By Karim Raslan
Published on August 20, 2002
The Holy Koran opens with the words “Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim” – “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, The Compassionate.” The immortal phrase follows you wherever you are in the Islamic world – it’s inscribed on the walls of mosques and homes and yet very few people, let alone believers actually stop to consider its meaning.
Clearly, forgiveness is an integral part of Islam’s timeless message and the prominence with which these two qualities – mercy and compassion have been singled out from the Ninety-nine names of Allah has, over the centuries provided a source of reassurance and solace for believers.
But man is flawed and all too often practitioners have been anything but ‘forgiving’. Instead, faith and belief is reduced to little more than a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. In fact, contemporary Islamic practices in the Middle East (and especially the vein associated with Wahabism) appear to have sidelined the idea of forgiveness. Public debate – the Friday khutbah or sermon concentrates almost exclusively on transgression, on sin and on the suitability of punishment. Ritual has become all-important, assuming precedence along with a series of nasty ‘fire and brimstone’ lectures delivered by men (and occasionally women) who have no comprehension of humanity or a capacity for compassion.
However, the capacity to forgive and to be compassionate has not been entirely forsaken. Faith – true faith – can and does flourish in adversity, manifesting itself in the strangest places. Last month, in the heart Surabaya’s grimy, red-light district of Bangunsari – just ten minutes away from the bustling port of Tanjung Priok, I came across an understated couple who showed me – without realizing it themselves, that man hadn’t entirely failed to live up to the powerful and persuasive message.
Ustaz Khoirun with Suparti and Titin, photo by Rama Surya, Surabaya
Ustaz Khoiron and his wife Roudatul possess the quiet confidence of those who are truly religious. They are comfortable in themselves, they know that actions spoke louder than words: they don’t need to show off or pontificate.
I knew they were unusual even before I’d met them. I’d heard about the work they were doing in the lokalasasi (a designated area set aside for prostitution) – about the two schools they’d set up, the prayer classes and the ceramahs they organized as well as the impressive thirty-three meter high minaret that Khoiron had recently added to the local mosque. Located at the entrance to the lokalasasi, on the lane that brought many of the clients and ‘johns’ to Bangunsari, the Masjid al-Fatah’s striking minaret was an indication of the area’s growing sobriety: the encroaching world of the middle classes. Khoiron had also pointed out and proudly the small library alongside the mosque. In the evenings the building was as lively as one of the whorehouses, crammed with youngsters who had nowhere else to go.
Still, it took a simple and unexpected gesture by the forty-one year old Khoiron before I really sat up and took notice. At the time, I was observing a ceramah that Khoiron and a local community leader, Gusrianto arranged every Friday afternoon for the neighbourhood’s prostitutes. One of the girls (Linda, a 29-year old from Jember) had just completed a heart-felt, if halting recitation from al-Nisar, (The Women) the fourth Surah of the Holy Koran. Her voice was hoarse and her throat was obviously dry. Just then, Khoiron leant forward to offer her a small plastic container of water.
It was ingenuous act. However, given the woman’s profession his thoughtfulness was almost shocking. Most ustaz’s I knew would have been disgusted and appalled to have been in the presence of so many prostitutes even though all fifty of women were dressed demurely. But, for Khoiron, the women were a challenge. They were his challenge. Somehow, they gave him justification: they were his target – his objective: he wanted to win them over.
Later when I talked to Roudatul at their small home, I began to get a sense of the passion that had propelled the couple. Roudatul was thirty-three years old and despite the seedy environment she was always generous with her smiles. She wore a hejab, albeit casually. Still, the plain, white material couldn’t quite hide the beauty of her warm, guileless face. She cradled her youngest son in her arms as we talked.
“Khoiron and I had an arranged marriage. I was a pesantren girl – ten years studying at Bangil. I certainly didn’t know I was going to end up living in an area like this! I was so upset when I first arrived: I was angry and embarrassed. The prostitutes were right outside the house! They were everywhere. But later I realized that this is ‘my’ battle. I wouldn’t move anywhere else now: you must help people and we – Khoiron and I – must help these women to change their ways.”
The forty-one year old, Nahdatul Ullama ustaz Khoiron laughs when I ask him about his work in the lokalasasi. He’s a handsome man: darker than his wife and well built. He has a firm handshake and an easy manner: like a businessman. As we talk, there are moments when he looks slightly Arabic. This is not altogether surprising given the Pesisir’s (the north coast of Java’s) strong historical and cultural links with the Arab peninsular and the Hadramaut in particular.
“Can you imagine how bored I’d be if I was living in a quiet little community surrounded by santri (or religious students)? When I first started here, twenty-five years ago there were three thousand girls. Now there are only 900. You ask anyone about Bangunsari! It’s so close to the port and full of seamen. It was notorious!
“From a philosophical viewpoint we must remember that Allah is very loving. He gives food and drink to all men and women: good and bad. Who am I to judge? Who am I to say you’re evil or you’re good? My responsibility is straightforward: I must win the people over. Besides, if everyone was good I’d have nothing to do!”
The girls listening to Ustaz Khoirun's talk, photo by Rama Surya, Surabaya
Living in a tiny house along a narrow gang (or lane) in the middle of Bangunsari, Khoiron’s home is little different from the girlie bars that surround him, except that there is mushollah (a small prayer hall) on the first floor. The family is clearly industrious and hardworking. His mother who still wears a tightly wrapped traditional Javanese baju kebaya every day runs a small warung and his wife supplements her income with a Wartel (a telephone store). Otherwise the ustaz’s home is essentially as simple as his neighbours’.
The Nahdatul Ullama does not support individual ustaz’s: the families are on their own. Essentially, they depend on the surrounding communities for their livelihood. As a result Khoiron earns his income by giving ceramahs, officiating at weddings and even accompanying pilgrims to Mecca. His wife also organizes religious classes for over six hundred children every week: the parents pay Rp2,000 (RM1) per child per month. The house shudders when the kids dash up the external staircase to reach the mushollah. Their shrieking is almost deafening but Roudatul is so used to it she’s says she’d miss the commotion if it were to stop.
Every Friday afternoon, Khoiron and the local community leader arrange a small ceramah for the prostitutes. The location is neutral: the hall nearby – not the mosque. Having followed Khoiron as he walks through the lanes of the lokalasasi and watched him talking to the women I know the ceramah will be interesting. He is polite with them, respectful even. He smiles and says hello. He doesn’t treat them disdainfully and they respond positively to his manner.
As M’bak Yah a prostitute in her forties says of Khoiron: “He’s a good man. He treats us decently. I like his ceramahs – lots of us go. He isn’t proud or haughty. He encourages us to go home to our families.”