Marketing the Divine: Gender and Islamic Politics in Popular Indonesian Qasidah Ensembles

REBECCA SELIN, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan


Marketing the Divine: Gender and Islamic Politics in Popular Indonesian Qasidah Ensembles

The term qasidah refers to a sung form of Arabic poem thought to have developed in the Middle East before the advent of Islam. This form spread, with Islam, to Indonesia with traders and sufis in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the mid-1970s, Indonesian Qasidah has diversified from the private practice of women’s religious study groups to a commercialized and globalized musical genre referred to as Qasidah Modern, or Modern Qasidah. Qasidah Modern lyrics usually spread a religious message (dakwah) or a critique of modern society in either Bahasa Indonesia or Arabic. Qasidah Modern is known as such because of its use of modern or novel instruments and harmony among singers. The ensembles are generally all-female and dress in Islamic garb. 

The all-female Qasidah Modern group, Nasida Ria, formed in 1975 and soon became commercially successful. Nasida Ria is generally considered the beginning of popular and commercial Qasidah Modern. The commercial success of this popular religious genre, coupled with its unusual relationship with the often-hypersexual “music of the people”, dangdut, make it an interesting subject to trace through a period of changing public expressions of Islamic piety (1975-present) in Indonesia. In my paper, I will trace the development of Qasidah Modern as a genre, focusing on all-female groups from 1975 to the present and their place within the identity politics of a rapidly changing Indonesia, from approaches to Islam to conceptions of women in the public sphere.


Comercializando lo divino: género y política islámica en los conjuntos indonesios populares de Qasidah

El término qasidah se refiere a una forma cantada de poema árabe que se cree que se desarrolló en el Medio Oriente antes del advenimiento del Islam. Esta forma se extendió, con el Islam, a Indonesia con comerciantes y sufíes en los siglos XVI y XVII. Desde mediados de la década de los 70, el Qasidah indonesio ha crecido y diversificado desde solo la práctica privada de los grupos de estudio religioso de mujeres hacia un género musical comercializado y globalizado conocido como Qasidah Modern o Modern Qasidah. Las líricas de Qasidah Modern suelen difundir un mensaje religioso (dakwah) o una crítica de la sociedad moderna, ya sea en Bahasa indonesia o en árabe. Qasidah Modern es conocido como tal debido a su uso de instrumentos modernos o novedosos y la armonía entre los cantantes. Los conjuntos generalmente son totalmente femeninos y se visten con atuendo islámico.

El grupo femenino Qasidah Modern, Nasida Ria, se formó en 1975 y pronto se convirtió en un éxito comercial. Nasida Ria generalmente es considerada como el comienzo de Qasidah Modern popular y comercial. El éxito comercial de este género religioso popular, junto con su relación inusual con la “música del pueblo” a menudo hipersexual, dangdut, lo convierten en un tema interesante para rastrear a través de un período de diversas expresiones públicas cambiantes de la piedad islámica (1975-presente) en Indonesia. En mi artículo, rastrearé el desarrollo de Qasidah Modern como género, centrándome en los grupos femeninos desde 1975 hasta el presente y su ubicación dentro de la política de identidad de una Indonesia que cambia rápidamente, desde los enfoques del Islam hasta las concepciones de las mujeres en el esfera pública.


Rebecca Selin is a second year master’s student in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, where she also earned a Certificate in World Performance Studies. After studying Javanese gamelan for four years while pursuing a BA in geology at Oberlin College, she spent a year teaching English in Bandar Lampung, Indonesia and was struck by the prominent influence of Islamic imagery in competition with the so-called traditional arts in popular culture there. Rebecca’s current research interests center on the intersections of morality, piety, and gender in contemporary Indonesia, especially within popular music performance and fan culture of Central Java.



– Marketing the Divine