Michael Feener: Islam And Its History In Indonesia

Talking about Islam in Indonesia, we have to put this huge discourse into some boxes of specific issues that we try to figure out deeply. As we know, Islam has been seen as a very important subject of study for the past decade. Many people started re-examining and questioning again about what we actually mean by Islam. Are there any critical shifts in the history of Islam itself? What kind of perspectives or approaches should we use to understand it? Here, we discuss about some general issues that often asked by scholars in understanding Islam especially in Indonesia.

In a special occasion, Jimmy Marcos Immanuel had a great chance to interview A/P Michael Feener, an expert on Islamic studies in Indonesia. In this interview they talked about Islam in the colonial and postcolonial contexts, some contemporary issues of Islam in Indonesia, the development of Islamic education, and, as the conversation draws to a close, about approaches to understand shariah and fiqh nowadays.

Michael Feener is an Associate Professor at Department of History of National University of Singapore (NUS). He is also the research leader at Asian Research Institute of NUS for Religion and Globalization Cluster. His expertise in Islam discourse has produced some fascinating publications on Islam, including: 1) Islam in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (ABC-CLIO, 2004), 2) Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3) Islamic Law in Contemporary Indonesia: Ideas and Institutions (Harvard University Press, 2001), co-edited with Mark Cammack, and 4) Islamic Connections: Muslim Societies and South and Southeast Asia (ISEAS Press, 2009), with Terenjit Sevea.

Below is the interview between Jimmy (CRCS) and A/P Michael Feener (MF).

CRCS : Based on a long study of Islam that you have been working on, I saw you also pay so much attention on the discussion about the history of Islam in Indonesia, in colonial and postcolonial era. It seems that we need to consider frameworks of colonial and post-colonial of Indonesia. How do you see these frameworks in understanding Indonesian Islam?

MF : Yes, we talk about the Islam and its situation in colonial and the post-colonial Indonesia and I think that in terms of understanding the historical transformation of Indonesia from the colonial period onward. We really have to realize that the ways colonialism affected Islam during this period are much more complex than what we usually hear in Indonesia. There’s a dominant narrative in Indonesia about the history of colonialism, and it’s a story about local independent mostly Muslim sultanates who don’t get attacked and occupied by a foreign non-Muslim power, and then in the Indonesian nationalist historiography. There are great struggles of these groups to try to fight against this non-Muslim occupation and establishes Islam new independence.

Now that is a story that has proved powerful and very important for Indonesian nationalism. But if we actually look at the impacts of colonization on Islam we find sometimes uncomfortably that there’s much more complex than that. That we do not only see colonialism as something that came in as a potential threat to Islam but in many ways we can argue that Islam as we know it today not just in Indonesia but all across the Muslim world is a product, to a certain extent, of the social transformations of colonialism. And we could see this in a number of ways. We can see this, for example, in the ways in which non-Muslims experience a lot of their forms of religiosity today. A classic example is the hajj. On today’s hajj, people have to go through this elaborate government ministries, the quarantine checks, the quotas per countries, there are all kind of regulations that determine important aspects of their hajj experience. There’s a huge bureaucratic apparatus that manages this, and this is the direct legacy of European colonial governments trying to manage the movement of the population during the 19th to 20th century, with the impacts of steamships and other transportation technologies developed in the Middle East. Numbers of hajj went from being a very… very small percent of the population for a thousand years to suddenly being a huge aspect of faith that many Muslims could for the first time in their life actually do. They didn’t realize that for most of Islamic history, although the hajj is considered the fifth pillar of Islam, very few Muslims (percentage-wise) actually ever did it. It was largely a very elite phenomenon. Because it’s very hard to get to the hajj, especially from Southeast Asia. It took a lot of time and not everybody who had a job and had a family and had children or had parents to look over could do the hajj. That is why people get the origin of all these social rituals that you have in many parts of Indonesia. People basically have an elaborate farewell for the hajj because the idea was that in many cases people who go to the hajj in the pre-modern period would never come back. But after technological advances broth to the region during the colonial period, Southeast Asians have come to make up the largest group of pilgrims each year despite the distance from Makkah.

