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Islamic particularity and academic freedom: Public institutions and doctrinal difference in contemporary Indonesia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 October 2022


The Indonesian Muslim community includes segments dedicated to contrasting pious projects and doctrinal positions, yet the nation's Ministry of Religion (MORA) manages aspects of Islamic life while purporting to more or less transcend such contrasts. This tension recently emerged in Indonesian public life when a state Islamic university defended the autonomy of its research practices against a challenge by scholars from outside the university who claimed that the doctoral project of Jalaluddin Rakhmat (1949–2021) offended doctrinal positions of the Sunni majority and gave priority to Shiite historiography and doctrine. This dispute shows how questions concerning academic method become disputes about public interest, and further, its resolution attests to the emergence of free inquiry as an Islamic value in the environment of MORA's universities. Academics cited the example of earlier generations of scholars as supporting precedent for an Islamic principle of free inquiry.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore, 2022

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The authors gratefully recognise the kindness of participants in this polemic who agreed to be interviewed by Usep Abdul Matin, and especially to Jalaluddin Rakhmat himself, who passed away in 2021, but also to Kamaruddin Amin, Ahmad Sewang, Amir Mahmud, Zulfahmi Alwi, Firdaus, Muhammad Said Abd. Shamad, Ilham Kadir, Istiqamah, Miftah Fauzi Rakhmat, Dimitri Mahayana, Nike (Emilia Renita Az), Syamsuddin Baharuddin, and Tjetjep Pasdaran. The authors wish to acknowledge the LP2M of UIN Jakarta for its sponsorship of Matin's fellowship visit to Monash in 2016.


1 Menchik, Jeremy, Islam and democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without liberalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Highlights of the literature on this contrast include: Asad, Talal, Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; and Hirschkind, Charles, The ethical soundscape: Cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

3 Feener, R. Michael and Formichi, Chiara, eds, Shi'ism in Southeast Asia: Alid piety and sectarian constructions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)Google Scholar; Sofjan, Dicky, ‘Minoritization and criminalization of Shia Islam in Indonesia’, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 39, 2 (2016): 2944CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Illustrative examples are Mukti Ali, Agama dan pembangunan di Indonesia: Bahagian 4 [Religion and development in Indonesia: Part 4] (Djakarta: Departemen Agama Republik Indonesia, 1973); Azyumardi Azra, Pendidikan Islam: Tradisi dan modernisasi di tengah tantangan milenium III [Islamic education: Tradition and modernisation in the context of the challenge of the third millenium] (Jakarta: Kencana/Prenada, 2012).

5 Elaine Pearson and Human Rights Watch, In religion's name: Abuses against religious minorities in Indonesia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2013).

6 On the problematisation of human agency in Qur'anic interpretation, see Keane, Webb, ‘Divine text, national language, and their publics: Arguing an Indonesian Qur'an’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 60, 4 (2019): 769–71Google Scholar.

7 Lambek, Michael, Knowledge and practice in Mayotte: Local discourses of Islam, sorcery, and spirit possession (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hirschkind, The ethical soundscape; Millie, Julian, ‘An anthropological approach to the Islamic turn in Indonesia's regional politics’, TRaNS: Trans –Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia 6, 2 (2018): 207–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Keane, ‘Divine text’.

8 Keane, Divine text.

9 Calhoun, Craig, ‘Public knowledge and the structural transformation of the university’, Social Research 76, 2 (2009): 561–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Reuben, Julie A., The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

10 Republic of Indonesia, Law on Higher Education [Undang-undang Tentang Pendidikan Tinggi], no. 12/2012, Article 8.

11 The Ministry owns and manages 58 institutions of tertiary study (UIN, IAIN and STAIN). It provides oversight and funding for a further 649 that are owned by private operators; 53 of the 58 state-owned institutions have graduate schools, as do 89 of the 649 private institutions. These details are available at MORA's website:

12 Saeed, Abdullah, ‘Towards religious tolerance through reform in Islamic education: The case of the State Institute of Islamic Studies of Indonesia’, Indonesia and the Malay World 27, 79 (1999): 177–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kersten, Carool, ‘Indonesia's new Muslim intellectuals’, Religion Compass 3, 6 (2009): 971–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Calhoun, ‘Public knowledge’, p. 561.

