Islam within Indonesia

Friday, November 26, 2004

Ahmad Najib Burhani: 'Puritan' Muhammadiyah and indigenous culture

Muhammadiyah has for a long time been associated with the "puritan" Islamic movement. This is a style of religiosity based on the view that the Koran and the hadith (the collection of narratives describing the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) are the only proper basis of any religious authority. These purists are against any acculturation or inclusion in the religion of external elements such as local culture. Is it a correct view about Muhammadiyah?


'Puritan' Muhammadiyah and indigenous culture

By Ahmad Najib Burhani

Muhammadiyah held a national meeting from Thursday to Sunday in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara. One of the most important issues discussed during the meeting was the organization's stance toward indigenous culture.

Muhammadiyah has for a long time been associated with the "

Muhammadiyah, in its early years after its establishment in the 1920s, was known for its ambiguous attitude toward politics. Despite the fact its political sentiments were as anti-Dutch as those of other nationalist movements, the Dutch colonial government regarded the group as safe.

In the cultural field, the Muhammadiyah also wrestled with a similar ambiguous attitude toward Javanese culture. No attempt was made to deny that almost all of the founding fathers of this movement were servants of the kraton (Javanese royal palace). Moreover, the leaders of the movement preserved an intimate relationship with the kraton.

Yet, this organization proclaimed that its objective was to rationalize traditional practices and to modernize the social system. Logically, this would imply that Muhammadiyah had an agenda for reforming syncretic customs and making inroads into the feudal, aristocratic social structure that prevailed in Javanese society and that had the kraton squarely as its axis.

Ahmad Dahlan, the founder of the movement, provides the best portrait of the ambiguity of this movement toward Javanese culture. He remained an obedient and loyal servant of the kraton of Yogyakarta until his death.

Ahmad decision to maintain this ambiguity was apparently aimed at ensuring the growth and survival of his new organization.

Another factor that caused the Muhammadiyah to appear to entertain an ambiguous attitude toward Javanese culture was the history behind its establishment. Among the main supporters for the founding of Muhammadiyah were devout Muslim priyayi (Javanese aristocracy) and non-devout priyayi. The other main supporters were traders.

Cogently, in line with the interests of its main supporters and its dominant members, the Muhammadiyah paid serious attention to social welfare and educational activities by founding schools and hospitals. The agenda for modernizing and rationalizing religious beliefs was regarded as a secondary project.

Why then did Muhammadiyah change and become a puritanical movement? Why did Muhammadiyah change its cultural character? The influence of several prominent members from Sumatra and the victory of Wahhabism for control of Mecca and Medina in 1924 forced Muhammadiyah to pay more attention to religious beliefs and behavior than it had done before.

The Sumatrans, especially West Sumatrans, were more puritanical than the members from Java. Although the official objectives of the foundation of the Majlis Tarjih (law making council) in 1927 were to protect the unity of the movement and to resolve any disputes over religious and legal questions, it cannot be denied that the council also marked the beginning of the shift in the Muhammadiyah's attitude toward Javanese culture. Certainly, after the creation of the council, Muhammadiyah was more concerned with religious matters and the behavior of its members.

In politics, in the 1930s Muhammadiyah also tended to associate itself with other religious movements. One of the effects of these new trends in Muhammadiyah was the decline in its attraction for non-devout priyayi. Their interests no longer tallied with the programs of Muhammadiyah.

The more dominant devout-priyayi and traders became in Muhammadiyah, the greater the loss of interest of the non-devout priyayi, and finally the Muhammadiyah was less inclined to Javanese-ness.

This marked one sequence in the story of the development of Muhammadiyah. After this, Muhammadiyah became a purely Islamic movement. The non-devout priyayi preferred to leave Muhammadiyah and attach themselves to nationalist or cultural movements. Furthermore, after the 1930s, Muhammadiyah's role as a puritan movement was more obvious than before. In this period, Muhammadiyah theology was systematized and codified.

On the eve of the 21st century, two contrasting trends emerged in Muhammadiyah. There were several groups within Muhammadiyah who regarded the group's move toward puritanism to be inconsequential and superficial, making it too slow and soft in forcing a puritan agenda. They demanded the movement strengthen the puritan agenda in its activities. In the opposing camp were Muhammadiyah members who regarded the movement as showing extreme rightist tendencies. They believed Muhammadiyah was too puritanical.

Over the last several years, the tug-of-war between these two opposing groups became a serious problem in Muhammadiyah. Each group tried to drag Muhammadiyah in opposite directions, reflecting their own interests; the liberal-cultural versus puritan.

The struggle between the liberal-cultural group, led by current Muhamamdiyah chairman Syafii Maarif, Amin Abdullah and Munir Mulkhan, and the puritan group, Muhammadiyah Members Who care about Sharia, was intense from 1999 to 2003. Their conflict spread to Muhammadiyah universities and its supporting organizations.

The spread and growth in the numbers of kaum berjenggot (people who wear beards as a symbol of religiosity) and radical Muslims at some Muhammadiyah universities was countered by the Muhammadiyah Student Association with the introduction of Sufism, pluralism and liberalism.

Fortunately, the face of Muhammadiyah today is still dominated by moderate and pluralistic Muslims, such as Syafii Maarif. This is the reason why the movement is considered moderate, modern and pluralistic.

Of course, it would be counterproductive for the organization if the radical and puritanical wing took the lead and disseminated their teachings. This would change the face of Muhammadiyah and Islam in Indonesia from the smiling and tolerant Islam to a more puritanical Islam. The national meeting in Mataram was a very important moment for determining the future of Muhammadiyah and Islam in Indonesia.

*The writer is a lecturer at Paramadina University in Jakarta and a Pemuda Muhammadiyah activist.

(The Jakarta Post, 6/11/2004)


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