Muslims, Minorities and Modernity:

The restructuring of heterodoxy in the Middle East and Southeast Asia


Inaugural lecture of Martin van Bruinessen
Utrecht, November 21, 2000


Esteemed members of the boards of Utrecht University and ISIM,

esteemed rector magnificus,

dear friends and colleagues,

ladies and gentlemen



When you are considered as an expert on the Muslim world (or at least certain parts of it), people often address you with questions about Islam. With depressing monotony, the questions unfailingly define Islam as a problem: they are about fundamentalism, the so-called Islamic threat, political conflicts that take the shape of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. Or problems with Muslim minorities in the Netherlands: headscarves, Muslim men who refuse to shake hands with Dutch women officials (which is experienced as a sign of disrespect even if it is not meant as such). When speaking of problems with immigrants, it is usually the Muslims that people have in mind.


After a period in which the idea of multiculturalism evoked pleasant associations and immigrants were told it was possible to integrate in our society without entirely giving up their own cultures  — some of their cultural activities were even subsidised — there is now a noticeable shift in public opinion to a demand for their cultural assimilation. And here Islam seems to present a special problem, for can Muslims assimilate as long as they remain Muslims? Is Islam compatible with modern secular society? Or is it inherently hostile to secularism — as some Muslim spokespersons as well as certain experts tell us?


My answer is usually to point to the enormous variety of thought and practice within Islam, which makes it hard to find any political or social attitude that is inherently Islamic. The most diverse points of view and political stances can be, and are, legitimated with reference to a selective reference to the Qur’an, to a hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet), to a passage from the rich corpus of legal and mystical Islamic literature, or to the oral tradition of Muslim communities. How and why a particular point of view becomes influential and comes to be considered by large numbers of Muslims as the Islamic viewpoint is a fascinating question: who has religious authority and how is this religious authority established?


Authority and legitimacy


There exists an easy answer to the question of authority. Islam has a class of learned men (and sometimes women), the `ulama. They are the guardians of orthodoxy, and one would expect their opinions to be the authoritative ones. It is true that the `ulama are the most easily recognisable holders of religious authority, but in most Muslim countries respect for them is often mixed with scorn and mockery. Their authority is usually buttressed by the state — many of them are in fact civil servants — and one of their major tasks is to give legitimacy to the state. They have often been accused of adapting their religious opinions to the wishes and interests of the ruler.


Let me give you an example. Indonesia has a Council of Ulama, established and financed by the state, with which many learned `ulama are associated. A subcommittee of the Council is in charge of issuing fatwas, authoritative statements of the orthodox view, commonly in response to questions from the government. For many years the powerful position of chairman of this subcommittee was held by Professor Ibrahim Hosen, who is widely recognised as a great expert on Islamic law as well as a Qur’an scholar. He probably owed his appointment to the position to a fatwa allowing various means of birth control that he had issued privately at a time when most of his colleagues opposed it and the government was embarking on a family planning programme. Hosen was openly proud of the flexibility of fiqh, the reasoning of the legal expert, and once boasted that he could if needed find formally correct arguments for almost any opinion as well as its opposite. The authority that his fatwas and those of the Council under his chairmanship enjoyed depended, however, on their contents and not on their reasoning. Some fatwas were widely followed because people agreed anyway, but Hosen and the Council earned scorn for opinions that were perceived as serving political ends.


One famous case concerned a sort of lottery, that many Muslims thought was a form of gambling and wanted to see banned. But the lottery was controlled by one of the Suharto children, who earned a lot of money with it. In spite of popular pressure, the Ulama Council could therefore not issue a fatwa against it. Hosen tried to change people’s opinions on the matter with a booklet in which he showed that the gambling that is banned in the Qur’an, maisir, is of a different kind, and that nothing is wrong with lotteries. He reproduced an earlier Egyptian fatwa by Rashid Rida, highly respected in Indonesia, who had said the same. But he convinced few people and was ridiculed by many. Most people thought that they did not need Hosen to tell them what was right or wrong in this case; they judged for themselves.