14 The standard biography of Madjid is Ahmad Gaus, Api Islam: Nurcholish Madjid: Jalan hidup seorang visioner [The fire of Islam: Nurcholish Madjid—the life of a visionary] (Jakarta: Kompas, 2010). See also Kersten, Carool, Cosmopolitans and heretics: New Muslim intellectuals and the study of Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011)Google Scholar; Greg Barton, ‘Indonesia's Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid as intellectual ulama: The meeting of Islamic traditionalism and modernism in neo-modernist thought’, Studia Islamika 4, 1 (1987) 29–81.

15 Nurcholish Madjid, Bilik-bilik pesantren: Sebuah potret perjalanan [The pesantren's lodgings: A portrait of a journey] (Jakarta: Paramadina, 1997).

16 Nurcholish Madjid, Islam, kemodernan dan keIndonesiaan [Islam, modernity and Indonesianness], new ed. (Bandung: Mizan, 2008 [1987]), pp. 225–39.

17 Ibid., p. 235.

18 Nurcholish Madjid, Islam, kerakyatan, dan keIndonesiaan: Pikiran-pikiran Nurcholish ‘Muda’ [Islam, the people and Indonesianness: The thoughts of the ‘young’ Nurcholish] (Bandung: Mizan, 1993), pp. 251–2.

19 Adian Husaini, Islam liberal, pluralisme agama dan diabolisme intelektual [Liberal Islam, religious pluralism and intellectual satanism] (Surabaya: Risalah Gusti, 2005); Adian Husaini and Abdurrahman al-Baghdadi, Hermeneutika dan Tafsir al-Qur'an [Hermeneutics and Qur'anic interpretation] (Depok: Gema Insani, 2007).

20 Husaini, Islam liberal, p. 77.

21 Abu Zaid described his innovations and the resistance to them from the Egyptian academy in Nasr Abu Zaid with Nelson, Esther R., Voice of an exile: Reflections on Islam (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), pp. 57–8Google Scholar.

22 Husaini and al-Baghdadi, Hermeneutika dan Tafsir. Husaini's critique in fact replicates precisely a key pillar of the 1996 apostasy conviction of the Cairo Appeals Court against Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid. One of the offences for which he was convicted was ‘Calling the Qur'an a cultural product, thereby denying its pre-existence in the preserved tablet’; see Zaid and Nelson, Voice of an exile, p. 10.

23 The contrast between Madjid and Husaini with respect to the creation of new Islamic knowledge and its moral meanings replicates Asad's distinction between religion shaped by national policy, in which principles of national modernity are institutionalised and personal piety is privatised, and the notion of religion as a shared, divinely mandated way of life which requires believers to remind and encourage each other towards proper attention to pious practices. See Talal Asad, Genealogies of religion.

24 Husaini and Al-Baghdadi, Hermeneutika dan tafsir; Husaini, Islam liberal, pp. 17–27.

25 Key sources on the intellectual programme implemented by MORA universities include: Deliar Noer, Administrasi Islam di Indonesia [The administration of Islam in Indonesia] (Jakarta: Rajawali, 1983); Harun Nasution, Islam rasional: Gagasan dan pemikiran [Rational Islam: Concepts and thinking] (Bandung: Mizan 1995); Fuad Jabali and Jamhari, eds, IAIN dan modernisasi Islam di Indonesia [IAIN and the modernisation of Islam in Indonesia] (Ciputat: Logos Wacana Ilmu, 2002).

