Inclusive Islam, Centuries Ago
THE history of the entry of Islam to Indonesia is a history of tolerance, acculturation and inclusivity.
Take the story of Abdul Rauf al-Singkili. He was born in Singkil, in 1615. His ancestors came from Persia, and moved to Singkil, Aceh, in the 13th century. Rauf began learning religion from his father, then went to live in the Middle East for 19 years and studied religion there. He later became known as a disseminator of Islam on the west coast of Sumatra.
Although he learned his religion from orthodox scholars, Rauf was clever in the way he conducted himself. During his ministry, the Kingdom of Aceh was led by four queens. But Rauf never questioned the idea of women being leaders even though it was at odds with the teachings that he believed in.
Datuk Ri Bandang’s story was quite similar. This preacher in Makassar, South Sulawesi, spread Islam in a way that was very relaxed. He never questioned the habits of the people, who were fond of drinking arak and gambling. If they were prepared to utter the shahada recitation of faith, that was enough for him.
Another sign of strong acculturation was the prominent mystic element in these disseminators of Islam. Waliyah Zainab, another disseminator in Gresik, East Java in the 16th century, was believed to travel around on a coconut palm leaf. Ri Tiro, a tasawuf, or mystic scholar who preached Islam in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, was believed to be capable of summoning water by planting his cane in the ground. In their colorful lives, these eight Archipelago saints whose stories are told in this magazine are not often discussed—at least compared to the Wali Sanga, or Nine Saints, who are very well known.
There are many versions of how Islam came to Indonesia. Some experts claim that it was brought by traders from Gujarat, India. In other versions, Islam came from Egypt, Iraq, Persia, Bengal, Kelantan or even Cambodia or China. All these theories have their own archeological arguments. According to researcher Azyumardi Azra, how Islam came to this archipelago is a cross section of those movements and diverse disseminators.
One thing that can be learned from all these preachers is the awareness of the importance of local culture. This is why the mutual influence of Islamic and local cultural practices was unavoidable. The practice of acculturation, even syncretism, has continued for a long time.
In West Sumatra, the demand for a return to pure religion came from the Padri group from 1803 to 1837. Led by Tuanku Imam Bonjol, the Padri saw other weakness in traditional groups: corruption and collaboration with the colonial authorities.
Leaving aside this political context, there is a question: do these pure teachings exist and what are they? This question has been asked again by Islamic scholars in the 21st century. In Indonesia, one of the best known is Nurcholish Madjid.
For Cak Nur—as Nurcholish is known—Islam began as a teaching for salvation. In other words, Islam is a universal message that is flexible and generally applicable. The exhortation for people to be pious is not measured from the religious rituals that were subsequently required, but from the obligation for mutual respect: respect for mothers, help for poor people, and kindness towards orphans. It was only hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, through various political and social process, that Islam became an organized religion—with its rituals, structure and hierarchy.
Mun’im Sirry, an Indonesian academic who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame, United States, draws a line between theological Islam and historic Islam. Through a number of historical studies, Mun’im has discovered a disconnect between theological Islam and the historic Islam often claimed by scholars. In other words, both Nurcholish and Mun’im reject the idea of a pure Islam. For them, Islamic teachings are inseparable from the historical process.
At a time when conservative religious figures are on the ascent, the claim by these two academics deserves consideration. The desire by some Muslims to return to the pure religion, including its violent ways, is therefore no longer relevant. The increase in the number of Islamic gatherings and teachings among the public should be welcomed only if it brings about virtues for all people. We should be concerned if the opposite happens: a spreading of exclusivity among the religious, including making enemies of those seen as not ‘pure’.
These archipelago saints practiced what has been expressed by these 21st century Islamic academics: Islam is a social process and a cultural process. No less important: Islam is a universal blessing when it respects differences, is prepared to interact with other faiths, and does not see the truth as only coming from within itself.