Besides the `ulama, there have always been other authorities, for instance Sufi shaykhs (who may in fact also be `ulama themselves, but who as Sufis tend to stress other aspects of the Islamic tradition). Nowadays the authority of the Sufis and the `ulama is moreover challenged by another class of learned men (and, again, women), whom we may call Muslim intellectuals. Mass literacy and mass education have completely changed the structures of authority in the Muslim world. There is a huge number of highly educated young Muslims who are convinced that the knowledge of Islam that the `ulama have is no longer relevant for answering the challenges that Muslims are facing in the modern world.


It has often been observed that the radical Islamist movements find their leadership and following especially among people trained in the exact and applied sciences. Engineers and doctors are very prominent in them. The idea of establishing — for the first time in history — a purely Islamic society, based on a systematic and consistent application of Islamic teachings, has a special appeal to people from the applied sciences. Convinced that the Qur’an and hadith, applied literally, contain all the answers, they believe the problem is simple. Again a matter of applied science. The strongest resistance to western secularism and the de facto secularisation of traditional Muslim societies comes from these circles.


But among Muslim intellectuals too there is a wide range of opinion and intellectual attitude. Political Islam or fundamentalism is only one among many different intellectual currents in the contemporary Muslim world. It gets much attention from journalists but is not necessarily the most influential brand of Islamic thought. Thinkers such as the Iranian Abdolkarim Soroush, a farmacist by training, reach mass audiences with thoughtful writings that are a world apart from the views of the `ulama and even further from those of so-called fundamentalists. Deeply grounded in the Iranian Sufi tradition and drawing upon his experience in the early years of the Islamic revolution, when he was a member of the Council of the Islamic cultural revolution, Soroush now has become an outspoken proponent of secularism — not out of admiration for the secular West, but because of the need to protect religious values from the state and political interests.


It is not of the ulama that I wish to speak today, however, nor of Muslim intellectuals. And the minorities in the title of this speech are not in the first place the Muslim minorities in the West. Having mentioned orthodoxy and the contested nature of authority in Islam, I shall turn now to two religious communities that are characterised by their rejection of the authority of orthodox Islam in favour of what they consider an esoteric interpretation of it. My examples are the Alevis of Turkey, relatively well known here, because there is a considerable immigrant Alevi community in the Netherlands, and the mystical kebatinan movements of Java in Indonesia.


There are no historical connections between them, apart from those constituted by transnational Islam. In fact they are quite different from one another, but there is an interesting parallel in their development under the impact of modernisation. Both have their origins in dispersed village communities adhering to various locally rooted folk beliefs. And both have reconstituted themselves in the 20th century as distinct religious minorities. Secular nationalist elites (and, in the Indonesian case, non-Muslims) have often seen them as potential allies against the rise of political Islam and have praised them as representing an authentic national tradition going back to Central Asian shamanism or Zoroastrianism (for the Alevis) or the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit (for kebatinan). At the same time, however, they were politically suspect, because of their perceived predilection for the left and extreme left. Heterodoxy is always potentially subversive.


In the course of the political struggles of the 20th century, Alevis and kebatinan defined more sharply than before the boundary separating them from orthodox, scripturalist, shari`a-oriented Islam. They consolidated internally and demanded recognition as minorities. Where previously the boundaries within the umma were fluid, I think it is appropriate now to speak of multiculturalism within the larger body of Islam. And in this sense, the situation of the Alevis and of kebatinan may represent an interesting comment on the minority debate in Europe. I find it hard to imagine that those who call for more assimilation of minorities here would find the assimilation of these heterodox minorities in Muslim countries desirable.


Local communities like those from which present Alevism and kebatinan arose have existed all over the Muslim world. Conversion to Islam never meant that one left all that one had previously believed and practised behind. Elements from earlier religions have remained prominently present in the beliefs and rituals of common people all over the Muslim world, as tenaciously as Christmas trees, Easter fires and Easter eggs in Christianity. Anthropologists have shown that living local Islam is often rather different from what one would expect from the study of Islamic scripture. Folk Islam or popular Islam, they often called it, to distinguish it from the High Islam or scripturalist, shari`a-oriented Islam of the `ulama.


This dichotomy is central to Ernest Gellner’s influential model of Muslim society. He sees a dialectical relationship between the two, with periods of scripturalist dominance followed by relapses into emotional, mystical, magical folk Islam. Modernity — especially urbanisation and mass literacy — unsettles the balance between the two, by eroding the social bases of folk Islam. An irreversible shift to scripturalist Islam occurs, which is in Gellner’s view the equivalent of secularisation in the West.


