Challenges to “Progressive Islam”

Next week, at almost the same time, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, the largest and second largest Indonesian Muslim organizations respectively, will hold their congresses or muktamar. While the major theme of NU’s congress is Islam Nusantara, Muhammadiyah’s is Islam Berkemajuan (progressive Islam). The latter proposed concept has received comparatively less attention.

The notion of progressive Islam is desperately needed to confront this century’s challenges because it emphasizes the idea of progress. While Islam Nusantara is a concept to legitimize the cultural identity of the development of Islam even before the birth of Indonesia, progressive Islam stresses that we cannot overcome today’s problems by solutions relevant only to the middle ages. Islam Nusantara seeks to preserve our traditions surrounding Islam, whereas progressive Islam stresses the need to be up to date with the concerns of our contemporary lives.

Progressive thought is very much needed for today’s Islam, particularly given the extremist views which are more or less a transferral of medieval Islam to the 21st century. The medieval form of Islam is a setback, or indeed, a regression. A fundamentalist and literalist interpretation of the scriptures and the Islamic traditions bring about an historical gap and a kind of irrelevance. The world no longer has a caliphate like the old Muslim empires, modern countries are nation-states, and global discourse is filled with “secular” ideas such as democracy, human rights and pluralism. The Islamic classical tradition has no exact response to these developments. Some Muslim scholars try to find precedents in classical texts and reinterpret them through a new perspective. This process constitutes a re-reading of Islamic tradition.

Many of today’s Muslims are still confused about how exactly the relationship between Islam (as a religion) and the modern state should operate. Across the world we see efforts to promote the formalization of sharia as the dominant legal system. Indonesia is no exception, as shown not only by the ambitions of some Muslim organizations, but also by the actions of certain regional governments. Indonesia as a state has also been involved in defining the boundaries of “orthodoxy”, as reflected in the blasphemy law, through which the state defines those it considers deviant and then treats them like second-class citizens.

This relationship between Islam and the state should be overcome by “progressive Islam”. If the state really embraces freedom of religion, polemics in defining whose beliefs are true and whose are deviant or infidel will become antithetical to the soul and character of the nation. Islam must move away from these pre-modern polemics. Certainly, a progressive state of mind necessitates a moving away from polemical statements, which are often unempirical and unverifiable.

Another problem that must be seen in the light of progressive Islam is how Muslims should deal with what many call “salafism”. As an ideology, salafism tends to look to the earliest Muslim generation (salaf literally means “that which precedes”) to determine and regulate how Muslims should live their lives. Salafism is essentially a kind of imitation, and what salafists are imitating is medievalism. Salafism tends to rely strictly on the scripture and the prophetic traditions to get to the “pure” Islam, an Islam believed to have remained unpolluted by “un-Islamic” cultures prevailing across history.

Salafism is to some degree shared by followers of Wahhabism and the Muhammadiyah. This shared root explains why salafism seems to attract Muslims from Muhammadiyah more than those from NU. While NU was initially founded in response to Wahhabism, Muhammadiyah was founded to eradicate local customs considered syncretic or containing idolatry (shirk). In the 20th century, followers of local traditions were stigmatized with the appellation TBC, an abbreviation of takhayul (superstition), bid’ah (herecy) and churafat (myth).

In this respect, Muhammadiyah was built in opposition to NU, and if this view is still embraced by Muhammadiyah, its Islam Berkemajuan conflicts with NU’s Islam Nusantara, an opposition that may reinvigorate the modernist-vs-traditionalist polemics of the last century that engulfed many Indonesian Muslims. To be progressive is to move on from the old polemics. Yet Muhammadiyah is actually detached from Wahhabism. Muhammadiyah was initially founded based on inspiration from the Islamic modernism promoted by the renowned Egyptian Muslim reformist, Muhammad Abduh, who died in 1905. Abduh propagated reform for Islam. Abduh’s salafism was different from that of Wahhabism. While the latter tends toward literalism, Abdul embraced modern science in opposing superstitious beliefs and he reinterpreted the holy text based on context.

Muhammadiyah should emphasize its links to “Abduhism” as opposed to Wahhabism. To be progressive, Muhammadiyah needs to increasingly promote the non-literal reading of scripture to get to the spirit of Islam, not merely the form. To borrow from president Sukarno, what we need today from Islam is its “fire”, not its “ashes”. And to keep alive the flame of the fire, it needs fuel. You might suggest that the fuel could be critical reason or modern science. You might also suggest that the fuel is the culture that NU is trying to preserve. Instead of being in opposition to one another, Islam Nusantara and Islam Berkemajuan complement each other.

– published in the Jakarta Post, 30/07/2015

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