14 September 2007

Al-Hallaj behind Dhani Ahmad

By Mujtaba Hamdi And Imam Shofwan

A string of accusations on religious contempt are now being hurled at Dhani Ahmad and his rock band Dewa. Dhani does not deny that his lyrics began with an attempt to open up some kind of a religious discourse. In fact, he admits his fondness for controversial Sufi figures.

It is still early in the morning. The day’s heat has yet to be felt. But not so in the infotainment programme on television. The camera is fixed on one man, and this man is announcing sternly, “A few of the lyrics and the pictures used by Dewa in their album have been taken from a poem by a heretical movement in the Middle East.” On the screen, you could read the caption which identifies them, Pertahanan Ideologi Syariat Islam (Perisai) [The Defence of the Islamic Ideology and Law].

This is not some kind of an innocent prank. Ridwan Saidi, the figure who claims to represent the aforementioned group called Perisai, is going to lodge a complaint on Dewa to the Attorney General. Ridwan is a Betawi cultural activist and prominent community figure. Ridwan has been known for his penchant for politics. During the New Order, he even had a stint with the Partai Persatuan Pembangunan [The Party for the Unity of Development (PPP)], before moving on to Golongan Karya [The Workers’ Group (Golkar)] and subsequently founding the New Masyumi. During the Reformasi era, when Masyumi did not manage to make it through the electoral threshold, Ridwan returned to PPP.

Ridwan is in the opinion that the cover of Dewa’s album, along with its lyrics written by Dhani contain the teachings of a heretical nature. “Not only on the Laskar Cinta (Soldier of Love) album, but also on the previous Dewa release, Mistukus Cinta (The Love Mystic).” Perhaps what he meant is really, the album Cintailah Cinta (Love the Love). Mistikus Cinta is only one of the song titles in the album in question.

Last April, as he was perusing over the cover of Dewa’s albums, Ridwan apparently discovered that many of Dewa’s lyrics like Satu (The One) and Nonsense were derived from heretical poems. It remains unclear if Ridwan has actually scrutinised the lyrics concerned. Ridwan could well assume that the lyrics of Satu as heretical, for instance, since on the cover of Laskar Cinta, one can find the phrase “thanks to Al-Hallaj” written under the text of the lyrics Satu. Al-Hallaj is a controversial figure in Muslim history.

The end of this month of April has certainly been very unfriendly for Dhani Ahmad Prasetyo.

Responding to the accusations in a newspaper, Dhani in fact did not make any references to al-Hallaj when he was discussing the lyrics to Satu. In fact, in the concerned article, Dhani clarified that the lyrics to his songs contain strong expressions of love to the divine. “An appreciation to a hadith [reported words and deeds attributed to the prophet Muhammad] narrated by Imam Bukhari had also inspired this writer to pen down the lyrics to Satu,” he wrote. Dhani not once referred to al-Hallaj in the article which sought to provide clarification after various reporting of the issue.

However, during another occasion, Dhani had been known to admit his admiration for the figure al-Hallaj. “I am a Sufi enthusiast. So you can say that I am also an admirer of al-Hallaj.”

At a corner at the19 Production studio in Pondok Indah, South Jakarta, Dhani could not sit still. Every now and then, his mobile phone would be ringing. And Dhani would have to take the call. Sometimes he would be walking back and forth, in and out. Or he would need to talk to someone through the telephone placed in an adjacent area. The facial expression of the gentleman born in Jakarta on May 26, 1972, still reflects the burden he is under. From the seven albums that Dewa had produced in all, this is the first time that they are receiving threats from Muslim groups. The placement of their band logo was said to have been an insult to Allah. Their lyrics are claimed to be heretical.

Dewa had never encountered such a problem for their previous efforts. Like other bands, they tended to pen down love songs with lyrics that speak of passionate and amorous romance. “In the beginning women inspired me, but slowly, that sort of thing died out,” utters Dhani. He then had to look for new inspiration, lest if his creativity stalls, the band would have been in a vacuum and this could spell an economic disaster as well, for Dhani and the entire Dewa. It would have been utterly disastrous.

