Rebranding Islam
Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru
James Bourk Hoesterey



Authority, Subjectivity, and the Cultural Politics of Public Piety

MAP I.1. The author traveled with Aa Gym in each city noted on the map. Daarut Tauhiid is located in Bandung.

FIGURE I.1. Aa Gym swarmed by the audience after a sermon in Padang, West Sumatra.

This book is about the rise and fall of celebrity preacher Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar. Known affectionately across the Indonesian archipelago as “Aa Gym” (elder brother Gym), he rose to fame with his message of MQ, or Manajemen Qolbu (Heart Management). MQ blends Sufi ideas about the ethical heart with self-help slogans of Western popular psychology. Despite Aa Gym’s lack of formal religious education, he carefully crafted his public image as a pious family man and doting husband, which made him especially popular among Indonesian women. His reputation as a savvy entrepreneur also resonated with the aspirations of middle-class Muslims who seek both piety and prosperity. Aa Gym trademarked Manajemen Qolbu as MQ, and his companies sold products ranging from MQ Training and MQ inspirational text messages to MQ Cola and MQ Shampoo. Millions of viewers tuned in for his Sunday television show, over one hundred radio stations broadcast his morning program, and thousands of spiritual tourists and corporate trainees flocked to his Islamic school each week. Ranked among the “50 Most Important Muslims” worldwide, Aa Gym was keen to parlay his public pulpit into political capital (Esposito and Kalin 2009). Then, at the peak of his popularity in 2006, Aa Gym fell from grace when a secret went public. His female followers, feeling heartsick and betrayed, publicly shred photographs of their once-beloved guru; television executives canceled his lucrative contracts; powerful politicians kept their distance; and his Islamic school and MQ Training complex became a ghost town.

The rise and fall of Aa Gym raises important questions about religious authority, Muslim subjectivity, and the cultural politics of public piety: How could a young man without formal religious education become Indonesia’s most celebrated preacher? How might Aa Gym’s story suggest a new kind of religious authority quite different from a more conventional cleric’s erudition in Islamic jurisprudence? How can an understanding of the rise of Muslim self-help gurus—and their Islamic popular psychology—shed light on the anxieties and aspirations of middle-class Muslims in Indonesia? How might Aa Gym’s political engagements on the public stage compel scholars to reimagine the relationship between popular culture and political Islam? And what does his abrupt fall from grace reveal about the cultural and market politics of religious authority and public piety?

In this book I chronicle the phenomenon of Aa Gym as a way to examine new trends in religious authority, to explore the religious and economic desires of an aspiring middle class, and to inquire about the political predicaments bridging self and state. I follow Aa Gym as he circulates, connects, and occasionally collides with the religious, financial, and political elite. It is a world of Sufis and self-help gurus, piety and anxiety, products and brands, patrons and politicians. Thus, tracing the life and career of a celebrity preacher affords a unique vantage point from which to comment on wider conversations concerning authority, subjectivity, and public piety in post-authoritarian Indonesia. In what follows I frame my research on Aa Gym and Manajemen Qolbu within a broader inquiry in the social life of psychology. Next, I describe my approach to the study of global Muslim networks and the deployment of genealogy as method, noting how it differs from recent scholarship linking Southeast Asia with the Middle East. The remainder of the introduction outlines the three main sections of the book: (1) religious authority; (2) Muslim subjectivity; and (3) the politics of public piety.

An Anthropology of Islamic Psychology

During my first month of fieldwork, Aa Gym invited me inside his home office while he prepared his Thursday-evening radio sermon, broadcast across the archipelago on Indonesia’s national radio station. He sat with his legs propped up, his reflexologist working out the kinks. Aa Gym alternated between two books. The first, Parting the Curtain to God, was a formal exegesis of the Qur’an by the prominent Indonesian scholar Quraish Shihab. I was surprised to see this juxtaposed with the second book: an Indonesian translation of Chicken Soup for the Philosopher’s Soul. Perplexed, I glanced at his bookcases nearby. Stacked comfortably beside his collection of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī’s treatises on the heart were translated books by American pop psychologists and management gurus: Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence; Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Dale Carnegie’s Guide to Enjoying Your Life and Work; The Millionaire Mind; Anybody Can Do Anything, and so on. When I asked (somewhat dubiously) Aa Gym about his interests in Western popular psychology and management, he replied gently with a hadith (saying from the Prophet): “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, tells us that ‘we must go as far as China to seek knowledge.’ . . . We can take wisdom [hikmah; Arabic, ḥikma] from this book. . . . All knowledge ultimately comes from God.”

Aa Gym promoted Manajemen Qolbu as a moral psychology of the heart, as practical Islamic wisdom that would help Indonesians in their pursuit for both piety and prosperity. Manajemen Qolbu blends Sufi ideas of the heart with Western pop psychology and corporate models of human resources training. Qolbu is the Islam-inflected Indonesian rendering for the Arabic word qalb, roughly translated as the “heart.” Aa Gym designed, packaged, and sold MQ Training for “spiritual tourists”1 and corporate trainees who, by the thousands, made the weekend pilgrimage to his school, studio, and training complex, Daarut Tauhiid. MQ Training begins with a Power-Point slide of the tranquil waters of a mountain lake and quotes a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Verily, inside the body there is a piece of flesh. If that flesh is pure, the whole body is pure. If it is soiled, then so too is the entire body. Know that this is the qalb.”2 In Sufi psychology the heart is a moral organ, and the cultivation of a pure heart (qolbun salim; Arabic, qalb sālim) is integral to the ethical pursuit to purify the self (tazkiyah al-nafs; Arabic, tazkiyat al-nafs), ideally culminating in a tranquil inner self devoted to God (nafs al-mutma’inna; Arabic, al-nafs al-muṭma’inna).3 The cultivation of a soft and pure heart is necessary for the word of God to enter one’s consciousness and transform one’s moral subjectivity.4

