Cultural Broker are Led by Kiai, What Now?

Cultural broker in the digital era remains both pertinent and evolving, while the democratization of information challenges their traditional authority.7 min

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The cultural broker as the role of Kiai was initially introduced as a theory by Clifford Geertz. Derived from Javanese culture, the term “Kiai” encompasses a notion of reverence for various aspects.  the Kiai, synonymous with ulama or Islamic clerics in colloquial parlance, embodies a figure of authority and respect within Indonesian society (Dhofier 2011, 93).

Geertz introduced the concept of cultural broker to describe the role of Kiai in connecting the rural populace with the political elite of Indonesia during the post-independence period (Geertz 1960, 228). Since its introduction in Geertz’s seminal work in 1960, there has been a lack of academic discourse responding to this proposition. Concurrently, there arises a necessity for contemporary perspectives on the roles of Kiai and pesantren, which have evolved beyond the scope of Geertz’s research.

In the contemporary digital era, a pivotal question emerges: does the concept of Kiai as a cultural broker still relevant? This article seeks to acknowledge this question, by examining the applicability of the Kiai as a cultural broker framework in the context of contemporary digital dynamics.

The Origin of Cultural Broker

Before we discuss deeper into the concept of cultural broker, it is imperative to trace its origins. Created by Eric Wolf, the term “cultural broker” denotes a crucial figure tasked with connecting the chasm between sophisticated culture and folk culture, or between cosmopolitan groups and smaller societal factions in rural settings (Wolf 1956, 1075).

The primary function of the cultural broker revolves around the facilitation of information and knowledge exchange among disparate social groups. This role is considered crucial because it fosters connections and a sense of combining the ideas. Indeed, the crux of this position lies in its ability to operationalize and actualize command objectives through the dissemination of ideas. Moreover, cultural brokers have responsibility of mediating deals and accommodating interests among various stakeholders. It is through the adept navigation of these interests that the realization of command objectives becomes feasible.

Cultural Broker in Javanese Context

In Eric Wolf’s research conducted in Mexico, he observed the inherent presence of a cultural broker within the context of the Kingdom and Plantation Leaders (Wolf 1956, 1075). Similarly, in the Javanese context, the cultural broker is embodied by the kiai, who assumes the role of a local leader. Following Indonesia’s emergence into independence, kiai gradually transitioned into political roles, striving to become local politicians.

While both roles undertaken by the kiai exhibit similarities, as a local leader, they operate outside formal political structures. Conversely, in their capacity as local politicians, they assume official positions within the political framework, potentially holding membership in parliament or other governmental offices.

The selection of the kiai as a cultural broker, compared to another figure within society, can be caused by several factors. Primarily, the kiai holds a position of significant influence within Javanese society, particularly within the context of the pesantren community. This prominence is underscored by the kiai’s multifaceted roles as a spiritual leader, educator, and societal patron.

Baca juga: Kiai: Agama dan Elit Sosiopolitik

In traditional Javanese society, the kiai occupies a central role as a custodian of knowledge and information. This role extends beyond mere dissemination to encompass the cultural and social guidance which is an integral part of community cohesion. The kiai is not only a repository of wisdom but also an arbiter of societal norms and values. The kiai’s authority often extends to the bestowal of names upon newborn children, further solidifying their position as a cultural authority.

Furthermore, the kiai’s influence is augmented by their close proximity to the grassroots level of society. Through their interactions with individuals across various strata, the kiai serves as a transmitter of cultural practices, religious teachings, and communal solidarity. This accessibility fosters a sense of trust and reliance upon the kiai as a mediator and facilitator within the social fabric.

In essence, the kiai’s ascendance as a cultural broker can be attributed to their unique blend of spiritual authority, educational prowess, and societal patronage. Within the intricate tapestry of Javanese society, the kiai emerges as a linchpin, connecting the realms of tradition and modernity, while upholding the values of community cohesion and identity.

Reconstructing Cultural Broker as the Role of Kiai in Society

In the preceding discourse, the pertinent discussion centred on the traditional attributes associated with the kiai, or Islamic religious leaders in Indonesia, as delineated earlier. Given this contextual backdrop, the imperative arises to delve into the influence potency of these figures within contemporary society.

Possibilities and Obstacles of Cultural Broker in the Digital Era

This imperative stems from the recognition that in the digital age, characterized by an expansive democratization of information, the dissemination of knowledge extends beyond the confines traditionally monopolized by the kiai and the educated elite, reaching a broader spectrum of the populace. This democratization creates an empowerment dynamic whereby individuals, irrespective of their educational backgrounds, are afforded access to an extensive array of informational resources.

Consequently, individuals are empowered to adapt their learning experiences to accord with personal proclivities, thus augmenting the divergence of ideological perspectives within the societal fabric.

In the contemporary landscape, we find ourselves amidst a phenomenon commonly referred to as the post-truth era, where decisions are increasingly influenced by personal sentiments and inclinations rather than factual knowledge and empirical data. 

This trend is particularly pronounced in the realm of religion, where individuals rely on digital platforms to validate their beliefs and preferences. Consequently, this shift has led to a state of confusion and misinformation among the populace.

Traditionally, individuals sought guidance primarily from local clerics. However, with the advent of digitalization, people now have access to a plethora of religious texts, or “thurats,” uploaded on the internet. This accessibility has enabled individuals to engage with diverse clerical perspectives from different regions and to seek clarification and interpretations from various religious scholars.

Moreover, this digital transformation has not only affected religious discourse but has also extended to other spheres of knowledge, including politics and social issues. People increasingly turn to the internet to access original information and educate themselves on various subjects. Consequently, the traditional authority of religious scholars, or “Kiai,” has been challenged as individuals have a multitude of sources to inform their decisions.

