Modernism treats human beings like robots
The Jakarta Post | Fri, 07/02/2010 4:14 PM | Opinion
Ahmad Najib Burhani
From July 3-8, Muhammadiyah will hold its 46th Muktamar congress in Yogyakarta. This is a very special congress because it signifies 100 years of Muhammadiyah’s existence. As part of welcoming that, it is important to reflect the development of academic work on Muhammadiyah conducted by foreign scholars.
Several decades ago, it was easy to find foreign scholars who wrote PhD dissertations or monographs on Muhammadiyah. James Peacock and Mitsuo Nakamura are among scholars who studied this movement in the 1970s. Although they did not write monographs on Muhammadiyah, Howard Federspiel and Leslie Palmier also contributed in this study by writing articles on this subject. There were a number of Indonesiascholars in this period such as Alfian and Deliar Noer, but the majority of works on Muhammadiyah from foreign countries at this time was undertaken by foreign scholars.
Before the 1970s, there were several great scholars who took Muhammadiyah as an important subject and included it in their works. Clifford Geertz, Harry Benda, and Lance Castles are among the examples.
In their works, Geertz and Castles portray Muhammadiyah of having a positive spirit in the economy compared to its co-religion movement, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). In several aspects, according to their studies, this movement is even similar to Calvinism, which contributed to modern capitalism in America.
It is surprising that from the 1990s there are only a few foreign scholars who work on or significantly contribute to the study of this organization. There are of course some studies on this movement from Europe, Australia and America, but they are mostly conducted by Indonesian scholars. Alwi Shihab, Irwan Abdullah, Din Syamsuddin, Ahmad Jainuri, and Fauzan Saleh are among them.
Among foreign scholars, perhaps only Kato Hisanori and Hyung-jun Kim have been specifically studying Muhammadiyah recently. Both graduated from Australian universities. There are two other scholars who recently published articles on Muhammadiyah or are closely related to Muhammadiyah, namely Julia Howell (Griffith University) and Herman Beck (Tilburg University). Beck compares Muhammadiyah and Ahmadiyah, whereas Howell compares Buya Hamka and Arifin Ilham’s sufism.
There are three possibilities for the decline of the study on Muhammadiyah among foreign academics.
First, it is propelled by the development of this movement, which becomes stagnant and therefore less attractive to foreign observers. Second, the emergence of Indonesian scholars who are capable of doing research on this movement overshadows foreign scholars. Third, it could be the shift of concern among foreign scholars in studying Indonesian Islam from studying the modernist movement to post-modernist and Islamist movements.
From the mentioned three possibilities of the decline of the study of Muhammadiyah, I will argue that the last most significantly contributes to this decline. Most studies of Muhammadiyah by foreign scholars from the 1950s until the 1980s were guided by the spirit of modernism. In this paradigm, only by adopting the modern way of life can an organization or a person fit and succeed in this world. And in this context, Muhammadiyah represents a modernist trend in Indonesian Islam.
The modern paradigm has been declining since 1980s. Some people perceive that modernism undermines humanity. Modernism treats human beings like robots. Their successes are determined by material and economic gains. Living in this world from modern perspective is like living in an “iron cage”.
Although there are some positive aspects of modernism, some scholars then try to find something else when studying Indonesian Islam. This is among the reasons why there has been a shift from studying Muhammadiyah to the NU and Islamist movements since 1980s.
Previously, the NU was considered as a traditionalist movement. Since 1980s, this organization has changed some of its appearances to post-traditionalist paradigm which is critical to modernism, while at the same time preserving traditionalism. Since the future of humanity could not rely on modernism anymore, the nature of the NU becomes more attractive to foreign scholars as a new subject which is away from modern paradigm.
Besides studying the NU, there are a number of studies on Islamist movements in Indonesia. The modern paradigm predicted that someday religion would die or become extinct or at least have a reduced function in the private sphere. Instead of declining, it seems there is a resurgent of religion.
Scholars then study organizations such as the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) and Hizb ut-Tahrir as a new form of religiosity. Organizations such as Muhammadiyah is only an interesting subject as far as it is analyzed from this new perspective.
For me, the first two arguments of the decline of the study of Muhammadiyah are less convincing than the third. It is true that there are some good scholars from Indonesia whose studies and analysis on Muhammadiyah are of the same quality as foreign professors. But it is underestimates foreign scholars if we consider that the decline is determined by the emergence of competitors in this subject from insiders (Islam, Muhammadiyah and Indonesia).
Some people say that Muhammadiyah is not attractive anymore to be taken as a subject of study. This organization, they say, is too old, weak and stagnant. But it is too naïve to abandon and neglect Muhammadiyah. Although it has been recently less progressive than some other Islamic movements in Indonesia, Muhammadiyah is still representing Indonesian Islam, it has a dynamic in itself, and it contributes in several aspects to Indonesian Islam. Therefore, I believe that the shift is mostly guided by a general trend in international scholarship.
The writer is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).