Magazine article Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Islamic Education in Southeast Asia

Magazine article Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Islamic Education in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

ISLAMIC EDUCATION IN SOUTHEAST ASIA reflects the diversity of Islam in that part of the world and of course plays a central role in shaping and transmitting the region's religious traditions. Therefore, before discussing the structure of Islamic education in Southeast Asia, it might be worth outlining the politico-religious and ideological context in which Islamic educational institutions are embedded.

One of the most striking characteristics of Southeast Asian Islam as a whole is the relative absence, until the latter part of the twentieth century, of extremist Salafi or Wahhabi variants of the religion. Moreover, Southeast Asian Islam remains extraordinarily diverse-a reflection of the fact that the majority of Muslims throughout the region incorporate local cultural, ethnic, and linguistic traditions into their practice of Islam. This tendency-which is referred to as "traditionalism" in Indonesia-is quite removed in spirit and practice from Wahhabi severity and intolerance, and is especially strong on the Indonesian island of Java, particularly East Java.

For the most part, traditionalist Muslims in Southeast Asia adhere to the Syafi'i (in Arabic, Shafi'i) mazhab (school of jurisprudence). Indonesian traditionalists are represented by the Nahdlatul Ulama (Awakening of the Ulama-NU), the largest social welfare organization in the Muslim world with a claimed membership of over 40 million. The organization was founded in 1926 by a group of kiai (traditional Islamic teachers), who were alarmed by the inroads made by modernists. NU seeks to conserve the Javanese tradition in the organization's religious beliefs and practices-for instance, the practice of ziarah kubur (the visiting of graves), in which contact is established with the spirit of the deceased.1

NU's original constitution committed it to a range of religious, social and economic activities, but first and foremost was the promotion of religious education. The authority of the ulama and the strength of the organization are rooted in thousands of NU-affiliated pesantren (religious boarding schools). Although representing traditionalist Islam, the NU leadership has endeavored to adapt to modern conditions. Under the chairmanship of Abdurrahman Wahid in the 1980s and 1990s, the curriculum in the NU pesantren was reformed significantly, and secular subjects were taught in conjunction with traditional religious subjects. The NU leadership also worked through associated foundations and research institutes to promote a democratic civil society and to reconcile Islam with Indonesian nationalism and democracy.2

The second important tendency within Southeast Asian Islam is modernism. In Indonesia, modernism is part of a movement that began at the turn of the 20th century. It was influenced by the ideas of such thinkers as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh and aimed to purify Indonesian Islam of what was considered to be heterodox practices. The founders of Muhammadiyah, established in 1912 as the institutional expression of the Indonesian modernist movement, wanted to banish the "superstition" associated with some of the practices of traditionalist Indonesian Islam, and also to counterbalance the development of Catholic and Protestant missions. Today, Muhammadiyah is heavily involved in education, health care, orphanages, and other social services with Islam as its ideological and moral basis.

Unlike conservative Salafis, Indonesian modernists believe in adjusting syariat law (in Arabic, sharia) to the contemporary world. In the view of Muhammadiyah chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif, Islamic law needs to be reformed, since in many cases it is no longer contextual to modern conditions.3 In recent years there has been a convergence, at least at the level of the elites, of NU and Muhammadiyah attitudes and religious practices. Some NU members who studied in Middle Eastern universities have become more receptive to the principle of ijtihad (independent reasoning), which is central to modernist Islam. …

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