There are a few problems with the concepts of folk Islam and scripturalist Islam in this and other models. They lump together too many different things to be really useful. The demarcation between them is also problematic: many persons and practices appear to belong to both. Quite a few Sufi shaykhs, for instance, are experts of fiqh but also lead ecstatic rites and act as magical healers, without feeling any contradiction between those roles.


For my purposes I find a division into three overlapping spheres more useful: the spheres of shari`a-oriented Islam, that of Sufism (mystical Islam, which has its learned and popular variants), and the periphery of local rituals, local shrines, local spirit cults and heterodox beliefs and practices in general. This third sphere was no doubt in most parts of the world for many years the one that had by far the greatest numbers of adherents. It has often been through Sufism that people from the heterodox periphery gradually moved towards some degree of conformity with orthodoxy.


There is yet another reason to single out Sufism as a separate category beside shari`a-based Islam and the popular fringe, and that is a sociological one. Sufism is commonly associated with a particular form of organsation, the Sufi order or tariqa (tarikat). Many scholars have commented on the weakness or absence of something resembling civil society in traditional Muslim societies. This has been offered as an explanation of why democracy is not flourishing in most of the Muslim world. Between level of individual families and that of the state, the argument goes, there were hardly any intermediate structures. Those who wished to find precedents for civil society in Ottoman history could point to few intermediate structures: there were guilds in the cities, village councils and tribal structures. None of these could be called voluntary associations independent of the state. But the Sufi orders, tarikat, were exactly that. Membership was open to all. They constituted — and that too is important — translocal and even trans-state networks. This distinguishes them sharply from local cults, in which membership tends to be ascribed: you belong to a local cult because you were born in that particular locality.


Back to Alevism and kebatinan now.


The name Alevi is a blanket term for a variety of heterodox or syncretistic communities, formerly relatively isolated one from the other, that are found all over the Asian and European parts of Turkey. The Alevis are popularly associated with a series of great rebellions against the Ottoman state in the 15th and 16th centuries, and as a result of persecution in the past most of the communities used to live in peripheral districts far from the administrative and military centres of the Empire. Islam has strongly marked their belief system, but their major rituals as well as many of their beliefs are very different from those of orthodox Islam.


The core ritual is the cem, a meeting in which all adult members of the village community take part, husbands and wives together, and in which special food and drink (often an alcoholic beverage) are ritually shared. It is an almost ideal Durkheimian ritual of solidarity-making, celebrating the community. One particular type of cem, the görgü cem, has in fact as its explicit aim the restoration of social harmony after this has been disturbed by disputes.


Over the centuries, many of these communities were gradually brought closer to scripturalist Islam. Heterodox, Alevi-type communities only persisted in peripheral areas, where the impact of the state and the `ulama was more easily held at bay. But even the most isolated communities adopted some elements of High Islam. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were many Alevi communities — especially in the European part of Turkey and the western half of Asia Minor — in which at least some people regularly prayed, fasted in Ramadan and performed the hajj.


It was, not surprisingly, a Sufi order, the Bektashi order, that appears to have played a role in this process of further Islamisation of Alevis. The Bektashis had rituals and beliefs that were a learned variant of those of the Alevis, but they were also well connected with influential members of the `ulama and bureaucratic classes and could thereby offer protection. More importantly, membership as well as ritual leadership were not by birth but by choice and achievement. This made the order a useful vehicle for social mobility. The banning of the Sufi orders in Republican Turkey in 1925 closed this particular avenue — but it has recently been reopened.


Central to Gellner’s model of Muslim society is the assumption that modernity erodes the social bases of folk Islam. In its generality that is a debatable assumption, but for Alevism it is definitely the case. The cem is a ritual that needs the village community and is closed to outsiders. Being an Alevi and a member of a particular village community was a matter of birth, or birth and marriage. There was, in the past few centuries, no conversion to Alevism, nor could one easily join another Alevi community than the one into which one was born. Unlike the Bektashi order and Sunni Islam, there was no way in, only a way out. Once a family left its village for town or city, it lost contact with the roots of its religious life, especially after the ban of the Bektashis.


