Islamic Reform Against Islamism

Lessons from the Indonesian Renewal of Islamic Thought

Islamism, in both its civil-political and militant manifestations, is a phenomenon characterized by totalitarian socio-political activism. Its particular development is linked to Islamic intellectual stagnation and misconceptions of modernity. This orientation has raised alarms on a global scale for policymakers and publics that are in search of Muslim allies that may help confront the problem of Islamism. Dealing with this issue is relevant and urgent for the Muslim-majority world and for the Muslim-minority communities beyond it.

Thus far, the broad policy response among Western countries has been to support, at home and abroad, Traditionalist Muslim scholars. These scholars are always swift to condemn Islamist militancy in the form of spectacular violence. This is a problematic and limiting policy response, however, because even though Traditionalists condemn all forms of militancy, their own theological backwardness both feeds Islamist discourses and does nothing to address civil-political Islamism. Civil-political Islamism, though not endorsing the spectacular violence of militancy, often enables and justifies mundane violence. Mundane violence includes, but is not limited to, the oppressive social norms and structures that enable aggressive socio-political agitations for Islamic Law and discourses that dismiss the equality of non-Muslims in society. Traditionalist scholars are typically slower or unwilling to confront and condemn civil-political Islamism. The result is the two-faced orientation of institutions like al-Azhar in Egypt.

The Western reliance on Traditionalist condemnations has thus created gaps in effective policy responses to Islamism in its dual forms. These gaps have thus led to other responses that are understandable but misplaced. The most recent example is the manifesto in France calling for the “deletion” of certain verses in the Quran. Such arbitrary initiatives are counterproductive and do not provide a realistic and lasting solution. Such a solution calls for Western countries to recognize and support Muslim scholarly movements that criticize not just militant Islamism, but the theological stagnation that makes room for and negatively shapes civil-political Islamism.

One such Muslim scholarly movement is known historiographically as the Renewal of Islamic Thought in Indonesia. The Renewalists were Modernist scripturalists that based their individual and collective work on internal auto-criticism and exegetical theology. Although responding most immediately to their contemporary Indonesian socio-political context, their work was also intended to be universally applicable within Islam as a broad response to both Traditionalist interpretations and Modernist misinterpretations. The lessons drawn from their experience, for better and for worse, serve as important primers for Western policymakers and publics searching for a better Muslim theological response to militant and civil-political Islamism.

Map of the Republic of Indonesia

Socio-Historical Context

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country with over 227 million Muslims. The second and third largest Muslim national populations are in Pakistan and India, with over 204 million and 189 million respectively. Yet Indonesia remains relatively obscure to expert and casual observers of Muslim affairs. In part, this is due to an Indonesian cultural desire to maintain a low profile due to the country’s experience with colonialism, primarily by the Dutch and secondarily by the British and the Portuguese. The greater reason, though, is due to the application of a “moral geography” among both Muslims and non-Muslims. This has compelled disproportionate global attention on the Middle East as the “core” of Islam. This is ironic, considering that the “peripheries” of Islam, South Asia and Southeast Asia, have the largest concentrations of Muslim populations.

The Renewal began in earnest in Indonesia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a pivotal period in the modern history of the Indonesian Republic. The years of 1965–8 saw the decline of the first President, Sukarno, and the rise of the second President, Suharto. The Renewalists were responding to the negative developments of Indonesian politics and religion that occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s. At the center of the problems were constitutional debates. Indonesian independence had been declared in 1945, with a state ideology established known as Pancasila, meaning Five Principles. Sukarno created the Five Principles as a compromise between secular and Islamist nationalist factions. They are as follows: One Lordship, Just and Civilized Humanity, National Unity, Representative Democracy and Consensus, and Social Justice.

Left and Right: Sukarno and Suharto, first and second Presidents of Indonesia, respectively.

The First Principle of One Lordship designated Indonesia as a theistic state, but did not explicitly set one religion as its basis. The end of the War of Independence in 1949, therefore, meant a return to the same rancorous debates during the 50s and 60s over religion’s role in the state, especially for Islamists wanting to institute comprehensive Islamic Law and have Islam enshrined as the sole state religion. The political agitation during this period led to parliamentary gridlock, Sukarno’s dissolving of the main Modernist-Islamist party of Masyumi, and the eventual violent purges of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965–6.

