Saturday 1 February 2014

The struggle of progressive Islam in Indonesia: Sahal Mahfudz and Dawam Rahardjo

Sahal Mahfudz (1937-2014)
Two leading Muslim intellectuals have made headlines in Indonesia over the past week. On Friday, 24 January, Sahal Mahfudz passed away age 77. Since 1999, he had served as the General President of the world largest Muslim mass organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)'s consultative council, while doubling as the Chairman of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) from 2000 onwards.

Mbah Sahal or Kiai Sahal, as he was affectionately known, made a name as an innovatively thinking scholar, especially in the field of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh. Advocating a contextual re-reading of the generally very text-based interpretations found in traditional Islamic learning, he became a mentor figure for younger generations of what Michael Feener calls the 'New Ulama' in his landmark book Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia. Sahal's writings, including his Nuansa Fiqih Sosial  ('Nuances of Social Jurisprudence', first published in 1994 ), inspired figures such as the current head of the NU's executive branch, Said Aqil Siradj (b. 1953), and Masdar F. Mas'udi (b. 1954) to rethink the relevance of the Islamic tradition.

In the mid-1990s, they began to redefine the role of Muslim scholars trained in the field of traditional Islamic learning in order to bring them in tune with the demands of the present-day Muslim world in order to help them respond more effectively to the challenges faced by their constituency of mainly rural-based Muslims from peasant backgrounds.They, in turn, groomed the next generation of NU cadres who have been making name as intellectuals in their own right since the regime change of 1998, which heralded the post-Suharto Reformasi era. This resulted in the somewhat unexpected situation where scholar-activists from the traditionalist Islamic milieu overtook their intellectual peers from the modernist camp in terms of progressive and innovative thinking about the role of religion in the contemporary world (for an article by a young NU member on occasion of Sahal Mahfudz's death, click here). These ideas continue to be pushed by NU-affiliated organizations such as The Wahid Institute, named after another former NU leader, and first democratically elected president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid. Led by Ahmad Suaedy and Ahmad Rumadi, it focuses on the monitoring of human rights and religious freedom in Indonesia.
Funeral of NU leader K.H. Sahal Mahfudz
Unfortunately, as he progressed in age, it appears Kiai Sahal lost this forward-looking attitude. During his tenure as head of MUI, from the mid 2000s,  the council passed a number of controversial fatwas, which were intolerant of religious minority groups such as the Ahmadiyya and which also condemned notions such as secularism, pluralism and liberalism as 'un-Islamic' (for an analysis of this document, click here). This heralded a 'conservative turn' which has become increasingly pronounced in Indonesian Islamic discourse from 2005 onwards.

A happier event can be reported from the modernist side of the Muslim intellectual spectrum in Indonesia.  

M. Dawam Rahardjo
M. Dawam Rahardjo (b. 1943), a Muslim intellectual of a very different type was honoured for his contributions to the defence of human rights. Rahardjo trained as an economist and has been associated with a number of research institutes and think tanks involved in reconciling Islam with the exigencies of modernization. Aside from his academic work, he has also been instrumental to a variety of grassroots initiatives in development and education.

During his student years in Yogyakarta, he was a member of the 'Limited Group', a discussion forum convened by the later Minister of Religious Affairs, Abdul Mukti Ali, and one of the key figures in the 'Movement for the Renewal of Islamic Thinking' (Gerakan Pembaruan Pemikiran Islam). Started in the late 1960s by the then chairman of the largest Muslim student organization HMI, Nurcholish Madjid, it functioned as an incubator for a strand of innovative thinking that has few parallels anywhere else in the Muslim world. Over the years, Dawam Rahardjo became one of the leaders of the progressive wing in the Muhammadiyah, the most important modernist Muslim mass movement in Indonesia, eventually serving on the organization's Central Board, until 2005, when the conservative bloc swept to power (for more on the struggle of progressive modernist Muslims see also the post of 10 January 2013).

Dawam Rahardjo receiving Yap Thiam Hien Award 2014
This lurch to the right, together with the proclamation of regressive fatwas by MUI, stimulated Dawam Rahardjo to become an even more vocal advocate of religious toleration as an integral and essential part of the upholding of universal human rights standards (for an earlier article on his relentless defence of pluralism in Indonesia, click here). His activism and writings have also stimulated a new generation of progressive Muhammadiyah cadres, united in the Network of Young Muhammadiyah Intellectuals (Jaringan Intelektual Muda Muhammadiyah, JIMM), as well as individual scholars,  including Najib Burhani, Hilman Latief, Moch Nur Ichwan.


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