Syekh Ali Jaber had become a surprise force for moderate Islam in Indonesia.
On 14 January, moderate Islam in Indonesia lost one of its leading lights. Ali Saleh Mohammad Ali Jaber, known to most as Syekh Ali Jaber, died at the age of 44. The next day, hundreds of Indonesian Muslims, despite the pandemic, flocked to Tangerang to attend his funeral. Ali Jaber’s soothing sermons and demeanour made him a popular figure among netizens in particular. He has 3.9 million followers on Instagram, 708,000 subscribers on YouTube and 614,000 followers on Facebook.
His talks avoided controversy and mainly touched on rituals, morality and spirituality. This made him popular among Indonesia’s political elite. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono praised him on Twitter, eulogising that “his sermons are far from sowing hatred and hostility”. Former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, the current chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council, issued a media statement stating: “He was close to Muslim community [at the level of grassroots]. He was highly dedicated in spending his time to promote comforting dakwah [the call to spread the message of Islam].”
Ali Jaber’s rapid rise to religious stardom in Indonesia was surprising and reflected changes within Indonesian Islam. The late Ali Jaber never attended any Islamic university but only learned Islam from senior religious scholars in Saudi Arabia. He did not leave behind any serious scholarly publications, the markers of an ulama (Islamic scholar). Instead, his charisma and aura, particularly in Quranic recitation, garnered him fame in social media-focussed Indonesia, demonstrating the shift in people’s religious life that privileges form rather than substance.
His commitment to and talent in developing young Quran memorisers propelled him to celebrity status. In 2013, he rose to the national scene after he started to serve as one of the judges in the popular religious reality show Hafiz Indonesia where children compete to memorise Al Quran during the holy month of Ramadhan. He appeared in other religious shows on another television station as a Muslim preacher and even starred in a 2016 movie Surga Menanti.
Ali Jaber’s Arab descent, and having been born and raised in the holy land of Saudi Arabia, aided him from his very arrival in Indonesia. When he arrived in 2008 to visit a sibling living in the West Nusa Tenggara province, many locals believed that he was an Imam from the holy city of Madinah in Saudi Arabia. They warmly welcomed him and asked him to lead prayers at a West Nusa Tenggara mosque. He chose to stay on and began conducting Quran memorising classes for local children. Later, he was invited to lead prayers at the Sunda Kelapa Mosque, one of the premiere mosques in Jakarta.
Being a native speaker of the Arabic language gave him unrivalled religious legitimacy compared to his peers. However, his Arabic identity did not stop him from being a target of xenophobic attacks. Knowing his limitations as an immigrant, to avoid potential backlash from domestic audience he rarely took hard-line or controversial stances. He earned his Indonesian citizenship as early as 2011.
Being a native speaker of the Arabic language gave him unrivalled religious legitimacy compared to his peers.
He also took a different stance from many puritan ulama from the Middle East on the possibility of Muslims wishing Christians Merry Christmas. The “anti-Merry Christmas discourse” has gained the upper hand in Indonesia’s public sphere lately, thanks to continuous efforts by conservative ulama in campaigning against the Merry Christmas greeting for the fear that saying this will destroy aqida (creed) of the Muslim community (ummah). Ali Jaber chose to disassociate himself from this campaign by proclaiming that refusing to say “Merry Christmas” to Christians during the holiday season is an unproductive practice. “Muslims get along with Christians. Muslims do business with Christians. Muslims live next door to Christians. But why is it difficult for Muslims to say Merry Christmas to their Christian friends” he once queried in his sermon.
Normally he did not engage much in the country’s politics. However, in the 2019 presidential election he, along with many conservative Islamic leaders, did openly support the losing candidate, Prabowo Subianto. In 2016, he joined the massive protest led by conservative Islamic groups seeking the arrest of the ethnic Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known widely as Ahok, on blasphemy charges. Unlike Habib Rizieq Shihab and others who inspired and actively took part in this movement, Ali Jaber’s participation was apparently impromptu, and he was largely a passive actor.
Ali Jaber was able to immerse himself in Indonesia and earn the respect and admiration of many locals. His ability to distance himself from Wahhabi-Salafism, the ideology of the country of his origin, prevented him from suffering unnecessary tensions with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organisation which holds directly opposing views. By keeping himself mostly away from the country’s divisive politics, both Indonesia’s elite and masses from across the political spectrum generally embraced and praised his role as a moderate ulama. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough for one to deeply appraise his political, legal and religious thought.