CRCS : Do you mean the paradigm of the pilgrimage or to be a hajj shifted because of some economic agenda and some other changes in colonial context?

MF : Now of course, people set the journey on a plane at Cengkareng and people get to Jeddah and they change into their Ihram and they do their hajj and they come back, and maybe do some duty-free shopping in Jeddah and they come home. That idea that almost all anyone can make the hajj, at least they who have money in the bank, revolutionized the way the Muslims the way Muslims understand the five pillars of Islam. For most of Islam history, the hajj was a very distant dream and if we manage to go to the hajj and come back we’ll have a very elevated social status. Now, so many people in your office, in your neighborhood, in your school, they are all hajjis – so it changed the way which the hajj configures authority and because you get more and more people going to the hajj first after steamships and now specially after the jet age, the elaborate government ministries that were first put in place by colonial governments that were quickly adapted by independent governments like Indonesian government, which is why the hajj represent such a big part of department of religious affairs.

So, we see this side of colonialism. Also, if we look, for example, at the modern dakwah movement, both in Indonesia and all over the world. Many people see dakwah activists as very opposed to Christian forms of mission, and indeed, they very much see themselves fighting a battle against what they perceive the Christianization of Indonesia. But nearly every aspect of the modern dakwah movement is in a sense a direct response to, and imitation of certain Christian missionary tactics that were first introduced during the colonial period. So, the ways in which for example the dakwah movement has been very successful in using the media, first print and now digital, the way in which they set up network of schools, they ways they set up charitable organizations like orphanages, and hospitals, they ways in which they conduct public debates about religion, all the way back to Ahmad Hassan in Persis, the way they set up public forums where Ahmad Hassan could debate with Christian missionaries, that in many ways the whole dakwah movement modernized itself on the Christian missionary movement. And so modern Christian forms of the religious expression of the religious mission, that were brought under colonialism did not simply oppose Islam but also have actually influenced the ways that Islam re-shaped itself in the 20th century.

The idea of a dakwah movement that we have today would have been unimaginable in Islam before the colonial period. But after the colonial period, this form of religious expression taken from the Christian missionaries has become very important in the way in which modern Muslim groups have formed themselves in Indonesia. But of course, this would be very controversial; many people in these movements would say no, of course, we’re not imitating Christians. But the fact of the matter is, these colonial interventions of technology, of social organization and of ways of thinking about how religion works in society are really brought by Europeans and even though the Europeans did not intend to say give new missionary strategies to the Muslims or give new technologies to increase the number of hajjs, it did, however, give them new models about religious education and ways of spreading and defining their religious message. This is not what the colonialists thought that they were doing but once these elements were introduced under Western colonialism, Muslims in Southeast Asia picked them up and used them for their own purposes. And the adaptation of the Muslims, created appropriation of all these legacies of colonialism have actually made a situation in which the Islam of today looks in many ways very different from the Islam of two hundred years ago and one very important piece of the historical development of Islam of this period are the ways in which the Muslims have adapted and reacted to and appropriated many of the aspects the European style of modernity brought by colonialism.

CRCS : So, what about the typologies or labels that appeared since the colonial era and then also the post-colonial era in Moslem communities? Some people call them Indonesian Muslim, and national Islam and then also Islam progressive. They define themselves. And, does it also have something to do with the post-Suharto era?

MF : Not just post-Suharto but again it’s an aspect of modernization and the way in which we began to have, the way in which the people dealt with religion being much more a factor of individual choice and the choice to join or to ascribe to a certain forms of Islam that modernity brought with it, if we will, a set of, a new range of options.

For much of Indonesian Islamic history, we had a kind of modern civilization that was very culturally grounded, and it tended to be upheld by, the forms of Islamic in certain locations tended to be upheld by pretty much everyone in the community. And that involve in a sense some kind of general adherence to broad principles of Shafi’i fish. It meant that generally you have a set of populations who whether they know it or not were more or less Ash`ari in their theology. And when we look at the formation of different Sufi tarekat in different parts of Indonesia, very often we see the part of the tarekat simply because that was the dominant tarekat in the region. And the modes of transportation and communication in place meant that the vast majority of Muslims knew of Islam in the place they grew up and didn’t know too much of the other forms of Islam in other communities.