Finally, Dhani began to look through various materials, especially books. Dhani began to be acquainted with the works of Kahlil Gibran, “the poet of two gulfs”, and other religious literature. From those books, Dhani began to socialise with figures such as Jalalluddin Rumi, Syeikh Abdul Qodir al-Jailani, Ibnul Arabi, al-Hallaj, Bayazid al-Bustami. Dhani also read many books on Syeikh Siti Jenar – which incidentally began to proliferate after the fall of the New Order.

Dhani then began to grasp that religious teachings tended to fracture into many different schools. And there it was – his new inspiration. That hadith which describes that religious communities tended to fracture. The Jews, Christians, and Muslims would break into 71, 72 and 73 subgroups respectively. Dhani worked on this idea, and at last Kuldesak was composed.

“This song is like my prayer, so that I would not be in the wrong path. Hence the lyrics – show us the true path so that we would not go astray at the crossroads.”

The prayer could be seen at the song’s refrain: Please God give us Your guide / The right path going towards Your path / So that we would not stray at the crossroads. This song became the theme soundtrack to a 1998 film with the same title. In the early 1999, Dhani improvised on the song along with a group of songs in duet album with Andra Ramadhan, a long time friend of Dewa. In this album, Dhani also wrote the song Kembali ke Timur (Return to East) which mentions the name al-Ghazali.

“Al-Ghazali is very famous name abroad. In fact, if we study philosophy, al-Ghazali is a major subject. That was why I made a mention of his name in the lyrics. I thought it was important.”

Al-Ghazali had long made an impression in Dhani. To the extent that his first son was named Ahmad al-Ghazali. “It is kind of a cool name. It is not a local name, it is international.”

As the months and years passed, Dhani became restless again. He began to feel that the religious nuances he had been putting into his song writing was not deep enough. He started to feel that his discourse was a tad too legalistic. And so, this changed when he met a spiritual mentor in the late 2000. Dhani refuses to divulge the name of this person. “My mentor does not have other students besides me. He does not have a school. I can be said as his only student.”

And so Dhani began his passion over tasawuf [the mystical discipline of Islam]. He felt like it was a breath of fresh air. However Dhani prefers to be said as a Sufi enthusiast rather than practitioner. “I feel that it is not yet fit to describe me as a Sufi practitioner. If one asks whether I am trying to head there, yes. But if you say that I am a practitioner, I am still further away.”

May be it is not so important whether he is a mere enthusiast or a practitioner. One thing for sure though, the Sufi world has given him inspiration in his song writing. When he became overwhelmed by Rabiah al-Adawiah, a legendary female Sufi, Dhani composed Jika Surga dan Neraka tak Pernah Ada [If Heaven and Earth Never Existed]. This song was sung by the most seniors of singers, Chrisye. When Dhani began to be infatuated with al-Hallaj, Satu was born. “Whether you like it or not, al-Hallaj is also a Sufi giant,” he says. “And his courage inspired me to write the lyrics to Satu.”

Spirituality did not only inspire one or two songs but an entire album. Dhani certainly felt so for Dewa’s seventh outing: Laskar Cinta. “Because my brain is filled with God,” claims this son to Eddy Abdul Manaf and Joyce Theresia Pamela. In fact, Dhani feels that his lyrical ability has yet to achieve its maximum potential. “The lyrics of Laskar Cinta does not even fully reflect the way my mind works, because not all that is in my mind I am able to turn into songs.”

The album Laskar Cinta may have a very deep significance for Dhani. To the extent that the entire wall of the studio of 19Production is painted with black and red, and here and there it is pasted with the particular symbol of an octagonal star – the symbol which has become Laskar Cinta’s logo. But this album in turn has caused Dhani to be faced with accusations of insulting religion.

And then, look again. A staff of his comes in with a new logo of Laskar Cinta. Dhani was pressured into replacing the old logo, because it is said that the old version resembles the word “Allah”.

“Where is the old one?”

The staff replies that all the copies of the older version have been destroyed.

“Wah, this would be really dangerous if found out by the FPI [Front Pembela Islam – The Islamic Defenders Front]. Destroying the name of God,” Dhani says in jest.

