The essays in this series deal with transregional linkages between the Middle East and Asia. As a whole, the series explores the "vectors" of religious transmission and the consequences of or implications of such interactions. More ...

Representing about 1% of the country’s 200 million Muslims, Indonesia’s Shi‘a are but a small group in the overwhelmingly Sunni majority. These contemporary communities of devotees of the ahl al-bayt (“people of the house,” referring to the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, her husband ‘Ali, and their sons Hasan and Husayn) explain their identities, albeit with differences, in transregional terms. Recently, this transregional focus has turned from South Asia toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Multiple Shi‘i Identities

Some Indonesian Shi‘a of Arab descent will tell of their historical connection to ‘Isa al-Muhājir[1] (820–924 CE) and their ancestors’ consequent allegiance to the fiqh (law) of the sixth Imām Ja‘far al-Sādiq (702-765 CE) until their migration to Southeast Asia. Indonesians who see themselves as “cultural” Shi‘a will point to the Persian origins and ‘Alid descent of “saints” who Islamized Java in the fifteenth century. The inhabitants of Bengkulu and Pariaman in western Sumatra still perform the reenactment of the Battle of Karbala (there called Tabuik) as transmitted by the descendants of South Asian sepoys (soldiers) brought to the archipelago by British colonials in the early nineteenth century. And recent converts who abide by Ja‘fari fiqh will identify Imam Khomeini, hawza (seminary)-trained Indonesian asatidha (teachers), and books printed by Iran’s Majma Jahani[2] as ultimate sources of authority and orthodoxy.[3]

Such diversity, often swept under the carpet to show a unified Shi‘i community striving for legitimacy vis-à-vis the Sunni majority, becomes evident during Muharram and specifically on the day of Ashura. Cultural Shi‘a gather to remember the martyrdom of Husayn using vernacular texts and ritual practices little known beyond the archipelago, from the consumption of an “Ashura Porridge” to the parading of royal heirlooms to symbolize Husayn’s circling of the battlefield. Inhabitants of Bengkulu and Pariaman perform drumming competitions and parade makeshift coffins of papier-mâché through the city, all in South Asian fashion, and Iran-oriented groups, with the support of the Iranian embassy, witness a troupe performing the ta‘ziyeh—the passion play of Shi‘a in Iran—in Farsi.[4] This essay will focus on the latter group only, but the concluding remarks will reflect on the interaction among the four groups.

The Iranian Revolution and Indonesia

In the 1970s, as Iran entered its revolutionary phase and Muslims across the world participated in what is usually referred to as the “Islamic revival,” Indonesia―under Suharto’s New Order regime (1965-1998)―was instead experiencing a narrowing of Islam’s sphere of action in the public domain. Aware that the archipelago’s Muslims had been tightly connected to the worldwide umma for centuries,[5] and that Indonesia could not be seen as insulated from regional and international developments, the regime pursued a thorough depoliticization of Islam while supporting the “revitalization” and “renewal” of Islam as an aspect of citizens’ personal piety and culture. In 1973, all Islamic parties were forced to merge into the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, or PPP), and in 1975 Suharto sponsored the establishment of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI) as yet another way to “co-opt, fragment, and neutralize Islam as an autonomous political force.”[6] In 1977, the army crushed the militant underground group Komando Jihad.[7] From 1984 onward, no organization was allowed to have Islam as its ideological foundation,[8] and security forces violently confronted civilian Muslim groups.[9]

It was in this context that the MUI issued a tawsiyya (recommendation) warning Indonesian Muslims against the dangers of Shi‘i Islam. Following a previous fatwa against “those streams of Islam that reject the sunna and prophetic hadiths,” the MUI issued a tawsiyya in March 1984 identifying Shi‘ism as a potentially disruptive force in the country’s social harmony, and citizens were thus exhorted to reject this “stream” of Islam. While the tawsiyya text established the unacceptability of Shi‘ism on religious grounds, pointing to the differences in the theological, exegetical, and jurisprudential fields between Sunni and Shi‘i understandings, [10] the broader scope of the recommendation was to launch a political response to the Iranian Revolution, as then openly acknowledged by MUI members, the minister of religious affairs, and the chief of police.

