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     Volume 7 Issue 41 | October 17, 2008 |

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Religion vs Spirituality

Ary Hermawan

In what is often said to be the Age of Uncertainty, many people are desperately seeking spiritual enlightenment.

It is not surprising that a small survey conducted by Bale Sastra Kecapi in Greater Jakarta found that after love and romance, the most popular theme in contemporary literature was spirituality.

But what kind of spirituality do people seek from today's literature?

When asked about their notion of spirituality, 35 out of 100 literature lovers surveyed said it was about the inner self or psychology, 30 per cent said it was about God or theology, 23 per cent said it was about religion and 10 per cent said it was about mysticism.

When they were asked to name a number of Indonesian authors with strong spiritual elements in their works, however, half of the respondents surprisingly answered Habiburrahman el-Shirazy, the author of the highly successful novel Ayat-ayat Cinta (Love Verses).

The pesantren graduate is not only more popular, but his works, according to the survey, are now considered to be more spiritual than that of many of the country's literary giants.

The survey's results are indeed surprising. Some book lovers may consider Ayat-ayat Cinta to be more religious than spiritual, especially when compared to the works of renowned Sufi poets like Abdul Hadi WM, who ironically gained the least supporters.

"I feel like I'm being preached at by the book," Eko Lystyorini said when asked about her opinion on Habiburrahman's novel.

"That's why I don't like that novel," the Jakarta-based online journalist said, adding she looked for spirituality rather than religion in novels.

Eko loves Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, author of the best-selling novel The Alchemist. She has just finished another of his novels, Brida.

"Paulo gives me new insights into life that I never knew before. I always learn something new from his novels."

According to Eko, Andrea Hirata, the author of critically acclaimed novel Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warrior), is the most spiritually enlightening Indonesian author.

The survey corresponds with the rise of Islamic art and the rising influence of religion on pop culture today.

Over the past two decades, Indonesia has seen a religious revival among the younger generation. Religious novels, which in the late 1980s circulated within limited religious groups in mosques and universities, have become a new trend.

Visit any bookstore and you will find religious novels ubiquitously scattered in the literature section. Musafir Cinta (The Traveller of Love), a novel by Taufiqurrahman al-Azizy, is now catching up with Habiburrahman's work.

Unlike the latter, the former, as part of a marketing strategy, is confident enough to use a subtitle, "A Spiritual Novel to Build Faith".

These religious novels are known as sastra Islam (Islamic literature), a phrase coined and promoted by a number of popular female Muslim authors like Asma Nadia and Helvy Tiana Rosa, long before the success of novels like Ayat-ayat Cinta.

They, like Habiburrahman, believe that a literary work has a mission to, in their own words, dakwah (Islamic propagation).

Not all Muslim authors are happy with the emergence of Islamic literature as a literary genre. Some say it implies that other literature genres are not Islamic.

Some even reject the idea on the belief that literature should be free from the bondage of religious dogmas.

Speaking at a seminar at Bentara Budaya Jakarta recently, Muslim scholar Yudi Latif from the Centre of Humanities and State Studies and cultural critic St Sunardi said the public were unable to differentiate spirituality from religion. The two terms may not be compatible, they said.

Spirituality, they said, is personal, liberating, inclusive and pluralistic, while religion, on the other hand, is more impersonal, dogmatic, exclusive and homogeneous.

"Religion is actually detrimental to the spiritual development of the self," Yudi said, adding that spirituality transcended religions.

The two intellectuals argued that religious novels, including so-called Islamic literature, could be at odds with spirituality.

This does not mean that what is spiritual is preferable to what is religious.

Jonru, a writer and proponent of Islamic literature, said religious novels were becoming more popular because they were considered enlightening by their readers and they encouraged the readers to change for the better.

"I think we can categorise all religious novels as spiritual literature, be it Islamic or Christian literature," he said in defences of the genre.

He argued that the existing opinion that most religious novels were being too "preachy" was a matter of personal judgment and therefore depended on the way the readers read them.

"I did not find Ayat-ayat Cinta preachy and I think the authors from the Islamic literature genre are now more careful and trying not to sound preachy in conveying their message," he said.

Despite the public's confusion over the usage of the word "spiritual", the religious and the spiritual -- as understood by Yudi and Sunardi -- are competing in the literature market.

Irish author Oscar Wilde once said that "all art is quite useless", believing in the idea of "art for art's sake". But in Indonesia today, art is expected not only to entertain but also to enlighten its beholders.

Laskar Pelangi, Ayat-ayat Cinta, or even Ayu Utami's latest novel, Bilangan Fu (Fu Number), are perhaps aimed at the same group of readers. It is up to readers, however, to discern which novel is spiritually enlightening.

Courtesy: The Jakarta Post, Asian News Network.

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