26 Sources on Shiism in Indonesia with emphasis on the recent period include Zulkifli, The struggle of the Shi`is in Indonesia (Canberra: ANU Press, 2013); Dedy Djamaluddin Malik and Idi Subandy Ibrahim, Zaman baru Islam Indonesia: Pemikiran dan aksi politik Abdurrahman Wahid, M. Amien Rais, Nurcholish Madjid dan Jalaluddin Rakhmat [A new era of Indonesian Islam: The thinking and political practice of Abdurrahman Wahid, Amien Rais, Nurcholish Madjid and Jalaluddin Rakhmat] (Bandung: Penerbit Zaman Wacana Baru, 1998); and Feener and Formichi, Shi'ism in Southeast Asia.

27 Jalaluddin Rakhmat, ‘Asal-usul sunnah sahabat: Studi historiografis atas tarikh tasyri‘’ [The origins of the traditions of the companions: A historiographical study of the history of the implementation of the shariah] (PhD diss., UIN Alauddin Makassar, 2015), pp. iv–vi.

28 There are two versions of the dissertation text. The unpublished dissertation is Jalaluddin Rakhmat, ‘Asal-usul sunnah sahabat’. The subsequently produced trade publication is Jalaluddin Rakhmat, Misteri wasiat nabi: Asal usul sunnah sahabat; Studi historiografis tarikh tasyri‘ [The mystery of the Prophet's testament: The origins of the traditions of the companions; A historiographical study of the history of the implementation of the shariah] (Bandung: Penerbit Misykat, 2015).

29 Jalaluddin Rakhmat, ‘Asal-Usul sunnah sahabat’, pp. 26–39.

30 Ibid., pp. 33–57; Misteri Wasiat nabi, pp. 30–39.

31 Burhani, Ahmad Najib, ‘Fundamentalism and religious dissent: The LPPI's mission to eradicate the Ahmadiyya in Indonesia’, Indonesia and the Malay World 44, 129 (2016): 145–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Our knowledge of Abd. Shamad's critique is based on Usep Abdul Matin's discussions with him and other participants in the matter, on publications appearing in the media, and on a number of video recordings of the debates and discussions on the issue that were held at MORA institutions in Makassar and other cities. DVDs of these recordings have circulated informally. Some were posted on Youtube, such as the recording of Rakhmat's doctoral examination, which we cite below in footnote 38.

33 ‘Proses doktoral Kang Jalal diprotes’, Fajar, 27 Apr. 2011, p. 9. The disapproval referred to here is the 1984 fatwa of the Indonesian Scholars’ Council urging Sunni Muslims in Indonesia to be more wary (meningkatkan kewaspadaan) about teachings based on Shiism. See Majelis Ulama Indonesia, Himpunan Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia sejak 1975 [Collected fatwa of the Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council since 1975] (Jakarta: Sekretariat Majelis Ulama Indonesia, 2011), pp. 46–7.

34 M. Qasim Mathar, ‘Kang Jalal mahasiswa program by research’, Fajar, 28 Apr. 2011.

35 We are grateful to Professor Sewang for sharing with us his unpublished slides presented at the meeting held on 11 Aug. 2011 in Makassar UIN's Training Centre.

36 The defence was recorded in video, and uploaded onto Youtube in a sequence of four excerpts entitled Ujian promosi Dr Jalaluddin Rakhmat di UIN Alauddin Makassar [Doctoral examination of Dr Jalaluddin Rakhmat at UIN Alauddin, Makassar].

37 Jalaluddin Rakhmat, Misteri wasiat, p. 30.

38 The relevant part is in the fourth of the videos: Ujian Promosi Doktor Jalaluddin Rakhmat UIN Alauddin Makassar #4: (last accessed 9 Aug. 2022).

39 A useful account of this literature is provided in Müller, Dominik M. and Steiner, Kerstin, ‘The bureaucratisation of Islam in Southeast Asia: Transdisciplinary perspectives’, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 37, 1 (2018): 326CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Asad, Genealogies of religion.

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