In the mid-1980s and 1990s, the press supported government efforts to criminalize Shi‘i Islam and the negative influence of Iran on Indonesia’s Muslims. Not only was the 1985 bombing of the Buddhist temple of Borobudur pinned on an alleged Shi‘a who supposedly had spent years in Iran and sought refuge there before arrest, but when a number of cases of teachers having sexual intercourse with young girls emerged a decade later in east Java, it was also discussed as a consequence of muta‘ practices (temporary marriage as allowed by Ja‘fari fiqh) inspired by Iran.[11]

Contemporary Transregional Ties

These negative portrayals notwithstanding, Indonesia witnessed the proliferation of Shi‘i religious schools in the 1980s (a phenomenon that had actually started before the revolution), and an increasing―albeit underground―flow of students to Iran. This was followed by the underground dissemination of Iranian Shi‘i literature―mostly among university students―throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and by the emergence of organizations consisting of devotees of the ahl al-bayt within Indonesia that directly linked Iran to Indonesia on cultural, educational, and religious grounds. The next sections offer an analysis of these exchanges in terms of education, printed publications, and institutions.


East Java had been a hub of Shi‘ism since the 1960s. In the town of Bondowoso, for example, the Shi‘i yayasan (foundation) al-Sadiq was established as early as 1966, pesantren (Shi‘i rural religious school) al-Wafa in 1972, and YAPI (still today the largest Shi‘i school in the country) in 1973 before being moved to Bangil in 1976. Similarly, in central Java, Abdul Qodir Balfagih established the pesantren al-Khairat in Bangsri, near Jepara, in 1974-1975. The founders of and teachers in these rural schools constituted the first kernel of self-taught or (more rarely) hawza-educated asatidha (in the Indonesian language, ustaz). Starting as a niche phenomenon, hawza education was constantly spreading, creating strong links between Indonesia and Iran. If throughout the 1980s only a handful of Indonesians had succeeded in reaching Iran (usually traveling through Singapore and Pakistan), in the early 1990s there were around 50 Indonesians in Iran at any given time, and by the early 2000s there were 50 new students arriving there every year. In the 2010s, the numbers have been closer to 100 per year, and it should be noted that in the past decade some pesantrens have been teaching the Iranian curriculum alongside the Indonesian one to better prepare their pupils for the transition. They mostly enroll at Qom’s international al-Mustafa University and its female branch, Bint al-Huda, but some also enroll at the Imam Khomeini International University in Qazvin and at Alzahra University in Tehran.

The major impact of this trend, besides the tightening of transregional links, is that of religious reform, in a way similar to that of the retuning hajjis who at the beginning of the twentieth century spearheaded the Sunni reformist movement to “purify” Islamic rituals from local traditions. Returning graduates from Iran, who speak Persian and often have Iranian wives and bilingual children, are today effecting change among Indonesian sympathizers of the ahl al-bayt. They are plugged into a well-established network that connects schools and foundations across the archipelago (with its hub located in south Jakarta, at the Islamic Cultural Center, or ICC), and they teach and profess Shi‘i knowledge and praxis as promoted by Iran.

Printed Publications

Between 1979 and 1982, very few Indonesian authors wrote books on Shi‘ism or Iran, but several texts were circulating in foreign languages. In mid-1983, there was still no new Indonesian language material available on Shi‘ism, but “scores of [Iranian] organizations [were] printing books on Shi‘i Islam in several languages ([such as] Arabic, English, French, and Persian), in luxurious format, and [these] [were] distributed for free” at the Iranian embassy in Jakarta.[12] The direct involvement of the embassy in spreading Shi‘i thought and the principles of the revolution through the distribution of literature gained the government’s attention, as was indicated by the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ investigation into the embassy’s Indonesian-language magazine Yawm al-Quds.

The spirit of the revolution spread widely across Indonesia through the press and, most prominently and effectively, via the circulation of books in da‘wa circles. By the mid-1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired usra movement had achieved a strong presence across the country, with student groups gathering in mosques and at high schools and university campuses across Java and beyond. Like their peers in Egypt and Malaysia, they discussed the works of Hassan al-Banna, Abu al-‘Ala Mawdudi, and Sayyid Qutb. However, even though the da‘wa movement (which in Indonesia took the form of both tarbiyya and usra groups) broadly identified with Sunni Islam, these groups were also receptive to the literature that was emerging from Iran’s revolutionary context at the time. Reflecting the trend of the early stages of the revolution when leftist groups were prominent in the anti-Shah movement, a most read and discussed author was Ali Shariati, closely followed by Muthahhari a few years later. While in Egypt the Brotherhood was committed to an anti-Shi‘a and anti-Iran propaganda (largely as a consequence of the Iran-Iraq War), the Indonesian usra circle―which came to be known as Islam Kampus―appeared to be giving no thought to “sectarian” allegiances. This approach was so ingrained among usra members that their printing houses translated and distributed a similarly eclectic variety of works.[13]


The Islamic Cultural Center was possibly the first institution to connect Indonesia to Iran. It was established in Jakarta in 1998 by a group of Iranians who wished to improve mutual understanding between the two countries. In this spirit, the center has since offered Persian language courses and has informally facilitated the sending of Indonesian students to Iran. At its inception the ICC had no ties to the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, but a change of leadership in 2011 has brought the center closer to the embassy, with the office of the cultural attaché (a position nominated by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution) playing an important role in shaping activities and directing funds. The center’s activities are spread outside of Jakarta, as it sends teachers―regularly Qomi graduates―for occasional lectures across the archipelago and donates books and journals to many pesantren scattered around the country.

