Smartphone Baraka: Technological Transference

Indonesians reach to touch Habib Syech’s hand, drink from his cup, and interact with his presence.

By James Edmonds

I had already sat for several hours, gently sweating, as thousands of people arrived at an open-air building in Solo, Indonesia. The streets outside were full of pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, buses, and the smell of fried tofu. People pressed into the building; some took seats close to the front, while others went to the second level to rest after a long twelve-hour trek, and some stood, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the man they had come to see.

Unceremoniously, Habib Syech bin Abdul Qodir Assegaf appeared. He began to walk through the crowds of people, heading toward the front of the building. Along the way, Habib Syech passed out small amounts of cash to the children, shook some hands, and slipped through the many others reaching to touch him. He eventually made it to the front of the building and sat down, immediately stoking the incense coals prepared for his arrival. Habib Syech asked if audience members had any questions, and for the next two hours he responded to queries about banking, proper Islamic practice, and a wide range of other topics. And then, suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed.

The above photo shows one of Habib Syech’s events, which brought around 30,000 people to an open field in East Java, Indonesia. Each individual light represents a camera phone, though plenty of attendees choose to record without their phone lights on.

Habib Syech reached for a microphone and began singing. He is a difficult figure to clearly define, but he typically travels around Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Taiwan to perform sholawat (sung praises about the virtues of prophet Muhammad) accompanied by 20-30 musicians. The crowd lurched forward, and several limbs became embedded in my back and side. During the question-and-answer session I had come close to dozing off, but I was now fully awake, even as the room grew intensely silent, audience members gazing at Habib Syech. Along with their gazes, they also directed camera phones in his direction. Some individuals were holding two or three recording devices to capture this 90-second performance by Habib Syech. A surprise to me during one of my first field site visits to the Habib’s building, camera phones became a constant presence at all events involving this figure.

The prevalence of camera phones may not seem striking at first. After all, we live in a world of constant recording and sharing. Yet these recordings of Habib Syech rarely make it to places like Facebook or YouTube. Of course, some people do share them, but this is not the overwhelming norm. Furthermore, I observed that audience members often recorded longer and longer amounts of Habib Syech’s performances each time they attended one. I met individuals who seemed to have a new recording every night because they followed Habib Syech around to various events across Indonesia. What were they trying to capture?  

Although some people who recorded multiple performances of Habib Syech share them on social media and with friends, I think there is something more going on in this practice of repetitive recording.

To understand this, I would like to turn to a fountain that lies at the center of the building in Solo. It is not an overly ornate fountain, and there is not always water running through it, but one day long before an event was going to begin, I saw two children and their mother filling up water bottles from it. I asked a caretaker of the building why they were filling up the bottles, and he said that people often do it because they think the water has baraka

The fountain imbued with baraka as people begin to arrive for a nightly event. 

Baraka, a concept rooted in the Quran and controversial in some Muslim schools of thought, is often simply translated as “blessings.” It is generally understood as a type of spiritual force brought to Earth by Allah that can move through people, rain, places, and recitation of the Quran. The woman gathering water may be seeking to attain baraka, but she herself cannot know if the water has baraka, as that is ultimately up to Allah. The use of water as an interface for baraka is not new to Indonesia or the Islamic world. So, I began to wonder: are these recordings operating in the same way?

As I traveled with Habib Syech across Indonesia and began to complete longer interviews with different interlocutors, it became very clear to me that people came to his performances for baraka. Along with this realization came the additional task of trying to understand what this spiritual force was doing, or at least how it operated. However, my interviewees continually told me that baraka could not be apprehended through understanding.

I am still investigating what baraka means in the context of Indonesia and contemporary Islamic practice. In observing how it might be captured, I see the appearance of camera phones in the hot summer afternoon in Solo as not simply an act of recording, but an attempt to perhaps imbue baraka in these videos, which are then played throughout an individual’s day. People take the videos and replay them in the car, at work, as ringtones, and at home hoping—like the woman gathering water—that they might contain baraka.

The spiritual force perceived to be in the camera phone recordings could be a feeling that makes the individual “want to be more devout.” It might also manifest in a way that economically benefits the individual, or it may help heal them. However understood, this practice of recording is a new tactic for living Islamically in Indonesia that marries the material advances of the camera phone with the ambiguous spiritual force of baraka, creating a religious practice with new possibilities for interactions between the divine and material in everyday life.   

James Edmonds is a PhD student in Religious Studies at Arizona State University.