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Religious and cultural values
of blast fishermen
By Chozin Muhammad

Islam is the only religion on the island; all 4,221 inhabitants of the island are Muslim. There are four mosques: two principal ones (masjid) and two regular mosques (musholla) (Data Isian Potensi Kelurahan (2006). Most of the people are not very devoted, but Islam is their religious identity. They do not perform the five prayers everyday, but they do identify themselves as strong Muslim believers. Therefore, Islam plays a significant role in the society.

Islam is taught in an unsystematic way by people who are educated in religion. Informally, children learn about Islam from an ustadz (Islamic teacher). They go to the ustadz's house around 4 p.m. What the people call "studying Islam (mengaji)" is actually learning how to read the Quran, which is written in Arabic. The children learn how to read and recite the Quran without understanding the meaning.

People on the island believe that reading the Quran is important because it will be useful in the life after death. They believe that God rewards people who recite the Quran and listen to Quran recitals even if they do not understand the meaning. Reciting or hearing the Quran is considered as a prayer. By doing so people hope to gain reward from God that will save them from hell.

In Islamic tradition, Quran is not only to be read to understand the meaning, but also to get some spiritual experiences for the soul.

"Quranic verses reveal the entire spiritual relationship between God and His human creation in a very condensed form. He says He made human being out of various elements and then exhaled life into the body. The Quranic words used here are significant. Allah uses the word "nafas" for His own breath, and He uses the word "ruh" for His own soul. These same words are used for the human breath and human soul -- confirming the fact that mankind is originated from Allah, of Allah, for Allah, and in the end will return to Allah. Of all of the physical realities that have a bearing upon health, which is least often considered in medicine and healing is the breath. The breath has the following important relations with health (Iqbal 2004).

Other than as a form of Islamic education, reciting the Quran is used in prayers and religious ceremonies. Reciting some Quranic verses is part of the requirements in performing five daily obligatory prayers (sholat lima waktu). Quranic recitals have to be done in Arabic. Quranic recitals are also used in religious occasions like in the month of Ramadhan fasting and Eid celebrations.

At a wedding, a man has to say his wedding vow in Arabic in front of witnesses. At some extent, Quranic verses are also used as a mantra for wishing luck before fishing or other activities. A fisherman needs to see a special religious teacher to get the mantra. Even though the mantra consists of Quranic verses, a fisherman cannot take the verse directly from the Quran without a recommendation from a teacher.

I was told that before launching a boat or before throwing a bomb, a fisherman used to narrate a mantra in Arabic. The mantra is taken from some verses of the Quran, and sometimes it is combined with local ancient language. During my visit to Sumanga' island I witnessed a religious leader reciting a mantra prior to launching a fishing boat for a group of fishermen.

Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to record the mantra. The person who brought me to the island did not want to disclose the mantra to me. The only mantra I learned was from a fishermen's wife. She told me that she always used the mantra whenever she was cleaning or filleting fish. The mantra is intended to reduce thee fishy smell of the fish. Here is the mantra:

"Inna a'thoina kal kautsar"
"fasholli lirabbika wanhar"
"innasyaniŠka huwal abtar"

(To thee have We granted the Fount)
(Therefore to thy Lord turn in Prayer and Sacrifice)
(For he who hateth thee, he will be cut off)

When I asked her the meaning of the mantra above, she said that she did not understand the meaning. Her teacher told her to memorize it and recite it whenever she needed it. Later on, I found the mantra was actually Quranic verses in chapter Al-kautsar, verses 1-3.

Not only that people take Quranic verses as a mantra, they also use albarzanji for celebrations of birth, marriage, and ship launching. Albarzanji is a book written in Arabic talking about the life story of the prophet Muhammad. Even though it is written in Arabic, it has nothing to do with the Quran. It is not a holy book. It was written long after the prophet's era. However, people on the island tend to regard it as sacred.

The Islamic values are mixed with the local Bugis-Makassar culture. In fact, Islam has been influencing the Bugis-Makassar culture since 1605 (Helen and Reid, 1988). It is hard to differentiate between pure Islamic teaching and tradition since Islam has become embedded in daily forms of rituals, ceremonies, and social events. Rituals like prayer before fishing, visiting graves of ancestors, or building a house are marked with religious traditions. Ceremonies like Maulid (to commemorate the Prophet birthday), birth and death ceremonies, circumcision, and marriage are held in Islamic ways. Even village events like the national independence celebration are opened with Quran recitals.

However, as the result of interactions with mainland Sulawesi, the new Islamic purification movement has started to influence the island. Some new purist religious groups have come to the island. Their preaching encourages a shift to the new Islamic teaching. They recruit some of the younger generation to believe in the purification of people's beliefs.

