Monday, November 1, 2010

Muhammadiyah and Interfaith Discourse

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Mon, 12/13/2004 7:54 AM | Opinion

Hilman Latief, Kalamazoo, Michigan

It is interesting to note that the Muhammadiyah, the country's second largest Muslim organization, played a key role during the recent two-day interfaith dialog in Yogyakarta.

The dialog was sponsored by Indonesia and Australia and gathered together religious leaders of the Asia Pacific to discuss religious tolerance and moderation in the war on terror.

Along with the largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Muhammadiyah represents Indonesian Islam, a moderate, inclusive and pluralistic religion; the NU, however, is perceived to be more representative of these characteristics.

The Muhammadiyah was established on Nov. 18, 1912, by Kyai Ahmad Dahlan in Yogyakarta, and is well-known among scholars as a reformist Muslim group that focuses on modernizing Islam through education and social welfare. Following the 43rd Muhammadiyah Congress in 1995, its members became concerned with pluralism, inclusivism and religious tolerance, and two opposing camps emerged over the issues.

The pro pluralism and inclusivism camp is represented by members of the Majlis Tarjih dan Pengembangan Pemikiran Islam, or the Council on Law-making and Development of Islamic Thought, while the con camp is represented by the Majlis Tabligh and Dakhwah Khusus, or the Proselytization and Special Missionary.

The missionary has its own publication, the Tabligh, and it seems that almost all of the articles in this magazine criticize religious pluralism and inclusivism, emphasizing that these issues were systematically created by and taken from Western scholarship and non-Muslim communities. It is probably the only Muhammadiyah publication that has a column on Christology.

The Muhammadiyah principle is based on those contained in the Koran and the Hadith, a collection of narratives on the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad; however, the two opposing camps each have their own interpretation of these works.

Aside from the debate on pluralism and inclusivism, the Muhammadiyah's approach toward other religions can be traced back to a national conference held in 1999 in Bandung, when it strongly insisted that the government acknowledge Confucianism as one of the official religions of Indonesia.

The heated discourse on pluralism and inclusivism among the Muhammadiyah elite has also influences its younger members, who have become more appreciative of moderate and modern concepts: pluralism and interfaith dialog, non-violence, Sufism and spiritualism, local cultures and multiculturalism, and conflict resolution and civil society.

These great intellectual contributions of the new generation of Muhammadiyah members will, of course, set a new course for the organization, which will become more visible within the context of a pluralistic society.

Indonesia's pluralistic society needs a religious inclusivism. Many regional conflicts involving religious communities could actually be prevented or minimized if society possesses an environment open to interreligious dialog and social cooperation. Religious pluralism is not merely tolerance of others, but it also requires a constructive and active engagement with those who are ""different"", a recognition that diversity can enrich our lives.

The Muhammadiyah's involvement in the discourse on interfaith dialog and religious tolerance implies that it is slowly but surely approaching such ideas, shifting its puritan theological orientation to a more open-minded religious consciousness.

Although its members do not all have the same definition for religious pluralism, its programs on interfaith dialog are social capital to deal with the pluralistic Indonesian society and constitute a very great leap toward the achievement a civil society.

Recently, instead of theological and theoretical debates, some agendas and activities have been initiated by the Muhammadiyah and other religious communities, such as holding interreligious dialogs, promoting the peaceful coexistence of religious life and supporting moderate, rather than radical, Muslim groups. The Muhammadiyah is also very active in collaborating with religious organizations to reduce corruption in politics and the economy.

Intense interreligious dialogs at both the elite and grassroots levels will provide the crucial momentum to lead all religious communities to be more mutually tolerant. Muhammadiyah's role in this nation's journey is therefore much needed by the nation.

The writer is a lecturer at the Muhammadiyah University of Yogyakarta (UMY), and has a Masters from the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University. He is currently a Fulbright student at the Department of Comparative Religion, Western Michigan University, and can be reached at

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