“One must research Religion, and not just study it”

Interview with Professor Amin Abdullah, UIN Sunan Kalijaga Jogjakarta.


Universitas Islam Sunan Kalijaga is one of the pioneers in the field of Islamic studies in Indonesia today, if not in the ASEAN region. Upgraded from a state Islamic Studies Academy (IAIN) to a fully-fledged Islamic university (UIN) a few years ago, it has produced a steady stream of graduates who have moved on to other fields ranging from academia to finance, the bureaucracy to politics, media to activism.   


That UIN Sunan Kalijaga’s (henceforth UINSUKA) record of excellence is beyond doubt is seen in the quality of its graduates, most of whom demonstrate a clearly rationalist, modernist, pragmatic character and approach to their work and social interaction after their graduation. It is important to note that when radical religious groups like the now disbanded Laskar Jihad were engaged in recruitment drives across central and eastern Java, focusing in particular on the campuses of the local universities, many of its members came from secular universities, and not the Islamic universities like UINSUKA. Moderation, a scientific approach and a pragmatic handling of the issues of modernity seem to be the hallmarks of UINSUKA till today.


In this interview Prof. Farish Noor (currently visiting Professor at UINSUKA) talks to the rector of UIN Sunan Kalijaga Prof. Amin Abdullah, who happens to be one of the pioneers of the scientific method and rationalist approach to religious studies in Indonesia today.

FN: ‘It is interesting to note that both Malaysia and Indonesia embarked on the path towards modernisation and the upgrading of Islamic education around the same time, but with mixed results. Malaysia’s experiment with a state-controlled Islam began in the early 1980s, following the co-optation of former Islamic youth leader Anwar Ibrahim into the ruling UMNO party and the Mahathir government’s attempt to set up institutions like the International Islamic University (UIA), the Malaysian Institute of Islamic Understanding (IKIM), and the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC). Indonesia’s move to upgrade the state Islamic academies (IAIN) to the level of national Islamic universities (UIN) came much later, yet the discrepancy between the two countries is obvious: Malaysia’s Islamic education system has lagged behind despite is early start and has become institutions that are not only politicised but are often dubbed dens of conservative, traditionalist and literalist-fundamentalist thinking, with a strong bias in favour of Saudi-style Wahabbi and neo-Salafi Islam. Yet here in Indonesia and in places like UINSUKA, we see students studying the Quran using methodologies unheard of in Malaysia, like hermeneutics and discourse analysis. How and why did this happen?

AA: ‘It is true that in Indonesia and in institutions like UINSUKA in particular we are well ahead of many other contemporary institutions, not only in Malaysia but also across the region and further afield such as in the Arab countries and North Africa. But remember that what has happened here in Indonesia is the result of a longer historical process that has been continuous, even if it was problematic at times. In brief, we can trace the development and evolution of Islamic research and Islamic studies in Indonesia following several stages:

Firstly it should be remembered that Indonesia’s grappling with the question of modernity and Islam dates back to the colonial era when the pioneering reformers and modernisers of the late 19th and early 20th century were forced to struggle against the reality of Western, in this case Dutch, colonial rule. Now the Muslim reformers were not against the Dutch per se, but rather the Dutch system of education that they regarded as problematic due to its eurocentric, Orientalist and colonial biases. Dutch colonial education may have been regimented, rationalised and modern, but it was also colonial in nature and its aim was to protect and maintain the structures of colonial power and knowledge then, (in the Foucauldian sense). In reaction to this colonial order of knowledge, modernist Muslim movements like the Muhamadiyah were formed (in Jogjakarta) in 1912. The initial aim of the Muhamadiyah was to create a new, reformed, rationalised, systematic and regulated schooling system that could teach Islam to a new generation of students that was different from the methods used in the Dutch colonial schools as well as the literalist-based traditional pondok Pesantrens.

