Night At The Mosque

May 9, 2022 | | By Anwar Kurniawan

A neighbourhood mosque in Yogyakarta | 2000 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Lise Isles

‘Bro – what are the rules on using witchcraft to make an out-of-favour mosque more popular?’

This question – a joke, yes, but encapsulating something serious, too – I heard on a video with the tongue-in-cheek name ‘Lost Youth Short Talks’. It was presided over by the famous Indonesian preacher and YouTuber Habib Husein Ja’far Al-Hadar, who is 33 years old and known for wearing distinctly-millennial clothing, most notably hoodies.

On his YouTube channel, The Comic Council of Indonesia, Habib Husein regularly answers questions from a group called ‘Muslims Without Mosques’ – in other words, the new generation of Muslims, born in the late 20th or early 21st centuries, whose knowledge of religion comes not from conventional Islamic institutions like mosques, pesantrens or madrasahs but from magazines, radio, television, DVDs, and most of all now, the internet. These things, instead of formal institutions, are their main sources as they interpret and embrace their religion.

You might not suspect it, but this question comes from a very real place – from a very tangible sense of disquiet.

Well, look, it at least represents my discomfort as a member of the global Islamic ummat who – my apologies – rarely spends much time at mosques. It’s not because I’m anti-mosque, but because I can’t be bothered enduring there imams who are too egotistical.

One day, late-afternoon, heavy rain was inundating Yogyakarta. By coincidence I was on Jalan Kaliurang – a major north-south thoroughfare – en route to meet up with somebody. Rather than getting drenched, I concluded that taking shelter was the wiser choice.

Soon, though, it was time for Maghrib, the sunset prayer. All Muslims ought now to find a place to pray. Since I was out and about, that meant doing so in a mosque. 

The rain was still heavy though. I was compelled to be patient, huddling underneath the shelter of a fresh milk store that had closed for the day. 

When finally there was a lull in the rain I hurriedly went off in search of a mosque, persevering through a continuous drizzle. 

Alhamdulillah, I found one in the district of Pogung. So you know, Pogung not only has the distinction of being the most expensive slab of land in the locality, it’s also an area that’s not simple to get around. Apart from the anarchism of lots of speed-humps – in Bahasa Indonesia ‘speed-humps’ are referred to as ‘sleeping policemen’ – Pogung has so many narrow laneways its difficulty level rivals Australia’s Ashcombe Maze.

All this is to say that no sooner had I come across a mosque than I gratefully raced inside. I hurriedly did my ablutions, then stood for the three rakat movements of the Maghrib prayer. The space was about as wide as the statue of Monas in Jakarta. Above, a minaret stretched into the sky.

After the prayer (Maghrib takes a relatively short amount of time) drizzle started coming down again, then proceeded to get heavier and heavier – a sign, I guess, that it had again ceased being drizzle and reverted to rain. So I abandoned my intention of continuing my travels.

Then it was time for Isha, the night-prayer. The echo of the azan, unable to be ignored, squeezed-out my instinct to keep mobile. Like it or not, I should join the congregational prayer happening at this neighbourhood mosque. I performed my ablutions again, then entered the mosque again. So far, this was still a normal situation.  

10 minutes passed. Then, a man who had been sitting cross-legged on the floor stood up and stepped toward the microphone connected to the mosque’s loudspeakers. It was time for iqomah, the second call to prayer, said immediately before the prayer itself begins. I stood up, made my way to the front row of congregants, then settled in the right-hand corner. As I recall, attendance at this night-prayer was about 30 men and 20 women, about average for mosques in residential neighbourhoods of Java.

It was time for the congregational prayer.

The imam, who looked quite young, appealed to us to ‘showwu shufufakum fa inna tasfiyata shufufii min tammami sholah’ – to straighten our ranks and shuffle closer together, because this constitutes a key component of prayer according to the Islamic texts. Then he began the Takbirah al-Ihram.

With great care, and extremely slowly, the imam began to read out the al-Fatihah surah. After the congregants, as one, called out ‘aamiin’ – always said at the end of that particular surah – he was silent a few seconds. Then, he began a recitation of another surah.

And would you believe it – it was Q.S. an-Nur!!!

And understand, this surah – this long surah – was read in full.

Instead of listening with devotion, I was, rather, annoyed and restless. Those feelings ballooned still-more after I became aware that the imam was performing his recitation in the way that the hafiz professionals read out the Quran on Indonesian television: melodious, lilting, overwrought, above all slow.

“But you know, it seems the rain tonight’s going to last a long time, Mas. Just like the recitation of that imam before”. The two of us laughed.

It appeared I was not the only one in the congregation who was irritated. Right next to me was an older man. He began to display a body language that would not have been out-of-place if somebody was wielding a sledgehammer nearby. The man’s body started to rock repetitively from side to side; his ankle began to jig up and down in impatience; finally, his mouth could not cease yawning. All typical signs that a person is not doing entirely fine. 

Unfortunately, such signs of discomfort radiating out from the congregation were insufficient to puncture the imam’s efforts. He, with haughtiness, continued to recite from the surah. Occasionally, he stopped for a minute. But just my luck, my expectations were faulty. The pauses, which I took to be signs of the recitation winding down and the bowing and prostrating part of the prayer beginning instead, actually facilitated the imam’s process of remembering the next verse.

