Saturday, July 10, 2010

The calming, tolerant voice of Indonesia's Muhammadiyah

This week, Persyarikatan Muhammadiyah celebrated its 100th year of existence, using the Hijrah calendar. The second biggest Muslim organisation in the largest Muslim nation was established in 1912 in Jogjakarta. It claims to have 29 million members, second only to Nahdatul Ulama. But Muhammadiyah has impacted upon the religious, social and political lives of Indonesians in various ways over the past 10 decades.

In turbulent times like these, not only Indonesia but the Muslim world also needs a Muhammadiyah. It is a calming voice amidst the call for militancy, a moderating force in the civilisational clash between Islam and the West, and the acceptable face of tolerant Islam.

According to renowned Indonesian scholar Dr Azyumardi Azra, Muhammadiyah is built on two principles: a religious ormas (organisasi massa or mass movement) that is rooted in religion as a vehicle to achieve a civil society, and the principle of wasyatiyyah (the middle path).

For that, it has gained many friends and admirers. It is not an easy route when the Muslim world is engulfed in anger and despair. Despair among Muslims is an understatement in Indonesia. There are simply too many issues bedeviling them. Poverty is one and economic representation is another. But more importantly is the feeling of helplessness among Muslims as they watch their brethren being invaded, attacked and marginalised in other parts of the world.

Indonesia could easily be a breeding ground for radicalism had organisations like Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama played to the gallery. Luckily for Indonesia, the two largest Muslim groups are never in support of militancy and violence. In fact, they condemn terrorism in whatever form. Sadly, this fact is lost in translation when Western observers discuss religious groupings in the Muslim world. The wasyatiyyah principle is never adequately explained. Most would lump Muslim movements under one category -- that they are all hotbeds for Islamic fundamentalism.

Education has always been the core of Muhammadiyah activism. In fact, when K.H. Ahmad Dhalan founded the movement, he cared more about the education of pribumi (indigenous people) than anything else. Ahmad Dhalan (born in 1868) was an Islamic scholar trained in Saudi Arabia. It was in the Middle East that he was exposed to the ideas of "reformist" Muslims like Muhammad Abduh, Jamaluddin al Afghani and Muhammad Rashid Ridha. These thinkers bucked the trend, questioning the age-old wisdom of conservative ulama. Their thinking spread like wildfire in the Muslim world, igniting new discourses among the young and pitting the reformists against the traditionalists.

In Malaya, the "Kaum Muda" (Young Turks) in the form of Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al Hadi and gang came out with a powerful publication called Al Imam to steer Muslims to advancement and modernity and to discard the mindsets of the old. They believed in ijtihad rather than taqliq, which meant they were audacious enough to accept new interpretation of the Quran and Hadith rather than that by conservative ulama.

In Indonesia, when Ahmad Dhalan came back in 1888, he realised the only way to unshackle his people from the yoke of poverty and illiteracy was to build schools for them. He built the first one, Sekolah Ibtidaiyah Diniyah Islamiah, in 1911 even before he started Muhammadiyah. He built five more schools between 1913 and 1918. In 1919, the first secondary school, Hodge School Muhammadiyyah, was built. They were proper schools modelled after the Dutch schools, but with a different curriculum. In those days, only children of the ningrat (nobility) were admitted to Dutch-sponsored schools.

Muhammadiyah was given the green light as a formal organisation in 1914. Even then, it was only allowed to be active in Jogjakarta. That did not deter Ahmad Dhalan from including the empowerment of women, health- care and poverty eradication in the organisation's activities. In fact, Ahmad Dhalan started Aisyiyah, the women's wing, in 1917.

It was his stand to change the mindset of Muslims that warrants attention. For far too long Muslims were influenced by local customs and beliefs, some of which were in contradiction with the teachings of Islam. He urged his followers to discard khurafat (superstition) and syirik (idolatry) practices. In line with the logo of a glorious shining sun, Ahmad Dhalan wanted the organisation to be the pencerah (the light) of fellow Muslims. He believed in deeds, for Islam is about good deeds and exemplary followers.

According to him, "the teaching of Islam is to be humanised, to be done with respect and propriety, and should be able to address genuine universal and local issues".

It is interesting that Muslims in Indonesia allowed the emergence of madrasah and pesantren (traditional village-based schools) run by various charitable organisations and individuals, and these outfits survived alongside more organised institutions run by Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama.

In fact, the demarcation can be misleading sometimes. True, some of these religious schools propagate a more militant view of Islam but as a whole, they, too, take the wasyatiyyah path. Perception that these schools are like the madrasah in Pakistan and Afghanistan is far from the truth.

At the time of the demise of Ahmad Dhalan, Muhammadiyah had 4,000 members. By 1938, the organisation claimed to have 250,000 members, managed 834 mosques, 31 libraries and 1,774 schools. Today, Muhammadiyah is managing 12,000 schools and 167 institutions of higher learning. It has 345 hospitals and clinics and a bank, Bank Pengkreditan Rakyat.

Muhammadiyah certainly has come a long way. One thing is certain, Muhammadiyah stays clear of politics. True, its leaders did get involved in political activism as Muhammadiyah members played a critical role in ridding Indonesians of the influence of "Gestapu PKI", the movement led by Parti Komunis Indonesia in the mid-1960s.

As an ormas, it does not endorse any political party. When its leader, Amien Rais, founded Parti Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party) and was one of the key critics of the Suharto regime, the organisation he led did not officially get involved. In fact, it was an unwritten agreement within the hierarchy that members "are free to join any political party" .

It is interesting to see how the latest muktamar or gathering (the 46th) will shape the new thinking in Muhammadiyah and how it addresses the issue of more assertive members. But at least by going back to where it was born, members will be reminded of the original spirit of the organisation as envisioned by Ahmad Dhalan. By Johan Jaaffar for The New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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