Secondly came the post-colonial phase: Following independence in 1945 the post-colonial generation of Muslim intellectuals were forced to deal with the new political reality of working within the context of a modern nation-state. New concepts like nationalism, political territoriality, citizenship, political emancipation, civil society, had to be addressed and inculcated in their activism.  So by the 1970s the younger generation of Muslim university students once again revised the reformist project of the Muhamadiyah: If in the 1920s-1930s the Muhamadiyah had pioneered modern schools, then was was to be the goal of the post-colonial generation? The schools were already there; there were Islamic colleges and academies all over Indonesia, but what was being taught in them? Thus the 1970s was the period when introspection became the norm and the question was asked: What is the essence of Islamic studies? Surely not simply memorizing texts and teaching moral conduct…

Thirdly, by then the traditionalist movements like the Nahdatul Ulama had also begun to accept the need to change, adapt and reform their education system and to improve their curricula. The challenge posed by the reformists of the Muhamadiyah gave added impetus for the traditionalists to alter their way of looking at Islam and Islamic studies too.

Fourthly, the state came to play its role by the 1970s when the Suharto government could no longer turn a blind eye to the prevalence of Islam in the country. Historically the Suharto government was not comfortable with Islam, particularly its political variety. One way to ensure that Islam in particular and religion in general would not become radicalised in Indonesia was to ensure that the best, forward-looking and progressive intellectuals and academics were put in charge of determining the Islamic studies curriculum. In the 1970s it was the state’s own Religious Affairs Department (Departemen Agama) that introduced the idea, value and practice of research to Islamic studies and religious studies in general. This was an important step as it meant that henceforth religion was a subject to be researched, and not memorized blindly.

FN: ‘Thus as you say this was a long drawn-out historical process with a number of actors and agents at work, including the state. But surely it could not have been a linear progression as easy and straightforward as that? 

AA: ‘It was certainly not without its share of problems. As I said, this reform process took time and of course there was resistance from the beginning: The reformers opposed the traditionalists, the traditionalists opposed the reformers, the state was wary about Islam per se, etc. 

But what is important is the synergy that developed and propelled the process. Knowingly or unknowingly, all these actors: the state, the intellectuals, the academics, the reformers and the traditionalists, all played their part to shape the debate and bring us to where we are today. Can you imagine the UINSUKA standing as it is without this long and sometimes conflictual process? Indonesia has had to pay a price for its reform of Islamic education, and it did not happen overnight, but the process did not simply involve building university buildings here and there: It was a public process involving the public debate of ideas and the slow inculcation of these values and ideas that were debated then, like reform, modernity, science and the scientific method, etc. This process was always dynamic, even if it was confrontational at times, with accusations being thrown at each other by all parties. But it was a necessary step to get us to where we are today. 

FN: ‘Now here is where scholars like myself, who are trained in the school of Western social sciences, encounter difficulties. I dont know how to classify what is happening in places like UIN SUKA: You have pious Muslim students who are practicing Muslims who nonetheless can actually read the Quran and Hadith using the methodology of discourse analysis; who can write papers about inter-textual interpretations of the Quran; who can write deconstructive accounts of Islamic history, politics and ethics. How is this possible? From a Western point of view one might even call UINSUKA a secular modern university, but would you accept such a typology?

AA: ‘No, we dont and we will not. We are not a secular or modern university in the Western sense of the word. UINSUKA is, after all a UIN, an Islamic university. There are secular universities here in Indonesia like Gajah Mada next door. 

The misunderstanding arises, in my opinion, in the somewhat narrow definition of ‘secularism’ and ‘modernity’ in the West. It is true that secularism and modernity arose from a specific historical context in the West, but the evolution of Indonesia’s world of ideas is likewise specific to Indonesia: it cannot even be compared or transposed to Malaysia next door.

Like I said earlier, our scientific approach stems from the cultural tide of changes that began in the 1970s when reformers like Nurcholish Madjid and neo-traditionalists like Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) began to question the premises and objectives of the Islamic project itself. They realised that the political constraints under the Suharto government meant that political Islam was not an option, but in a sense this saved Indonesia from the path of a literalist, politicised and ideolgised reading of Islam as happened in other places like Iran, Pakistan or even Malaysia. 

FN: ‘But how did this reform process begin and why do you not wish to have it labelled ‘secular’ or ‘modern’?