The Renewalists saw this dysfunction and violence with their own eyes and recognized Islam’s politicization as having a central role in all of it. Their goal, thus, was to reinvigorate and reform Islamic philosophy so that Indonesian scripturalist Islam might serve a more positive civic-cultural role rather than a negative political role. Their work began in an informal, semi-private academic forum known simply as the Discussion Circle, during the aforementioned period of the late 60s and early 70s. The Circle has also been referred to historiographically as the Limited Group. The Circle was hosted in the Yogyakarta home of scholar Mukti Ali. Further sponsorship came from economist Dawam Rahardjo and it was co-moderated by student leaders Ahmad Wahib and Djohan Effendi.

The founders of the Discussion Circle, the forerunner to the Renewal of Islamic Thought. Clockwise from top left: Mukti Ali, Ahmad Wahib, Dawam Rahardjo, and Djohan Effendi

Although having humble beginnings, the Renewal became a grand affair involving government, academia, and civil society. Its turning point was the joint departure of Wahib and Effendi in 1969 from the Islamic Students Association (HMI), because some members had labeled them as socialist radicals. The national chairman of HMI, Nurcholish Madjid, who had appeared to oppose them, secretly wrote a letter to them stating that he actually supported them. He had wanted to integrate their ideas from the Circle more gradually. These events and the appointment of Ali as Minister of Religious Affairs in 1971 turned the Renewal into a public affair.

This article will focus on the basic philosophical principles that girded the Renewal. The most helpful volume in this task is Upheaval in Islamic Thought, the personal diary of Wahib, who died prematurely in 1973 in a traffic accident. With the permission of Wahib’s family, Effendi had the diary published in 1980. Renewalists consider it the best source for the philosophies originally discussed and formulated in the Circle.

Reconciling Ideals with Realities

Among civil-political Islamist Modernists, there is a ubiquitous philosophical fallacy of wanting to embrace modern technology, economics, and education while also ignoring scriptural-driven theological reform. Without this reform, Islamist activism has often meant a tendency of dismissing contextual realities, which in turn has led to totalitarian socio-political confrontations. These confrontations in the Indonesian context led to the aforementioned calamities of the 50s and 60s. The Renewalists addressed this problem directly, recognizing that Islamist idealism, in Indonesia and elsewhere, led to unrealistic, chauvinistic worldly agendas that proved dysfunctional and destructive. “Islam is a faith that is more focused on works than aspirations,” Wahib wrote, “it cannot be disputed that reality is always changing and evolving, but our concepts have never evolved. Our struggle then becomes one about emotions and slogans.” Further to that, there needed to be a clear distinction “between Islam- [used] as a noun, identical with the teachings- and Islamists that are either in line or not in line with the teachings of Islam.”

The Renewalists were influenced by Western philosophy and exegetical approaches to religion. Hence, in considering Islam, they sought a distinction using the German concepts of das Sollen (what should be/the ideal) versus das Sein (what is/the reality). As Wahib wrote, “das Sollen: there is only one true religion. Das Sein: there are many religions. Every religion must feel that it is the religion of God. Only it is universal and eternal.” This is a central dilemma for all scholars of faith, but the Renewalists took a broader view of diverse religious manifestations and activisms by embracing the acceptability of a healthy human subjectivity. “If the understanding of religion changes, it is not because the object has changed but rather than the understanding of the object has changed. But this cannot be intentional.” This issue of intentional subjectivity alludes to the disingenuous nature of Islamist agendas that feign sensitivity to reality while actually disregarding it in favor of ideology.

On that point, Wahib wrote, “in principle, a specific ideology to Muslims is not absolute. It could be necessary, unnecessary, or just too naïve. The point is that Islam is a personal thing. A collection of Muslim individuals as a group would require a particular ideology that would suit the group and that ideology could reach beyond the boundaries of religious adherence.” Thus, the Renewalist priority was on restarting thoughtful and earnest Islamic philosophy that would critically reconcile ideals with realities. The vacuum in Islamic philosophy was seen as responsible for making Muslims emotional and static rather than intellectual and dynamic. “Das Sollen, then, is that Islamic philosophy is universal and eternal; das Sein, then, is that it is constantly changing, which indicates that concepts of Islamic philosophy are not perfect.”

