Review | Divine Inspirations: Music and Islam in Indonesia edited by David D. Harnish and Anne K. Rasmussen

Divine Inspirations: Music and Islam in Indonesia. Edited by David D. Harnish and Anne K. Rasmussen. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. [Xxiii, 383 p., Hardcover $99.00; Paper, $35.00; Ebook, $26.99.] Illustrations, notes, references, glossary, inde

Reviewed by Elizabeth McLean Macy


Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, boasts a diverse range of musical and performing arts. Though virtually synonymous with the noted “global aural presence” of gamelan traditions of Java and Bali (representative of widespread international and ethnomusicological interest in gong-chime music) (Mendonça 2011:56), the Indonesia archipelago’s historical Islamic influences are evidenced in its contemporary soundscape, where syncretic religions flourish and Islam’s influence continues to grow. Co-editors and contributors David D. Harnish and Anne K. Rasmussen seek to fill a void in Indonesian music scholarship in their edited collection, Divine Inspirations: Music and Islam in Indonesia. In addressing expressive cultural practices in Muslim Indonesia, Harnish and Rasmussen have curated a collection of essays by leading scholars on the Indonesian performing arts that calls attention to this often overlooked and underrepresented aspect of Indonesian culture. Divided into four overlapping sections, an introduction, and epilogue by Judith Becker, the essays in Divine Inspirations address themes as varied as history, regional diversity, gender, tradition, movement, reception, globalization, performativity, modernity, politics, and morality. Successfully placing the music of Islam within the context of Indonesian culture, this volume provides a basis for understanding the Islamic sound world of Indonesia, but also for contextualizing the place of Muslim Indonesia in the global sphere. Moreover, it directs readers toward what Harnish and Rasmussen hope will be a “gateway to a new way of understanding not only Indonesian Islamic musics but also Indonesian Islam and the interdependence of religion and music” (34). In doing so, the relationship between music and Islam in Indonesia (where “the soundscape of Islam is constant and unmistakable” [25]) is illuminated through ethnographic studies of performance across a range of styles, genres, regions, communities, and issues. Reflective of the rich sonic environment that is Indonesia today, the collection provides a framework for considering the role of Islam in contemporary performance. Furthermore, this book provides a necessary and engaging addition to scholarship on Indonesian music – an addition that is both timely and provocative.

Bookended by an in-depth introduction to Islam in Indonesia and an insightful and nuanced epilogue by Becker, the book is divided into four parts: “Tensions and Change,” “Mysticism and Devotion,” “Global Currents and Discourse,” and “Contemporary Performative Worlds.” Notably, Harnish and Rasmussen have assembled essays by Indonesianists across the globe whose work engages directly with Islam and the arts, and the ways in which the two collide and coincide. Exploring issues of influence, adaptation, and indigenization, these eleven scholars present case studies reflecting the country’s diversity itself.

Providing historical context, a framework for the text, and commentary on the material, the introduction (by Harnish and Rasmussen) and epilogue (by Becker) establish the importance and necessity of this collection. Becker’s claim that Islam is “increasingly important as a marker of Indonesian identity, both internally and to the outside world” (352) references the growing importance of Islam in Indonesia, but also hints at the role it plays in the Indonesian sound world. To that end, the text as a whole encompasses this idea.

Focusing on the varied relationship of music and Islam in Indonesia, Divine Inspirations fosters a wide-ranging glimpse into a range of performance and expressive arts from the islands of Java, Lombok, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, with each case study illuminating differences in the ways that Islam and music interact and intersect across parts of Indonesia. In Part I, “Tensions and Change,” Sumarsam and Harnish explore traditional arts, focusing on transformations and the navigation of imposed tensions through performance contexts (including Javanese gamelan and wayang kulit, and localized Islamic music styles in Lombok). Part II, “Mysticism and Devotion,” features essays by Rasmussen, Matthew Isaac Cohen, and Uwe U. Pätzold that interact more directly with Islamic texts and spirituality. Addressing issues related to gender, Sufism, and the physical embodiment of Islam, this section focuses on the practice of Islam in its varied forms (Islamic musical practice among women in Indonesia, mystical brai performance, and the practice of penck silat).  Part III, “Global Currents and Discourse,” draws on the work of Charles Capwell, Birgit Berg, and Wim van Zanten, who examine globalization and contemporary thought in relation to Indonesian Islamic music cultures (through the international Jakarta-based group Debu, orkes gambus, and Sundanese Islam-inspired group Ath-Thawaf). The final section of the book, “Contemporary Performative Worlds,” looks at performance in modern and popular music. Margaret Kartomi, R. Franki S. Notosudirdjo, and Andrew N. Weintraub approach contemporary musical expression in Indonesia as an embodiment of Islamic issues, politics, and modernity in their examinations of ratéb meuseukat (the Acehnese sitting dance), contemporary music and compositions, and dangdut.

What becomes evident in these collected essays is that Islam in Indonesia, and its influence on music production, performance, and consumption, is not easily defined. In her closing commentary, Becker outlines four main recurring themes in the anthology: emphasis on a global style of Islam, tensions between traditional and modern approaches to Islam, the role of women in music associated with Islam, and the public performance of Islamic rituals (337). Unified across these multiple themes, this volume portrays Islam’s influence on the music in Indonesia as one that takes varied forms – from the tangible to the intangible, and everything in between.

An added component and possible standout feature of the book is the password-protected, companion website, available through Oxford University Press. Developed to provide graphics, video clips, and web resources to further illustrate the text, each author utilizes it to varying degrees. The potential, however, to maintain a current collection of primary source media is great. Building on the published material, the ease of updating and expanding the website could prove a valuable addition for a collection of this pioneering nature, allowing updates to the text, but also the possibility of changing audio and visual examples over time. While the volume itself is limited in scope (covering only four islands), it opens the door for further exploration of the nation’s soundscape.

In Divine Inspirations, Harnish and Rasmussen have positioned Indonesia as a vital and vibrant part of the Muslim world. With its multi-faceted examination of the Indonesian Islamic sound world, the book is positioned to become a seminal text on music and Islam. Overwhelmingly, this collection piqued my interest as both an Indonesianist and an ethnomusicologist. In my own teaching, this anthology has already proven useful for students interested in music and Islam in Indonesia, but it is equally applicable for those looking to understand the practice of Islam around the world.



Mendonça, Maria. 2011. “Gamelan Performance Outside Indonesia ‘Setting Sail’: Babar Layar and Notions of ‘Bi-musicality.’” Asian Music 42

"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.