Some smaller mosques are using their online presence to attract not just worshippers but to earn a potential sustainable and alternative income, even as physical worship remains important for Muslim Indonesians.
Muslims regard mosques as sacred spaces for religious and social congregations. Apart from hosting obligatory prayers, mosques are where Muslims attend public lectures, pay alms, and name their newborn babies, among other purposes. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, has more than half a million mosques (masjid) and smaller houses of worship (mushalla, langgar and surau) combined. Social media and the Internet are now extending some of the traditional functions of Indonesian mosques, especially their outreach activities. Setting up YouTube accounts, in particular, has been trending among Indonesian mosque managers.
In the past decade, Indonesian preachers have successfully used social media platforms to boost their followership, with Ustaz Abdul Somad and Ustaz Khalid Basalamah as prime examples. They recorded their sermons and uploaded them to sites like YouTube and Facebook. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Indonesia in February 2020, Indonesian preachers moved their classes online due to mosque closures and safe distancing measures. Post-pandemic, there is anecdotal evidence that mosques attendance is recovering but mosques now invest heavily in online classes even if fewer people turn up physically.
Mosque managers have found ways to raise funds through YouTube subscriptions, thereby reducing their reliance on endowments or income through physical donation boxes (at mosques) to fund their activities. Of the 120 Indonesian mosques informally listed on Wikipedia, we ascertained that 45 mosques have YouTube accounts, mostly established within the last six years.
Interestingly, through producing YouTube content, the smaller and newer mosques can outperform their bigger and older counterparts in outreach. Masjid Jendral Sudirman (MJS) in Sleman, Yogyakarta is an example of a relatively small mosque that has successfully embraced this digital preaching trend. Since 2013, it has offered Islamic courses that have become the hallmark of MJS intellectual activities.
MJS’ most popular and longest-running Islamic course is “Ngaji Filsafat” (Learning Philosophy), convened by Fahruddin Faiz, a senior lecturer from the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga. A mosque staff member shared that some 400-450 people, primarily males, fill up the mosque and its courtyard every Wednesday evening to listen to Fahruddin’s lectures. This number is significantly larger compared to a regular two-hour pengajian (religious class)in Yogyakarta, which may attract 50 to 100 participants. Since 2017, MJS has published videos of these classes through its YouTube account, MJS channel. To encourage physical attendees, the mosque does not livestream but records and edits each lesson, then publishes it four to seven days after the event.
The channel’s administrators shared that most MJS viewers are males (about 8 in 10) – about a third of them are “Gen Z” (born in the late 1990s to early 2000s) while half are millennials (born early 1980s-late 1990s). The MJS channel has published 860 videos, more than half of which are recordings of Ngaji Filsafat, which receive the highest number of views (attracting 3,700 to 1.5 million views out of 32.5 million views for all MJS posts) and a subscription of 271,000 users.
MJS’ online presence is thus way ahead of some more established mosques. To illustrate, even the historic Masjid Jami Sungai Jingah (MJSJ), built in 1777 in Banjarmasin, cannot match MJS’ digital presence and popularity. Since 2019, MJSJ has posted 718 videos but its subscription and viewership are just fractions of MJS’. The MJS channel has even outpaced the Grand Istiqlal Mosque’s in Jakarta. The largest mosque in Southeast Asia, Istiqlal’s YouTube channel, Masjid Istiqlal TV, was established in 2016. Masjid Istiqlal TV has posted 1,800 more videos than MJS but its subscription is less than 20 per cent and views just 15 per cent of the MJS channel’s.
For MJS, its YouTube channel has become a viable alternative source of income. In March 2023, Social Blade estimated that the channel could generate a monthly income of between US$194 and US$3,100, compared to donation box totals of about five to seven million rupiah (about US$335-470). Wahid, a senior MJS staff, noted that the YouTube revenue is sufficient to pay the 12-man ta’mir team (responsible for planning, organising, and evaluating mosque programmes) a small token of gratitude and to fund a literacy programme. The income generated from other sources of donations and endowments can thus finance other operating costs.
In Indonesia today, the number of physical worshippers in a mosque is no longer the only measure of its outreach and sustainability.
In many ways, MJS’ online success draws on the team’s ability to pitch Ngaji Filsafat to the right audience and to have a charismatic host and an effective marketing volunteer pool. Fahruddin Faiz’s ability to amalgamate philosophy with Sufism appeals to a young and urban audience while his humility and calmness make him likeable. But Fahruddin’s charisma alone would not have made MJS successful online without creative youths in the ta’mir team, who have worked tirelessly to ensure the recordings are well edited and regularly uploaded.
In Indonesia today, the number of physical worshippers in a mosque is no longer the only measure of its outreach and sustainability. More mosques will showcase their programmes and lectures online, as more Indonesians have access to the Internet and mobile phones. Social media and videos allow smaller urban and rural mosques alike to gain greater prominence and in so doing compete on a more level playing field alongside the bigger, urban, and resource-rich mosques for subscribers and viewers.
In the final analysis, social interactions with preachers through YouTube cannot fully replace face-to-face interactions in a religious context. Mosques must delicately balance their need to generate income — a legitimate concern for the effective running of their programmes — with their role of providing spiritual and critical thinking in society. There is already a global concern that radical ideas and falsehoods can easily spread through social media and that extremist groups can utilise these tools to target and recruit youths. While most Indonesian mosques promote tolerance, they must also be vigilant in monitoring the quality of online religious content for all Indonesian Muslims.
Ahmad Muhajir is a Lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah, UIN Antasari Banjarmasin, and was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.