Meet the Habibs: the Yemen connection in Jakarta politics


Ahmad Syarif is an analyst with Bowergroup Asia. He holds a master's degree from the University of Birmingham, where he wrote his thesis on the rise of hadrami religious authority in Palembang, South Sumatra.

Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader ‘Habib’ Rizieq Shihab. The honorific title ‘Habib’ is commonly used to refer to Islamic scholars from the Sayyid community, or descendants of Prophet Muhammad. Photo by Wahyu Putro A for Antara.


Firebrand cleric and Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader ‘Habib’ Rizieq Shihab has long been the face of the hard-line Islamic movement in Jakarta. In Indonesia, he is often given the honorific title ‘Habib’, commonly used to refer to Islamic scholars from the Sayyid community, or descendants of Prophet Muhammad. Rizieq’s lead role in the massive protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama in late 2016 and early 2017 underscored the growing significance of so-called Habib in Jakarta’s Islamic community, particularly in urban villages, or kampung.


Riziek might have the highest profile but he is not the only Habib in FPI. Other prominent Habib include Rizieq’s son in law, Habib Fikri bin Abdullah Bafaraj, and Habib Bahar bin Smith, known to police for an attack on an Ahmadiyah mosque in Kebayoran Baru in 2010 and a raid on a karaoke club and café in Kemang in 2012. Outside FPI, Habib Nabiel al-Musawa and Habib Jindan have also attracted significant followings.


The Sayyid community in Indonesia are mostly descendants of Ba’Alawi families that settled in the Hadhramaut region in Southern Yemen in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and most follow the related Tariqa Alawiyah Sufi sect. Collectively known as Hadhramis (after the region), they spread across the Indian Ocean rim and migrated to Indonesia in the sixteenth century. The core teachings of Tariqa Alawiyah involve rituals like visiting the graves of saints (ziarah), observing the prophet’s birthday (Mawlid), and recitation of Sufi prayers such as the Burdah. The community follows the Shafi’i school of thought, as most Indonesian Muslims generally do.


The major Sayyid families in Indonesia include the Shihab, al-Attas, Assegaf, al-Haddad and Musawa families, among others. Not all Hadhramis that migrated to Indonesia were Sayyid. The major non-Sayyid Hadhrami families in Indonesia are from the Mashaikh tribe, and include well known family names like Ba’asyir, Baswedan, Sungkar, and Thalib. Because of differences of religious opinion, relations between the Sayyid and Mashaikh are often tense.


The 1990s saw the revitalisation of the Tariqa Alawiyah sect, with the establishment of the Dar al-Mustafa madrasah in Hadhramaut, founded by the charismatic cleric Habib Umar bin Hafidz. From about 1994, Dar al-Mustafa began actively recruiting students from Indonesia. The movement of Indonesian students to Hadhramaut was made possible by the improvement of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and the unified Republic of Yemen that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Under Soeharto’s staunchly anti-communist New Order, Indonesians had been discouraged from studying in the Hadhramaut region, as it was ruled by the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).


Although the Sayyid community had been established in Jakarta for many years, renewed connections with Hadhramaut and Dar al-Mustafa in the 1990s saw many members of the community embrace their religious identity and the practices of the Tariqa Alawiyah. Habib became increasingly important and influential religious scholars and the shrines of leading preachers such as Habib Ali Kwitang and Habib Gubah al-Haddad (Mbah Priok) were revitalised. Prayer groups like majelis taklim and majelis zikir also grew in popularity.

Majelis Rasulullah and FPI

A significant figure in the Tariqa Alawiyah revitalisation project was Habib Munzir al-Musawa. From the first generation of Dar al-Mustafa alumni, Munzir established Majelis Rasulullah, one of the most respected Sufi organisations in Jakarta between 2005 and 2013, with thousands of followers.


Munzir was arguably the most successful Dar al-Mustafa alumnus in Indonesia. He was known for his charismatic and tolerant personality, stating that it was permissible within Islam for Muslims to wish their Christian friends merry Christmas. He also established a friendship with the former US Ambassador to Indonesia, Scot Marciel, to promote tolerance. Marciel even attended a Majelis Rasulullah prayer event at the National Monument.


