Indonesian Muslims and Online Piety

At a recent Religions@Deakin seminar, Fatimah Huseina of the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta, Yogyakarta, Indonesia presented on research about online piety and the issues around displaying one’s faith online, riya’. What follows is an overview of this work by Fatimah Huseina and Martin Slama.


Indonesian Muslims express and communicate their faith, beyond the traditional five pillars of faith, in various ways: they wear ‘traditional Islamic dress, buy only halal products, put their money in sharia bank accounts, log on to Islamic websites, observe the voluntary prayers and engage in charitable work for Islamic foundations’. This list can be extended by additional practices such as watching television broadcasts of Islamic preachers, undertaking pilgrimages to the burial sites of Islamic saints, and buying Islamic art that is displayed in homes and workplaces; and most importantly, today Indonesian Muslims like to present these practices on their social media accounts.

However, at the same time, the anxieties that are associated with these practices are not new, and this particularly applies to the discontent that many Muslims feel today with regard to riya’. (riya’ = showing off one’s piety. Considered haram, sinful. )

This discontent is strongly connected to new online practices that make visible the everyday life of Indonesian Muslims, including their religious life. In the context of social media, being religious online always also means presenting one’s piety to an audience and engaging with a spectatorship that is by far larger than the one pious Muslims usually encounter in their offline environments. In other words, online religiosity bears a greater risk of riya’ or of being accused of riya’ than offline religiosity, or at least, it comprises new potentials for committing riya’.

One Day One Juz

In recent years, committing oneself to read one section (juz) of the Qur’an everyday has become popular in Indonesia . This practice is called ODOJ, standing for One Day One Juz (see also Nisa 2018 Nisa, E.F. 2018. Social media and the birth of an Islamic social movement: ODOJ (One Day One Juz) in contemporary Indonesia.

There is a national Qur’an reading movement that bears this name, but ODOJ is also organised by Islamic preachers and by majelis taklim (religious study groups) that are mainly run by women. Despite this diversity, the reporting system that is used by the different groups is very similar, with WhatsApp being the most popular messaging app on which the Qur’an readers report to their group. Since the Qur’an has 30 sections, the online group of 30 people is expected to finish reading the whole Qur’an every day given that each member of the group has read the section that was assigned to her or him and has reported her or his reading activities before a particular deadline in the evening. Disciplined Qur’an readers will thus have read the whole Qur’an within a month, after which a new circle starts.

The pitfalls of online sedekah

The second online practice where discussions of riya’ has become particularly apparent in Indonesia today concerns sedekah activities, charitable donations that are voluntary in contrast to the mandatory zakat. Islamic charities have also gone increasingly online, generating further challenges for those who run them as well as for those who like to engage in sedekah. Sedekah is considered a noble act in Islam as reflected in the two Islamic foundational texts, the Qur’an and Hadith. In the Qur’an (57: 18), for example, Allah says: ‘For those who give in Charity, men and women, and loan to Allah a Beautiful Loan, it shall be increased manifold (to their credit), and they shall have (besides) a liberal reward.’ This is supported by a Hadith stating: ‘The upper hand that gives is better than the lower hand that takes.

And there are several other Hadith that remind Muslims of the principles of giving to others. One popular Hadith states that among those who would receive protection from Allah on the Day of Judgment is ‘a person who gives charity and conceals it (to such an extent) that his left hand does not know what his right hand has given.’

This saying of the Prophet Muhammad clearly refers to the problem when donating becomes a public act, when other people can observe one’s sedekah activities, reminding Muslims that even they themselves should not fully perceive their donations, let alone that other people should know.

In Indonesia in general, and in Yogyakarta in particular, where most of the research for this section was conducted, sedekah initiatives have become manifest in various ways: helping the victims of natural disasters, distributing lunch boxes to orphanages, facilitating access to hospitals for those who are sick and poor, and even buying land for building an orphanage where the children are taught to memorise the Qur’an. Many Islamic charities in Yogyakarta today use social media, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, that have become essential for their fund-raising activities. Social media are employed to effectively connect ‘sedekaholics’ or ‘sedekahlovers’ (popular terms used to refer to people who regularly donate) with online sedekah organisers.

Rumah Hati Jogja (RHJ), a charity founded in early 2011 after the eruption of Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta, for example, has been quite successful in establishing networks through Facebook, WhatsApp and BBM. They directly go to the disaster locations and distribute aid with the help of local people. RHJ purely depends on social media, especially Facebook, to collect donations. Their yearly turnover is about seven billion rupiah (about US$520,000). Moreover, Ustadz Rully Arta Nugraha, the founder of RHJ, is active in sending his dakwah messages through WhatsApp, and he regularly uploads information about the charity activities of his organisation on Facebook.

This article is aimed at unveiling the variety of practices and interpretations that have emerged with the introduction of social media in the religious lives of many Indonesian Muslims. While social media allowed new ways of expressing piety and expanded possibilities of Islamic sociality and organisation, they also generated ambivalence and anxiety. However, this latter aspect of discontent that became manifest through the contemporary revival of discussions of the concept of riya’ is not met with a uniform response. Instead, Indonesian Muslims renegotiate riya’ in various ways that have different consequences for their religious practices. Yet, staying completely offline due to the dangers of riya’ or restricting one’s online activities to purely non-religious issues seems to be an option that only very few Muslims choose, reflecting the degree with which social media have already penetrated the religious lives of many Indonesians.

A full version of this article may be read here


 ODOJ: Young Indonesians reading one section of the Koran

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