The Development and Role of Religious Studies: Some Indonesian Reflections

Zainal Abidin Bagir and Irwan Abdullah | CRCS

While the development of contemporary religious studies as an academic discipline in Western universities can be traced back to the years following the Second World War the field can be said to have matured only in the 1970s. Since then there have been ups and downs, self-criticisms, and numerous developments which have brought it to its present state. What is usually understood as “religious studies as an academic discipline” is a discipline which utilizes a variety of methods from the social sciences and humanities. Religious studies is commonly distinguished from theological study by its sense of critical distance and its self-conscious attempt to be more “objective”, at least in the minimal sense of being aware of one’s own presuppositions which inform one’s study of religion. Indeed, questions of objectivity are elusive, and the very existence of this discipline, including what goes by the name “comparative religion”, has been questioned—not to mention the term “religion” itself. As evident in textbooks which introduce the students to this discipline, the whole enterprise of religious studies has been constantly reconsidered, and its practitioners, too, have always interrogated themselves and what they purport to do.

This article presents some preliminary reflections about the challenges and opportunities in developing religious studies as an academic discipline in Indonesia, a religiously plural country which is at the same time the world’s largest Muslim country. It begins with a description of the history and recent developments in religious studies in Indonesia. The significance of the new developments is set in the context of the situation of religious education at the lower level, relations between different religious communities, as well as the main problems facing the nation today—all with an emphasis on post-1998 Reformasi developments. The remainder of the chapter argues for two roles for religious study in Indonesian religious life. It asserts that in this situation the “academic study of religion” cannot—and one may argue, should not—remain purely academic.

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* This article was published as Chapter Four of Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad and Patrick Jory, eds., Islamic Studies and Islamic Education in Contemporary Southeast Asia (Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Ilmuwan, 2011). It is made available here by the permission of the publisher. The full book is available at

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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