Burhani, Ahmad Najib. 2013. “Defining Indonesian Islam: An Examination of the Construction of National Islamic Identity of Traditionalist and Modernist Muslims” in Islam in Indonesia: Contrasting Images and Interpretations, edited by Jajat Burhanuddin and C. van Dijk, pp. 25-48 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press and ICAS). Also available at Amazon and IIAS.
A journalistic report from Newsweek magazine in September 1996 about Islam in Indonesia was entitled ‘Islam with a Smiling Face’. The title is indicative of the image of Islam in the archipelago, which differs from Islam elsewhere in the Muslim world. In general, according to this report, Islam in Indonesia is peaceful, moderate, and shows a positive attitude towards democracy, modernity, plurality, and human rights. This conclusion is echoed by Azyumardi Azra (2010) who emphasises that Islam in Indonesia is different from that in the Middle East due to its distinctive traits, such as its tolerance and moderate views and the fact that it provides a ‘middle way’ (umma wasaṭ) between secularism and Islamism. Such an assessment obviously represents a contemporary positive meaning of the distinctiveness of Islam in Indonesia. Although certain Muslims from other parts of the world possibly object to this exclusive claim, the particularity of Islam in Indonesia in general has been recognised by many scholars.
Early American scholarship on Islam in Indonesia was aware of its distinctiveness. However, in contrast to the current connotation, which generally tends to have a positive meaning, these scholars perceived the distinctiveness of Indonesian Islam in a negative way, particularly in comparison to normative Islam and Islam in its heartland. Indonesian Islam in this context tended to be seen as incomplete or corrupted. Clifford Geertz (1960), for instance, shows his reluctance to categorise the nominal Muslims in Java, who constitute the majority, as Muslims. Instead of calling Islam in Java ‘Javanese Islam', he preferred the term ‘Religion of Java’, as is reflected in the title of his classical book. Geertz is not alone in perceiving the particularity of Islam in Indonesia in this negative sense. C.L.M. Penders and several other scholars perceive that the majority of Indonesian people could be barely considered Muslims based on the degree of correspondence with, following the terminology from Ernest Gellner (1981), High Islam. Penders recalls that in the beginning, the Javanese and peoples in the Indonesian Archipelago attached themselves to Islam at only one stage higher than a pro forma. And in its progress, Islam was never able to replace traditional Javanese civilisation in its totality. In fact, Islam was only a thin and easily flaking veneer on top of a solid body of traditional beliefs, which consist of a mixture of animism and Hinduism/Buddhism. The core of Javanese ideas and practices remained non-Islamic. The canon law of Islam (sharī‘a) never supplanted adat-law (Penders 1977:236-7).
What can be inferred from these two contrasting perspectives of the same subject? Is the smiling Islam the same as the corrupted Islam? Is the puritan Islam identical to terrorist Islam? From an international security perspective, as a result of the impact of 9/11, Islam seems to be considered benevolent and good when it can stay away from Middle Eastern culture and influences and keeps its distance from scriptural Islam. The closer people are to Islam, the more dangerous they become. The less Islamic a society is, the better it is in terms of the human relationship. However, from an Islamist perspective, which is also the perspective held by Orientalist scholarship, this kind of Islam is not really Islam. Following this argumentation, people often come to the misleading conclusion that Islam in Indonesia is perceived as a benign, peaceful, and friendly Islam because it is impure or corrupted. Another conclusion is that what makes Islam in Indonesia distinct is the fact that it is not authentic.
There are several scholars who attempt to examine the concept of Indonesian Islam as a specific term for the Islam of Indonesia. Michael Laffan (2006), for instance, traces its history back, particularly, to the nineteenth and early twentieth century when the Indonesian Muslim community in Cairo and Mecca were commonly called Jawi Islam, although he admits that the term has been used since the thirteenth century. From his observations, he concludes that Jawi Islam does not constitute a specific form of Islam in terms of identity and authenticity. Jawi Islam simply refers to those who studied in Mecca or Cairo who accidentally came from Southeast Asia and seemed to have an inferior outlook on religiosity and Islamic knowledge compared to those from the rest of Muslim world, including Malaysia (Laffan 2006:18-21). Just like Jawi Islam, the phrase Indonesian Islam does not refer to any specific form of Islam, but rather to the Islam in Indonesia that has been least influenced by foreign cultures. ‘The further back in time we go, the truer, more authentically ‘Indonesian’, the Islam is assumed to be [...] The further back in time we go, the more Indonesia itself fades from view, and the less it is recognizably Islamic at all, being replaced by our scholarly regional conception of Southeast Asia with its inherently polycentric and variegated mandalas’ (Laffan 2006:13).
Different from Laffan, Martin van Bruinessen (1999) explains, although only in passing, that the contemporary demand for the construction of Indonesian Islam is initiated by the pembaruan (renewal) movement, and in particular by some intellectually sophisticated Muslims in Indonesia as a response to globalisation. They consider ‘“Indonesian-ness” as a legitimate dimension of their own Muslim identities’ (Van Bruinessen 1999:170). Unfortunately, Van Bruinessen does not elaborate this concept any further. He only mentions that the acceptance of the Pancasila is a significant element of authentic Indonesian Islam, since it highlights an Indonesian Islamic identity that differs from that in the Middle East. It seems that Van Bruinessen’s intention is to recount that the acceptance of the Pancasila has been used as a symbol of the Islam of Indonesia in order to free itself from a Centrum-periphery dichotomy, which places Indonesia primarily as the recipient of influences from other Muslim countries, particularly centres of Islam such as Mecca and Egypt.
This contribution delineates the construction of Indonesian Islam and analyses the above mentioned contrasting interpretations by taking the position that although there are several points of similarity, the concept of Indonesian Islam has a different meaning in Indonesian traditionalist and modernist Muslim circles. For traditionalist Muslims, the concept reflects the efforts to define what is authentic in Indonesian Islam and is linked with avoiding a blind imitation of foreign influences. Different from the concept of Jawi Islam, Indonesian Islam has consciously been used in this way to refer to a nationally-distinct Islam. In modernist circles, Indonesian Islam is mainly used to solve the problems of the relation between religion and state. To elaborate this position, the author will examine the embryos of the concept by analysing the unification between Islam and Indonesia as proposed by two of the most influential Islamic thinkers in Indonesia: Abdurrahman Wahid, with a traditionalist background, and Nurcholish Madjid, with a modernist one. Although these two scholars do not use the term Indonesian Islam to designate a distinctive form of Islam in Indonesia, through their conceptual thoughts, such as pribumisasi of Islam (indigenisation of Islam) and the idea of integrating Indonesianess and Islamness, they pioneered what is now popularly proclaimed as Indonesian Islam.