My ethnographic focus on Islamic psychology does not fall neatly into the category of psychological anthropology. There is nothing inherently “Islamic” about Psikologi Islami. The Indonesian use of the phrase denotes its adjectival sense (similar to anthropology’s own turn toward speaking about the cultural), in which a generation of Muslim pop preachers and self-help gurus in Indonesia have interpreted global psychological sciences (including works by Muslims) and then reinscribed them with religious meaning, legitimacy, and authority. In this book I bring what we might call the anthropology of psychology5 to bear on discussions in Islamic studies and anthropology concerning religious authority, subjectivity, and politics.6 An anthropology of psychology steers clear of the assumptions that plagued psychological anthropology from its early days in culture and personality theory, in which the psychological was understood as an interior state of subjectivity, and the ethnographer’s task was to map out a discrete ethnopsychology unique to a particular ethnic group.

Rather than individual emotion and interiorized subjectivity, I am more concerned with the social life of psychology, how popular psychologies travel across borders, circulate within market niches, and are reinscribed in specific religious and political contexts. Invoking Edward Said’s concept of traveling theory, Peter Mandaville has observed, “And so theory travels. That which ‘is’ in one place elsewhere becomes undone, translated, reinscribed; this is the nature of translocality: a cultural politics of becoming” (2001, 84; emphasis in original). For the middle class of contemporary Indonesia, Islamic popular psychology resonates with a form of aspirational piety that emphasizes the process of becoming one’s true self—pious Muslim, loving partner, savvy entrepreneur, and virtuous citizen.

I am especially interested in Psikologi Islami as it informs the political projects of, and social imaginaries about, the nation-state.7 In this respect, this book builds on legacies of the historical study of psychology,8 as well as studies of postcolonial science and medicine,9 in which psychology is understood in terms of power and politics, not simply culture and personality. Ashis Nandy eloquently describes this distinction:

I have not tried to interpret here Indian personality or culture. . . . Instead, I have presumed certain continuities between personality and culture and seen in them political and ethical possibilities. These possibilities are sometimes accepted and sometimes not. In other words, I have tried to retain the critical edge of depth psychology but shifted the locus of criticism from the purely psychological to the psycho-political. There is in these pages an attempt to demystify conventional psychological techniques of demystification. (1983, xviii–xix; emphasis in original)

Inspired by Nandy (and others),10 I approach Psikologi Islami as multiple, transnational bodies of expert knowledge that Indonesian Muslims summon, mobilize, and contest as they navigate the religious and political entanglements between self, market, and state. Islamic psychology and its self-help gurus contribute to the broader repertoire of ethical cultivation practiced by Indonesian Muslims. Psikologi Islami is thus one among many ways of being both modern and Muslim.

I also engage and build on the impressive body of scholarship on the cultural and market politics of Islam in Indonesia.11 Aa Gym rose to fame within the particular religious, economic, and political context of post-authoritarian Indonesia. Whereas public and political expressions of Islamic piety were intensely regulated during much of Suharto’s rule (1965–1998), the transition to democratic governance accelerated the proliferation and privatization of media that made possible new media forms and religious figures. On the other hand, the liminal years of democratic transition also brought revelations of mass state violence and related anxieties about authenticity and political uncertainty. The flip side of these anxieties was hope for new beginnings, less corruption, and a gentler state apparatus. Islamic psychology emerged from this blend of anxiety and hope during uncertain times. Alongside the structural reforms mandated by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout in 1998 was resurgence in public dialogue about Islamic entrepreneurship and business ethics. As both entrepreneur and citizen-believer, Aa Gym offered a model of religious and civic authenticity during a post-authoritarian climate of uncertainty and hope. In this respect, Aa Gym represents a new sort of public figure in the religious and political landscape of contemporary Indonesia. Yet at the same time he is only the latest in a centuries-long story of popular preachers who parallel more formal, elite establishments of religious learning (Berkey 2001). At issue is how we conceive of historical precedents, where we look for transnational linkages, and how we understand global Muslim networks.


1. This is the literal translation of Daarut Tauhiid’s designated term wisata rohani. Corporate trainees were managed by two different corporate entities within Daarut Tauhiid.

2. I translate this from the Indonesian language used during MQ Training. However, all referenced passages of the Qur’an are from Ali (1983).

3. See Kugle (2007) and Gianotti (2001) for a detailed account of the moral psychology of the heart in Sufism.

4. Hirschkind (2006) describes the necessary cultivation of affective and moral dispositions of the heart.

5. Geroulanos 2014; Kloos 2014; Lakoff 2005; Luhrmann 2001; Martin 2007; Rose 1996.

6. Hefner 2005; Hirschkind 2006; Jones 2010a; Mahmood 2005; Masquelier 2009; Peletz 2002, 2013; Schielke 2009; Schulz 2006; Soares and Osella 2009.

7. Hansen 1999; Hefner 2000; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Özyürek 2006; Pandey 2006; Peletz 2013.

8. Cushman 1995; Danziger 1990; Stearns 1994.

9. W. Anderson 2008; Good et al. 2008; Mahone and Vaughan 2007; Pols 2007.

10. Nandy was indebted, of course, to postcolonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and others. I also draw from more recent work by medical anthropologists working on psychology and postcolonial subjectivities, e.g., Good et al. (2008).

11. Aspinall 2013; Brenner 1998; Fealy 2008; George 1998; Hefner 2005; Heryanto 2014; Howell 2008; Jones 2010a, 2010c; Menchik 2014; Rinaldo 2013; Rudnyckyj 2010; Sasono 2010; Smith-Hefner 2007; Weintraub 2011; Widodo 2008.