RFI’s Paul Marshall: “Why Indonesian Islam Matters”

June 21, 2023

In an article published recently at Oxford House Research LTD titled, “Why Indonesian Islam Matters” Paul Marshall, RFI’s Director for South and Southeast Asia, reflects on the nature and importance of the Islamic identity of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and its third largest democracy.

[Indonesia] deserves close attention, not only because of the size of the Muslim community but also because of its distinct character.

The first thing to note is that there are many types of Indonesian Muslim, with more than half affiliated to one of two organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. These form the core of Indonesia’s civil society. Founded in 1912, Muhammadiyah is a reformist body upholding a pure form Islam free of cultural accretions and Salafist influence. The NU was formed in 1926. Its ethos is traditional. It was catalyzed by Saudi desecration of ‘holy sites’ in Mecca and Medina and rumors the Prophet’s tomb at risk. The founders were self-confessed defenders of true, tolerant, Islam.[8] In 1922, one of their number, Muhammad Faqih Maskumambang (1857-1937), published his widely read (and still available) book Menolak Wahhabi (Lit. Wahhabism Rejected). At the time, few in the West knew of the existence (or significance) of this now powerful Saudi sect. Indonesian Muslims had faced this and similar threats for over a century.[9]

As civil society organizations, NU and Muhammadiyah favor democracy and peaceful religious co-existence. Their Islam does not need a theocratic state. NU’s heartland is the local community, its culture and common life. It publishes magazines and promotes charitable projects, including education for millions of students in its (22) universities and (10,000+) schools. The strong, reformist agenda of Muhammadiyah is also committed to education and personal development, but its focus is on modernizing practices and professional development, alongside its (29) universities.

A key point to register about NU and Muhammadiyah (and most Indonesian Islamic bodies) is their practice of a moderate ‘Islam of the Archipelago’ (Ind. Islam Nusantara). According to Indonesian historian, public intellectual and university administrator Azyumardi Azra (1955-2022), this is not, as some would argue, simply a localized Hindu-Buddhist amalgam, but a form of Sunni orthodoxy built on Ash‘arite theology, Ghazalian Sufism, and the Shafi‘i Madhab.[10] As such, it seeks to be ‘moderasi’ (Lit. balance, harmony) and walk a ‘middle way’ (Ind.wasatiyyah Islam) between divine revelation and human reason. Furthermore, as ‘Islam Nusantara’ (‘Islam of the Archipelago’) suggests, Indonesia per se shapes this distinctive Islamic variant. It reflects the country’s pluriform physical, social, and spiritual context. The country’s islands, coastline, ports, trade, travel, history, and infinite socio-ecological variety, create a religion at variance with forms of Islam forged in the monochrome aridity and social isolation of the desert. An Islamic majority that has for centuries cohabited with island peoples and indigenous beliefs knows the riches of diversity and risk of extremism. Hence, the Indonesian Islamic scholar and former Executive Chairman of NU, Said Aqil Siradj (b. 1953), commends an Islam propagated by ‘respecting local cultures, not eradicating them’. But the impact of context on Indonesian Islam must not be overstated. Though some like Siradji welcome diversity and tradition, other Muslim scholars stress that their theology, faith, and law is not simply an accident of history and geography.[11] And this, note, when some Indonesian theology contains fascinating parallels with classical Christian treatment of ‘common grace’ and ‘natural law’...

Despite prominent calls for moderation and inclusion, Indonesian culture has in recent times become increasingly intolerant and ideological. Constitutional democracy has not been matched by intellectual and social flexibility. While more tolerant Islam is still hegemonic, the potent viruses of radicalism and extremism are now endemic. The forms and rationale for this are important to register.

Read the full article: “Why Indonesian Islam Matters.”