Praying for Forgiveness: Religious Ethics of Sustainability in Muslim Indonesia

Prayers and invocations are rich ground for developing the theory and practice of global Islamic environmental ethics. Religious activists and NGOs worldwide recast forms of ritual and devotional expression in terms of environmental intent. In Indonesia, for example, a religious leader of the permaculture movement in central Java has rendered an Islamic tradition of “asking for forgiveness” to be an initiative of sustainability. The practice seeks to “purify,” spiritually and structurally, global production and local consumption along the lines of Islamic and ecological ideals. This perpetuates old patterns of Islamic religious thought and practice. Additionally, in the context of the early 21st century, it also represents a longstanding heritage of Indonesian social critique.

Mr. Iskandar Waworuntu is currently developing a center called Bumi Langit near Jogjakarta, Central Java, Indonesia; his farm is in the area called Imo Giri, where the tombs of ancient kings of Java are located. Much of the language he uses to describe the project at Bumi Langit comes from the study of relatively recent English-language texts and materials about environmentalism and permaculture. According to Mr. Waworuntu, the center also encapsulates a religious environmental ethics. He is a convert to Islam who came to the faith also largely through the study of English-language materials about religion, especially the devotional and mystical traditions of Islam that are known as Sufism.

Mr. Waworuntu explains how “asking for forgiveness” is a religious response to the challenge of consumption in the video below. It was taken one evening during Ramadan, 1435 (July, 2014), at the time after maghrib prayer and right before isha’, as Mr. Waworuntu was on his way to lead communal prayer (tarawih) at a small village mosque. The discussion starts at time signature 1:45:

At time signature 2:45, Mr. Waworuntu identifies the ethical-environmental practice of purification as the old Islamic tradition of asking for God’s forgiveness (istighfar). In everyday practice, “astaghfirullah” is one of the most common formulas repeated in worship contexts (along with praise of God). It is also an expression frequently heard in daily speech among Muslims worldwide, typically whenever mentioning something of which there may be a religious attitude of disapproval.

There are many types of religious “purification” in Islam (including zakat of almsgiving, tahara of ritual ablution, etc.). Here, Mr. Waworuntu advocates using the formula in a distinctively ethical way. Like pronouncing the expression, “Bismillah” (“In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful”), in certain contexts, such as declaring meat to be halal (licit) for consumption according to Indonesian Shafiite conventions, here the formula, “astaghfirullah,” makes consumption licit in both a moral and an ecological sense. Mr. Waworuntu also describes this as an act of protection and as a prayer for “detachment” in his words, in terms of the “processes” and “products of industry.” Finally, at 4:20 Mr. Waworuntu articulates the prayer as a petition for deliverance from “oppression.” Many global Islamic ethicists and theologians use the Qur’anic notion of dhulm (oppression) to characterize ideals of social justice; while Mr. Waworuntu does not spell this point out here, the notion may easily be interpreted similarly in terms of environmental justice.

There is not, however, any explicit challenge or active resistance to such “oppression” voiced here, a point on which Sufis have been faulted many times in the modern era. Instead, at the end of the clip, Mr. Waworuntu addresses such questions by demonstrating how he applies Islamic ideals and intention to build a sustainable community that offers a self-conscious alternative to destructive spiritual and environmental structures. When taking into account religious and historical context, we can see how Mr. Waworuntu’s environmental act of “praying for forgiveness” draws as much on the English-language environmental movement, such as permaculture, as it does wider patterns in Islamic and Indonesian social ethics.

Muslim theory and practice of religious repentance date back to the earliest period of Islam; they have also been particularly significant across the religious and political landscape of Indonesia since the era called “reformasi” began in the 1990s. For example, environmental activists are now beginning to develop forms of “eco-Sufism” on Java following the model of a teacher from Baghdad known as Al-Muhasibi (d. 857). Al-Muhasibi’s nickname means “the accounter,” and for him, relentless self-scrutiny of faults was the first step on the spiritual path. Environmentalists adopt such regimes to awaken and revitalize environmental ethics today. Also in modern Indonesia after the end of the regime of President Suharto, public performances of dhikr (and “eco-dhikr”) as well as other Arabic devotional expression (including “eco-salawat”) have featured public performances of personal and shared contrition. These latter practices form a religious landscape for the environmental practice Mr. Waworuntu describes as “asking for forgiveness.”

A considerable share of popular contemporary religious music in Muslim Indonesia takes up this very theme of asking for God’s forgiveness (istighfar). Two examples of this are recent Indonesian sound recordings of the old standard, istighfar, sung by the superstars, Opick and Jefri Al Buchori. A popular recording of a public performance of repentance by the star preacher, Muh. Arifin Ilham, features collective weeping. In these examples, contemporary mainstream entertainment takes the form of a pious practice of remorse that is centuries old.

Another nashid (religious song) of repentance that has been a big pop hit in Indonesia since the 1990s is “Al-I’tiraf,” a composition attributed to the famous poet, Abu Nuwas (d. 814). Since the poet was also famous for an alleged fondness of drinking wine, it is not surprising that a popular work with a theme of contrition carries his name. The poem begins with words that mean,

O God, I don’t deserve your paradise
But I can’t withstand your hellfire
So allow me to repent and forgive my sins
As You are the Forgiver of Sins

Here is a contemporary, karaoke version of the verses of the renowned poem, as vocalized and enacted by the Indonesian religious pop star, Alwi Haddad:

This video above features purifying water as well as the inspiration of a “pure,” natural setting (here is another well-known recent version released by Opick).

Sung performances of this poem that begs for forgiveness in today’s Indonesia, however, may also underscore a tangible message of social justice. This has been the case, for example, with Emha Einun Naguib (“Kiai Kanjeng”), an acclaimed Javanese musician and poet who is known for social critique that frequently may take the form of reworked Arabic devotional and classical Javanese standards. The political potential of such expression is evident in an official video featuring the former President of the Republic of Indonesia (1999-2001), long-time figurehead of Nadhlatul Ulama, “Gus Dur” (Abdurrahman Wahid), singing “Al-I’tiraf” while also conveying a social message of community concern. When viewed this way, “prayers for forgiveness,” as part of Mr. Waworuntu’s environmental ethics, are as much a part of the heritage of Indonesian social critique as they are a continuation of more than a millennium of traditional Islamic religious expression.

Featured Image: Path leading up Mt. Merapi, near Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Taken By Anna M. Gade.

Anna M. Gade is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is currently completing a book manuscript, Islam and the Environment. She has been conducting academic fieldwork in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia for two decades. She is the author of two books on the Arabic Qur’an, and she is also the editor of a forthcoming volume on the comparative study of prayer in the academic study of religion. Website. Contact.

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