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The Ghost of Academic Imperialism? Western Universities and Modern Islamic Thought in Indonesia

  May 25th 2022


Written by Maurisa Zinira

The progress of Islamic studies in Indonesia is quite extensive. This can be seen from the variety of research models that have developed. Although the debate around Islam and the West is still ongoing and religious sectarianism remains strong, Indonesia's intellectual climate is relatively open to various views and alternative ideas.

In her book Whose Islam? The Western University of Modern Islamic Thought in Islam, Megan Brankley Abbas said that modern Indonesian Islamic thought cannot be separated from the influence of Western universities. This book was discussed at the Reading in Social Science (RISOS) forum held April 22, 2002 entitled “Hantu Imperialisme Akademis? Universitas Barat dan Pemikiran Islam Modern di Indonesia” (The Ghost of Academic Imperialism? Western Universities and Modern Islamic Thought in Indonesia). In her book, Abbas argues that those who studied in the West returned to Indonesia and brought renewal to Indonesian Islamic thought. However, some circles are still haunted by negative stereotypes about the West. She asks whether is true that there is an imperialism agenda in the Western knowledge of Islam? To discuss the topic, the forum invited alumni of Western education such as Saiful Mujani, Yeni Ratna Yuningsih, and Zainal Abidin Bagir whose experiences resonate with what Megan addressed in the book.

Dualism vs Fusionism in Islamic Thought

Abbas' book highlights the academic influence of Western universities on the development of Islam in Indonesia. The book is a refinement of her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University entitled "Knowing Islam: The Entangled History of Western Academia and Modern Islamic Thought". Abbas’ main argument holds that the Western universities were not the only significant site for Muslim education but also the site to produce religious knowledge and authority. The universities had contributed to encouraging Indonesian Muslim intellectuals to develop their own religious traditions and promote an Islamic reform from within.

Abbas noted two models for seeing the relationship between Western and Islamic knowledge. The first is a dualistic way of thinking that sees the West and Islam as two different poles. This thought assumes that both are two largely independent discourses ontologically, epistemologically, and axiologically. They essentialize Western as secular and colonial. Meanwhile, Islam is pure and divine. They continuously put Islam and the West in contradictory ends and is impossible to reconcile. As the result, there is always constant high tension among the followers of each intellectual camp. It further extends not only to the academic area, but also to work, social life, the economy, and politics. In their assumption, the West always carries an imperialist agenda that has never benefited Islam. Therefore, they flatly reject the agenda of combining the two or simply borrowing one another's academic framework.

The second way of thinking attempts to integrate the West and Islam. Abbas called this group "fusionists" because they tried to fuse the knowledge that emerged from the two. Fusionists appear as a response to the dualism which is considered disturbing because it rejects intellectual openness. Unlike dualists, fusionists believe that Islam and the West can collaborate in creating new knowledge and developing existing Islamic treasures through cross-discursive borrowings. For them, knowledge cannot be divided into Western or Islamic intellectual traditions. Instead, it is unified and has no borders. They, therefore, integrate Western academic methods into their normative writings on Islamic reform and likewise infuse Islamic principles and personal faith commitments into their academic research. Not only that but they are also required to be able to contribute both to Islamic studies and to Western methods.

Efforts to develop fusionism have started since the early generations of Indonesian Muslims studied at McGill University. It was around 1951 that Wilfred Cantwell Smith established The McGill Institute of Islamic Studies as a space for encounters between Western academics and Muslim intellectuals. He envisioned those Western scholars learning from Muslims about Islam as a lived religion. On the other hand, Muslims can learn methods from their western counterparts in terms of scientific development through critical methods.

Smith continued to encourage the growth of fusionism by emphasizing the objectivity of academic work. However, he criticized the tendency of academics to define objectivity with a critical distance from the position of an outsider. This tendency causes them to lose empathy for the society they study. Therefore, Smith encourages fusing objective research methods and subjective modes of understanding to become an integral religious research model.

To that end, he made a special policy to encourage Muslim involvement in Islamic studies at the institution he led. He filled the study center with half Muslim intellectuals and half Western academics, intending that those Western researchers would have a special sensitivity to Muslims, so they could understand how it feels to be in the observed community. Smith likens it to a "goldfish"—which is continuously observed from behind the glass. As for Muslims, Smith hoped that this policy would equip them with various resources and methodologies for the reform of Islamic thought. The study center introduced Muslims to self-critical awareness which encourages Muslims to look at their traditions critically, not to undermine Islam, but to find things that need to be evaluated and improved.

Muslim intellectuals who completed their study were expected to return to their home countries to disseminate their new research methods and serve as an intellectual catalyst for Islamic revival. In Indonesia, several Indonesian figures who became the first generation in this thought program, such as Mukti Ali and Harun Nasution, then initiated various programs that encouraged the renewal of Islamic thought through the academic and political realms of government.

Fusionism in Indonesia

The thought of fusionism that developed in Indonesia cannot be separated from the role of Muslim intellectuals who studied in the West. Six years after its establishment, McGill University inaugurated the first student from Indonesia, Mukiti Ali, who had completed his master's studies in 1957. He was then followed by Anton Timur Djaelani (MA, 1959), Tedjaningsih Djaelani (MA, 1959), Mochtar Naim (MA, 1960), and Kafrawi Ridwan (MA, 1969). In 1968, Harun Nasution became the first doctoral student from Indonesia. Through the involvement of these figures, especially Mukti Ali at the Ministry of Religion and Harun Nasution at IAIN (State Institute for Islamic Studies) Syarif Hidayatullah, more and more Muslim scholars were sent to Western universities.