Modernization did two things, one the transportation and communication made it possible for people to participate in the much wider vision of Islam. That is the way they travel more, they were able to read different things, oh the people who live that island they do this different thing, they began to get more of a sense of diversity. But also the modern period also begin to inculcate a kind of an individualist subjectivity, where people now thought it’s not enough that everybody in my community does that. But increasingly, I have to decide I have to have this kind of personal faith of commitment that is about individual choice. And in a sense, it is really general but again it began to have generated in the 19th century if we look at the development of new kinds of tarekat, new kinds of Sufi groups that began to break themselves throughout of Indonesia about time that in Indonesia in the 19th century we have a new kind of Sufi order (tarekat) which spread like various of different model of what it meant to be a member of a tarekat. It was a new, exclusive model, in which those who accepted a new order, could no longer also participate in other forms of Islam.

CRCS : So, there is a kind of exclusivity in the tarekat itself?

MF : There is some kind of exclusivity in the new type tarekat that spread in the 19 and the early 20th centuries. But beyond that when we start to look at the rise of modernist movement like Persis, like Muhammadiyah, for example, that in the early generations of Muhammadiyah it was not like today, when someone is born into a Muhammadiyah family. But to make that break, to become a member of the Muhammadiyah people have a kind of personal choice that people would go and distance themselves from one of Islam that they grew up with, to another and move to a new form of Islam that they thought it better. And once they begin to have this idea that their form of Islam was a matter of personal choice, it’s not just because I got this from my grandparents, but I think that I should “kembali kepada Al-Qur’an dan sunnah”, then they begin to have a way of thinking about religion. It’s not something that is a part of their community but something that is a part of your individual choice. And if we look from the history of Muhammadiyah onwards the 20th century you got not just one big break but many breaks after that, you begin to get once in the sense the kind of homogenous background community of Islam of traditionalism is challenged, it’s not the fact that you just have old traditional summon of new, modern Islam but the simple idea that you have a choice means that other ideas proliferate and suddenly you have not just Muhammadiyah but you’ve got Persis, you’ve got Ahmadiyah.

There all kinds of things that show that again at first they aren’t things that you are born into but things that individual believers choose. And so you have a kind of individualism if you will that comes to inform the way Indonesians think about Islam. And even if you have some strong reactions that say individualism is a modern decadent western concept we don’t get into that sort of things like salafi movements today, that say individualism is a modern concept, in fact their whole movement depends on the idea of a modern western notion of individuality. That these are people, man and women, who choose to leave whatever form of Islam that they grew up with and become salafis, to show up in their shortened pant legs and grow a goatee or don a nib, that they make these personal choices. Now, in that case their choice is to say I used radical choice to get out of what I see a modern decadent framework but the whole existence and the growth of the movement depends on the modern notion of individualism.

CRCS : Do you mean we need to see them in the historical context and also to see them in the etic and emic approaches, something like that?

MF : Well, not just the etic and emic, one of the things I argued in one of my earlier works (Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia, 2007) is that quite frankly when we look at the situation like modern Indonesia the tight boxes of emic and etic no longer really work. Because what you end up having very often now is the fact that the old emic and etic discourses have merged together in complex ways. Increasingly now, academics from ‘outside’ are learning more from the writings of Muslim intellectuals, and the work that is done by outside scholars and outside observers about Islam are part of the emic conversations of Muslims themselves. If we look even to people who are seen as the great pioneers of Indonesian Islamic revival, look at people like Muhammad Natsir, for example, and you look at his early writings especially Capita Selecta, he’s writing all of this articles about classic figures from Islamic history, so he’s writing his essays like on Ibn Rusyd. If we look at the first editions of this text, Natsir does not cite any Arabic sources for his knowledge of classical Islam. Because he was brought through a colonial school system in a member Indonesian European western educated elite, all his sources for understanding classical Islam come from French, Germany and Dutch Orientalism. Now, today people read Natsir, to find out what ‘real Islam’ is – but Natsir himself was getting his own understandings of Islam from reading French, German and Dutch Orientalist. You see the whole idea of a clear etic and emic approach has become completely clouded. So that when you read, say contemporary Islamic studies whether it’s in Indonesian, Arabic or other languages that you see that people like Clifford Geertz, people like Samuel Huntington, have become part of the conversation – while at the same time, for example, Western sociologists refer to the work of Ibn Khaldun.

