There's No 'I' in Islam; Muslim Societies Have a Long and Rich History of Civil Organizations, from Learning Circles to Trade Guilds, Dating Back to the Early-20th Century

By Azra, Azyumardi | Newsweek, November 27, 2006 | Go to article overview

There's No 'I' in Islam; Muslim Societies Have a Long and Rich History of Civil Organizations, from Learning Circles to Trade Guilds, Dating Back to the Early-20th Century


Azra, Azyumardi, Newsweek


Byline: Azyumardi Azra (Azra is president of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta and an Advisory Board member of the U.N. Democracy Fund.)

A strong civic culture is crucial for a healthy democracy. It's been said that Muslim society doesn't allow much room for civil society to flourish--because it's too exclusively focused on Islam. That isn't really true. Recent studies on the subject have convincingly shown that Muslim societies have a long and rich history of civil organizations dating back to the early 20th century.

They have taken various forms ranging from learning circles to artisan associations, trade guilds and other groups focusing on broad social, business and cultural issues, not only on religion. Sarekat Islam, founded by a devout Muslim in Indonesia in 1911, was a heterogeneous organization of batik traders that developed into a more generalized political movement. It was founded on Muslim principles but tried to combine Islamic traditionalism (opposed to Western-style modernity) with European liberalism.

It's true that premodern Islamic civil organizations were by and large not involved with political issues, let alone democracy. That's because classical Islamic entities--the Abbasid dynasty (758 to 1258) and the Ottomans, for example-- were authoritarian. As Max Weber argues, classical and medieval Islamic politics was characterized by absolutism, patrimonialism and despotism that left almost no space for political activism. This is particularly true in Sunni Muslim societies, which were politically submissive. But Shiite societies have been different. They've enabled clerics and their followers to express their political views.

European political thought has very much influenced the Muslim world. Beginning in the late-19th century, Muslims began in earnest to adopt modern European institutions, such as schools and hospitals, which created an impetus for reform and led to the founding of modernist Muslim organizations. They urged Muslims to cope with the European geographic encroachment. At the same time they proposed the reform of Islamic thought by putting a greater emphasis on independent reasoning (ijthad ) rather than being taqlid , blindly following the thought of medieval ulama (clerics).

Islam in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, has been marked since the early decades of the 20th century by the rise of modernist Muslim groups that play a crucial role not only in the religious life, but also in the public, social and political lives of Muslims. …

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