Media, Science & the Arts

Islam at the Movies: A Cinematic Match Made in Heaven

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Islamic films have found a devoted market in Indonesia. Ekky Imanjaya of Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta writes that this trend will run on if movies in this popular genre continue to achieve success at the box office.

Islam at the Movies: A Cinematic Match Made in Heaven

Lights! Camera! Values!: In Indonesia, entertainment and propaganda go hand in hand in promoting Islamic ideals (Credit: Alan Beka /

A new Islamic-themed film titled “Bismillah, Aku nikahi Suami mu” (“In the Name of God, I Marry Your Husband”) was recently released in Indonesia. The title has resonated strongly with its devoted audience. There has been a mushrooming of movies promoting Islamic values since the late 1990s when Indonesia’s post-dictatorship reform era allowed a renewed religious freedom of expression. Many of these films have had substantial box-office success, which has been key to driving the still ongoing trend. 

Propaganda does not always repel the target audience. In Islam, there is a term which aligns with "propaganda" – dakwah. It refers to preaching, not only in the traditional way but also through new ways of communication, to spread Islamic values. Dakwah and propaganda can have similar intent. And in Indonesia, entertainment and propaganda go hand in hand in promoting Islamic values. Most films mentioned in this article are commercially successful. Moviemakers in the so-called dakwah films have always aimed not just to impart Muslim mores but also to make a profit. 

The phenomenon started in 2008 with “Ayat-Ayat Cinta” (“Verses of Love”), which attracted 3.7 million to the cinemas. The premiere was attended by the Indonesian president then in office, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After the screening, he said the movie could become an economic powerhouse, a big money spinner. In the late 2000s, Islamic-themed movies boomed. “Ketika Cinta Bertasbih” (“When Love Glorifies God”) was the second highest grossing movie of 2009. That same year, other Islamic hits included “Ketika Cinta Bertasbih 2” and “Perempuan Berkalung Sorban” (“Woman with a Turban”).

During the 2010s, a string of Islamic films were box-office hits, ranging from “Sang Pencerah” (“The Enlightener”), “Dalam Mihrab Cinta” (“In the Niche of Love”), both produced in 2010, to “Surga Yang Tak Dirindukan 2” (“The Heaven None Missed 2”) and “Insya Allah Sah” (“God Willing, It is Valid”), both on cinema screens in 2017. The phenomenon did not stop with the dawn of the 2020s: “Pintu Surga Terakhir” (“Last Door of Heaven”) scored big in 2021 and “Bismillah Aku Nikahi Suamimu” (“In the Name of God, I Marry Your Husband”) did so in February this year. 

Posters of Muslim-themed movies: Filmmakers who produce Islamic-themed movies try to promote the dakwah spirit and at the same time achieve commercial success.

Posters of Muslim-themed movies: Filmmakers who produce Islamic-themed movies try to promote the dakwah spirit and at the same time achieve commercial success.

In the past three years, horror films featuring familiar Islamic teachings, practices such as exorcism (qodrat), and key terms or themes (e.g., ghibah or backbiting, qorin or spiritual companion, jelang maghrib or before sunset, and hidayah or guidance), have also become popular. The films follow the commercially successful path of more generic horror films such as “Danur” (“I can See Ghosts”), the highest grossing Indonesian film of the genre and adapted from a bestselling novel, “Pengabdi Setan” (“Satan’s Slaves”), a remake of a legendary horror film, and others.

Many successful Islamic films were adapted from books. Forum Lingkar Pena (The Pen Circle Forum), a group of Muslim literary activists established in 1997, has produced highly popular novels and anthologies of short stories, which big production houses have turned into blockbusters.

Indonesia has a variety of Muslim denominations or faith groups. In films, these tend to be manifested in three schools of thought or approaches: the idealist, the commercialist, and the ideologist. The themes presented on the silver screen typically have a pattern. Some tell stories of successful people (respected professionals or individuals studying abroad) who struggle with complying with Islamic values in their relationships (finding spouses or practicing polygamy). Others tackle cultural and political issues such as corruption (“Ketika”, or “When”, released in 2004, and “Alangkah Lucunya Negeri Ini”, or “How Funny This Country Is”, released in 2010). 

