Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sufi elements in Muhammadiyah? Notes from field observation

Nakamura, Mitsuo. 1980. Sufi elements in Muhammadiyah?: notes from field observation. Canberra? Australia: s.n.

Paper read at the Fifth Annual Conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 11-15 May, 1980, held concurrently with the international conference on Islam: "The Qur'an through Fourteens Centuries," 8-13 May, 1980, at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

For some tima, among Western, or perhaps I shall say more precisely, American social scientists studying contemporary Islam in Java, it has been an convention to make categorical distinctions between modernist and traditionalist trends, with special reference to the position of Sufism. Presumably, rationalistic, legalistic, and scripturalistic modernist Islam has rid itself of Sufism as an expression of irrationality, as compromises with local pre-Islamic beliefs and customs, or even as a propensity for polytheism inherent in traditionalist Islam. Sufism has thus become a defining feature for those social scientists who have employed a neat typology of modernism versus traditionalism. According to Clifford Geertz, perhaps the most widely read American social scientist who has made observations of contemporary Islam in Java, Sufism, or any form of mysticism for that matter, is an "anathema" to modernism (1960:154).

When I started my own anthropological field work in Central Java in 1970, I had little doubt about the validity of Geertz's observation. I was studying the local history and contemporary situation of the Muhammadiyah movement in a small town called Kotagede, Yogyakarta, Central Java. (See Nakamura 1976; 1977; and 1979.) Nationally, with its half-a-million members, Muhammadiyah is regarded as the most representative modernist Muslim movement in Indonesia today. However, through my initial two years' field experience and intermittent visits to my field site i the subsequent period up to now, I have come to develop some reservations vis-a-vis the conventional view described above.

On a number of occasions I have observed in the field what might be called the persistence of Sufi-like ideas and practices among the townspeople, including Muhammadiyah members. The history of Muhammadiyah in the town is almost as old as its history in the city of Yogyakarta where it was born in 1912, and the townspeople's religious beliefs and practices have undergone a great deal of transformation thanks mostly to the Muhammadiyah movement over generations. My observations include the following: the perception of self in terms of hawa nafsu, lowly desire, and nafsu mutmainnah, a desire for tranquility; the emphasis on akhlak, moral character, over akal, intelect; the exhortations of voluntary prayers, salat sunna, in addition to obligatory prayers, salat wajib; the practice of dhikir, numerous uttering of short formulae with the use of a rosary, individually and in company; and wirid, the repeated recitation of certain verses of the Qur'an.

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