The debate in Indonesia about the origins of the Ba‘Alawi community reflects the fact that legitimacy is derived not only from lineage but social, historical and religious identity.
There has been much debate on Indonesian social media recently surrounding the legitimacy of the Ba‘Alawi community as descendants of Prophet Muhammad. The episode illustrates that lineage does not just refer to a list of names. It is a social, historical, and religious identity. Hence, when an Islamic scholar from Banten challenged the long-accepted claim that the Ba‘Alawi are descendants of the Prophet, it was unsurprising that he received much backlash. While Imaduddin Utsman described his actions as an academic exercise, others saw it as an indiscriminate attack against a noble community, and even a futile endeavour.
Since they settled in Indonesia over two centuries ago, the Ba‘Alawi have been well-respected for their commercial activities, philanthropy, and religious knowledge. They are the descendants of ‘Alwi bin ‘Ubaidillah from Hadhramaut, Yemen. In Ba‘Alawi literature, he is listed as a grandson of Ahmad bin ‘Isa. This connection with Ahmad is important as he is in turn listed as a descendant of the Prophet via his grandson, Hussein bin Ali. However, Imaduddin challenged this connection, arguing that Ahmad bin ‘Isa neither had a son named ‘Ubaidillah nor a grandson named ‘Alwi. This claim was made based on his examination of authoritative books of record of the Prophet’s descendants (kitab nasab) from the period of Ahmad bin ‘Isa’s lifetime in the fourth century of Islam and the subsequent five centuries after that. These books do not list ‘Alwi’s and ‘Ubaidillah’s names.
Imaduddin said that only from the tenth century of Islam onward do they appear in kitab nasab as having ties with Ahmad bin ‘Isa, and that ‘Ubaidillah was implanted into Ahmad bin ‘Isa’s lineage. He also said that a kitab nasab attributed to the sixth-century scholar Al-Fakhr Ar-Razy entitled As-Syajarah Al-Mubarakah (The Blessed Family Tree) closes the door on the Ba‘Alawi claim as it indicates that Ahmad had three sons, none of whom were named ‘Ubaidillah. Imaduddin thus concluded that the Ba‘Alawi are not true descendants of Prophet Muhammad.
The Ba‘Alawi are commonly referred to as habib (plural habaib), an Arabic word which means “beloved one” and is used as an honorific for male religious scholars of Ba‘Alawi lineage. Well-known figures in Indonesia include Habib Ali Al-Habsyi (1839–1913), the author of Simth Ad-Dhurar, a book of life stories and praises for Prophet Muhammad recited during the celebration of his birthday, and Habib Luthfi bin Yahya (born 1947), the current leader of the community of Sufi orders (JATMAN) and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council.
The debate on the Ba‘Alawi lineage in Indonesia is unprecedented as it has challenged the long-accepted belief that they are descendants of the Prophet. However, despite the attention that Imaduddin has received, it does not appear that there has been any impact on the religious authority of the habaib.
Despite the general reverence for the habaib, Imaduddin’s sympathisers agree with his challenge on the grounds of their disapproval of the behaviour of certain habib. For example, there is Habib Rizieq bin Shihab (born 1965) of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) who used to conduct raids on “dens of vice”, like discotheques, massage parlours, and karaoke studios. He also led a series of mass demonstrations against the then-Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) that polarised Indonesian society. There is also the younger Habib Bahar bin Sumaith (born 1985), a preacher who likes to curse and often uses aggressive words in his religious sermons. As a result of such behaviour, Imaduddin’s sympathisers question why these supposed descendants of the Prophet (in their view) “speak harshly”, “ruin religion”, and “mobilise anti-government sentiments among the Muslim masses”.
The singling out of such negative examples can easily be countered. After all, only a few habaib act in such a manner. In addition, biological heredity and human character are two separate things. But Imaduddin’s challenge implicates all members of the Ba‘Alawi community.
Various groups have responded to Imaduddin’s claims, whether Ba‘Alawi or not. Ba‘Alawi organisations such as Rabithah Alawiyah have produced statements, written treatises, and online videos to counter Imaduddin’s claims. While the debate has not concluded, positions have solidified.
There is a long list of Muslim scholars, from lineage experts and historians to jurists and Sufi teachers, who have expressed their confidence that the Ba‘Alawi are true descendants of the Prophet. However, despite their reliance on historical texts, Imaduddin says he is not satisfied with their arguments. He demands that only an authoritative kitab nasab from at least, the fifth or sixth century of Islam that clearly indicates the familial connection between ‘Alwi bin ‘Ubaidillah and Ahmad bin ‘Isa would prove their genealogical connection to the Prophet Muhammad. In response, the Ba‘Alawi and their supporters argue that many manuscripts from the lifetime of their progenitors, over a thousand years ago, are simply lost or have not survived. They also say that by demanding such evidence, Imaduddin has introduced a new condition for assessing the validity of a lineage, something that lineage experts never applied before.
The debate on the Ba‘Alawi lineage in Indonesia is unprecedented as it has challenged the long-accepted belief that they are descendants of the Prophet. However, despite the attention that Imaduddin has received, it does not appear that there has been any impact on the religious authority of the habaib. This is illustrated by the fact that masses of Indonesians still attend their prayer and study groups. In other words, lineage is not the only aspect on which the habaib have consolidated their authority. They will always be respected for their historical role in transmitting Islam across the Malay world, contributing to socio-religious life by composing supplications, and more recently, countering extremist ideas.
Ahmad Muhajir is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a Lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah, UIN Antasari Banjarmasin.
Afra Alatas is Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.