He then makes a telephone call. To the one answering on the other line, Dhani seeks for confirmation if it is really true that all the copies of the older version have been destroyed. This voice confirms it. Dhani then warns him.

“Not until the FPI finds out, that we destroyed the name of Allah.” he jokes again.

On November 22, 2004, the album Laskar Cinta was officially launched. Virtually all the journalists who were present did not seem to be interested in the issue of the octagonal star on the album cover. At the Sari Pan Pacific Hotel, most of them were more interested on the quality of the music on the offer. Some asked about the quality of the lyrics.

“Our lyrics are not very pop-ish,” Dhani replied. “In fact we penned down lyrics which are so littered with idealism they are not commercial even.”

Suddenly, one journalist questioned on the typography resembling the Arabic calligraphy on the octagonal star. Dhani only smiled as he answered that the letters concerned was there for aesthetics reasons. The calligraphy-like image reads Laskar Cinta.

And it is true that if we look closely at the cover, we should not read the letters from right to left. You would have not noticed. Instead, you should read it from left to right, and it will be visible that it is a stylistic writing of Laskar Cinta.

Not one journalist asked about the octagonal star.

For months, Dhani did not receive any complaints on the new album’s logo. Because he really liked it, he began to stick the logo on all sorts of things: on the studio of his wall, on musical instruments, and certainly on Dewa’s merchandise to be sold to fans.

Until the unfortunate Sunday evening, April 10. Dhani and Dewa gave a stirring performance on Eksklusif TransTV. The stage was bright with lights. Dhani’s much-loved octagonal logo of Laskar Cinta was everywhere. Including on the main floor, where their vocalist Once sang and moved about.

Without Dhani’s knowledge, there was a religious teacher by the name of Wahfiudin who was watching the concert on television. Wahfiudin was shocked when he saw the octagonal star. He believed that the octagonal star was a calligraphy spelling the word Allah. He quickly called TransTV, and informed the station that the logo on the floor was so. He even suggested that the concert should be called off there and then.

Immediately after the show, TransTV arranged a meeting between Dhani and Wahfiudin for a short dialogue. Wahfiudin showed the logo of the octagonal star in black which he found in book The Cultural Atlas by Prof Dr Ismail Raj’I al-Faruqi. Wahfiudin stressed to Dhani that the logo was in fact the word Allah written in Arabic calligraphy.

Dhani did not agree, saying that there had been some modifications. But Dhani apologised for the unawareness of their stage crew, and said that the stage itself had now been covered in black cloth.

Wahfiudin then felt that Dhani was being stubborn. At the end of the dialogue he warned Dhani to be careful, because if he might one day be confronted by Muslims with harder tendencies, he would be in real trouble.

At that precise moment, Dhani did not really understand the nature of Wahfiudin’s warning. All he knew was that the next day, his name was in the subject of several mail- lists on the internet with the subject written in capitals: Dhani the Dewa (god) of Israel Stepping All Over God. The posting began with this sentence: Although the subject-tag seems provocative, that is not my intention. Then the writer related the entire story of how he saw Dewa’s concert on TransTV, the call he made to the television station and how he met Dhani soon after the show. At the end of the posting, there was one name: Wahfiudin.

Dhani at first did not respond to the mail. But then when the daily Republika published the news on the dialogue between Wahfiudin and he, twice, along with comments that made him feel as if he was being cornered, Dhani replied with a writing entitled The Oasis of Laskar Cinta.

In his reply, Dhani not only clarified on the issue of the octagonal star and the lyrics of his songs. He first and foremost apologised on behalf of his stage crew for their carelessness to put the logo on the floor. Dhani explained that it is impossible for him to insult Islam, his own religion, for even insulting other religions he does not dare. Dhani demonstrated that the lyrics to his songs in fact called for us to love Allah.

Dhani mentioned that the lyrics of Pangeran Cinta (Prince of Love) were a result from the reflection from verse 27 from al-Rahman. “All that is on earth will perish: But will abide (forever) the Face of thy Lord, Full of Majesty, Bounty and Honour.”

