Adapting Indonesian Islam to the Gulf: An Ethnographic Study of Indonesian Imams in Qatar

By Ady Candra
Submitted to Session P4881 (Rethinking Wahhabism in the Gulf, 2017 Annual Meeting
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Recent research on Indonesians in the Gulf (Diederich 2005; Irianto and Truong 2014; Nurchayati 2011; Silvey, 2007) has focused primarily on socio-economic aspects. Few scholars have been interested in exploring the religious dimensions of this migratory process. This paper thus seeks to fill a gap in the literature by examining how Indonesian Sunni Imams - with their diverse backgrounds and conflicting interpretations of Islam – adapt and negotiate their religious commitments when they migrate to the cultural and religious context of Qatar.

For over a decade now religious scholars affiliated to Qatar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs have traveled to Indonesia in order to examine and select local candidates seeking work as imams in Qatar’s understaffed mosques. Indonesian imams who make it to Qatar work as muezzins, leading prayers during weekdays and delivering religious classes to the Indonesian expat community in their spare time. Two groups of Indonesian imams can be readily identified: the Nahdliyyin, who belong to the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, and the Salafis, who are not affiliated to a single movement.

Drawing on fieldwork undertaken in Qatar in 2015, I show how ideological and doctrinal commitments shape the imams’ access to religious networks, prospects of social mobility, and relations with the Qatari state and the broader Indonesian expat community. Salafis migrate to Qatar excited at the prospect of living in a pure Islamic state find their expectations difficult to reconcile with the realities of the country, even though they are supported by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Nahdliyyin, by contrast, typically arrive with low expectations. While they keep their heterodox rituals private, they thrive in the community spaces of the Indonesian expat population where such practices are valorized. When conflicts between Salafis and Nahdliyyin erupt, imams derive their authority from different sources. While the Salafis can appeal to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Nahdliyyin are able to rely on the supportive networks of the Indonesian community.