You would expect that Turkey’s official secularism should have made it easier for Alevis to be integrated into wider society, for little seems to distinguish a secularised Alevi from a secularised Sunni Turk. And until the 1970s, this is what seemed to be happening and what many Alevis in fact wanted to happen. The trend was reversed by mass migration to the cities, the emergence of homogeneous and easily identifiable Alevi districts in many towns and cities, and a series of anti-Alevi pogroms in the late 1970s. These events strengthened Alevism as an identity, distinct from Sunni Islam even though the religious content of Alevism had in the cities practically disappeared.


It was as recently as the late 1980s that there is suddenly a strong and successful movement to redefine, reconstruct and, perhaps, reinvent Alevism as a religious identity. The return to religion was spearheaded by intellectuals of Alevi background and financed by Alevi businessmen. It may be seen as a response to two developments  that affected the Alevis very much: The radical left, in which many Alevis had found a political home, was destroyed after the military coup of 1980. And in an attempt to pre-empt radical Islam, the new regime embraced a conservative brand of Sunni Islam which it imposed - though unsuccessfully - even on Alevi citizens.


Within a few years a new type of organisation spread throughout the country: the Alevi cultural association. They were voluntary associations, in which Alevis of various regional backgrounds participated. These associations sponsored a revival of the cem ritual in the new urban context. These were no longer closed village rituals but events that were open to everyone who claimed to be an Alevi. Dedes, the traditional hereditary ritual experts, were involved in developing the ritual, but had no longer the final say in everything; new standards were invented as one went along. Intellectuals published numerous books and articles defining what Alevism was and what Alevis believed, interpreting their rituals, developing something of an Alevi theology. The sacred texts, the religious poetry as well as a sort of catechism, had been published in print before; cheap reprints were now made and widely distributed. Alevism is transforming itself from one variety of folk Islam into — well, not into High Islam, as Gellner’s model would have it; nor is it simply dissolving in the melting pot of secularised Turkey. I am tempted to speak of a scripturalist form of Alevism, something distinctly modern, that has never existed before.


Kebatinan in Java


A somewhat similar transformation occurred earlier within Javanese mysticism, kebatinan. Java was converted to Islam quite late; the process started seriously around 1500CE, that is, at the time of the great Alevi rebellions. Adoption of Islam is perhaps a better term than conversion, for the Javanese were deliberately syncretistic. For many of the new Muslims Islam, especially in its Sufi variety, was a welcome additional source of spiritual power, not a substitute for what they already had. Islam entered at the top of the social pyramid, which must have made acceptance by the rest of the population smoother. It was, of course, primarily Sufi and other “folk” versions of Islam that were most easily integrated in the folk religion of Java. At the courts, learned versions of Sufi Islam and, quite early on, shari`a-oriented Islam were integrated with rituals and myths going back to Hindu-Buddhist civilisation. Thus emerged the cultural and religious patterns that Clifford Geertz famously described as abangan and priyayi, the lower class and elite varieties of Javanese syncretism.


The central ritual of Javanese Islam, the slametan or kendhuri, involves as in the Alevi cem a communal meal of carefully specified composition. There is a wide variety of slametans, some of the solidarity-making, community celebrating type, others for more limited, specific purposes such as exorcising an evil spirit, or celebrating a life-cycle ritual.


There is no time today to go into the details of the process of further Islamisation. Little by little, the Islamic element in folk religion was strengthened, though not without relapses into syncretism — reminding us of Gellner’s model of flux and reflux. Shari`a-oriented Islam found acceptance by growing numbers. By the turn of the 20th century, efforts of Muslim reformers to purge Javanese high culture of its pre-Islamic elements created a backlash in elite circles, a rejection of shari`a-oriented Islam and a more self-conscious embracing of syncretism. This process was reinforced by contacts of these elite circles with Freemasonry and Theosophy, at that time the only interracial associations of the Indies. Educated Javanese and Chinese could mix freely there with Europeans interested in Eastern spirituality, who gave them pride in their own tradition.