This movement has posed a conflict between followers of traditional religious beliefs and the new purists. There has been an argument regarding a sacred graveyard (kuburan keramat) on the northern edge of the island. Some traditionalists built a fence and a small structure on the graveyard. They believed the graveyard to be sacred because someone who often prays there had luck in fishing.

However, another Islamic group opposed this decision. The purists labeled people who built the fence sinners, followers of polytheism, and then they burned the grave. That moment resulted in a lasting hidden conflict between traditionalists and the purists. Recently, the island has been virtually divided into two blocs: the purists and the traditionalists.

Unfortunately, religion seems no influence on natural conservation. Even though religious elites always say there are verses related to environmental conservation in the Quran, but I have never seen a religious leader relating them to the practice of blast fishing. Yet, I found some religious leaders who are also juragangs of blast fishing groups. The verse "ss God created the human, God also will provide their food" has more influence among blast fishermen. People believe that there is no need to worry about losing fish stocks because God the Most Merciful will preserve it for them.

The new religious movement focuses only on the purification of Islamic teachings and religious rituals. They do not talk about environmental issues at all. Hence, the new Islamic movement has no influence on fishing practices.

Actually, people are aware of environmental destruction. Radio, television, and interaction with other people have well informed the islanders about coral damage and its effects. My interviews showed that most respondents could feel the depletion of fish stocks. They see that it is getting harder to catch fish compared with a few decades ago. Remoter fishing grounds is evident. A few decades ago, fishermen did not have to go far away to catch fish, but now they do.

Yet, this awareness does not seem to influence their behaviors. This was the conclusion of Crago (2003) in his research on Barang Lompo Island. There is a saying that as long as there are plenty of leaves on the island, there will be enough stocks for fish in the sea. This belief is prevalent not only on the island where I did my research, but also in other islands within the Spermonde archipelago.

Pilgrimage to Mecca (haji)

Hajj is an obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) for all Muslims around the world who can afford it; it is the fifth pillar of Islam. The original purpose of the hajj was for spiritual increase only (Quran: 97).

In the Indonesian context, somebody who is able to make pilgrimage will put haji in front of his name as a title. In some places, including in South Sulawesi, haji is part of social status. Therefore, using the title of haji is an important thing for people to show their social status. By doing so, they will gain respect in the society.

Hajj is important for people in the island as well as in the Spermonde archipelago. In the society, the hajj plays an important role in encouraging people to work hard. It also means that hajj plays a significant role in the extensive use of blast fishing. People work hard to catch more fish quickly in order to afford the status of haji. Because the pilgrimage to Mecca is very expensive, a lot of money is spent to have the status.

Actually, people work hard to afford a hajj not because of the hajj itself, but because they want to raise their social status. Being a haji means a respect that included the whole family. A young haji is more respected than a non-haji elder.

In addition, to be a haji means more access to power and business. A haji can easily gain trust to acquire more capital for business. Therefore, on that small island with 4,221 habitants, there are more than 400 people with title haji. Some of them have made the pilgrimage to Mecca two or three times.

In his daily life, a haji is known by the white songkok (white hat). Originally, the songkok was a symbol of spirituality, showing an experience of spirituality by pilgrimage to Mecca.

Wearing a songkok meant an intention to have more self-control than others. It is analogous with grey hair that symbolizes wisdom in elders. When somebody gets older, the process of growing grey hair guides them to behave more wisely.

However, people on the island have a different interpretation. The meaning of songkok has changed to a more social status than a spiritual one. In general, people who are haji always wear the songkok, never taking it off, wherever they go. As a result, it is easy to notice the juragang on a fishing boat because most juragangs are haji, and haji is known with songkok.

Nevertheless, the influence of modernity has changed the use of the songkok as a symbol for haji. Recently, on the main island of South Sulawesi, the songkok has become a part of fashion for the younger generation. Anyone can wear a songkok whether they are haji or not. The color of the songkok has been modified to some other colors; it is no longer just white.

This trend, however, does not seem to have migrated to the island. There songkok still symbolizes a haji. While the young generation has started to adopt the trend of colorful songkok fashion, the white songkok is still specific to haji. Non-haji may wear other colors, but anyone wears a white one must be a haji. The haji holds a special privilege in village ceremonies and rituals. For example, in a wedding ceremony, the white head guests (hajis) sit in the front row with special greetings and food, while the black head guests (non-haji) have to sit in the back row.

© 2011 Chozin Muhammad

Also in this section :

Social Relationships on Balobaloang

Illegal but common: life of blast fishermen

History of blast fishing
Colonial era
After Indonesian independence
Contemporary Practices

Patron-client relationship in blast fishing groups
Life of a young juragang
Life of a sawi

Religious and cultural values of blast fishermen

The role of women in blast fishing

The relationship between blast fishermen and other fishermen




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