Contemporary Islam in Indonesia

Modernists and Traditionalists in Indonesia

Historically, mutuality, rather than dichotomous opposition, has characterized relations between ‘modernists’ and ‘traditionalists’ in Indonesia. The modernists, as represented by Muhammadiyah and drawing specifically on the ideas of Muhammad ‘Abduh that called for the scientific and intellectual strengthening of the Muslim community, have had an enormous influence through their own network of schools and universities but have also influenced the traditionalists to adopt new methods of teaching and new subjects of study within their own pesantren schooling system.

In regard to the interpretation of Islamic law, most modernists (despite ‘Abhub’s exhortations) and all traditionalists adhere to the Syafi’i mazhab. This marks a significant defining characteristic of Islam in Southeast Asia – not just Indonesia but also Malaysia and the Philippines. Modernists, however, claim a degree of interpretative independence (ijtihad) in arriving at decisions within the law whereas traditionalists insist on taqlid, an interpretative process that relies critically on the teachings of the great ulama of the past. This process is by no means as ‘rigid’ as the modernists claim. Indeed, some scholars have observed that in the transition to the 21st century, traditionalist ulama show a greater degree of flexibility in legal interpretation than modernists who still draw on a position originally developed at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is largely in the practice of Islam that modernists differ from traditionalists. Modernists do not participate in the tarekat, religious orders that are fundamental to NU, nor do they,unlike the traditionalists, see Islamic mystic traditions (tasawwuf) as part of their practice of Islam. Indeed they have little regard for the panoply of rituals that organize the lives of most traditional Muslims.

The most marked differences occur in regard to practices associated with the dead. These practices for the traditionalists include a variety of ceremonies at the time of death, visitations to the tombs of the so-called Wali Songo, the nine founders of Islam on Java as well as to the graves of other local saints and revered ancestral personages and large commemorative gatherings, khaul, to honor deceased religious teachers (in Java known as kyai) and their descendants. Modernists reject all of these practices, considering them to be a sinful form of idolatry (syirk).

For traditionalists, such practices are all part of a chain of transmission, through generations of saints and learned teachers, to the companions of the Prophet and to the Prohet himself. As Abdurrahman Wahid is reported to have affirmed, membership in Nahdlatul Ulama is an association that does not end with one’s death.


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