying degrees and in diverse configurations” (Mandaville 2007, 101). However, the above three factors have strong impact in shaping and animating the construction, contestation, fragmentation, and pluralization of religious authority in contemporary Indonesia.

Transnational movements, like Hizbut Tahrir (HT), for instance, have ridden on globalization and geopolitical issues as devices to frame religious discourse, sense of unity, identity, loyalty among their followers, and construct their authority. The democratization of Indonesia after the Reformasi in 1998 has made possible the emergence and establishment of religious organizations such as the FPI (Front Pembela Islam), MMI (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia), and FUI (Forum Umat Islam). Some organizations that had been working underground, restricted or banned are now actively promoting their vision of Islam in the public sphere. Some of these organisations were JI (Jamaah Islamiyah), DDII (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia), LPPI (Lembaga Penelitian dan Pengkajian Islam), and HTI (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia). These organizations have continuously challenged the authority of mainstream organizations like Muhammadiyah and NU (Nahdlatul Ulama).

The proliferation and establishment of private television channels and new modes of communication technologies have facilitated the rise of new preachers such as Abdullah Gymnastiar, Arifin Ilham, Yusuf Mansur, Abdul Somad, Mama Dedeh, and Felix Siauw. These new media have transformed lay Muslims with limited religious qualifications into new religious authorities.

The series of Aksi Bela Islam protests against then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama at the end of 2016 provided a clear example of the rise of an alternative religious authority. The authority of NU and Muhammadiyah, previously regarded as mainstream Islamic organisations in Indonesia, was challenged. With contrasting fatwās available at fingertips, the high-brow ulama have been contested by the low-brow but populist ulama. The act of ridiculing, mocking, and disrespecting traditionalist kiais and “high-brow” ulama, such as Ahmad Mustofa Bisri, Quraish Shihab, and Ahmad Syafii Maarif, has become more evident in recent years. This has resulted in the undermining of pesantren and UIN or IAIN (State Islamic University) as the traditional system for producing ulama and Islamic scholars. On the other hand, new preachers and habaib (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) have emerged to gain significant standing among Muslims apart from the traditional clergy.

The current phenomenon of contestation of religious authority can be seen, positively, as part of the democratization of religious authority. This can provide various Muslim communities access to religious authority and provide alternatives to the hegemony of NU and Muhammadiyah. On the other hand, religion could also be easily reshaped to cater to the demands of the market and capitalism, or prone to be manipulated to support certain political interests.

Given the above background, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and LIPI – Indonesian Institute of Sciences invite a group of leading scholars to make presentations on the construction, contestation, pluralization, fragmentation, and segmentation of religious authority in Indonesian Islam. How was this authority traditionally constructed and recently re-constructed? Which religious groups currently have strong influence in Indonesia? How does religious authority influence democracy and the dynamics of politics in Indonesia, and vice versa? What is the role and influence of globalization, new media, and the Reformasi in shaping and reshaping Islamic religious authority in Indonesia? These are some of the questions, among others, that will be addressed in this conference.

Attendance to this Conference is free of charge but registration is required by 22 June 2018.

As seats are limited, please register early. Admission to the Conference can only be taken as confirmed upon receiving the written acceptance from ISEAS.

For any queries, please feel free to e-mail

To register, please complete this form and return it by fax: 6775-6264 or email to by 22 June 2018.

Download the Programme here.


Jul 03 - 04 2018


All Day


ISEAS Seminar Room 1 & 2