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The True Face of Islam: Essays on Islam and Modernity in Indonesia
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand


Author: Nurcholish Madjid

Publisher: Voice Centre, Ciputat, Indonesia

Year: 2003

Pages: 356

ISBN: 979-95248-4-9


Despite being the largest Muslim country in the world, relatively little has been written about Islam in Indonesia. Although Indonesian Muslim intellectual life is rich and vibrant, it is little known elsewhere, primarily because most Indonesian scholars write in the Indonesian language and not in English.

Among the most well-known Indonesian writers on Islam is Nurcholish Madjid, rector of the Paramadina University, Jakarta. This collection of essays is the first major English translation of Madjid’s writings. The essays cover a diverse range of issues but are shaped by a common concern for an understanding of Islam that takes into account the myriad challenges that Indonesia is today faced with. They reflect Madjid’s quest for developing a contextually relevant interpretation of Islam that, departing from traditional notions in some significant respects, can help in the process of building a pluralist and more democratic society based on social justice.

Madjid’s search for a contextual Indonesian Islamic theology draws upon his understanding of what he calls the underlying ‘spirit’ of Islam. Like other Muslim liberals, he makes a distinction between the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of religious tradition, insisting that the former must be given primacy over the latter. This opens up the possibility of novel ways of dealing with a host of issues of contemporary concern-from popular culture, women’s rights and religious pluralism to the nature of the polity-that might depart from earlier models that are rooted in the corpus of traditional juridical opinions or fiqh. Madjid sees these new perspectives as emanating from a process of ijtihad, which he defines as ‘a method of rational and realistic interpretation of Islam’ based on the principle of ‘public interest’ (p. 60). If equality and social justice are cardinal pillars of Islam, then, he says, developing new ways of imagining Islamic law through ijtihad are required in order to realise core Islamic values in today’s context, although this does not mean that tradition must be wholly jettisoned. Based on this interpretation of ijtihad, Madjid argues that gender equality and equal treatment by the state of all citizens irrespective of religion are actually in accordance with the spirit of Islam, although he recognizes that this argument departs in significant respects from traditional fiqh understandings. Likewise, Madjid makes the interesting conceptual distinction between Islam as a religion and Arab culture, critiquing the deeply-rooted notion that the two are somehow inseparable. By distinguishing between the two he is able to argue for diverse culturally-rooted local expressions of Islam that, he argues, are equally ‘Islamic’ in content and in spirit.

The question of the ‘Islamic state’ is discussed in considerable detail in the book, and Madjid strongly opposes this notion, which he sees as a recent ideological construct of modern-educated apologists. To reduce Islam to an ideology, he seems to argue, is to bring it down to the level of the profane. It can then be open to manipulation by vested interests, who might seek to impose their own limited notions of Islam in the name of God’s religion, a crime which Madjid equates with the sin of shirk or polytheism. God, Madjid writes, is beyond full human comprehension. Since every understanding of religion, including of Islam, is limited simply by the fact that humans are not infallible, for the state to impose a certain understanding of Islam is to seek to play God, a heinous sin in Islam. Furthermore, he says, a state based on a particular religion can easily degenerate into dictatorship and oppression, and this Madjid sees as clearly un-Islamic. Asserting that politics are ‘not an absolute part of the core of Islam’ (p.64), he insists that the distinction between the sacred and secular realms must be maintained, although he also argues that religious values, such as social justice and democratic governance, must influence political affairs. In this regard, he sees all religions having a role to play, for they are all seen as sharing a commitment to certain ethical values.

Opposing the notion of an Islamic state, Madjid regards the notion of Pancasila, the ‘five cardinal principles’ enshrined in the Indonesian Constitution, as providing a more suitable basis for the Indonesian polity. The first sila or ‘principle’ lays down belief in the one God as binding on all citizens. Hence, Indonesia is neither a theocratic nor a secular state, but somewhat in between the two. Pancasila also mandates the unity of Indonesia, democratic rule and social justice, all of which, Madjid writes, are in harmony with the principles of the different religions practised in Indonesia. Seeking ‘Islamic’ sanction for Pancasila, he likens it to the treaty of Medina between the Prophet and the Jews, which guaranteed freedom of religion and allowed for people of different faiths to work together for the defence of Medina. Linked to this appeal for a pluralist Indonesia is Madjid’s critique of the post-Qur’anic notion of the world being divided into two antagonistic spheres – dar al-islam (i.e. the region in which Islam prevails) and dar al-harb (i.e. the region in which kufr prevails and as such is at war with dar al-islam). In their place, he invokes the Qur’anic notion of dar al-islam (‘the abode of peace’), which he sees as a society based on peace and social justice for all. Madjid regards Pancasila as working in the direction of establishing such a society, and that is why he argues that a Pancasila state, rather than an Islamic state, is the best available system for Indonesia.

