c.2019 New York Times News Service
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Every year, as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approached, Surya Sahetapy and his close friends would start to feel depressed.
They were at their wits’ ends about how to help more Indonesians study the Quran, Islam’s holiest book, which may seem surprising in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Traditionally, Muslims around the world recite the entire Quran during the month of Ramadan, which began in Indonesia on May 5. Learning all 114 chapters, known as surahs, can take years, and many here learn the melodic Arabic recitations — as well as Indonesian translations and interpretations — by listening to audio recordings.
But Surya, 25, and his friends had a unique challenge when it came to studying the sacred texts: They are deaf.
“My deaf friends and I felt depressed because we didn’t have any way to help other deaf people to access Islam,” he said while accompanied by a sign-language interpreter.
All that changed last year when Surya teamed up with a local Islamic organization on a project to produce sign-language videos, translating all 114 surahs.
They released the first video, on YouTube, before the start of Ramadan last year.
The work has been slow going. In time for Ramadan this year, the Quran Indonesia Project produced four more surah videos and one of the azan, the Muslim call to prayer.
While many deaf Muslims in Indonesia can read and memorize some scriptures, they have little access to Islamic scholars who can communicate with them.
To help deaf Muslims not just memorize verses but understand their meaning, the group also plans to release an educational board game about the basics of Islam as well as 10 sign-language DVDs explaining some prayers.
“It’s changing everything,” Surya said of the project. “The videos also have their own message: If you want deaf Indonesians to learn Islam, they must learn sign language. Islam is not limited to what you read, but much more what you understand.”
The idea for a sign-language Quran began in 2017 when Surya met Archie Fitrah Wirija, founder and executive producer of the Quran Indonesia Project.
Wirija’s nonprofit group was already trying to get young people interested in the Quran by producing audio recordings of the book in Arabic, Indonesian and English, voiced by popular Indonesian singers and actors.
“It was like the Quran was not cool enough,” Wirija said, explaining his decision to use celebrities and create an Quran smartphone app.
The sign-language project took off with help from Galuh Sukmara Soejanto, a deaf Indonesian teacher and disability rights activist. She coached Surya on the finer points of translating the Quran into sign language, and his progress was monitored by an organization for deaf people based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
The Quran project has become one of the few educational resources for deaf Indonesians. There were 2.9 million deaf citizens as of 2015, according to the Central Statistics Bureau, although activists believe the number is actually much higher.
There are few special education options for deaf children and limited access to public services for adults, especially in the country’s many far-flung rural areas. Indonesian sign language was not even recognized by the Ministry of Culture and Education until 2016, and there are few government officials who can communicate in sign language.
Galuh opened a small school and home schooling program for deaf children in 2013 in West Java province, just outside Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. Most of its teachers and support staff are also deaf.
Indonesia’s public schools, she said, do not accommodate sign language users, placing deaf students instead into mainstream classrooms where they must teach themselves to lip-read in order to receive an education.
“Sign language is the main push factor used to develop communication skills, including expressing themselves,” Galuh said in an email. “Starting from personal experiences about communication and supported by much scientific research, we are positive that sign language is one of the most important factors to develop communications skills as well as the foundation of education in general.”
Deafness runs in Surya’s family. A deaf older sister and an uncle exposed him to sign language at an early age.
“But when it came time during class to study Islam, I started crying because I didn’t understand,” Surya said, remembering that he was required to read his elementary schoolteacher’s lips. “I was forced to live as a hearing person, and even today parents don’t want their children to sign; they want them to speak.”
Things are changing — albeit slowly. A small number of mosques around the country have begun providing sign-language interpreters for their deaf congregants.
And many national television stations now include sign-language translations for news and religious programs.
“It shows people we have the right to use sign language,” he said. “We want to change the stigma of, ‘If you can’t talk, you are different.’”