Contemporary Islam in Indonesia

 Historical Observations: Foundations of Mutuality and Difference

Hizbut Tahrir’s agenda is a reminder that the period of the 1920s was as tumultuous a time in Islamic history as the present. The end of the caliphate occurred in the same year as the conquest of the Hejaz (Mecca and Medina) by the Wahabis under al-Saud. These two events in 1924 produced reactions throughout the Islamic world including Indonesia.

Through much of the 19th century, there was an increasing movement of Indonesian pilgrims to Mecca, many of whom stayed on to form what was called the Jawi community. By the late 19th century this Jawi was one of the largest communities in Mecca with its own contingent of distinguished teachers, some of whom were granted the privilege of teaching within the Haram.

The Jawi community in Mecca was at the center of the activities of the tarekat (tariqa), the Sufi mystic orders, whose reach extended widely in Indonesia. Of particular importance was Shaykh Ahmad Khatib Sambas, a teacher at Masjid al-Haram, who is credited with founding Tarekat Qadiriyyah-Naqshabandiyyah, a fusion of the separate Qadiriyyah and Nashabandiyyah orders. He initiated various Indonesian kalifah whose authority through different pesantren perpetuated the religious teachings (tasawwuf) and devotional practices that are an essential (and characteristic) component of Indonesian, particularly Javanese, Islam.

Increasingly, however, Cairo with its great teaching center, al-Azar, offered an alternative to Mecca as a source of reforming ideas. A new generation of Indonesians were attracted to Cairo and became deeply influenced by the ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-97) interpreted initially by Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and later by his successor, Rashid Rida (1865-1935)3. In particular, ‘Abduh ideas on educational reform and technical advancement for Muslims were crucial to the founding of Muhammadiyah in 1912, which, to this day, continues as a major institution for the Islamic community of Indonesia4.

In Indonesia in the 1920s, amid strong nationalist stirrings, a division between self-proclaimed ‘reformists and modernists’ and so-called ‘traditionalists’ came to the fore over issues of the caliphate and of the conquest of Mecca by the Wahabi5. The traditionalists whose links were to the learned community of Jawi teachers in Mecca were deeply disturbed by the actions of the Wahabi and fearful of what might occur next. A number of prominent members of the Jawi community were killed in the fighting and many more suffered privations from the lack of supplies following the seizure of the holy places. More importantly, however, core religious practices of the traditional Jawi – particularly visitation (ziarah) to the tombs in Mecca and Medina, many of which were the gathering place of the Sufi orders (tarekat) – were seen as heretical by the Wahabi and forcibly suppressed.

Of these the most serious was the destruction of the tombs at the grave complex at Medina. To the Kaum Tua Jawa this was seen as gross religious desecration. The community feared that the tomb of the prophet would also be destroyed. As a result, more than a third of the Jawi community returned to Indonesia en masse in a number of chartered relief ships, bringing with them stories of sacrilege and atrocities.

By contrast, some reformists among the Kaum Muda saw merit in the changes that were occurring in Mecca, which provided the opportunity to advance the reform ideas of Muhammad ‘Abduh and others in Cairo. That Rashid Rida in Cairo proclaimed the Wahabis to be the faction of ‘purest faith’ in Islam only increased the tension between the two communities in Indonesia. Some of the Kaum Tua even went so far as to label the Kaum Muda as ‘Wahabi’ – the worst possible term of derision. Having failed in an effort to send a unified delegation from Indonesia to a conference on the Caliphate (initially to Cairo, then later to Mecca), a group of twelve ulama, under the spiritual aegis of the Hasyim Ashari (1875-1947) and the political guidance of Abdul Wahab Chasbullah, met in Surabaya in January 1926 and formed the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU: The Awakening of the Ulama) to represent and to defend their traditions of Islam6. In Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama was to become the largest Islamic grouping in the country. The banner that the NU adopted to represent itself was a globe that portrayed Indonesia within the Muslim world7. In membership, NU was also to become the largest Muslim organization in the Islamic world.

The late 1920s also saw the beginnings of another Muslim organization in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikwanul Muslimin) under Syahid Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) that would – some fifty years later – begin to exert influence in Indonesia. It took time and contemporary pressures outside of Indonesia as well as conditions in Indonesia itself for the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood to assume relevance suitable for their transmission to Indonesia.


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