Madjid is also a fervent champion of harmonious relations between Muslims and followers of other religions. He sees this as mandated by the Qur’an itself, referring to the Qur’anic theory of God having sent messengers to every community preaching the same religion of al-islam or ‘the Submission’. Hence, he says, there can be more than just one way to salvation. In support of this claim, he quotes the Qur’an as saying that all those who believe in the one God and in the Day of Judgment and do good deeds will have no cause to fear. He sees religious pluralism as part of God’s plan, as a means for different communities to dialogue with and learn from each other and to struggle to implement the ‘good’ or God’s Will. The Qur’an, Madjid reminds his readers, lays down that there should be no compulsion in religion. Hence, he says, an ideal state is one where everyone has the freedom to follow the religion of his or her choice. In addition, he pleads for a form of inter-religious dialogue through which Muslims and others should work together for peace and social justice for all. Interestingly, in this regard, Madjid broadens the scope of the term ahl-i-kitab or ‘people of the book’, followers of legally recognized religions, to include Buddhists and Hindus as well, going beyond the standard definition of ahl-i-kitab as being limited largely to Jews and Christians.

Madjid’s effort to develop a contextually sensitive understanding of Islam constitutes a brave reconsideration of certain traditionally-held notions deriving from the corpus of fiqh that are clearly untenable today, particularly as regards women and non-Muslims. Yet, his arguments seem, at times, somewhat simplistic and uncritical. Thus, for instance, his understanding of the notion of ijtihad based on ‘public utility’, on which his entire reformist agenda rests, is bound to be seen by his critics as somewhat subjective, in that it departs from the traditionalist understanding that ijtihad may be allowed only when there is no clear guidance in the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions, and that it may be resorted to only by those qualified to do so. His use of ‘public utility’ to justify ijtihad may also be critiqued by some traditionalists as well as Islamists as simply a convenient means for offering legal solutions based on subjective desires and whims that might appear to violate what are seen as ‘Islamic’ rules. Another instance of Madjid’s insufficiently rigorous methodology of reform is evident in his somewhat uncritical advocacy of the Indonesian state’s position on Pancasila where overlooks the crucial fact of its misuse in order to legitimise the Suharto dictatorship and to justify the brutal killing of over a million communist sympathizers in the 1960s. Furthermore, although he invokes the Qur’an to insist that there can be no compulsion in religion, Madjid does not critique the way in which Pancasila has been used to limit ‘legitimate’ religions in Indonesia to only five ‘recognized’ faiths (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Protestantism), denying atheists, agnostics, Chinese Confucianists and followers of traditional Javanese religion the right to free expression by forcing every citizen to declare himself or herself a member of one of the only five religions recognized by the state. Nor does Madjid consider how Pancasila has forced non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism, and non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, to fit into the monotheistic mould by forcing all citizens to declare that they believe in one God.

Madjid’s use of the notion of ‘modernity’, which he wholeheartedly supports, is also deeply problematic. He leaves the notion undefined and vague, and appears to see Western formulations of ‘modernity’ as somewhat normative. There is simply no critique of the form of ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ that Indonesia has embraced, and that has resulted in crass consumerism and hedonism, an enormous and ever increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the brutal rape of the environment, the enormous clout of multinational corporations, and a perverse Western cultural invasion wholeheartedly embraced by Indonesia’s elites that has almost completely destroyed the country’s rich traditional cultures. Interestingly, Madjid never once uses the word ‘class’, and nor does he even mention the terms American ‘imperialism’ or Western ‘neo-colonialism’. Accordingly, his notion of democracy, civil society and human rights, which he appears to unreservedly support, seem to be firmly within the liberal bourgeoisie framework, with scarcely any mention of the poor. Madjid does not conceal his opposition to communism, and in his advocacy of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of expression’ there is simply no room for freedom for communist activists, which explains his silence on, and perhaps tacit support for, the continued ban on the Indonesian Communist Party. Madjid’s elitist project of Islamic liberalism is also reflected in his firm belief in ‘economic development’, ‘political stability’ and the ‘rule of law’, all of which he leaves undefined, not subjecting them to any consistent critique from the point of view of the poor, the victims of these ‘virtues’ as they have actually been played out in practice in Indonesia and elsewhere. Similarly, reflecting his commitment to an intellectual elitism in which the poor seem to play only a marginal role, Madjid devotes considerable attention to critiquing radical Islamists while remaining curiously silent on the brutal exploitation of the poor by Indonesia’s rulers and their Western patrons (This probably explains, at least in part, why the publication of this book was funded by the Ford Foundation).

Islamic liberalism, as this book suggests, has rich possibilities but it also has its limits. While its critique of Islamist extremism and its advocacy of religious pluralism is surely welcome, the implicit acceptance by many advocates of Islamic liberalism of free-market capitalism as the ideal economic system and of Western-style liberal democracy as the normative political system appear deeply flawed when viewed from the point of view of the poor and the marginalized. In this sense, liberal Islam, of the sort that Madjid seems to offer, is essentially an elitist agenda. Another disconcerting aspect of some shades of Islamic liberalism, including in Indonesia, where a host of ‘liberal’ Islamic organizations are now being heavily funded by Western agencies to counter Islamist radicals, is that the liberal Islam project might also unwittingly work to serve Western hegemonic designs if not sufficiently critical, not just of the radicals, but also of oppressive local and global elites.


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