A banner urging Muslim to perform Sholat Istikhoroh in Sudirman CBD. Photo by Ray Yen.

Despite the early projections that the 2014 Indonesia presidential election would be a one-horse race dominated by the hugely popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, Prabowo Subianto has managed to put together a formidable campaign.

After the official campaign period ended last weekend, Jokowi and are caught in a neck-and-neck race to the finish. Indonesia Survey Institute’s (LSI) latest poll gives Jokowi 47.8 per cent and Prabowo 44.2 per cent of the vote respectively. Facing the ever-more divisive rivalry, some Indonesian Muslims are deciding to turn to God for guidance.

Sholat Istikhoroh (or Salat al-Istikharah) is a prayer ritual that some Muslims (from both the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah sects) perform when they need divine guidance on important issues in their lives.

You begin with ablution and the invocation to pray to God, which would be followed by Sholat Istikhoroh, consisting of two rounds of Islamic prayers. Upon completion, you either wait for a divine revelation in your dreams – which might take a long time to come – or you open a random page/verses of the Quran and let it decide.

Before opening the Quran, you need to bear your candidate of choice in mind. The first verse that you see is believed to be the opinion of Allah. Generally speaking, if the verse contains negative items (such as verses about the infidels and hell), it is believed that Allah does not agree with your choice.

While this does leave a lot to the interpretation of the individual performing the ritual, Sholat Istikhoroh is a common practice among some Muslim communities in Indonesia. This is especially the case within the Nahdlatul Ulama pesantren (boarding school) circle. People sometimes ask their kyai (an expert in Islam) to perform istikhoroh for them because they believe that kyai are more ma’shum (more protected from sins), making divine guidance revealed to them more credible.

As “pesta demokrasi” has become an ingrained part of Indonesia, it’s not unusual to see Sholat Istikhoroh being used in matters of politics as well. Back in April 2014, for instance, the Deputy Secretary General of the Board of Executive Committee of the National Awakening Party (DDP PKB) Lukmanul Khakim stated that nine well-respected ulama and kyai within the Nahdlatul Ulama circle performed a Sholat Istikhoroh, and received the divine indication that Jokowi would win the 2014 Presidential Election. PKB formally endorsed Jokowi in May.

Similarly in June, Persatuan Islam (PERSIS) chairman Maman Abdurrahman urged all Muslims to perform Sholat Istikhoroh for divine guidance before casting their vote.

Most recently, an influential kyai of Pesantren Tambakberas, Jombang, Djamaluddin Ahmad performed Sholat Istikhoroh and concluded that Prabowo is the candidate that can get the Indonesian ummah closer to God. A message was circulated amongst his pesantren alumni via SMS on the 6 July, expressing that it was the will of Allah that Prabowo-Hatta received the Surat Al-`Ankab┼лt (The Spider) 58 and Jokowi-JK the Surat Al-‘Anf─Бl (The Spoils of War) 48 verses of the Quran.

Prabowo-Hatta’s verse is primary about good people going to paradise:

And those who have believed and done righteous deeds – We will surely assign to them of Paradise [elevated] chambers beneath which rivers flow, wherein they abide eternally. Excellent is the reward of the [righteous] workers.

Whereas Jokowi-JK is about Satan declaring himself as a protector:

And [remember] when Satan made their deeds pleasing to them and said, “No one can overcome you today from among the people, and indeed, I am your protector.” But when the two armies sighted each other, he turned on his heels and said, “Indeed, I am disassociated from you. Indeed, I see what you do not see; indeed I fear Allah . And Allah is severe in penalty.

The message did not explicitly ask followers to vote for Prabowo-Hatta; it simply urged them to refer to Quran and study the translation to understand the will of the divinity. But once you looked up the verses in question in the Quran, there’s very little doubt about which way the Nahdlatul Ulama kyai is leaning.

Not discounting the divine element, kyai Djamaluddin Ahmad’s decision to circulate the divine indication he received a few days before the election is perhaps a manifestation of the deeply divided Nahdlatul Ulama base in East Java and PKB’s inability to secure its own backyard.

Ray Yen Yu-Tzien is a graduate of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific currently living in Jakarta.