All of these figures become important to the parts of the conversation and as the scholarship develops I think that you’re going to realize that in contemporary global conversations it’s almost impossible now to create a distinct emic spheres and this is not just in Islam but anywhere. The globalization of communication meant that we no longer have this sort of ‘pure’ self-contained small circle but there’s ways in which these two circles now interact to such a point that it’s impossible to pull them apart.

CRCS : In the beginning you said that the transportation and media have been growing fast in that context. What about the emergence of the Islamic education? As we know, the Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama have been developed in their education since many decades, like madrasas and boarding schools or pesantrens, and we know that PKS is also growing so fast now. How do you see this phenomenon?

MF : Well, the madrasa in Indonesia, now this is one thing I think sometimes when people talk more globally about comparative conversations, they realize that what is taken as a madrasa in Indonesia is actually very different from any madrasa in pretty much any part of the world. And if we look back to the 11th century, to Bagdad, to the Abbassid period, the formation of these madrasas. The madrasa were very specific kinds of schools. They were first of non-state institutions for the most of part. They were funded not by the government but by wakaf, by private individuals and that they are really colleges of only one subject. There were colleges of law, these colleges of law were headed by one professor, or sometimes one professor per mazhab. And that these professors had the equivalent of what really has the root of modern tenure. That once these professors were appointed, they were paid by the wakaf. And even if the government didn’t like what they said, they could not be fired, they couldn’t be dismissed, they could not be disciplined, they were supported independently by this wakaf.

In the modern period in Indonesia, however, the type of institution known as the madrasa really becomes a fundamentally different and very modern institution. madrasas get really introduced at the turn of the 20th century in Indonesia. What’s meant by madrasa in Indonesia is very different kind of school, it’s a modern school. It’s not primarily founded by wakaf. It’s not only about law. And it does not sort of work in the same social dynamics that traditional madrasa did. Traditional madrasas worked more like traditional models of pesantren, surau, or dayah in parts of Indonesia, that is you don’t have graduated classes, you didn’t have any sort of exams, but you will study with one particular teacher until you have proved that you have mastered one particular text and you would get a certificate.

The modern madrasa system again very closely mirrors the new kinds of government but especially missionary schools established under European influence in Southeast Asia. So madrasas look very much like missionary schools. They have separate rooms with separate classes, where people sat in rows, not in the circle around the teacher. They also had this separate notion of ranking in class by examination system. So you pass an exam from one level up to another. And you have textbooks that were printed on the new printing press so all the technologies work together. So before if you were in a madrasa and you had, you know, your teacher up there sort of reading whatever text and you’re supposed writing it down as he speaks. Now everybody has textbooks and textbooks could be standardized. So you have on one hand the potential of gaining uniformity, print all the textbooks, all students get textbooks, but then again you also have this movement that I was talking about before where you have more than one kind of madrasa so then you also have a sort of competing curricula.

You had first, Muhammadiyah curricula, Irshyad curricula, Persis curricula, and you already had other institutions coming in and so again you have a proliferation of different ways about thinking about Islam. But I think that most importantly, that the madrasa system sort of created a new model of bringing together education about Islam, about selected aspects of Islam and selected aspects of what were generally considered ‘secular’ subjects and that really became the new kind of revolution, because they basically started training more and more of the population with a combination of some Islamic knowledge and some other knowledge that allowed them to sort of move up, upward in the new colonial and post-colonial elite.