Frankly, deep down, I was dreaming of rebellion. I was wanting desperately to yell out: ‘Qulhu ae lek’.

As someone who spent 10 years in a pesantren, an Islamic boarding school, run by Nahdlatul Ulama, the mass Islamic organisation strongest in the Javanese countryside, interrupting the imam is a practice I’m well-aquainted with. But if the same behaviour happens in an Islamic gathering in big cities it will become a polemic.  

Usually the santri, the pesantren kids, show no reluctance about telling the imam if his conducting of prayers is considered unreasonable. The most heavy-duty way of doing this is to use the phrase ‘qulhu ae lek’, a request that the imam change to the Al-Ikhlas Surah, which is very short. In practice, ‘qulhu ae lek’ is a way of suggesting to the imam that he soon end his recitation if it’s judged to be too slow, melodic and drawn-out.

But: I realised now I had one other option, even more extreme. Because my stomach, which out of the blue had begun refusing all offers of compromise, was now indicating a desire to expel a pent-up gust of robust good health, thus providing me with philosophical grounds for walking out. There’s a technical term for walking out in this way – mufaraqah, meaning to separate yourself from the imam and do the prayer yourself.

An action of mufaraqah happened in the era of Nabi Muhammad, as it turns out. When it occurred, the imam for the congregational prayer was a Companion of the Prophet named Muadh ibn Jabal. Sources in the Islamic literature say Muadh read the al-Baqarah surah.  

FYI, completing all of the al-Baqarah surah takes, at best, about two lots of 45 minutes. That’s if the imam has actually memorised it; if he hasn’t, naturally it takes longer. At least that was the average duration of recitations in the pesantren where I lived in the mid-2010s – if you don’t believe me, please, try it out yourself and see. Due to Muadh’s choice of surah, a congregant decided to mufaraqah and instead repeat the prayer by himself.

So it was pretty reasonable that the ummat of the time complained to Nabi Muhammad.

‘Oh Messenger of Allah, we are labourers who work all day, and Muadh chooses to recite to us the al-Baqarah surah’, they protested.

To Muadh, Nabi Muhammad said: ‘Do you wish to compel people to run from religion, oh Muadh? If you want to lead the congregational prayer, read the surahs Asy-Syams, Adh-Dhuha, Al-A’laa, Al-‘Alaq, or Al-Lail’ – which are shorter.

Anyway, but… well, but I’m not a Companion of the Prophet. For the common good, I decided to abandon my intention to mufaraqah. Perhaps I’d be accused of being from a deviant sect. That’d be a real pain.

Long story short, I reckon the Isha prayer that night took roughly 15 minutes: about 5 minutes for the first rakat, five minutes for the second rakat, then for the two final rakats about two and a half minutes each. That’s a rough guess, anyway. It might have been longer. I don’t believe this is a normal amount of time for the Isha prayer to take in a small neighbourhood mosque in Indonesia.

Frankly, the Isha prayer that night was the most unenjoyable congregational prayer I’ve ever been a part of.

So after the imam was finally finished, I had every intention of promptly getting out of there. Together with several others I threw a longing glance at the mosque’s exit. Only, seeing that the natural world had still not satisfied its needs, my intention to hurry off was for the upteenth time cancelled.

‘Waiting for the rain, Mas?’ 

A baritone voice greeted my ears. It was the old guy who earlier had been praying next to me. 

‘Oh no Pak. I’m waiting for it to stop. I don’t need to wait for rain, it’s already raining’.

Photo: Anwar Kurniawan

At this, we both laughed.

‘But you know, it seems the rain tonight’s going to last a long time, Mas. Just like the recitation of that imam before’. The two of us laughed again.

I wonder if laughing is the most potent cultural tool we have. By laughing, people can banish and forget the past; by laughing, people can become happy; by laughing, tragedy can become inseparable from comedy. And by laughing, me and this old guy were agreeing and accepting that we had become ‘lost’ in this mosque tonight.

The next time I watched a YouTube discussion of whether an unpopular mosque should use witchcraft, I felt even more represented by the question of that other ‘lost youth’, Habib Husein Ja’far al-Hadar.

For me, I think the real purpose of that discussion was wider and more metaphorical. It was not, at heart, a discussion about black magic or calling on the occult. Going ahead and doing something to enliven a mosque that’s not seeing many visitors could be as simple as a mosque that chooses to see the human in humanity, a mosque that understands the diversity of its congregation and doesn’t make them endure any egotism from the imams in leadership positions there. 

Because religion is supposed to make life easier, not more difficult. So a ‘popular’ mosque should be one that takes a reasonable attitude to the completion of prayers. 

If that happens, people will be happy to attend mosque. And attend again. There’s a term in marketing for that: repeat orders.

‘Oh hey, by the way Mas’, said the old guy beside me – ‘earlier, during the Maghrib prayer, I saw you finished it pretty quickly?’

‘Yeah, Pak. I’ve already memorised it, you see’.

The two of us laughed again. 

© Anwar Kurniawan

English translation © Lise Isles

About The Author

Anwar Kurniawan

Anwar Kurniawan is an editor at and a student at the University of Gadjah Mada.

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