Traditionalists versus Progressives: Who’s winning?
Protestants once happily belted out the mid 19th century hymn Onward Christian soldiers. It was composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of G & S opera fame) and has a seductively rollicking rhythm.
The sturdy language reinforced the righteousness of the singers’ beliefs. It became a Salvation Army ballad. Now it’s seldom heard –except with new lyrics.
It took more than a century for congregations to realise the gross offensiveness of the words and their opposition to teachings of love and forgiveness. Compassion had been hijacked by the military-minded who saw other beliefs as pagan lands to be colonized.
Traditionalists argued that the hymn’s roots were well embedded in Biblical tales justifying violence. It’s taken a long time for the self-styled Progressive Christians to start reinterpreting the scriptures for those who believe religions should promote peace.
Is the same thing happening with Islam in Indonesia, though extremists still use the more vengeful passages of Al Quran to justify violence?
Islamic scholar Dr Rumadi, (right) originally from Central Java, thinks similar reform may be underway. In 2008 he wrote Post Traditionalisme Islam: Wacana Intelektualisme dalam Komunitas NU.
The book has now been translated into English as Islamic Post-Traditionalism in Indonesia. The forward by the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) Indonesia’s fourth president and former leader of the mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, is surprisingly critical.
He writes that the book does not cover the ‘dialogue’ between Islam and nationalism which predates the foundation of NU (in 1926), adding:
‘The attitude of viewing post-traditionalism as the essence of NU ‘revival’ is frankly quite dangerous because it can be easily misused.’
Rumadi declined to attack the comments: “Gus Dur is not wrong, of course not. But things have been changing. Since he died (in 2009) there’s been much development of an Indonesian version of Islam that’s different from the Saudi interpretation.”
Yet every time a progressive tries to release Islam from the intellectual prison of fundamentalist interpretations there seems to be a lashback.
President Joko Widodo recently issued a decree to establish an international Islamic campus.
“I expect this university to be a source of knowledge, Islamic studies, the moral light of Islam and a bastion of balanced Islamic values, tolerant and egalitarian Islam,” he reportedly said.
“Islam in Indonesia is like a patent medical prescription, which is moderate Islam, while other countries are still seeking the formula.”
But the dose had gone wrong in North Sumatra where Buddhists were picking over the ashes of their temples allegedly firebombed by an enraged mob. News reports said the men had reacted after a Chinese woman complained about noise from a nearby mosque.
It’s not just non-Muslims who get offended by high-volume calls to prayer; Vice President Jusuf Kalla is on record asking mosques to remember that at least 25 million Indonesians follow other faiths and turn down their amplifiers for azan.
Tolerance goes beyond accepting all have a right to peace. The next logical position is that respecting other beliefs dilutes commitment to your own which opens the door to doubts. For some that’s a step too far. For others it can be exciting to have their views tested – yet still hold strong.
Eight years ago the little-known Cirebon-based Fahmina Institute based on the ‘religious and intellectual practices of traditional Indonesian Islamic boarding schools’ produced Rumadi’s book.
The English translation by Melbourne University academic Rebecca Lunnon released this year gives Rumadi’s study an international readership. It has been published by Singapore’s prestigious Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, recognising the book’s importance in understanding Indonesian Islam as interpreted through the NU prism.
Although the prose reads well the free flow of the text falters when it hits the speed bumps of names of minor players. Their contributions could have been left to endnotes.
There is also much attention given to tiny points of difference, leading to the assumption that some discussions are more peacock displays of individuals’ erudition than genuine attempts to find answers.
Just as medieval Christian scholars debated the number of angels that could dance on a pin, some schools of Islam (and other faiths) need to get back to the basics of family, morality, worldly purpose and the afterlife – if there is one.
Rumadi, 46, is not a polemicist. He used to be involved with the Jakarta-based Wahid Institute, a research center founded by Gus Dur, so his writing is not impartial, a fact he acknowledges.
There are no references in his book to Muhammadiyah (founded 1912), the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia with around 30 million mainly urban members – a fact readers must constantly keep in mind.
The author lectures in Islamic law at UIN in Jakarta and is also a Commissioner at the government’s National Information Commission in Jakarta.
His education has been entirely in Indonesia and includes a PhD from the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta. His reputation and analytical skills could be enhanced with overseas qualifications, preferably from a secular campus.
Despite these handicaps Rumadi, 46, has the courage to get stuck into NU. Publishing criticisms can be dangerous. His friend Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, founder of the Liberal Islamic Network got death threats and a letter bomb after writing in the newspaper Kompas about ‘rejuvenating Islamic understanding’ an article some considered heretical.
Rumadi said he’d had no problems even though writing: ‘The NU theological structure … is unable to wrestle with the wild anarchy of meaning, fails to accommodate rapidly changing social dynamics and is too fragile to be the foundation for social empowerment towards a more social, humanitarian and democratic society.’
Hope for peaceful co-existence now lies, though not exclusively, with the Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago) movement. This has been established by NU since Rumadi’s original book was written.
It aims to develop ‘Indonesian as well as Islamic society, improving the welfare of lower classes of society, building democracy and fundamental justice, and expanding peace and non-violence throughout the world.’ Onward, faithful peacemakers.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 October 2016)