There are many intersections between Islam and traditional Javanese culture in Indonesia. Tahlilan and yasinan are great examples of one of those intersections. During PST I was fortunate enough to attend nearly a dozen such cultural events with my bapak. My original goal, as my goals so often are, was too ambitious. I had hoped to explain exactly what tahlilan and yasinan are, how they’re different, where they fit into indigenous Indonesian traditions and modernist orthodox Islam. However; even after having queried my community liaisons (CLs), my host family, and many other volunteers about this subject I still find my knowledge about these subjects lacking and my understanding short of what it should be.

It is Thursday evening, just past five o’clock. Hard to tell what day it is since everything blurs together, but PST is in full swing. The morning was spent teaching and the afternoon was consumed by learning about and practicing the ber- prefix in bahasa Indonesia class. I have been awake since four this morning, not a big deal, but I am eager to get home so I can write about my day, mandi, have dinner, go straight to bed and rest before doing it all again tomorrow.

When I get home I find coffee and a plate of fried bananas waiting for me. I throw my bag in my room, grab my journal and write. Partway through writing and after finishing my coffee my bapak walks into the room and says something. What he says, I’m not sure; but I notice he’s wearing his sarung, batik, and peci. Formalwear. I assume there’s a selamatan (celebration) tonight. It’s not Thursday, so it’s not yasinan, must be tahlilan. I ask what time, “jam berapa?” Bapak answers, “jam ‘nam.” Six.

Tahlilan invites
Two invitations to two Tahlilans that fell on the same night. It is important for the host of a Tahlilan to formally invite their guests.
I stop writing without completing my thought and head to the mandi room. Even though my bapak has never rushed me and it’s perfectly acceptable to be late, I feel like I need to hurry. After I shower I put on my only clean batik, the sarung my family gave me, comb my hair and go find my bapak. As I close my bedroom door my ibu sees I’m about to leave and asks, or reminds me rather, “peci?” I never seem to remember the hat.

Bapak is waiting on the front porch. “Siap,” I say, ready. “Ayo,” let’s go, says bapak. We walk down our street maybe two-hundred meters to a house where a few men are standing outside to greet us. We’re early, as we normally are. We take off our shoes before stepping onto the green mat this evening’s hosts have laid out for everyone to sit on. I follow bapak around the perimeter of the meeting area and we shake hands with the few people who arrived before us. We sit on the floor with our backs to a wall. I think about what direction we’re facing, west. Good. We won’t have to turn around when the praying starts.

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Some of the men right before the praying is supposed to start. Almost all of them wear a peci, sarung, and batik. Oftentimes the selamatan is held partially indoors and partially out, depending on how much space the hosting family has available. This was on their front porch.
The man next to me begins asking the usual bevy of questions. Where am I from? America. How long have I been in Indonesia? Almost two months. What do I think of Indonesia? Beautiful. Indonesians? Friendly. Indonesian food? Delicious. What’s my religion? Christian. How old am I? 24. Am I married? Belum, not yet. During my interview more men have trickled in and I’ve been shaking their hands as they make their trip around the mat greeting everyone. The handshakes here are very light, never firm; though occasionally an Indonesian will see my light skin, grab my hand, squeeze it, and shake it vigorously while laughing and calling me “meester.”

The imam arrives and it’s time to begin the selamatan. This is where I start to relax. The imam starts speaking in Indonesian and I can understand a little, introductions, expressions of gratitude, perhaps an explanation of who has died and when, but then he starts speaking in Arabic and my focus breaks. I can’t discern one syllable from the next in this foreign language from a foreign tongue. The prayers are repetitive and melodic. Relaxing. I don’t know what the thirty or forty men around me are saying and that’s okay.

A recording I made of Tahlilan. The entire series of prayers lasts about forty minutes but this short clip is a good example of what tahlilan is like. Around the two minute mark is when my favorite part begins.