Combating Misinformation and Embracing Scholar Integrity

However, despite the changing landscape, Kiai remain indispensable in society. They possess the expertise and authority to rectify misinformation and provide guidance on religious matters. Moreover, Kiai play a crucial role in adapting to the evolving demands of society by assuming new roles that align with contemporary needs.

One of the vital functions that Kiai fulfill is accompanying individuals in their religious learning journey and serving as discussion partners. Additionally, Kiai are adept at elucidating complex religious concepts and guiding systematic Islamic teachings, thereby ensuring the accuracy and coherence of religious knowledge amidst the abundance of information available online.

Furthermore, Kiai are required to have a broad knowledge base to address a wide range of societal issues and provide informed opinions or fatwas. In doing so, they serve as pillars of expertise and moral guidance within their communities.

Despite the proliferation of information in the digital age, Kiai remain relevant by contextualizing information, synthesizing disparate sources, and fostering critical thinking among their followers. Their role extends beyond mere dissemination of information; they facilitate the transformation of information into meaningful knowledge, thereby ensuring clarity and objectivity in the pursuit of understanding.

Promoting for Ideas, Concepts, and Knowledge

Kiai also play a crucial role in promoting democratic values, civic education, and disseminating essential information necessary for the betterment of society. When the government and Kiai act as cultural brokers and collaborate to propagate common ideas in Indonesia, they contribute to achieving national objectives swiftly, encompassing economic, social, and cultural advancement, ultimately aspiring toward the status of a developed nation. 

This vision aligns with the foundational principles outlined in the Indonesian constitution, which espouses the ideals of a welfare state, accessible to all citizens.

This ideal is notably championed by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah movements. NU, in particular, has spearheaded a global initiative aimed at revitalizing civilization to mitigate the perils of war and environmental catastrophes, urging collective contributions towards forging a new global agenda for a better world (Abdalla et al. 2023, xvii–xxii). 

Conversely, Muhammadiyah has focused on developing economic, educational, and healthcare systems that complement government initiatives, thereby augmenting societal progress (Mas’udi 2020, 2).

To effectively maintain relevance, Kiai must engage with contemporary vocabularies and cultivate an understanding of geopolitical, environmental, and food-related issues. Rather than engaging in competition with experts in these fields, Kiai should position themselves as collaborative partners, promoting the presence and expertise of specialists while advocating for a knowledgeable society characterized by critical thinking. 

Failure to establish connections between experts and society may result in societal rejection of the expertise offered. It is not uncommon for individuals to harbor prejudices toward unfamiliar concepts. By legitimizing experts and facilitating their engagement through lectures and similar platforms, Kiai can foster trust within the community. Moreover, Kiai must emphasize the role of ideas as catalysts for improved living standards and societal advancement.

On the other hand, in cases where governmental performance is lacking, Kiai can offer constructive criticism, thus assuming a role as agents consistently aligned with and accommodating the aspirations of the populace. This ensures their function as educators and social activists capable of guiding both the public and the government toward the continual development of social structures geared towards improvement. Consequently, they can serve as either government partners or opposition figures providing constructive critique.

Kiai Must Embrace Constructive Criticism

Given the magnitude of such a role, there looms a potential negative aspect surrounding kiai. One of the alarming aspects of the prominent role of kiai is the potential for egotism and the exploitation of the community. Consequently, the integrity of kiai warrants continual scrutiny. As individuals emerging within modernity, kiai must be receptive to criticism. Society, in turn, should not hesitate to critique and engage in clarification (tabayun) when deemed necessary. Thus, kiai, as public figures, can uphold their integrity under scrutiny, ensuring their relevance as guides for the community and cultural brokers.


In conclusion, the role of Kiai as cultural brokers in the digital era remains both pertinent and evolving. While the democratization of information challenges their traditional authority, Kiai continue to serve as essential guides, educators, and facilitators within Indonesian society. Their expertise in contextualizing information, fostering critical thinking, and promoting societal progress remains invaluable amidst the abundance of online resources.

Moreover, Kiai play a crucial role in bridging the gap between experts and society, advocating for collaboration rather than competition. By embracing constructive criticism and aligning with societal aspirations, Kiai can maintain their integrity and relevance as trusted cultural brokers.

Ultimately, Kiai must navigate the complexities of the digital age while upholding their foundational principles of knowledge dissemination, moral guidance, and societal advancement. Through adaptation, collaboration, and integrity, Kiai can continue to fulfill their vital role as cultural brokers, contributing to the prosperity and cohesion of Indonesian society.


Abdalla, Ulil Abshar, Imam Addaraqutni, Muddassar Ahmed, Miftachul Akyar, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Alam, Archbishop Angaelos, Andrés Pastrana Arango, et al. 2023. Proceedings of the R20 International Summit of Religious Leaders : Bali, Indonesia, 2-3 November 2022. Edited by Muhammad Najib Azca, Timothy Samuel Shah, and Charles Holland Taylor. Yogyakarta: UGM Press (Gadjah Mada University Press).

Dhofier, Zamakhsyari. 2011. Tradisi Pesantren : Studi Pandangan Hidup Kyai Dan Visinya Mengenai Masa Depan Indonesia. Jakarta: LP3ES.

Geertz, Clifford. 1960. “The Javanese Kijaji: The Changing Role of a Cultural Broker.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 2, no. 2: 228–49.

Mas’udi, Muhammad Maulana. 2020. “Eksistensi Amal Usama Muhammadiyah.” Al-Hikmah : Jurnal Studi Agama-Agama 6, no. 2 (November).

Wolf, Eric R. 1956. “Aspects of Group Relations in a Complex Society: Mexico.” American Anthropologist 58, no. 6 (January).

Editor: Sukma W.

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