Intellect and Stabilizing Individual Interpretation

The Renewalist desire to construct a new, dynamic, and intellectual tradition of Islamic philosophy was no small task, of course. As would be true for the exegetical theology of any faith, the effort is immediately tempered by the dilemma of finding and defining “truth” itself and how truth is affected by subjectivity. Wahib, somewhat comically, captured the problem when he wrote, “I do not yet know what Islam really is. I have only known Islam according to Hamka, Islam according to Natsir, Islam according to Abduh, Islam according to classical scholars. [sic] What I am seeking but have not encountered, have not found, is Islam according to God, who made it.”

In the Islamic and Islamist contexts, this dilemma is tied to the concept of Individual Interpretation (Ijtihad). Islamists have used Ijtihad to thematically claim a proper response to reality while substantively ignoring reality by using Ijtihad to enact an ideological agenda. The Renewalists sought to temper the flexibility of Ijtihad by developing social science formulas that would stabilize it for contemporary circumstances. The notion that “‘Islam is appropriate for any time period’ is only a desire and not or not yet a scientific formula. We cannot yet distinguish between desires and scientific formulas. [sic] There needs to be a discussion on the formula between Islam and the current time, and we must be ready for all possibilities to be explored.”

Although eventually developing numerous and complex forms of philosophical stabilization, the most fundamental Renewalist principle on this matter was the dualistic notion of Contextual Ijtihad. This meant recognizing both the context in which Islam originated in 7th Century Arabia and the contemporary societal context in which it is to be applied. The Renewalists, thus, were operating from within both a broad Islamic framework and a national Indonesian framework.

Pluralism, Secularization, and the Five Principles

The Renewalists wanted to prevent the tumultuous history of the 50s and 60s in Indonesia from occurring again. Inherent in their drive to restart critical Islamic philosophy was an emphasis on tolerance and pluralism within Islam and between Islam and other faiths. “For us,” Wahib wrote, “theist and atheist can gather together, Muslim and Christian can joke together, artist and athlete can jest together, unbeliever and devout can be close friends, but pluralist and anti-pluralist can never meet.” It is worth noting that the mention of unbelievers/atheists is a radical reference for most Muslim-majority societies where atheism is not a social norm. The Renewalists did not implement atheist freedom in their public program, however. President Suharto was not an Islamist, but he made anti-atheism and anti-blasphemy part of his New Order regime, so as to neutralize any chance of resurgence in left-wing Communist political movements.

Embracing this pluralistic approach to Islamic philosophy and broader society also meant an endorsement of secularization. What is fascinating is the distinction made by the Renewalists between secularization and secularism. “Secularism is anti-religion but secularization is neutral towards religion. [sic] Secularization does not prevent us from searching and embracing the possibility of other realities different than those that can be measured by the method of natural science. Secularization is an open process while secularism is a closed system.”

Sociologists have identified secularization as occurring in three forms: religious decline, religious privatization, and religious differentiation. In the first two cases, religion disappears or retreats into its own enclave. The third case, differentiation, was the outcome favored by the Renewalists. It sees religious institutions taking on a functional differentiation from other spheres of modern society, but stands alongside those spheres and does not come into conflict with them. The Renewalists were in favor of a scripturalist Indonesian Islam that would be publicly pro-active in a beneficial civic-cultural sense, without the agitations and confrontations of Islamism.

Secularization as an open process meant that Renewalist discourse on Indonesian identity was pluralistic, pragmatic, and affirmative of the aforementioned state ideology of the Five Principles. The first principle of One Lordship was interpreted as the state pragmatically recognizing the importance of religion in Indonesian culture and public life, while also avoiding favoring one religion over another by de jure recognizing five (later six) Official Religions. The Renewalists did not take this as a violation of Islam or its early Prophetic and Caliphate histories.

A 1987 poster of Garuda Pancasila, the National Emblem that bears the state ideology of the Five Principles.