AA: ‘Because it was never meant to be modern or secular in the first place. How it began was like this: Thanks in part to the state’s cautious approach to Islam, the Departemen Agama (Religious Department) of the government appointed men like Mukti Ali to its head position. Now Mukti Ali had studied in Pakistan, was himself a graduate of the Pesantren of Pacetan in East Java, and was later a graduate of McGill university where he studied under Cambell Smith. 

Between 1972 to 1978 Mukti Ali was the Minister for Religious Affairs and it was under his leadership that the concept and practice of research was introduced to Islamic studies in Indonesia.

Mukti Ali was a pious Muslim who nonetheless saw no contradiction in learning about Islam and researching it at the same time. He accepted and introduced the distinction between the sacred and the profane; and he argued that it was equally important to study and research the normalised religio-cultural norms and praxis of society. Islam for him was not to be understood in terms of texts alone, but rather in the dynamic approach and relation between text and subject, dogma and praxis, ideas and society. It was this aspect that made Islam a living religion and as a living, organic, dynamic phenomena it could and should be studied scietifically, he argued.

Another contemporary of Mukti Ali was Harun Nasution, who was likewise an Islamic scholar of repute and who was well versed in traditional Islamic studies but who could see the need and value for a scientific approach to socio-religious norms. Mukti Ali oversaw the running of the IAIN in Jogjakarta which was established in 1951, while Harun Nasution ran the IAIN in Jakarta. Both of them were path breakers in their time, and while they introduced modest reforms in terms of fundamental social science research, the paved the way for the introduction of higher sciences such as hermeneutics, discourse analysis, psychoanalytic-based deconstruction, etc later on in the 1990s. So once again, the reform process in Indonesia started a long time ago, you see. 

FN: ‘Could you explain the steps and measures that were involved in this process? What were the key events and ideas that got Indonesia to where it is today?

AA: ‘Well there were several key events that shaped this historical process, that were the landmarks that determined where we were heading. I dont mean to suggest that this process was historically determined or guaranteed from the start: after all it was a state-guided experiment in many ways, and it did encounter resistance. But there were some landmark events that did have a permanent lasting effect.

The first has to be the publication of Mulianto Sumardi’s ‘Penelitian Islam’ in 1975, a book that was published under the auspices of the Departemen Agama. Now this was a relatively modest effort by today’s standards, but then at that time it was a monumental step. The book contained essays by scholars like Mukti Ali, Lujito, Taufik Abdullah, Deliar Noer, Tom Michell and others. 

This book is historically important for us today for a number of reasons: It laid the foundations for what would later become research on religion and Islam; it was an objective exposition on key Muslim thinkers and ideas related to Muslim society and politics; and it included essays by non-Muslims like Tom Michell who wrote on the thinker Ibn Taimiyya. 

Now at that time this book caused quite a stir, because nobody ever thought that a Christian like Tom Michell could write about a Muslim thinker like Ibn Taimiyya! Tom was a Catholic but in his essay he demonstrated keen knowledge and a critical sound understanding of Ibn Taimiyya’s ideas. This shocked everyone, and for the first time it became clear that Islam was a subject that could be researched and analyzed critically yet objectively. Since then Mulianto Sumardi’s ‘Penelitian Islam’ has become one of the key foundational texts of Religious studies at all the IAINs and later the UINs.

By the 1980s Indonesian society was developing a civil space, albeit slowly, and these academic ideas became rooted in the discourse of civil society. Many of our graduates had joined the new NGOs that were popping up all over the country and they brought to the NGOs their own academic background and training. By introducing the spirit and culture of analytical research to religion, Indonesia’s new feminist NGOs, for instance, could conduct their own activism based on sound research premises. 

Then in 1994 the IAINs introduced the foundational course ‘Pendekatan Terhadap Pengajian Islam’ (Approach to Islamic Studies), where the teaching of research methods became the core component of Islamic studies, making it a scientific discipline. We at the IAINs wanted to show that one has to research religion, and not just study it. So the core courses we introduced from the 1990s were all based on the humanities: Sociology, Anthropology, History, Discourse Analysis, Linguistics and Semiotics, Philosophy and the basic modes of empirical research and fieldwork research methods. These were the tools we used to study religion in general, and Islam in particular.

FN: ‘And you would still insist that this entire process was guided by a rationale and value system that was religious, specifically Islamic, and not secular, in nature and intent, despite the methodologies involved?