So that you began to get them by the 20th century. Fewer and fewer Islamic religious leaders are formally trained as ulama. Many more went to modern-style madrasas and many of them also had further training as electrical engineers, dentists, journalists, etc. These people began to be the people who really set themselves up as the new spokesmen for Islam in the modern period. Whereas, before the 20th century the ulama as a class has a certain kind of class and guild identity they are recognized each other and they became a member of the ulama by following a particular kind of education, having a particular vision of Islam. But the 20th century now, journalists, dentists, you know, whoever, who had a little of Islamic knowledge could suddenly write in newspapers, could suddenly going on the radios, could suddenly blog the new visions of Islam that has changed fundamentally the nature if Islamic authority.

And so you began to have, to get to the next subject on your list here we have conversations about Islamic law that were directed, increasingly since the 20th century. It’s not by people whose training was in Islamic but by people whose main training was some places else but who cared a lot about Islamic law and who wanted to speak on Islamic law. Even though they weren’t trained to classical Islamic law the way the earlier generations of scholars were, and this fundamentally transformed the kind of conservations that Indonesians have about Islam, Indonesian have about Islamic law in the course of the 20th century. So that you begin to get people some who came from religious backgrounds but taking non-traditional career paths, people like Hamka. But also people like Hazairin, who wasn’t trained at all in formal Islamic studies who really trained under a sort of Dutch ethnographic studies of adat law. But he sort of emerges as a major figure in the production of Islamic discourse. You begin to have figures again like Natsir, Western educated, set of colonial schooling, very well in European languages became the major figures speaking about Islam. Below this generations then you have people like Amien Rais, Nurcholis Madjid, who went to University of Chicago, who studied western social sciences, they come back and they become voices of Islam in Indonesia. And so you begin to see the ways in which the whole parameter of conversations had been radically changed right over the past century and that in this radical change has actually allowed for a much greater diversity of Islamic thought than really anytime before.

CRCS : Is it a good news for Indonesian people or the other a way around? Do we need some approaches to face it?

MF : Some people found this diversity really empowering, saying now look we got a much more vibrant sphere of Islamic thought and if we actually look at what is happening in Indonesia over the past century we’ll see that Indonesia has become probably the most dynamic centers of Islam in the contemporary world. For example, when I buy books in Cairo, for example, compare to when I buy books in Indonesia the modern stuffs presented in Indonesia is much more diverse and more interesting. Some people see that a sign of great strength. Others, however, see this same diversity as a weakness- and who say that “oh this is actually a fracture in the ummah, it’s actually creating less consensus, it’s actually creating us weaker, making us prone to attack.” And what we see again in the course the 20th century then are different ways in which the debated on shariah, the debates on Islamic law, the debate on Islam to be more general have been all over the map but in broad terms we can kind of think of two major camps. We could start to think of a minimalist approach to reform and maximalist approach to Islamic reform.

The maximalist approach being those who would say, well in order to really understand the development of Islam, the development of Islamic laws and society, we not only have to study classical texts but we also have to study economy, we have to study history we have to study all kinds of technology and all the other things that will help us understand the modern world, so that we can properly apply the shariah to the conditions in the modern world. So there’s this people have to start thinking about contextualization, they begin to have people who would say about Islamic finances that would some to something like global economics first. If we want to do something on Islamic bioethics, we actually have to understand the bioscience first. That is a kind of maximalist approach – if you want to understand a sort of social dynamics they have to understand history, anthropology, whatever whoever who understands social contexts.

On the other hand we have the minimalists, whose reaction to Islamic reform it to not spread out and try to get as much knowledge of the modern world as we can to use that to reformulate Islam. But instead Islam is to actually boil it down, to minimize it, to in a sense circle the wagons, to say: ‘Well all of the other stuff is what made Islam weak. Instead we want to go back to a clear core of what we think is real Islam, the Qur’an and Sunnah, and only by going back to that narrow conception of Islam would we be strong.”

If we can use this kind of too broad categories of ways of kind of organizing and creating a new typologies Islamic reform in the modern period and we can look that even in the minimalist camp, even in the maximalist camp there are all kinds of subdivisions once we start to think about it but the basic is that they help us understand the major transformations.