Even so, not all who traveled to the West agreed with fusionism. Rasjidi, a Muslim figure who was contracted by McGill to collaborate, actually expressed his discomfort with his colleagues at the institute. He had a heated argument with Joseph Schacht, who was then a guest lecturer, and declared that Muhammad borrowed pre-Islamic traditions because he did not have a political concept to settle disputes in Medina. He also rejected Smith’s view that Muslim apologetics tend to glorify Islamic traditions with no critical review of their tradition. In response to that, Rasjidi argued that normative Islamic scholars actually see the wealth of Islamic scholarship which is far more developed than Western scholarship. Four years after his fiery exchange with Schacht, Rasjidi's contract ended. In Indonesia, Rasjidi joined the Indonesian Islamic Da'wah Council (DDII) which actively criticized the West and Indonesian fusionist thinkers who were deemed to be distorting Islam.

Meanwhile, Mukti Ali and other McGill alumni continued to strive for the transformation of Islamic thought. Upon his return from McGill, Ali was active at IAIN Yogyakarta and developed the Comparative Religion Program. Not long after, he was appointed Minister of Religion under the New Order government. During this period, he found a common mission with the New Order which was trying to shift religious traditionalism. Ali and his colleagues seemed to be gaining momentum. He developed many policies that encourage the development of fusionist thinking, either by designing learning curricula like at McGill, inviting professors from Western universities such as Leonard Binder and Fazlur Rahman from Chicago, or sending bright young thinkers to continue their studies in the West as an effort to regenerate Indonesian modern Muslim intellectuals.

This policy has had a huge impact on Indonesian Islam. If the early fusionist generation such as Ali and Nasution were generally reluctant to acknowledge the limitation of academic knowledge, the younger scholars openly wrestled with the issue of epistemological imperialism. They started to insert a postcolonial-postmodern approach into their perspective. Amien Rais, for example, mentions that the modern and traditional division between the West which is considered rational and advanced, and the East as irrational and backward only shows Western neocolonial domination through academic language. He warned fellow Muslim intellectuals to not wrestle with Western methods without critical remarks because not all of them will match the reality of Indonesian Muslims. Amin Abdullah, as a fusionist, has the same opinion. According to him, epistemological imperialism will continue until Muslims manage to offer a persuasive alternative.

If Amien Rais and Amin Abdullah focused on methodological aspects, Nurcholis Madjid developed a postcolonial approach to challenge the reification of Islam into a bounded religious tradition. He proposed that Indonesian Muslims reject their reified tradition and instead embrace an inclusive and individualist mode of spirituality. He believed that Islam is universal. It embraces all forms of spirituality and legitimizes many forms of knowledge, including Western academic knowledge that benefits Islam for a reform.

Western Academia and the Ghost of Imperialism

Dualist thinkers do not hesitate to regard Western programs and knowledge as part of imperialism. Meanwhile, many fusionists adopt a post-colonial framework, tending to be wary of assessing Western knowledge to always contain an imperialist agenda. The fusionists mentioned by Abbas, for example, tend to show a utilitarian gesture that takes what can be used by Indonesian Muslims, while remaining critical of Western thought.

In his review of Abbas' book at the RISOS forum, Saiful Mujani, who is also an intellectual who graduated from a Western university, emphasized that the Muslim community should not be haunted by stereotypes about the agenda of Western imperialism. According to him, the assumption about accusations of imperialism will not lead the Muslim community anywhere, because they will always be haunted by the fear that stops them from making progress. In his experience, Western universities provide helpful resources that support scholarship.

Slightly different, according to Zainal Abidin Bagir, epistemological imperialism does occur and must be minded. Epistemological imperialism was not necessarily conducted by the West, because in feminism, religious studies, and Islamic studies domination of knowledge also occurs. Therefore, a postcolonial study of knowledge is absolutely necessary. According to Bagir, we need to be reminded by figures who have different views from fusionists that the dominance of knowledge still exists and is strong. It is undeniable that Western academia has had an impact on modern Islamic thought in Indonesia, but we do need to continue to be disturbed, to be restless, and to look to alternatives for the development of knowledge.

Considering the growth of Indonesian Muslim intellectuals and the knowledge exchanges,Yeni Ratna Yuningsih, an intellectual who graduated from McGill University and is now a policymaker at the Ministry of Religion, sees the need for the sustainability of the student exchange programs. For this reason, she argues that the Ministry of Religion needs to continue to collaborate with various universities, both in the East and the West, to enable the dynamics of reforming Islamic thought from time to time.

In the end, Abbas's book provides an important description of the dynamics of the development of modern Islam in Indonesia. Her research should be placed as a study with a focus on the role of McGill and Chicago in Indonesia before the Reformation, therefore we can understand why many modern Indonesian Islamic figures who also color Islamic discourse are not discussed in the book. Apart from that, Abbas’ book is a significant study of the history of thought and needs to be continuously developed to see the influence of universities in the West on Indonesian Islam today.

Recorded discussion: