It's not easy being a Shia Muslim in Sunni-majority Indonesia. The Muslim minority sect is routinely the victim of intolerance. Shiites were chased out of Madura, East Java, by a mob of Sunni residents who set fire to their village. The mayor of Bogor, West Java, banned the Shia faith in the entire city, a place where there was an entire organization dedicated to opposing the minority sect—the Anti-Shiite National Alliance (ANNAS).
It's a hot-button issue here, but this Ramadan I realized something: I, a non-practicing Muslim from a moderate Sunni family, don't really know anything about Shia Islam. I know it's a controversial faith for some conservative Sunni Muslims. And I know that while 99 percent of Indonesian Muslims are Sunni, that remaining one percent still equals millions of Shia and Ahmadiyah are hiding here in plain sight.
So I decided to head down to Islamic Cultural Center (ICC)—a multi-function space for Shia Muslims supported by the Embassy of Iran. The nondescript building was sandwiched between some offices and ruko in Pejaten, South Jakarta. Since 2003, the ICC has been the center of the capital's Shia community.
I wandered in a couple hours before iftar and eyeing the Persian-influenced architecture when I met the center's spokesman Ahmad Hafidz Alkaff. He was in his 40s and dressed in a brown baju koko and black office pants. Ahmad was slightly chubby but had a soft step and a patient, measured way of answering all of my dumb questions.
"We always welcome anyone who wants to learn about Islam," Ahmad told me.
Ahmad spent the last 10 years working at the ICC. He was careful to quote the Hadith or the Quran when answering my questions about Shia Islam. But he was unable to tell me how many other Shia Muslims there were in Indonesia. A lot of them were reluctant to openly declared their faith, he said.
We spoke for a bit before Ahmad said he had to do some more work. I asked if I could stick around for iftar. He said of course with a big smile.
"We will have tadarus [Quran recitation] at 5," he said. "Then we'll do Maghrib and Isya prayers together. After that we'll do iftar and there will be a preaching."
"Won't there be Tarawih prayer?"
"No, but there will be a preaching," he said.
I wandered around the ICC to kill time. The library was stocked with an impressive amount of books written by Shia ulemas. There was no mosque in the building. It had a mushola, but it was quite small, about 7 x 8 meters. The ICC had a large hall called husainiyah, a big open room with a fluffy carpet and a large banner memorializing the late Ayatollah Khomeini—the spiritual leader of Iran and an influential figure to Shia worldwide.
There were only about eight people in the hall, most of them reading the Quran or hanging out. But the room started to fill up as iftar approached. Most were still in their work outfits.
"I came here straight from work for iftar and prayers," Fatir told me.
Fatir moved to Jakarta from Bitung, North Sulawesi, after attending university in nearby Makassar. He told me that he was thankful a place like ICC existed in Jakarta. Back in Makassar, hardliners would try to threaten him whenever he tried to attend a Shia event.
"In Makassar, the hardline Muslims tried to intimidate me," he said. "I used to attend discussions and pray around the campus area. Whenever I had the time during Ramadan, I would come here."
By the time the muadzin rang out for the Maghrib prayer, there were about 50 people in the ICC. They quickly took their turbah and stood in line for prayer. The whole thing was pretty different from the prayers I was used to. The iftar started after the Maghrib prayer, and Maghrib and Isya were combined together.
Afterwards, we all got together for a simple buka puasa (fast breaking) meal. We ate dates and es buah before settling in for the main course: telur balado, perkedel, and tempe orek. A sermon by Ustaz Miftah Rahmat on Shia interpretations of the Quran started shortly after we finished our meal.
I found ICC's secretary director Ali Husain Alatas and asked how he felt about being considered an "other" by Sunni Muslims.
"We never made a big deal out of the differences," he said. "There are always accusations that say that Shia is deviant. These are used as propaganda by enemies of Islam."
Ali claimed that Shia Islam had deep roots in Indonesia. The ICC was only here to serve this community, not spread the beliefs of Shia Muslims, he explained.
"If you do your research, you'll see that Shia teachings came to Indonesia alongside merchants from Persia, Gujarat, and Arabia," he said. "The culture in several parts of Indonesia can prove that. Bubur merah putih, for example, that's a Shia tradition."
Ahmad told me that that religions are like tree branches. The branch, he said, is the strongest structure in a tree. To tell the differences between trees, people have to look at the branches.
"Sunni or Shia, they have the same branches," Ahmad said. "Both are Islam. We both believe in one same God, which is Allah. We have the same prophet, Muhammad. We believe in the five pillars of Islam. We also read the Quran. So how can people say we're all that different?"