How Indonesia’s Islamic Universities Are Different
Posted Feb 3, 2009

How Indonesia’s Islamic Universities Are Different

By Farish A. Noor

Regardless of where you stand on the question of whether we are living in the age of Islamism, neo-Islamism or Post-Islamism, the fact remains that there is pretty much Islam all over the place at the moment; and much of this Islam is also going all over the place…

From the late 1970s onwards many a Muslim-majority state with a Muslim-majority government embarked on a host of projects intended to inculcate Islamic values, norms and standards in the daily lives of their people. In some cases, such as that of Malaysia, this inculcation of Islamic norms was at times at the expense of other faith communities and cultural minorities as well. From Morocco to Pakistan to Malaysia we witnessed the sudden surge of growth in the Islamic public sector: Shariah courts were raised to a level on par with secular civil courts; Islamic finance and banking was experimented with and implemented with gusto; Islamic think tanks, research centres and universities were funded lavishly and built all over the place. In time a network of Islamic universities and colleges was created worldwide, creating hundreds of thousands of graduates who later entered the public domain with the expectation that they will be given jobs.

The one country that resisted this headlong rush towards Islamisa tion was Indonesia, though that was partly due to the somewhat Islamophobic tendencies of its then leader Suharto and his coterie of Generals and business elite cronies.

Indonesia’s Islamic universities developed at their own pace, often under close state supervision but also under careful tutelage of Islamic intellectuals like Mukti Ali who was the Minister for Religious Affairs. Under the guidance of men like Mukti Ali, Indonesia developed Islamic universities where Islam was not taught, but rather researched. This was singularly unique in the Muslim world because the Indonesian government actually encouraged Muslim scholars to think objectively and critically about Islam and religion in general. In other words, rather than produce Islamist ideologues, the Islamic universities of Indonesia produced a generation of Muslim scholars who could objectively study -critically - their own religion.

The net result of this approach is seen and felt in Indonesia til today. At a time when Islamic universities worldwide are prone to ideology and politicising Islam, it is in Indonesia that we find Muslim scholars who are capable of questioning their own faith and what is done in the name of that faith.

The latest example of this came in the wake of the Indonesian Ulama Council (Majlis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) issuing a fatwa against those who elect not to vote at the upcoming elections this year. Indonesian democracy is still in its infancy following the downfall of Suharto in 199 8, and already the country has witnessed a vibrant democracy in the making. But popular cynicism and anger towards the corruption of politicians and institutions like the police have also compelled millions of Indonesians not to vote, out of protest.

Now apparently not to vote is Haram, according to the MUI.

Here is where the Indonesian Muslim intellectuals have come into the fray. Among the first to question the validity and logic of the MUI fatwa is Professor Bachtiar Effendy, at Sharif Hidayatullah Islamic University, Jakarta. (Jakarta Post, 31 Jan 2009). Prof Bachtiar did not hesitate to point out the obvious: Firstly, where does it say in the Quran that people have to vote at all. Secondly, on what basis is vote-abstention haram. Thirdly, if vote abstention is Haram - as is alcoholism, drugs, rape and murder- then what is the correct Islamic punishment?

Wading into this legal mess that the MUI has created for itself, Prof Bachtiar was not shy of pointing out that senior members of the Indonesian Ulama Council are members of political parties themselves. The MUI fatwa committee chairman is a personal advisor to the PKB party, while its sec-gen is a member of the Golkar party. Questioning the motives and interests of the fatwa issued by the MUI, Prof Bachtiar reminded the MUI that no fatwa is legally binding and in the case of this particular fatwa there is precious little substantive ground for it to stand on.

Congratulations are due to Prof Bachtiar and scholars like him who are the products of Indonesia’s scientific and rational approach to Islamic studies. While Professors and lecturers of many other Islamic universities elsewhere dabble in issues such as ‘Islamic biology’ or scientific theories of Djinns and spirits, the Islamic scholars of Indonesia have shown that o ne can be a Muslim and a scientist at the same time. The rational spirit of social scientists like Ibn Khaldun lives on, in Indonesia…


Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Sinngapore