US Ambassador to Indonesia Scot Marciel and Habib Munzir al-Musawa. Photo by US Embassy Jakarta on Flickr.


Munzir was conscious of the fact that many Sayyid self-declared as Habib without adequate training in Islamic studies. Under Munzir, Majelis Rasulullah established certain ground rules for Habib who had just returned from Hadhramaut, covering how to preach, and what should and shouldn’t be said. Munzir forbid the use of offensive words in sermons, and the use of violence by any means. Sadly, Munzir died in September 2013, and his position in Majelis Rasulullah was filled by his less politically savvy brother Habib Nabiel al-Musawa, a former member of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). From 2014, Majelis Rasulullah’s influence began to wane.


Around the same time, Rizieq Shihab’s star was rising. In contrast with Munzir, Rizieq studied at Jakarta’s Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), a school founded by the Saudis. In 1990, Rizieq continued his education at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He returned to Indonesia and in 1998 founded FPI. The vigilante organisation quickly rose to prominence for its attacks on bars and nightclubs, and, more recently, on minority religions. In his fiery sermons, Rizieq often made crude and offensive comments.


Majelis Rasulullah and FPI represent the two main political streams in the Sayyid community. Majelis Rasulullah is focused on Sufi rituals and connections to Hadhramaut. It is accommodative of the ruling government, so long as the government makes room for its religious traditions and rituals. FPI, meanwhile, is more preoccupied with domestic politics – it seeks to control Muslim morality, and for the past few years has led campaigns against the lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Ahmadiyah, Chinese and Christian minorities, and has pushed for anti-alcohol and anti-pornography legislation.


FPI does not oppose Sufism, but it has readily formed coalitions with organisations like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), and controversial figures such as Abu Jibril and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who have condemned the religious traditions of the Tariqa Alawiyah as forbidden innovations (bid’ah) and idolatry.

The Habibs and Ahok

Majelis Rasulullah’s relationship with former Jakarta governor Ahok deteriorated when he refused to grant permission for its annual majelis taklim event at the National Monument. After years of ready access to the National Monument, Majelis Rasulullah elites were deeply insulted. For Majelis Rasulullah and other followers of the Sufi tradition, rituals at the National Monument were important symbols of their strength and influence. Past events have featured presidents Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Joko Widodo, other political leaders, military officials, and ambassadors, and sermons often make nods to nationalist narratives such as the United Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) or the archipelago (nusantara). Sometimes the national anthem is sung.


Following this affront, the perception that Ahok was anti-Islam grew within Majelis Rasulullah. Uninspiring leadership of the organisation after the death of Munzir, and its relative detachment from national politics, saw many young Sayyid and Habib turn to Rizieq and FPI. They saw FPI as the only organisation willing to step up and respond to the crisis with the Jakarta governor.


FPI attracted massive support from Habib, the Sayyid and mainstream Muslim communities for standing up to Ahok during the Jakarta election. But it remains an open question whether the organisation will be able to hold on to this support.


Senior members of Majelis Rasulullah, the al-Fachriyah pesantren and other small majelis taklim led by Dar al-Mustafa alumni recognise that they had their hands off the wheel and lost ground to FPI. They have now begun working to consolidate internally, by limiting political discussions in majelis taklim, and strengthening rituals like zikir and Mawlid.


So, for example, a Majelis Rasulullah Habib from Rawa Belong, West Jakarta, said: “The election was exhausting, it pitted Muslims against Muslims, we lost our value. Now Ahok is no longer governor and we have regained access to the National Monument, there is no need for further protests, now is time for zikir.” Similarly, al-Facriyah chair Habib Jindan attended Mawlid celebrations at the Presidential Palace in Bogor on the invitation of President Jokowi.


These efforts are important but unlikely to be enough. Even though Rizieq is in exile in Saudi Arabia, he is still campaigning through social media and his followers remain loyal, believing he has been targeted with trumped up charges by the Jokowi regime.


As long as no strong charismatic figures emerge from alternative Sayyid organisations like Majelis Rasulullah or al-Fachriyah, Rizieq Shihab will continue to be the most influential Habib in Jakarta.