Muslim Intellectuals in Indonesia by Carool Kersten
Indonesia is increasingly identified as an upcoming global powerhouse ready to join the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but too little importance is attached to the fact that it is also the most populous Muslim nation-state in the world—one in every five Muslims lives in maritime Southeast Asia. Generally international attention only focuses on the country’s economic potential in terms of natural and human resources, and this tropical island world between India and China is only seldom associated with Islam. However, in the wake of the seismic changes affecting the Middle East since the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, a latent awareness is beginning to develop that the country’s political experiences of the last fifteen years could offer an alternative between a hard secular state and an uncompromising Islamist polity. This means that if Indonesia’s achievements in accommodating religion in the public sphere and nourishing Islamic intellectual contributions were to receive the recognition they deserve, the potential impact on the rest of the Muslim world could be very substantial. Indonesia’s own growing assertiveness on the global stage is reflected in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ambition to position the country as a ‘bridge’, connecting Asia, the Muslim World, and the West.
To some extent this combination of neglect and ignorance is understandable. The general tendency to identify Islam with the Middle East and North Africa not only makes sense from a historical point of view; after all, Arabia is the cradle from where Islam first spread north and eastwards into the Fertile Crescent and Persia, and in a westerly direction into Egypt, Libya and the Maghreb. Also at the present day, it cannot be denied that many complicated political-religious issues that grip global media attention are concentrated in the Middle East. And for the reasons of geographical proximity, Turkey under the AKP is always mentioned as an example of a ‘third way’ between secularism and Islamism, while Indonesia is generally ignored.
Aside from a lack of awareness of the Muslim archipelago’s demographic preponderance, there is also the persistent misconception that, because they find themselves on the geographical periphery of the Islamic world, Indonesia’s majority population must be considered as ‘marginal Muslims’. While it is true that Indonesia is located in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment, itself home to a plurality of religions, it is nevertheless wrong to think that its historical experiences with the Indic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism somehow reduce Islam to a ‘thin veneer’ over these earlier and supposedly more venerable South Asian religious deposits.
There are at least two reasons why it is hard to root out these erroneous views. The first is the idea that Southeast Asians only turned to Islam when it presented itself in the allegedly syncretic form of Sufism, as suggested by early scholarship on the arrival of Islam in the region. The second, more contemporary, factor does not come from historiography but the social sciences. In 1960, the influential American anthropologist Clifford Geertz published The Religion of Java, in which he recorded the findings of his field work in a Central Javanese town. Geertz used an indigenous system of religious classification, as at that time he was insufficiently alert to how local opinions and preconceptions would impact on the ways in which people were categorised as santri (pious and usually urban Muslims), priyayi (aristocrats privy to court culture), and abangan (‘nominal Muslims’ belonging to the peasantry). Most of Geertz’s informants self-identified as santri, regarding themselves as practising Muslims who observed the ibadat or acts of worship in the unadulterated form imported from the Middle East as Islamic reformism and modernism made their way to Indonesia. Others were either dismissed as lapsed Muslims or as syncretists. Its inaccuracy was exacerbated when others, including Indonesian Muslims themselves, extrapolated Geertz’s taxonomy and began applying Javanese religious categories to Southeast Asian Islam in general.
Ethnographic work conducted since the 1980s by subsequent generations of anthropologists provides an important corrective to these misapprehensions. They have demonstrated that Islam is firmly rooted in cultural settings as diverse as those of East Java, the Central-Javanese court of Yogyakarta, or the Gayo Highlands on the island of Sumatra. In a similar fashion, research conducted by historians re-examining the Islamisation process evinces that centuries of interaction with the areas on the Western side of the Indian Ocean have thoroughly integrated Southeast Asia into the wider Muslim world. These advances have also established that the active and sustained participation of Southeast Asian Muslims in these intellectual networks has given them intimate familiarity with the shared body of Islamic learning in the Dar al-Islam. These findings have driven home the realisation that Indonesians and Malays were not passive recipients of religious knowledge, but exercised agency in the formation of a distinct regional Islamic culture. To better appreciate the current achievements of contemporary Indonesian Muslim intellectuals, and the possible contributions or lessons they have to offer to other parts of the present-day Muslim world, it will be helpful to make a more detailed historical excursion into the region’s Islamisation.