Azyumardi Azra: Sustainable Indonesian Islam, a blessing for the universe

03 Aug 2015

This article was published in the Indonesian daily ‘Kompas’ on August 3, 2015. Azyumardi Azra is professor at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta; Chairman of the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), Bangkok, Thailand.


It is increasingly apparent to foreign countries that Indonesian Islam holds more promise of hope. In contrast to Arabic Islam or South Asian Islam which continue to be embroiled in conflicts, violence and war, Islam in Indonesia remains relatively peaceful. Extremism and radicalism which are continuously spreading in various other regions of the Muslim world has not become a significant symptom in Indonesia. It is not surprising therefore that this has drawn the serious attention of British Prime Minister David Cameron. During a visit to Jakarta, in a dialogue with five Indonesian Islamic figures (the chairman of Muhammadiyah Din Syamsuddin, the Nahdlatul Ulama notable Alwi Shihab, the Executive Director of the Wahid Institute Yenny Wahid, the Chairman of the Sunda Kelapa Mosque Aksa Mahmud and the author of this article), Cameron said he wanted to learn why Indonesian Islam rejects extremism and radicalism.
PM Cameron brought up the fact that of the 255 million population of Indonesia, there are only about 500 participants in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “Whilst the UK has only about 2.5 million Muslims, more than 1000 people joined the ISIS. What is the key to the success of Indonesia in dealing with the radical beliefs (and movement); and dampen the spread of the influence and involvement of Indonesian citizens in the ISIS movement?” (Kompas, 29/7/2015).


Islam Nusantara, Islam Indonesia

Undoubtedly, the existence and hegemony of Islamic wasathiyah (‘middle way’) mass organizations that are spread throughout Indonesia are the two main keys to that success. Two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, are celebrating monumental events: NU’s 33rd Congress in Jombang, East Java (01/08/2015), and Muhammadiyah with its 47th congress in Makassar (08/03/2015). The NU and Muhammadiyah Congresses are the momentum to reinforce Wasathiyah Islam in achieving Islamic advancement towards civilized Islam rahmatan lil ‘alamin – universal blessings.
Wasathiyah Islam which constitutes the principal paradigm and practice of both Muhammadiyah and NU has been a long tradition of Islam Nusantara. The term ‘Islam Nusantara’ in the academic world refers to ‘Southeast Asian Islam’ covering the Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Patani (Southern Thailand), and Mindanao (Southern Philippines).

In pre-colonial literature, the Islam Nusantara region is referred to as the ‘down-wind lands’ More specifically, since the late 16th century in Arab literature, the Islam Nusantara region is called ‘bilad al-Jawi,’ the ‘land of Jawi Muslim’ –which refers to Southeast Asia. The Muslim people of Nusantara were commonly referred to as ‘ashab al-Jawiyyin’ or the ‘al-Jawiyyin’ congregation.

Islam Nusantara Region or bilad al-Jawiyyin is one of eight religio-cultural lands of Islam.

The other seven realms of religious-Islamic cultures are Arabia, Persian/Iranian, Turkey, the Indian Subcontinent, Sino-Islamic, Black Africa, and the Western World. Despite of a general adherence to the key principles and doctrines in faith and worship, each realm has its own cultural and religious character.
The validity of Islam Nusantara is not only geographically-cultural. Its validity is also based on Islamic orthodoxy that consists of Ash’arite Theology, Shafi’i Fiqh (jurisprudence) and Al-Ghazali Tasawwuf (sufism). The cohesion of these three elements of this orthodoxy gives Islam Nusantara its wasathiyah (modest) character; Ash’arite theology emphasizes the attitude of moderation between revelation and reason, Shafi’i fiqh coupled with Sufism’s amali-akhlaqi makes Islamic expression so inclusive and tolerant.

With the cohesion of these three elements, Islam Nusantara orthodoxy has become a consolidated tradition, established and dominant since the 17th century, which later became known by the term Ahlus Sunnah wal-jama’ah (Sunni). Although practically almost all Indonesian Muslims are followers of Sunni, there is a difference in emphasis. NU with its Ulema-centered tradition calls it selves followers of ‘Aswaja’; the term later became the brand name of NU. Whilst Muhammadiyah as followers of Sunni puts more emphasis on aspects of modernism-reformism and ijtihad (effort).


Post-World War II, in both terms and substance, Islam Nusantara seems to have become valid only for Indonesia. Islam Nusantara must now be understood as Indonesian Islam. The differences in position and relationship between the state and politics makes the expression of Islam in the countries of Southeast Asia to be different; for example whether it’s still inclusive or has become exclusive.

In that context, Islam is not the official or the state religion in Indonesia. Therefore, Islam in Indonesia is not part of politics and power. Whilst in Malaysia, Islam became the official religion of the state and therefore it became an integral part of the power structure.

In Malaysia therefore, only Islam may be broadcast in the public domain and even the name ‘Allah’ can only be used by Muslims whilst in Indonesia all religions can perform in the public spheres and, besides Muslims, Christians also use ‘Allah’ to refer to God.


Progress for civilization

Indonesian Islam as represented among others by NU and Muhammadiyah, have almost all the requirements for progress in order to realize a rahmatan lil alamin civilization. The main strength for progress is the nature and character of the Islamic mass organizations which are independent vis-a-vis the State and power structure. They have a tradition of being independent of – not to mention become a tool – of the power structure, by their ability to finance and organize themselves.

Another significant resource is the wealth and diversity of institutions owned by NU and Muhammadiyah, ranging from large and small mosques, schools, madrasahs (religious schools), Islamic boarding schools, universities, hospitals and clinics, homes for social/community care, cooperatives and other economic business activities. There are no other countries in the Muslim world that have community organizations with the character and wealth of such institutions as Muhammadiyah and NU.


Since the late 1980s many foreign scholars of Islam such as Fazlur Rahman, Professor at the University of Chicago, USA, have recognized Indonesian Islam as a potentially great model to lead the advancement of global Islamic civilization. With Wasathiyah Islam civilization, Indonesian Islam can contribute to a world civilization of peace and harmony.

This expectation of Indonesian Islam is increasing amid continuing conflicts in Muslim countries in the Arab world, South Asia, West Asia, and Africa. To that end NU, Muhammadiyah and other Islamic wasathiyah NGO’s not only need to increase ideas and charitable efforts domestically but should also expand the spread of Islam wasathiyah abroad. By doing so Indonesian Islam can stand at the forefront in realizing Islam as rahmatan lil Alamin.