Many films represent Muslims as world citizens and romanticize the golden age of Islam when Islam became the center of global civilization (“99 Cahaya di Langit Eropa”, or “99 Light in the European Sky”, and “Bulan Terbelah di Langit Amerika”, or “The Moon Splits in the American Sky”). There are also films dealing with international issues such as defending Palestine’s rights over Israel – “Hayya” (“The Power of Love”) released in 2019 and its sequel which was in cinemas in 2022. Other themes highlight specific Muslim rituals and experiences such as the Hajj pilgrimage and Ramadan/Eid, all stressing the importance of family values. 

There are films which are preachy, replete with characters or Muslim clerics sermonizing or quoting verses of the Qu’ran or sayings of the Prophet. The only film promoting the idea of the Khilafah or Caliphate is a short documentary “Jejak Khilafah di Nusantara” (“Traces of the Caliphate in the Archipelago”, released in 2020 by Hizbut Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamic organization aimed at re-establishing the Caliphate to unite Muslims that was rendered illegal by the Indonesian government in 2017. More moderate and liberal filmmakers who graduated from Islamic boarding school (santri) have made movies upholding anti-radicalism and religious tolerance in Indonesia such as “3 Doa 3 Cinta” (“3 Prayers 3 Love”) and “Bid’ah Cinta” (“Heresy of Love”), which featured devotees who understand Islamic values.  

Another trendy genre is biopics of prominent Muslim clerics, including the founders of two of the biggest Muslim organizations in the country: Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. One popular film portrays the story of prominent Muslim figure Bacharuddin Jusuf (BJ) Habibie and his wife Hasri Ainun. "Habibie & Ainun", which has three parts, the most recent released in 2019, and a prequel, recounts their relationship and struggles together as Habibie rose to become the first head of Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia (Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals) and the third president of Indonesia, in office from 1998 to 1999 with Ainun as first lady.

Trailer for “Habibie & Ainun”, a 2012 biopic about the lives of BJ Habibie, the Muslim engineer and intellectual who became Indonesia’s third president, and his wife (Credit: MD Pictures on YouTube)

Madani or Muslim films convey Islamic values as the main message. They tell stories from the culture, with characters facing real faith-related problems as they go about their lives. They are not just about doctrine. The less preachy the better, as Bosnian female director Aida Begic and Indonesian Muslim scholar and entrepreneur Haidar Bagir have argued.  

Some politicians have benefited from the blooming of Muslim-themed films. One example is a film relating to the 212 Movement, named after the December 2016 mass protests by Islamist groups in Jakarta, titled “212: The Power of Love”. Several politicians attended its 2018 premiere and afterwards made statements extolling tolerance and moderation. Prabowo Subianto, who was a presidential candidate in 2014, made a short documentary, “Sang Patriot”, that linked him to one of the heroic officers of Prince Diponegoro, a Javanese royal who opposed Dutch colonial rule in the 1800s.

Filmmakers who produce Islamic-themed movies try to promote the dakwah spirit and at the same time achieve commercial success. This does not always happen. After all, filmmaking is a costly and risky business. Unless these films aimed at upholding Muslim values are also able to secure a decent profit or even just break even, the trend of Islam in the cinema could eventually flag after what has been a robust run.

This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Ekky Imanjaya

Ekky Imanjaya

Bina Nusantara University

Ekky Imanjaya is a faculty member of the Film Department at Bina Nusantara (Binus) University in Jakarta. He is also a film critic specializing in Indonesian cinema and has published books on Indonesian films, pop culture and Islamic culture. Ekky is the chairperson of the Film Committee of the Jakarta Arts Council and a board member of the Madani Film Festival and Jakarta Film Week.

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