This verse is a favourite among the Sufis who has a preference for the statement la wujuda illallah (Nothing Exists but Allah). Sufi historians categorise this branch of Sufism as from the Wujudiyyah School.

Dhani also showed that the symbol of the octagonal star was being used in the hope that the idea of the love of God would be spread far and wide. The eight points of the star in fact symbolised the eight geographical directions, just like that reflected in verse 115 of al-Baqarah 115, “whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah's countenance”. This verse is also very popular among Sufi enthusiasts.

The long clarification did not put an end to the controversy. FPI led by Habib Rizieq Shihab was bent on demanding that Dewa replace the cover of Laskar Cinta. Habib Rizieq was in the opinion that Dewa was not qualified to use such a logo, because they did appear as Islamic enough.

Dhani was dumbfounded. He called and visited religious figures, among them M. Quraish Shihab and Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). From Quraish to Shihab, Dhani received responses that relieved him. According to Quraish, the original symbol (like the one found in The Cultural Atlas – ed) is neither a fixed nor a popular symbol. It can only be detected by calligraphy experts. Meanwhile Dhani’s symbol was a modified version, and for Quraish it no longer resembles the word “Allah”.

Gus Dur meanwhile, when being paid a visit by Dhani at the headquarters office of Nahdatul Ulama, received a simple response, “Habib Rizieq cannot speak on behalf of the Muslim community. He is creating a headache out of a nothing.”

But the pressure against Dhani did not subside. The day after, all sorts of intimidating texts were messaged to his mobile phone, including “Not just one Gus Dur, even if with 1000 Gus Durs defending Dewa ana (I in Arabic) would still fight. Ana am not looking for popularity, isn’t FPI is already at the top?”

A few days later, based on reasons we yet have to understand, Dhani decided to replace the logo on the cover of the album. In an infotainment programme, when Dhani announced that they would be printing new versions of the logo, Dhani also added a commercial reminder in jest, “So that all the remaining cassettes can be replaced as soon as possible with the ones containing the new version of the logo, the people should buy them all.”

We met Dhani a day after he was called in by the police from the Jakartan branch.

That afternoon we Dhani tells us a lot of stories, including his admiration for many Sufi figures. Dhani does not fear to be labelled as heretical because of his admiration for al-Hallaj, although al-Hallaj was decapitated for his alleged heresy. “It’s like this,” he cautions. “Al-Hallah lives during the Abbassid era. Can you say the actions of the Abbasids of decapitating al-Hallaj as a way of our prophet?”

Dhani is, apparently, quite clever at turning the tables around. Outside, people tend to regard the teachings admired by Dhani, to be of the same genre with that taught by Syeikh Siti Djenar. He views such things quite in jest. “I have never felt I am as big as Syeikh Siti Djenar. Everybody is freaking out, but the biggest I could be is only as big as Jenar Mahesa Ayu.”

Jenar Mahesa Ayu is certainly not a saint. She is a short story author who frequently writes on sexuality issues.

So, right on. If Dhani is not afraid to admire al-Hallaj, not afraid to be called heretical, why then replace the album cover? Is he afraid of the threats from the FPI then?

“Sing waras ngalah lah,” he replies in his Surabayan accent. The sane will give in. Dhani still thinks it is not wrong to use the old logo. He says that even MUI does not make a big deal out of it. But Dhani believes, if he remains obstinate, he would have been no different than the FPI. And so, he chose to replace the album cover, and definitely for sure, calls for everyone to quickly buy all the remaining albums out there.

When he was being called in by the Jakartan police, Dhani did not forget to play a prank. “I deliberately made my children to dress like in FPI style. You know how deep the meaning of that.” Dhani purposefully asked his three children to accompany him to the police. They were then wearing the costumes similar to those frequently donned by the FPI, white shirts and white skullcaps. But Dhan, how do you mean with that?

“Ya… it is young children like these who would be most suitable to wear such things. These clothes, you know, their message are so deep.”[end]

Translated by Shamila Arifin, environmental activist in Sahabat Alam Malaysia.
This article appeared in the column Syir’atuna for the cover reporting of Syir’ah No. 43/June 2004