Another important actor in these transregional connections is the Islamic College for Advanced Studies (in 2009 it was renamed the Islamic College, or IC), also located in south Jakarta. This is a tertiary institution offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in Islamic theology, philosophy, and mysticism. Besides domestic links to the ICC, it also has strong international ties, as it is affiliated with the London-based ICAS (established in 1999) and the Jami‘atul Mustafa in Qom. Not only are both institutions funded by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s office, but the IC’s own director in Jakarta hails from the Qomi institute. Yet, to label the IC a Shi‘i university would be a mistake. It is only recently that the IC has been absorbing large numbers of Qomi graduates and has become a platform for Indonesians interested in specifically Shi‘i thought. In fact, its origins lay in the combined efforts of a number of Indonesian Muslim intellectuals and an Iranian citizen to establish a sister institution to Paramadina University, solely committed to teaching philosophy and metaphysics.

Concluding Reflections: The Impact of Transregional Ties

Post-revolutionary Iran has not been the only source of inspiration for Shi‘ism in Indonesia – whether it is defined as programmatic adherence to Ja‘fari fiqh or devotion to the ‘Alid descendants of the Prophet, especially Imam Husayn. Yet the recent strengthening of ties with Iran, a phenomenon that has become most evident since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 and throughout the 2000s, is causing tension within the Indonesian Shi‘i community. Hawza graduates and Iranian sponsorship of local rituals and publications are causing a rapid shift away from the multiplicity of localized understandings of Shi‘i devotion and forms of ritual toward instead a homogenized community that finds its only model and example in the formalities of the Islamic Republic.

[1] Born in the ninth century in Basra, the fourth son of Imām Ja‘far al-Sādiq, he is considered to be the original forefather of the Sada across Asia, having migrated from Iraq to Yemen’s Hadramawt region.

[2] The Islamic Republic’s missionary branch, the Majma Jahani Ahlu Bait (Ahl al-Bayt) World Assembly.

[3] Chiara Formichi, “One Big Family?” in Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia: ‘Alid Piety and Sectarian Constructions, eds. Chiara Formichi and Michael Feener (London: Hurst & Co, 2015).

[4] Chiara Formichi, “Shaping Shi‘a Identities in Contemporary Indonesia between Local Tradition and Foreign Orthodoxy,” Die Welt des Islams 54 (2014): 212–36.

[5] Michael Laffan, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds (London: Routledge, 2003).

[6] Donald Porter, Managing Politics and Islam in Indonesia (London: Routledge, 2002).

[7] On the repression of underground political Islamist groups such as Komando Jihad, see Quinton Temby, “Imagining an Islamic State in Indonesia,” Indonesia 89 (April 2010): 1-36.

[8] The azas tunggal (“sole basis”) policy was announced in 1984, but because of opposition to it, the law was only passed in 1985. On legitimate religious organizations that had for decades participated in politics but were then pushed out, see Robin Bush, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power within Islam and Politics in Indonesia (Singapore: ISEAS, 2009), 77.

[9] The apex of this was the Tanjung Priok incident, when Muslims praying at a mosque in north Jakarta were attacked by police forces for openly rejecting the azas tunggal policy. On the Tanjung Priok incident, see KontraS Report, “Massacre of Tanjung Priok in 1984,”  

[10] Specific references were made to the ‘ilmu-l-hadith and usul-ul-fiqh, the different concepts and practices of imamate and caliphate, the Shi‘i tenet that the imams are infallible, and the practice of muta‘ temporary marriage. Mohammad Atho Mudzhar, Fatwa-Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia: Sebuah Studi Pemikiran Hukum Islam di Indonesia 1975-1988 (Jakarta: INIS, 1993), 114-126.

[11] Chiara Formichi, “Violence, Sectarianism, and the Politics of Religion: Articulations of anti-Shi‘a Discourses in Indonesia,” Indonesia 98 (October 2014).

[12] “Buku-buku Syi’ah,” Panji Masjarakat, 395, 11 May 1983, 7.

[13] Chiara Formichi, “Negotiating Legitimacy through Text: Sources of Textual Authority among Indonesian Shi‘a Muslims,” under review.

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