Chased by Blessings: The Metaphysics of the Olfactory

 

By James Edmonds

 

I sat snacking on a bench anxiously awaiting the arrival of Habib Syech bin Abdul Qadir Assegaf at the Solo, Indonesia train station. Habib Syech had several performances near Cirebon, and I was not entirely sure where they where or when. I received the train departure information the night before, and if I missed linking up with Habib Syech and his entourage, it would be difficult to find his performances. Although these events created a tangible vibrancy in the streets as tens of thousands of people coalesced into fields or stadiums, the events were not often publicized with exact locations, and the information I could find on social media created further confusion. Finding one of these ephemeral performances was its own kind of pilgrimage. They centered around Habib Syech’s singing of salawat, accompanied by musicians, expressing veneration of Prophet Muhammad and devotion to Allah.

 

Large crowd of people waving flags.
Thousands of Indonesians outside of Banjarmasin, Kalimantan sing, record, and undulate to the performance of salawat on January 27, 2019, led by Habib Syech bin Abdul Qadir Assegaf

 

I boarded the train, and with five minutes to spare, Habib Syech arrived with several family members. My seat was in a separate train car, but Habib Syech’s was empty; so, I moved to his train care. He motioned for me to join the seat across the aisle from him. I sat down and cool air began blowing as the train lurched forward. Habib Syech and I began talking about the previous night’s salawat and what the next few nights might entail. I was eager to learn why these events were so immensely popular. His performances have brought millions of people together since 1998, and he has performed across Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Yemen, and South Korea. He performs in a new location almost every night to no less than ten thousand people. I was in the middle of asking him more specific questions about his family genealogy when he suddenly shifted the conversation.

“James, what do you think of Islam?” His question hung in the humid air. I was caught off guard as I had told him many times, I was there to study Islam and that I did not identify with any religion. So, I provided the most diplomatic answer that I could think of, “well, I think that there are benefits in all religion.” He quickly responded and said, “James, I have seen you pray. I know you enjoy my events, and you have tried to fast, no?”

If I participated in salat, the prescribed five-times-daily prayer, I would complete wudu (ritual purification) and follow the prostrations, but I did not recite any prayers or set an intention. I had not taken the shahada (Muslim proclamation of faith). Often times, I was in a situation in which not participating was more challenging because of the thousands around me. Additionally, if I was traveling with Habib Syech, a member of his entourage would turn all the lights on and encourage me to get out of bed to participate in salat fajr at dawn. If I was fasting, it was often because I did not feel comfortable eating in front of those who were fasting or because of my frequent stomach illness. I also enjoyed his events, at one level, because they were sensational performances full of laser lights, rhythmic beats, and an air of celebration. I understood that my participation may have been taken as an interest in conversion; however, I constantly reiterated that I was present to study the phenomenon surrounding Habib Syech’s performances and Islam in Indonesia.
I tensed up as I felt that perhaps I had given the impression that I wanted to be a Muslim rather than a participant-observer of the social scientific variety. So, I replied again with the most academic answer I could, “well, yes, that is part of my method for understanding you, and why exactly you are popular in Indonesia.” He laughed deeply and leaned back in his chair. He was clearly not satisfied with my attempt at a distanced response, and he even seemed to find my attempt to remain distanced comical. He leaned forward across the train aisle and gently said, “James why don’t you take the shahada?”

 

Two people sitting on a stage.
James Edmonds joins Habib Syech bin Abdul Qadir Assegaf on stage during Ramadan in 2019 in Solo, Indonesia.

Habib Syech’s question continues in the analysis of my work, and this question reverberated in the questions asked after my lecture at CAS-E. To unravel the multiplicity of moving parts of these events, I had to live within them, and regardless of my attempt to remain a participant-observer, Habib Syech’s laugh was indicative of my already complicated relationship with this phenomenon. However, through my fieldwork over the last twelve years, the smell of agarwood drifted into focus and presented an alternative way of perceiving my own positionality and the popularity of these performances of veneration and devotion.
The smell of agarwood often possessed the olfactory when at one of these events. The scent may have been emanating from someone wearing it as perfume, the burning of agarwood by Habib Syech, or the makeshift smoke machines that would blow agarwood smoke through the events. The scent rubbed off on you at these events. However, it was not until my interlocutors began describing the blessings (baraka) as something that was “like a perfume” that I began paying closer attention to the way smell operated. Furthermore, Habib Syech responded in a conversation about how he navigates the often conflicting political, Islamic, economic, and material conditions of being a popular Islamic performer with, “I have to be like a scent (penciuman).”

 

A seating area prepared for Habib Syech with water, tea, incense, and three matts to sit on.
An incense burning, and two boxes of agarwood are prepared before Habib Syech before he arrives to receive guests from across Indonesia during Ramadan in Solo, Indonesia.

Throughout my research on this phenomenon, smell had the power to both possess a space and the olfactory system while also not always being present. It was context dependent and represented a way of being in the world that was in-between. Smell illuminated that, for many of my interlocutors, the performances of salawat were moments when this life and the next were both present. For Habib Syech, it revealed how he could be received and accepted by so many different conflicting communities. For the anthropologist, it reminded him of the blurred line between insider and outsider. Therefore, the answer to the question of whether I converted or not cannot be answered with yes or no. I can simply say that I often exist in the in-between and my own attempts to remain on the outside were always complicated by the smell of agarwood that still hangs on my clothes.

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James Edmonds is an anthropologist of religion whose research looks at transnational religious festivals in Southeast Asia. His methods of inquiry include participant observation, sensory ethnography, and oral history. His publications engage in the fields of Islamic Studies, religion and cities, technology, critical approaches to Religious Studies, and sensory studies. He is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Director of the Critical Languages Institute, and Associate Director of the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies – a Department of Education designated National Resource Center – at Arizona State University.

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Image credits

Image 1: James Edmonds

Image 2: James Edmonds

Image 3: James Edmonds

 

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