In the early 20th century we see the appearance of the first kebatinan movements. Kebatinan teachers with a smaller or larger following had been a common phenomenon, but now several such followings became organised into formal associations that outlived their founders. There were rules for membership, regular meetings at set times, with standardised meditation exercises. Several movements established chapters in other towns and even villages, organised by a mystical bureaucracy that institutionalises itself. The teachings were —another novelty — written down; several movements have their own sacred scripture, often “received” by the founder of the movement during his meditation. Reading, studying these texts, becomes part of the practice of kebatinan adepts — something I like to think of as the scripturalisation of kebatinan. These are the well-known Weberian processes of routinisation of charisma and rationalisation. They also reflect the fact that the founders and officers of these movements have had a western education. Both Theosophy and the Sufi orders appear to have been used as models to be emulated.


All of these movements emerged in urban traditional elite circles, and some remained very elitist. Others opened themselves to lower urban and even rural followings, and thereby offered abangan — the “low” form of popular syncretistic Islam — an alternative to the gradual adaptation to shari`a-oriented Islam.


After Independence, most kebatinan movements joined in a confederation that started lobbying for official recognition with a status comparable to religion. The right to have “kebatinan” marked on one’s ID card instead of one of the great religions, and the right to have a kebatinan marriage ceremony officially recognised, just as a Muslim ceremony has legal status, remain important demands through the years.


There were fierce polemics with shari`a-oriented Muslims — Indonesia’s first Minister of Religion, Rasjidi, was bitterly hostile to kebatinan, which he saw as undermining Islam. In the context of political struggle between the Muslim parties and the Communists and Nationalists, the boundaries were sharpened, most kebatinan movements affiliating themselves with the Communist or Nationalist Parties. The Islamic element in their belief system, which always was there, was often deliberately played down. In a book published on the occasion of the second national Kebatinan congress in 1956, a leading article quotes as authorities Paul Brunton, Alexandra David-Neel and Carl G. Jung besides Ramakrishna, Yogananda and the (Javanese) mystic Ranggawarsita. Another author in the same volume, who significantly calls himself Eclecticus, writes on the esoteric meaning of the Cross and Holy Mass. The only Muslim contribution to the volume, by a Haji Adnan, summarises the essence of Sufism in the well-known hadith qudsi,  “Man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa rabbahu”, “Who knows himself knows his God” — a phrase frequently quoted by early Indonesian Sufis but clearly beyond the pale to today’s orthodox Muslims.


A year later, a number of prominent Sufi teachers established a confederation of  “orthodox” Sufi orders, the chief aim of which was apparently to make a clear demarcation between their own transcendentalist mysticism and the monist Sufism of Haji Adnan and his likes. It is henceforth not only the shari`a-oriented Muslims but also the Sufis who disassociate themselves from kebatinan.


The fortunes of kebatinan have depended much on the political constellation and the balance of forces. When they were strongest, in the late 1950s, they had a degree of  formal recognition, though not at the level they had wanted. After 1965, many suffered under their association with communism. Both Sukarno and Suharto were personally believers in and practitioners of kebatinan, but they had to accommodate the Muslim parties, which were vehemently against recognition. Especially the later Suharto years were a period of apparent gradual political decline for kebatinan, and of spectacular progress for scripturalist Islam. [This shift was also reflected in the composition of Suharto’s corps of spiritual advisers.] Since Suharto’s fall kebatinan has been making a political comeback, but it is no longer in as strong a position as it was in the 1950s.




The cases of Alevism and kebatinan represent an interesting variation on the gradual but inevitable shift from folk Islam to scripturalist Islam predicted by, for instance, Gellner’s well-known model. Gellner’s statement that modernity necessarily erodes the social bases of folk Islam seems to be borne out by them, but not the supposition that this should lead to a shift towards orthodox Islam. The emergence of a learned variety of the local tradition appears to be an alternative. In both cases, political developments were of crucial importance in making this happen; it might just as well not have happened, given other circumstances. And even in establishing this alternative, the communities concerned had to engage scripturalist Islam and were to a large degree shaped by it.


To conclude now:


In the main narrative and in the asides I have mentioned some of the phenomena that I have done research on in the past and to which I hope to revert in the future. Just as Sufism bridges the spheres of shari`a-based Islam and heterodox folk Islam, the study of Sufi orders and tarikat-like associations is the trait d’union linking my various interests.  The Department of Oriental Studies of Utrecht University, with its high concentration of expertise on Sufism and heterodox Islam, is in that respect an ideal environment. Sufism will also be a component of my work at ISIM, where we are starting up projects on Sufi orders in modern urban environments and on Islam and civil society. The other component of my research will address questions of religious authority and local knowledge. These interests intersect with those of Professor Khalid Masud, especially his project on the social construction of the shari`a. There are obvious connections with the work of various other colleagues in the Netherlands and abroad, and we at ISIM hope to get more and more colleagues, from different universities and  faculties, actively involved in ISIM’s future projects .