AA: ‘Yes, because for men like Mukti Ali and Harun Nasution, there was no incompatibility between science and faith: Rationalism does not contradict belief, as long as we do not subscribe to a narrow definition of rationality that reduces faith to un-reason, or irrationality. What they were doing was trying to use scientific reasoning to understand and explain the phenomena of faith itself. Faith was being studied, you see, in a scientific way.

I have serious concerns about labels such as ‘secular’ or ‘modern’ today for as you know these two words carry terrible historical baggage that date back to the colonial era when modernity was said to have been introduced, or rather imposed, on the back of colonialism. In Indonesa the words ‘secular’ and ‘modernity’ carry ideological connotations relating them symbolically to structures of power, dominance, cultural oppression etc.

But by avoiding these labels I am not trying to play politics. The reality is this: Here in the UINs of Indonesia we are applying science to the study of religion in all its forms, from a scientific, rational analysis of sacred texts as texts, to the scietific study of public religious behavioral norms, including religious politics. So the students of UINSUKA are fundamentally social scientists, who are trained in rational social sciences. When IAIN Jogja was upgraded to the status of UIN Sunan Kalijaga in 2004, we kept up this tradition and have been following in the path of scientific reform since.

FN: ‘Of course I understand and even sympathise in part with your concerns about labels such as ‘secular’ and ‘modern’, but is the fear or reluctance to adopt such labels mainly a political manoeuvre or does this actually reflect the hybrid episteme that is being formulated here?  

AA: I can understand your concern but I can only reply by saying that both of the factors you mentioned are at work here. 

The focus and thrust of UINSUKA’s research is scientific in nature as well as its goals. If there is any label you can put to it, it would be a ‘Scientific’ school of Islamic studies, using scientific methods to get to verifiable, objective conclusions. Our scientific approach is scientific because we inculcate and promote the values of objective, distanced, critical research to all that we do. From the beginning we introduce our students to fundamental ideas, categories, theories that define clearly what a scientific methodology is and what it entails. Our students are taught that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is not a barrier that stops the process of rational enquiry and that all objects of analysis need to be contextualised. For instance, when reading the Quran as text, it has to be seen and read as a text, no more, no less. This does not devalue any text, but it means that there are many ways of reading the text as there are many ways to live out one’s religious life and religious experiences.

Why do I hesitate to use labels like ‘modern’ and ‘secular’? Well as I said these concepts are all with their own historical baggage and one cannot enter into this sort of word-play and labelling-game without political costs.

Once a system of education is labeled ‘modern’ it immediately creates its Other that in ‘non-modern’ or even ‘anti-modern’. The same applies to the term ‘secular’. But this is where the scientific method gives way to religious or political dogmatism, and that is what we wish to avoid: We do not want our students to be dogmatic in the sense of holding on to only a single world view which they cannot reflect upon critically and independently. 

So in answer to your question, we are primarily a scientific university dedicated to a scientific goal and using rational scientific methods. But as a result of this scientific approach we have also produced students from our Islamic studies faculties who are knowledgeable in traditional Islamic subjects like Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, but who are also scientists in the true sense of the word. Furthermore because we have inculcated the values of self-critique, introspection, rational skepticism and deconstruction, our students have turned out to be more moderate (politically) than the graduates of the secular universities, some of whom have turned into literal-minded conservative Islamists in their own personal struggles to ‘rediscover Islam’ for themselves. 

FN: ‘This emphasis on a purely scientific method must have made your institution some enemies by now.’ 

AA: ‘Of course. Even during the time of the IAINs there were polemics written about our approach. The hardliner Hartono Ahmad Jais wrote (in 2003) the book “Ada Permurtadan di IAIN” (Apostasy at the IAINs), because he found our objective rational approach to religious studies not compatible with his own interpretation of Islam. But this sums up the difference between us and our detractors. We remind our students that religion is also a social phenomenon and as a social phenomenon it is necessarily historical, evolutionary, dynamic and plural; so the scientific respect for alterity and difference has to be reflected in their own research.

Unfortunately the dogmatic conservatives do not accept this approach and accuse the Muslim scientists of being apostates. Sometimes the attacks can be ridiculous, and sometimes bitter. 

