They sat in tight rows, their heads bowed and covered by cloth. The men, all of them religious pilgrims, had gathered at the Seramoe Darusalam Islamic boarding school, in Aceh's Beuraden village, to perform the dzikir, a marathon prayer session where men utter prayers non-stop. When I arrived at the boarding school, the men had already been praying non-stop for days, all while also fasting, eating only vegetables, and performing their mandatory five prayers a day.
It's the most-intense act of devotion to occur during the holiest of months in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation and it will continue until well after Ramadan ends. The tradition is called suluk and it's typically done several times a year in at the boarding school. During the hajj pilgrimage season, it lasts 10 straight days. In celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, it goes for twice as long. And this Ramadan, suluk will continue for 40 straight days, ending days after Eid al-Fitr when most Indonesian Muslims are done with the fasting and prayers of the holy month.
The majority of the men at Seramoe Darusalam were older. They held beads in their hand and continued on with their prayers the entire time I was there. Tengku Fauzi, the leader of the gathering, told me “all of this is Allah’s command,” once he finished his suluk for the day.
“Night and day, even when we’re about to go to sleep, we always perform the dzikir," Tengku told me. "It’s not something the mouth just utters. It’s said with the heart."
During the ritual, the men aren’t allowed to go home or even leave the Islamic boarding school complex. “That’s been the agreement between the suluk participants and the mursyid (the spiritual teacher),” Tengku explained.
They're also aren't allowed to eat meat. All of their pre-dawn and iftar meals are prepared in the boarding house kitchen. “We can't eat when we pray," Tengku told me. "And even now, we can only eat leaves."
I asked another man, Tengku Abdul Malik, 54, what made him what to participate in the suluk this year. "My heart asked me to get closer to Allah,” he told me.