I have been something of an intellectual vagrant both during my study and in my later career, and I have incurred a lot of debts along the way, moral and intellectual. My first debts, obviously, are to my parents, who did their utmost to give me the sort of education that they themselves never could have.

One teacher in particular I remember with special gratitude: Jan van Baal, professor of anthropology at this university. He twice played a role in giving my career a new turn, first when he helped me, a doctorandus in physics and a teacher of mathematics, to get a grant to do anthropological fieldwork among the Kurds and write a thesis under his supervision;  several years later again when behind the scene he was instrumental in getting me my first research job in Indonesia.

In between those two turns, another Utrecht professor, Henri Hofman, the professor of Turkish, one of the most widely read men I have ever met, took me under his wings when I wanted to learn Ottoman Turkish. I owe to him more than just Ottoman, and later some Uzbek; in the close and warm relationship that he cultivated with his students I was gently introduced into a whole new academic discipline — and friendship with a few people who are still among my favourite colleagues.


I had not expected that I would be coming back to this institute. But just when, for a number of reasons, I wanted to leave Indonesia and resettle in Holland, Professor Fred de Jong informed me that, thanks to the “Kleine Letteren” operation, a new position was created in the Department of Oriental Studies with a profile that corresponded surprisingly well with my own. I found in the department a group of colleagues with whom I share many interests and whose expertise nicely complements mine.


ISIM has a complex prehistory, which does not need to be recounted here. I thank all those responsible for its establishment and for my appointment to the Utrecht ISIM chair. I don’t even recall how exactly I first became involved in the preparations for this new institute, but I suppose that Wim Stokhof, in one of whose projects I had previously worked in Indonesia, had something to do with it, along with Wiecher Zwanenburg, who was then the dean of this faculty. I thank the faculty for first granting me a personal professorship — which no doubt also had something to do with ISIM — and then hosting the ISIM chair in the faculty.


Working together at ISIM with Professor Khalid Masud has been a privilege. I have the greatest respect for your thoughtful work as a scholar, Khalid, and it was a pleasure to discover that you are a nice as well as a wise man. The first year or year and a half that we spent at ISIM were a period of hard work and great challenges for you, but you always remained calm and composed. Your presence is a great asset to ISIM and I look forward to continued co-operation with you.


ISIM would not have received the international reputation it already enjoys had it not been for the dedicated hard work of our staff. ISIM has a highly praised newsletter, a frequently visited website, we have organised conferences, workshops, courses and guest lectures that all went very well, thanks to your dedication and willingness to work after hours when needed. It has been a pleasure to be part of this enthusiastic team.


My warmest thanks go to the two who share my life and who are my chief source of joy and support, Rini and Bektash. Rini was always there with wise counsel and criticism when I needed it, and was also a never drying source of intellectual stimulation. Rin’, terima kasih atas segala dukunganmu! Bektash has helped me rediscover how exciting the world is when looked at through young eyes. Last year, in a particularly hectic period, you told us that you don’t want to become a professor but would rather have more time to be together with your children. About being a professor you may be right. If the present trend of stressing profitability and getting rid of the unprofitable is not soon reversed, the universities will be as enjoyable institutions as the Netherlands Railways. But I hope you will also discover, as you grow up, the pleasures of scholarship.


Finally, the factor that has made my work on the Kurds, Turkey and Indonesia more than just an academic career but the major formative experiences in my life has been the many people who befriended me and became my real teachers. Fieldwork can deeply affect the researcher, and in my case it has certainly done so. Many of the things that are important to me now, I have learnt in my years in Kurdistan and Indonesia. I owe much to the many friends who trusted me, confided in me, guided me, took me seriously and helped me to enter into their cultures. Some of them have later reached high positions in their countries, others were jailed, killed, or became political refugees. A few of them are even present here today. My final word of thanks goes to all these friends.


Ik heb gezegd






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