Islam and local culture: An interplay

Celebrations marking the Prophet’s birthday on the Indonesian island of Lombok are a delicate but complementary dance of orthodoxy and customary beliefs.

Islam and local culture: An interplay PHOTOS COURTESY OF ERNI BUDIWANTI

God loves variety

If He didn’t, then He would create only

one color of flower,

one species of bird,

one human race,

and the world would be an entirely boring place to live in

(King Suleiman of the Ottoman dynasty)


The birthday of Prophet Muhammad is commonly celebrated in nations with majority and minority Muslim populations. On the eastern Indonesian island of Lombok, the majority group, the Sasak, ritualize this event in accordance with their own traditions, further cementing the harmony between local customs and the universal tenets of Islam. Localized Islam is appealing and finds its best expression when the birth of Prophet Muhammad is celebrated. The Maulud celebration reflected in this essay involves Muslims living in Lenek and Songak in East Lombok, Selebung in Central Lombok, and Bayan to the north.

A historical glimpse

The birth of Prophet Muhammad (Maulud Nabi) was first celebrated by the Fatimid caliphate in the Middle East (909-1171). The Fatimids introduced milad (birthday) to the people they ruled with the aim of building public support and an image based upon a blood connection between their family dynasty and the Prophet. This affirmation was the cornerstone of their political legitimacy to lead the Muslim community via the bloodline from the Prophet to them. Commemorating Maulud implies a preserved claim to both genealogical ties to the Prophet and political validation of the right and authority to rule. The use of the royal name, “Fatimidyah” or “Fatimid,” derived from the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, clearly indicates the need to refer to the genealogical link to the Prophet.

The Fatimiyah dynasty seized power in Egypt in the year 362 of the Hijri, the Islamic calendar, with Al Muiz Lidinillah as its first ruler. At the beginning of his rule, the king celebrated the birthdays of six distinguished figures – including the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, two grandsons and the king himself – in a single event, taking place on the 12th of Rabiul Awal. During his reign, this unified celebration became an annual tradition. After Lidinillah passed away in 487 Hijri and was succeeded by his son, King Al-Afdal, the annual commemoration was stopped until Afdal’s death in 515 Hijri. Afdal was succeeded by his son, King Al Amir Liahkamillah, who restored and solidified the legacy of celebrating Maulud. The Islamic historian al-Maqrizi noted that that the king and his family used to distribute food and give sodaqo (charity and alms) to the public.

A second version says that the Prophet's birthday was originally celebrated as a means to raise the spirits of Muslims. At that time, Muslims were struggling to defend themselves against European Crusaders coming from France, Germany and England. Sultan Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi of the Bani Ayyub dynasty, who ruled Egypt from AD 1174 to1193 (570-590 Hijri), brought back Maulud to elevate the spirit of jihad against Christian Crusaders. His royal territory stretched from Egypt to Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. Salahuddin said the morale of Muslims should be revived by means of reinforcing their love for the Prophet. He called on Muslims around the Islamic world to commemorate the Prophet’s birth on 12 Rabi al-Awwal.

The motives to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday evolved through the centuries and today it is celebrated throughout Muslim communities, including in Indonesia. Nearly 50 nations officially recognize the Prophet’s birthday as a public holiday – including countries where the Muslim community is a minority.

The interplay

Religion entails both textual and scriptural aspects, underlying the attitude of its believers. Embedded in the textual aspects of religion is a belief system, a set of values, norms, rules of conduct, morals, ethical principles, precepts giving guidelines about the dos and don’ts, and the behavior of followers (Odea 1970, Giddens, Nanda 1991).

The textual aspects of religion are the informative resources or basic explanations of the tenets, taking the form of sacred scriptures or holy books, revealed to the messengers or prophets. Whereas the contextual aspects of religion involve patterns and modes of codified behavior, and there is a series of ritual conduct from the interpretation of scriptures, adjusted to specific social and geographical settings.