CRCS : In relation to your previous statement, what kind of methodological perspectives do we need in understanding shariah and fiqh in the contemporary world, especially in Indonesia?

MF : Well, I would just sort of highlight again the ways in which to understand fiqh in the contemporary world, we need to understand something about the contemporary world that is we need to understand the history of how it is that we got here. And that means for example understanding the same kinds of modern colonial transformations that I talked to you about beforehand. That we can say that Islam, Islamic law rests on the Qur’an and Sunnah. And the Qur’an is a text that we can date back to the 7th century, the Sunnah has a longer period of genesis but again represents another fact of the classical Islamic world. Now, we have some people who imagine that if we are able to jump back to the time of the prophet Muhammad, we’ll be able to understand the Qur’an and the Sunnah and we’ll be able to understand Islam.

The problem is there is such a social and epistemological distance between contemporary people in the world whether you are Indonesian, Arab or whatever and 7th century Arabia. It’s impossible for us to jump in a time machine back to the time of the Prophet. It’s simply impossible. In order to understand that we have to be self-conscious and careful about the way we negotiate this historical and cultural distance. That is we have to understand that the Qur’an and Sunnah even if we get them in Indonesian translation in front of us, but it’s not a clear representation of what those text meant in the context of the 7th century Arabia. And the only way that we can know about the context of Muhammad is by working back through complex steps, working back through the colonial period, through the early modern period, through the medieval period, back to the time of the prophet. And people also get to move some geographical distance, instead of judging the geographical distance from the Indonesian Archipelago through India through China through all kinds of other places that in a sense would have roots by which Islam spread to Indonesia.

So, one of the methods or perspectives that we really need to have is one that realizes that historical changes have transformed the ways by which the Muslims understood Islam for the past 1400 years. And therefore to understand that we actually have to work very careful with these changes not simply push all these history away so that we can jump from 21th century Indonesia to 7th century hijrah. That is impossible. What we have to do is rather than pretending that there is no distance between 7th century Arabia and 21st century Indonesia, what we actually have to do is develop much more careful critical skills that were able to negotiate that history, will be able to navigate that history, to trace those changes and see at the different steps what was going on with the development of Islam, so we can understand how it is that we got from here from the kind of Islam that was lived by the community of Muhammad, to the way which Islam is understood today.

CRCS : It’s a kind of hermeneutic also that we need to have, you mean?

MF : Yeah, it’s a kind of hermeneutic also, but in Indonesia hermeneutic has become a dirty word in some sentences. But again, if we look at the way in which classical Islamic scholarship look before the modern period, they had their own model of hermeneutics. But when people go through a commentary say word of tafsiran Qur’an, people would have their Mufassir, their interpreter saying, well you know here is the Qur’anic verse, here is a hadith about that Qur’anic verses, and here is another hadith about the Qur’anic verse, and then they would say, and then one Syeikh had said that the second hadith is more appropriate because it means, it says that the Qur’an means this, but another Syeikh had a different view, and that in those classical texts of tafsir you would have in a sense different scholars looking back to early generations of scholars in evaluating what they thought is the strongest argument that is traditional Islamic learning was like a hermeneutic and that’s the kind of thing that formed the basis of the classicalist madrasa education, to be able to understand all the links on the chain going back. Now when we get to the modern period we have people who are dentists, or who are engineers or who are, we know, journalists talking about Islam. They did not take 20 years to study that kind of hermeneutics, they imagine they can just jump from here to the time of Muhammad. But because they don’t have the training of the classical period they don’t realize just how complex those developments were. Whereas, the traditionalist scholars knew very well that in order to get from there to here we have to work through a very, very complex chain of transmissions and interpretations.

CRCS : Okay, thank you for the insights; they are so helpful for new scholars who are starting to study Islamic studies in Indonesia and probably social theories at the same time.

MF : I think it’s important to have knowledge of both Islam and of social theories. We should not push classical learning away because that material is very important. But what we have to do is to use them with contemporary approaches as well to begin to think more carefully about how Islamic texts produce meaning in different social contexts. That is we can begin to use the tools of history, anthropology, literature and other approaches, to deal with ancient materials. (JMI)

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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