Southeast Asia

Art and Islam: Interview with Ken George

kenArt0Many of the world’s greatest art works are inspired by religion (for example, Leonarda da Vinci’s The Last Supper) and arouse an almost religious sense of awe (think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings). This close relationship between art and religion is very much alive in contemporary Indonesia, home of the largest Muslim population in the world. Nobody understands this better than Kenneth George, UW-Madison professor of anthropology and author of Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld. Prof. George talked with Inside Islam about his diverse experience with Muslim culture, from living in a small rural Muslim community to working with cosmopolitan Muslim artists and urban intellectuals.

As you can hear in part I of our interview, Prof. George became interested in Indonesian Islam more than two decades ago because of a good Muslim friend. For his doctoral research, he went to the island of Sulawesi in central Indonesia, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious mountain area, and lived with a Muslim family in a very small thatch-roofed town called Mombi.

Inside Islam Ken George Interview Part I

Prof. George’s venture into Islamic art was also through a friend, this time a prominent contemporary painter in Indonesia, Abdul Djalil Pirous. “We never know what types of surprises life will serve up for us,” Prof. George reflected on his encounter and decade of collaboration with Pirous. Check out the part II of our video below about his story and commentary about two paintings by Pirous, “17 Names of God” and “the Night That is More Perfect than a 1000 Months.”

Inside Islam Ken George Interview Part II

Inside Islam asked Prof. George how he would respond to people who think of Islam as a violent and backward religion. “We shouldn?t be surprised that there are strands or allusion to violence in any religious literature,? he said in part III of our interview below, “I urge others to seek first the common grounds before you look for differences and threats.? Prof. George concluded his interview with a summary of Islam in three words.

Inside Islam Ken George Interview Part III

Music and Islam in Indonesia

Music and Islam have a complicated relationship. Even though religious chanting is allowed–even encouraged–in Islam, there is an ongoing debate whether other music is permitted. Some Muslim communities ban non-chanting music all together, while others allow it as long as it doesn’t contain messages (e.g. sex, alcohol) that go against the teachings of Islam.

The Muslims in Indonesia adopt the latter attitude. As Prof. Anderson Sutton told Inside Islam, Islamic music is not only allowed but is also a huge part of the popular culture in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. You can listen to the whole interview below.

(11:20) MP3


A professor of ethnomusicology at UW-Madison, Prof. Sutton has been studying Indonesian music for more than three decades (2:20). His early research focused on gamelan, a large percussion ensemble on which some devout or orthodox Muslims look down, said Prof. Sutton, because “they think it’s too closely related to animist practices and Hinduism.”

During his frequent trips to Indonesia, Prof. Sutton has noticed the increasing influence of Islam on the musical and cultural life of Muslims there (0:50). During the 1970s, when asked about their religion, people answered “I’m Muslim” but usually with a qualifier like “statistically I’m a Muslim, but I really don’t go to the mosque, I really don’t pray 5 times a day.” Nowadays, people have become more open or orthodox in their practice. One sign is that the number of women who wear head scarves has increased significantly. Another sign is in popular music. “I found that there was quite a lot of music in Indonesia that was either overtly Islamic or had an Islamic tinge or nuance to it,” Prof. Sutton remarks. He gave the following three examples of Indonesian Muslim music.

Even though there are some radical terrorist Muslims in Indonesia, Prof. Sutton says that “the majority of people I know who practice Islam actively are quite pacifist, tolerant, and open to other forms of belief” (5:00). Many Indonesians have expressed to him their sadness about 9/11 and their delight about the election of President Obama, who lived in Indonesia for a few years in his childhood. At the end of the interview, Prof. Sutton uses three words to describe Islam in Indonesia (8:30). The third word is a bit surprising but understandable. Find out yourself.