Their chants continue for the next thirty or forty minutes and I use the time to think and reflect. I think about the day, what I’ve learned, the interactions I’ve had with locals and how I can improve upon them. I think about Peace Corps, my two years in Indonesia, PST, what I’ll do at my permanent site, about how difficult it will be to teach English when I don’t understand it very well myself. I think about America, my family and friends there, how lucky I am to have been born in a country which affords me this amazing opportunity. Before I know it they start into their closing prayers. The men asynchronously start saying, “amin,” while holding out their hands, palms facing upwards. They say a final “amin,” raise their hands to their faces and the prayers are over.

Also, how awesome is it that I figured out how to make a gif of this? Pretty awesome.
The passing of the food after the prayers were finished. A surprisingly efficient process considering every plat will pass through the hands of the one or two guys who are are sitting right next to the door to the kitchen.
Light conversation begins again and from the kitchen plates with soto ayam start getting passed around to all the men. My favorite part of tahlilan, food. Little sealed plastic cups of water are passed around as well. Despite the fact this food has been prepared for dozens of people it is just as good as if it had been made specifically for me. As everyone is finishing their food cigarettes begin getting handed out. I’m asked if I smoke, I say no. My bapak takes a cigarette but puts it behind his ear. I’ve never seen him smoke.

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The host of this tahlilan wanted to take a picture of me with the food they had given out. It may be hard to tell but I was particularly sweaty at this tahlilan. Bapak and I were inside where there isn’t as much airflow and Indonesian nights aren’t as cool as one would hope.
When everyone finishes eating their soto another procession of food is passed out from the kitchen. This time the food is in a basket and wrapped in a plastic sack. This “to-go” food will be for the families of the bapaks. Inside the bag is rice, side dishes, desserts, and a couple thousand rupiah. Once everyone has their bag of food the bapaks stand up, find their shoes in the pile that has formed just off the mat, and walk home. My bapak and I wait for the crowd to clear and also because the host has asked to take a picture with me. I oblige but insist it must be with my bapak as well.

After the pictures we say goodbye to the remaining bapaks and thank the hosts. We amble back to our house, food in hand. On the porch waits ibu and my host sister. They ask about the tahlilan and I tell them it was “bagus,” great.

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Tahlilan and yasinan pretty much have the same order of events. People arrive, they pray, they eat, they get some food, they leave. It’s only the men who pray, but the women play an important role as well. For a female volunteer’s perspective on tahlilan I recommend reading this piece by a fellow ID10. The women prepare the food and during the prayers they socialize in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house.

Yasinan happens every Thursday evening and is the reading of one particular part of Al-Quran. Tahlilan happens when someone has died. The bapaks gather and pray for their deceased loved one so he or she may make it safely into the afterlife. Tahlilans are held three days, seven days, forty days, one-hundred days, one year, two years, and one-thousand days after an individual has died. After one thousand days a family can have tahlilan for their deceased relative whenever they see fit and are financially capable.

Orthodox Muslims typically do not participate in either of these events as they are not specifically taught in the Quran. They will pray for their dead but do so alone. My CL, an orthodox Muslim, said he only does things Mouhammed did himself. Mouhammed did not participate in tahlilan so neither does my CL. If you’re like me, your mind likely goes straight to modern activities Mouhammed could not have done and think about how Muslims get away doing them. This “only do as Mouhammed did” rule strictly involves religious things.  So saying Muslims shouldn’t use a cellphone because Mouhammed didn’t doesn’t apply here.

When someone in the desa dies neighbors will show up to the house and give money and food to the grieving family. These offerings are to be used for future tahlilans and given out to the attendees. During yasinan money is collected from participants to help the community with small projects. Both tahlilan and yasinan are selamatans. A selamatan can also be a wedding, birth, or circumcision. In a similar vein of event is the pengajian, or lecture. It is more formal and involves both men and women. Pengajian is longer and has a keynote speaker who talks about Islam and offers advice and interpretations of their religious texts.

I had the privilege to attend many different tahlilans and yasinans during PST and they all followed a similar format to the one I described above. Tahlilan and yasinan are great opportunities to get to know the community, integrate with the local culture, have good food, and make some friends. And after all, I did come to Indonesia to make friends.