On the Role of Interreligious Dialogue in Religious Studies Programs at Indonesian State Islamic Universities

By Pohl, Florian | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

On the Role of Interreligious Dialogue in Religious Studies Programs at Indonesian State Islamic Universities


Pohl, Florian, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


The academic study of religion has seen a crucial re-examination of its disciplinary identity over the past decades that has challenged the theoretical foundations and core concepts around which this identity is constructed. The process has led not only to greater disciplinary self-awareness but also to an understanding of the study's genealogy and to an ongoing concern with the theoretical basis and constitution of the field. This essay is, at least partially, informed by this genre of scholarship that demands we use the same kind of critical scrutiny and intellectual rigor with which we study the institutions and behaviors of religious subjects to examine the disciplinary parameters in which our own production of knowledge about religion takes place. It is concerned with the role of interreligious dialogue in religious studies programs at Indonesia's state Islamic colleges and universities, not so much as an object of study or as a practice but in terms of the shaping influence it has on the self-understanding of the academic study of religion itself.

In tracing the development of the study of religion in the state system of Islamic higher education in Indonesia from its beginnings in the 1960's to the present, the article highlights the significant link the discipline has with interreligious dialogue. Quite different from the resistance of United States scholars in the emerging discipline of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who mostly sought to remain aloof from theology and sociopolitical involvement, Indonesian scholars have been led by a specific set of idiosyncratic circumstances to place the study of religion beyond purely academic concerns and to connect it to theological and ethicopolitical goals.

As a result of the specifics of the Indonesian case, this short contribution certainly is limited. But, this will not prevent my extrapolating a more general claim from it. To anticipate my conclusion, I want to claim that the relevance of interreligious dialogue for the academic study of religion in Indonesia (and by implication for the discipline itself) lies beyond the myriad of fascinating cases of dialogue encounters and interreligious cooperation that we will do well to study as expression of contemporary religious reality in the challenge it poses to conceptualizations of our field that limit it to a mere scientific interest in particular religious expressions or the concept of religion itself.

Indonesian State Islamic Colleges and Universities

The beginnings of state Islamic higher education go back to the foundation of the State Institute of Islamic Studies or Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN) in Yogyakartag in 1960, from which it quickly expanded to other parts of Indonesia. (1) One of the hallmarks of this system has been its leaders' commitment to the modernization of Islamic studies or, as Dhofier calls it, to its "intellectualization" through a conscious embrace of both Western and Islamic intellectual traditions. (2) This process was facilitated in part by student and faculty exchanges and institutional relationships with universities in Western Europe and North America among which the cooperation with McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies was a particularly prominent example. (3)

Paralleling the state's larger goals for national modernization, the innovative efforts in the IAIN system received considerable government support, which resulted in the broadening of the curriculum through the increased integration of religious with general sciences. Educational innovation has also aimed at the study of Islam itself through the updating of teaching methods and the introduction of nondogmatic and contextual approaches. (4) These developments reflect a long history of intellectual openness and instructional inventiveness that have allowed Muslim educators in the state system to be responsive to and to shape Islamic intellectual discourse on relevant social issues. …

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