A slight variation in the way Islam is expressed and observed is a common phenomenon, although the principles that

underlie religious acts remain the same. For instance, Sasak Muslims in Lombok are accustomed to wearing a sarong and songkok (a Muslim cap) when observing daily prayers. Other Muslims in Indonesia might wear different clothes in accordance with their own local customs. Yet, the universal religious purpose is the same: performing prayers in clothes that follow the standardized requirement of covering the aurot (the intimate parts of the body, for men defined as the area from the navel to the knees).

Another example is the observance of Ramadan, which is universal in the Muslim world. Yet in Lombok, this obligation is elaborated with the local customary practice of ziarah (visiting the graves of deceased family members) a day before and after the fasting month, and exchanging meals (betukah or betukahan) a few minutes before breaking the fast. These distinct local traditions resulted from intermarriage between universal Islamic tenets and unique customary practices.

Procession of the Sabuk Belo

The Sasak Muslims of Lenek, in East Lombok, emulate the spirit of brotherhood through a processional marching ceremony called the “upacara sabuk belo.” Literally, upacara means “ceremony,” sabuk means “belt” and belo means “long.” A sabuk belo is 25-meter-long metal chain. In Maulud, the chain is carried by men, women and children from Lenek’s mosque to nearby villages, symbolically representing the unbroken ties of brotherhood. In Lenek’s understanding, the brotherhood of mankind exceeds the boundaries of ethnicity, nationality, religion and culture.

A day after the procession, on the 13th of Rabiul Awal, the people of Lenek give food to pets, cattle and poultry, and water plants. This symbolically represents the Prophet’s unconditional love for all living creatures. The end of Maulud is marked with the gathering of a ritual congregation for a communal meal in Lenek’s mosque.

Maulud in Songak

Unlike the Sasak in Lenek, for the Muslims living in Songak, also in East Lombok, Maulud means producing coconut oil, which is then used to cleanse ancestral heirlooms. These rituals are underlined by the belief that the Prophet’s birth is marked by tuah, or sacred

blessings. The ancestors of Songak’s people first made ointments (jeleng) from coconut milk mixed with numerous herbal leaves, flowers and thorns.

Making coconut oil involves dozens of men breaking coconut shells, peeling the skin, and scraping and squeezing the skin to extract the juice, which is then boiled to create the oil. A ritual slaughtering of hens and cockerels takes place during the boiling process.

Menjeleng (making coconut oil) and cleansing heirlooms (ngokop) are customary rituals that are not recognized in universal Islam. Yet, Islamic prayers, taken from the Koran, are used to bless these rituals and validate traditional practices. Such Indonesian Maulud events are used to create a distinct local variation of religious practices that are unfamiliar to and unrecognized by Muslims elsewhere in the world.

Maulud tradition among Orthodox Muslims

Unlike adat-oriented Muslims in Lombok and elsewhere in Indonesia, who retain local customary practices and traditions, orthodox Muslims in Batukliang subdistrict, in Central Lombok, observe Maulud by inviting religious leaders to deliver sermons in their main mosque. Listening to these sermons is the main event marking Maulud among the orthodox Muslim community there. The sermons reference Muhammad’s prophecies and message to all mankind.

Comparatively speaking, Maulud celebrations among Lombok’s orthodox Muslims are strong with religious messages, while for adat-oriented communities, Maulud means continuing ancestral traditions. It is a display and revival of ancestral beliefs, elaborated through ritual details such as the invocation of ancestral spirits for their blessing through ritual processions, and preparing ritual meals. It also has a pragmatic purpose, such as making herbal oils for medication.


Local practices to mark Maulud display the unique variety of cultural traits embedded in localized Islam on Lombok. The juxtaposition between universal Islam (recognition of the Prophethood) and customary traditions is seen within a limited geographical area such as Lombok, with its historical setting and sociocultural context. The different practices remain intertwined. In areas such as Bayan, in North Lombok, marking the Prophet’s birth coincides with the local practice of venerating deceased relatives. They appreciate the Prophet’s birth by invoking ancestral spirits to receive their blessings.

The cultural observance of Maulud in villages across Lombok also shows that the island’s Sasak Muslims are not a homogenous social entity. Local communities express their adherence to Islam, while trying to build a cohesive society bonded by ancestral tradition.



Erni Budiwanti is a senior researcher at the Center of Regional Resources, at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta

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