When Nurcholish Madjid first spoke about Secularism as a process in the 1970s he was branded an apostate too, and right to the time of his death he was condemned by dogmatic sectarian hardliners who did not understand him. Why, even the famous Ustaz Abu Bakar Bashir claimed after his death that Nurcholish Madjid’s death was due to secularism!

FN: ‘I have to confess that I have always been impressed by the standards of Islamic research in Indonesia compared to other Muslim countries like Pakistan or Malaysia, but what is the next step. If, as you claim, this is a constantly evolving process that is not histrically determined, then surely there can be reversals as well. Furthermore the open nature of the intellectual project means that it can also metamorphose in manifold directions. What does the future look like? 

AA: ‘It is true that any open-ended project cannot have its goal kept at a constant. But what has been constant in the Indonesia experence of the IAINs and UINs is the desire and intent to render Islamic studies scientific and rational. So this is not a project bereft of guidelines or guiding values. As I said, we maintain a scientific approach to avoid the danger of ideological and/or religious dogmatism.

As for the future, let us see where we are now. In many Muslim countries the popular understanding of Islam has remained at the level of texts. This is what we call Hadarat’ul Nas, a text-based religiosity that is often literalist, fundamentalist and conservative. This is where all understanding of religion is based on continuous references to sacred texts and the texts are in turn read and interpreted often literally, but also re-read and mis-read to manipulate their meanings. In such societies, the text is all and everything; and everything from politics to governance to finance to social order is based and justified on textual reference. So when conservative Muslims do things like impose their narrow understanding of Jihad or Shariah, they simply say “The Quran tells us to do this”. 

This stage of Hadarat’ul Nas, of text-based religiosity, is the most basic and unevolved. It is also the most political and politicised, as so many Islamic parties and governments fall back on a literal interpretation or manipulation of the text to justify their politics. We in Indonesia have gone beyond this stage way back in the early 20th century, though as you say there are still remnants of conservative fundamentalists in the country, like some of the small but vocal neo-Salafi and Wahabi radical movements.

By the mid to late-20th century Indonesian Muslim intellectuals moved to the level of Hadarat’ul Ilm, which is knowledge-based religiosity. This was the legacy of Nurcholish Madjid, Gus Dur, Mukti Ali, Harun Nasution, Mulianto Sumardi, etc. The 1970s to the early 2000s was the era of deepening our knowledge of Islam through critical research, where we go beyond simplistic, dogmatic, ideological interpretations of religion for sectarian or political ends. It is now impossible to undo the work of this generation, and for that reason Indonesia and Indonesians are more comfortable with the ideas of pluralism, difference, alterity, social dialectics, etc compared to other societies where such a culture of rational auto-critique never set in.

Where do we go from here? Well, Indonesia knows that religion is a social phenomena and we have also seen it used and abused for political ends. That is why it is harder for Indonesians to fall for the simplistic utopian slogans of the radical militants and fundamentalists for instance. But our culture of moderation and tolerance did not arise from some ‘essentialist’ cultural train or in-born character: It was the result of a political and historical process. Here a moderate public space was constructed through the dynamic synergy between state and non-state actors, intellectuals and the wider community. 

Indonesia is today facing a crisis: Following the economic collapse of 1998 and successive weak governments, we can see that the people are desperate, restless and frustrated. Rationally we know that this accounts in part for the relative popularity and prominence of the radical movements, for the latter have tapped into the moral panic and collective anxieties of the masses.

So Indonesia’s intellectual and academic community must now push our project further, to the level of Hadarat’ul Falsafah, an ethics and philosophy-based religiosity that can give meaning and purpose to a society faced with the challenges of globalisation, shrinking of the state, borderless transmission of ideas, and an unstable geo-political climate.

Now by an ‘ethics and philosophy-based’ religiosity I am not talking about moral policing or a moralising politics of the literalist fashion. In fact the whole evolutionary thrust of Indonesian Islamic science is meant to move us away from such literalist and fundamentalist expressions of Islam and religion in general. But this will have to be a form of religiosity that seeks to pose the question of what is good and right for the development of a society in crisis in scientfic, rational terms rather than the mask of moral language.




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