Renewalists considered the Islamic prerogative to be about identifying the most efficient, contextual way of implementing “basic values.” If the theocratic state established in early Islamic history was efficient and thus acceptable for that context, so too was the Five Principles State efficient and thus acceptable for the Indonesian context. Their position was emboldened by President Suharto, who affirmed the Five Principles as state ideology. “So now if we choose a state that is the opposite of a theocratic one,” Wahib wrote, “it is because we do not consider a theocratic state as a way of upholding basic values within the complex social setting we are currently in.” The Renewalists, thus, interpreted and justified the Five Principles on explicitly Islamic terms. This conclusion sets a foundation for what could more broadly be called Muslim Democracy, a “soft” secularization cognate of the post-Enlightenment Christian Democracy of Europe.

Renewalist Worldly Affairs

There are countless Renewalist figures that could be referenced in this section, but the focus will remain mostly on those already mentioned. Mukti Ali was Religious Affairs Minister from 1971 to 1978 and set new norms that lasted the next two decades. He depoliticized the Ministry and instead used its apparatuses to host inter-religious conferences to foster cooperation between lay religious leaders throughout Indonesia on a regular basis. The Ministry also sponsored summer camps where students of all faiths could interact and have open discussions on religion.

Djohan Effendi served in the Ministry as Ali’s Special Aide, as Senior Researcher, and then as Head of Research. During his tenure, he enforced empirical approaches to Ministerial social research that would be free of any political or ideological agendas. Wahib’s posthumous impact continues, as his diary is one of the most important works in Renewalist literature and history.

Another subordinate of Ali, Harun Nasution, served as Rector of the State Islamic Institute (IAIN) from 1973–84. Nasution instituted a main curriculum of Comparative Religion, one identical to curriculums found in Western Religious Studies. To this day, one can walk into the classrooms at IAIN (now UIN) and find Muslim students reading Weber and Nietzsche along with the Quran, something not true of other major systems of Islamic education in the world.

Nurcholish Madjid, who had secretly supported Wahib and Effendi, was successful in shifting the Islamic Students Association away from Islamism and towards the Renewal. He became Professor at IAIN, influencing countless students. He later founded Paramadina Foundation and Paramadina University, two institutional guardians of the Renewal. It is no accident that many Renewalists were Western-educated, notably at The University of Chicago and McGill University.

A More Accepting Islam

Left and Right: Harun Nasution and Nurcholish Madjid

The Renewal has faced setbacks along the way. The advent of the post-Suharto Reformation period has seen a surge in Islamist growth, especially in urban areas, among Muslim youth and the new Muslim middle classes. These Muslims have become Islamist mostly to find associational belonging. This belonging provides them justification for their newfound economic status and compensation for losing more traditional ethnic village ties due to urban migration.

In addition, the maintenance of the blasphemy law has horrifically led to the trumped up blasphemy conviction of Jakarta’s Christian, ethnic-Chinese former Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), in 2017. A small, thuggish Islamist group, Islamic Defenders Front, instigated the case and relied, successfully, on the caving of state authorities to their demands. The conviction of Ahok was significant on several fronts. Notwithstanding his de facto vulnerable status as an ethnic and religious minority, few Indonesians and external observers would have imagined such a high-profile politician being taken down by the inconsistently applied blasphemy law. The question also rises as to whether the manipulation of the law by Islamists, and the cowardly accommodation of that manipulation by non-Islamists, potentially criminalizes a wide swath of heterodox discourse, including discourse associated with the Renewal.

The aforementioned preservation of the Renewal within both state and civic institutions, however, remains the greatest protection against a socio-political assault on the Renewal by Indonesian Islamists. The institutions already mentioned, along with others, are still influential and have been aided by a vibrant Indonesian press and civil-society. The key to ensuring a sustained future for the Renewal is pluralist mobilization that matches, if not exceeds, Islamist mobilization. Indonesian culture, informed by ethnic Javanese norms, traditionally eschews confrontation until a crisis descends. Preserving the Renewal in the long-term will greatly depend on pluralistic Indonesians embracing confrontation before the manifestation of a national crisis.

The important developments that arose out of the Renewal have more relevance than ever to the global problems of Islamism today in Indonesia and elsewhere. Western policymakers and publics would be well served to use these lessons to support and embolden, rather than dismiss or condemn, Muslim and ex-Muslim critics of Islam who seek the positive evolution in Islam that has already developed in Indonesia thanks to the Renewalists. Embracing and sponsoring new Renewalist-style movements globally will lead to the necessary and productive proliferation of a pluralistic, pragmatic, and more accepting Islam.