Review of: Jeremy J. Kingsley, Religious Authority and Local Governance in Eastern Indonesia

By Kevin W. Fogg

For many travellers to Indonesia, Lombok is gaining a name as a new vacation destination. Just east of Bali, with gorgeous beaches, upscale resorts, and the best volcano hike in the archipelago (truly, Mt. Rinjani is a wonder!), the island has a growing reputation for tropical get-aways. However, for those who have seen beyond just the tourist infrastructure, Lombok is known as a deeply religious society. The Sasak ethnic community, which makes up the majority of Lombok’s population, centres social life around Islam, religious schools, and Islamic leaders, and one Indonesian moniker for this place is ‘Island of a Thousand Mosques.’

It is this pious and local side of Lombok life that Jeremy J. Kingsley chronicles and examines in his book Religious Authority and Local Governance in Eastern Indonesia. In fact, the ‘eastern Indonesia’ in the title is only Lombok; the author did not do fieldwork elsewhere in eastern Indonesia, and most comparative cases are drawn from around the Muslim world, not necessarily from Indonesia. Even on Lombok, Kingsley does not try to survey religious life—although he is in the Faculty of Business and Law at Swinburne (Australia), his methods are clearly the close ethnography of a single research site. This means that the book is rooted in a fine-grained study of a local religious community, with theory and broad comparative cases to translate this case study into bigger ideas about the centrality of religious authorities in the regulation of daily life.

Kingsley paints a vivid picture of the community he studies. Almost 200,000 people are associated with the Darul Falah boarding school, on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Mataram, and the network that has been built among its graduates and the schools they have founded. The book is also clearly situated in Indonesia’s ‘Reformasi’ era—the period of open (and often chaotic) democracy after the fall of long-time military dictator Suharto. In a situation where government authority was weakened, social groups stepped into the vacuum (creating the context and setting up the theoretical approach described in chapter 1). The Islamic leaders of Lombok, called Tuan Guru, have ‘power and authority that is metaphysical in nature, far beyond a mere earthly authority.’ (chapter 2) During the Reformasi era, Tuan Guru have moved into electoral politics, and their influence ranges from political parties to government and social initiatives. Kingsley approaches the position of Tuan Guru with many comparative references, building a broader argument that religious leaders command absolute obedience from their followers through discursive, miraculous, and economic power (chapter 3).

Especially prominent religious leaders are able to establish large networks of influence, built on their former students, and the Darul Falah community in this book is a great example of a mid-size Islamic network in Indonesia. Kingsley unpacks the nature of this network, including a detailed description of a normal 24-hour period in the life of the Islamic boarding school (found in chapter 4) that could be easily excerpted as an introduction for students learning about Indonesia’s Islamic education system. In the final content chapter of the book (chapter 5), Kingsley reworks two previously published case studies: one on religious leaders in the 2008 provincial elections, and the other on the place of religion in a village-level conflict. The book’s conclusion (chapter 6) reemphasizes the centrality of Tuan Guru or religious authorities more broadly, arguing they ‘are often more important than the state in the lives of Sasak.’

No one will dispute Kingsley’s chops as a regional expert. He has collected and presented mounds of data from his fieldwork, conducted primarily in 2006-07, with subsequent shorter visits. There are some things, though—probably done to simplify the book for non-expert readers—that will look funny to those who know the Lombok context very well. These include calling the former governor Tuan Guru Bajang simply ‘Bajang’ (as though that were his name, and not the word ‘young’ as part of his popular nickname ‘young preacher’) and taking West Lombok as representative of the whole province. The greatest contributions here are the case study of a specific boarding school and the theoretical insights into the nature of authority.

For scholars of comparative law and governance, this book challenges us to think differently about the place of religion in social authority structures. For regional experts, this study expands our knowledge of Islamic life on Lombok and the place of religious authorities in Reformasi Indonesia. We should remember that for locals, Lombok is more a society of mosques and Islamic boarding schools than beaches and hikes, and this landscape of mosques and schools is organized under the authority of Tuan Guru, not the Indonesian state.

Image credit: Lombok by Blue Barnacle/Flickr; Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.