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Colloquium: Shapers of Islam in Southeast Asia

For Ummatics’ May 2023 colloquium, we welcomed Dr. Khairudin Aljunied to discuss his recent book, Shapers of Islam in Southeast Asia, in which he studies key reformist thinkers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Dr. Syaza Shukri, Dr. Saifuddin Dhuhri, and Dr. Hasbi Aswar shared their analysis of the book and Islamic movements in Southeast Asia more broadly, offering insight into what Dr. Aljunied terms the Islamic reformist mosaic.

Ummatics Colloquium Summary May 2023

Presenters:

  • Dr. Khairudin Aljunied
  • Dr. Syaza Shukri
  • Dr. Saifuddin Dhuhri
  • Dr. Hasbi Aswar

Summary:

Dr. Khairudin Aljunied began by expressing the importance of including Southeast Asian voices in ummatic discussions, since they are often sidelined. Rather than viewing the Umma through a core-periphery perspective with the Middle East at the center, it should be seen as composed of multiple cores. The disproportionate focus on certain segments of the Umma is reflected in the numbers: more than 900 million Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, whereas roughly 300 million live in the Middle East and North Africa. Much of contemporary literature and media attention is also focused on North American Muslims, though they only constitute about 3.4 million members of the Umma.

Though much material is being produced by scholars in Southeast Asia, Aljunied criticized the lack of writing on theoretical issues that affect the entire Umma. This has not helped the problem of disproportionality, since Southeast Asian scholars are not producing enough groundbreaking work to bring global attention to their locale.

In Shapers of Islam in Southeast Asia, Aljunied challenges popular categorizations of religious groups in the region. These categorizations include dichotomies – left versus right, modern versus traditional, and progressive versus regressive, among others – as well as the idea of a continuum or spectrum of Muslim thought. Such categorizations are often misleading, failing to account for individuals and groups that do not fit neatly into any given category.

This led Aljunied to what he terms the Islamic reformist mosaic: scholarship that derives its inspiration from the Qur’an and Sunnah, with the primary goals of reform (iṣlāḥ) and renewal (tajdīd) of the Muslim way of life. He emphasized the reliance of Islamic reformism on the primary sources of Islam to distinguish it from those who pursue reform in opposition to the Qur’an and Sunnah. As a genealogy, the unbroken line of Islamic reformists goes back to the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, who first pursued the iṣlāḥ of humanity through Islam.

From a dialogical angle, Islamic reformism requires dynamic interaction between Islamic texts and social contexts to offer solutions for Muslims’ lived realities. Aljunied explains that being part of a mosaic, Islamic reformers are initially seen as outsiders proposing unfamiliar ideas, but are then gradually incorporated as they affect change in their societies.

Aljunied’s book examines dominant strains of the Islamic reformist mosaic through seven figures: Naquib Al-Attas (desecularist), Harun Nasution (rationalist), Kuntowijoyo (historicist), Cesar Adib Majul (integrationist), Osman Bakar (epistemologist), Zakiah Daradjat (moralist), and Ahmad Ibrahim (legalist). 

Responses:

Dr. Syaza Shukri concurred with Aljunied’s comments on the marginalization of Southeast Asia in ummatic discourse. Increasingly, indigenous Southeast Asian culture is being seen as inherently un-Islamic, leading many to prefer Arabized expressions of Islam. As the book shows, Southeast Asian Islamic reformists were certainly influenced by thinkers outside the region, but their engagement with local realities allowed them to propose social theories that were both identifiable as Islamic and resonant with Southeast Asians.

Shukri also emphasized that Sunni Islam does not establish a centralized interpretive authority, allowing any Muslim who gains mastery of the tools of ijtihād (independent scholarly reasoning) to engage in it. Competing reformist voices reflect the propensity of Islam to produce intellectual disagreement, which Shukri argues should be viewed positively rather than cynically. Ironically, insisting on rigid homogeneity is what ends up producing disunity and conflict among Muslims.

Practically, the Islamic reformists discussed in the book aimed to transform the minds and lives of the masses, not simply to preach an outwardly Islamic identity. Shukri sees reformist thought being co-opted by political actors in Southeast Asia for the sake of identity politics, pressuring people to support ostensibly “Islamic” policies without substantiating them. She concluded by asking how this move towards identity-based Islamization can be countered in order to support the practical agenda of Islamic reformism.

Dr. Saifuddin Dhuhri praised Aljunied’s focus on definitions and the categorization of Muslim thinkers and raised the question of what can be defined as ‘Islamic’ thought. Some define it expansively, including anything which relates to Islam even if written by non-Muslims, while others restrict the truly ‘Islamic’ to only a certain strain of thought that they consider correct, such as traditionalism or Salafism. Aljunied’s conceptualization of Islamic reformism as a mosaic allows for the inclusion of diverse thinkers, whilst still restricting it to those reformers whose intellectual genealogy can be traced back to the Prophet ﷺ. 

Nevertheless, Aljunied’s selection of thinkers to represent Islamic reformism raises questions regarding who is included in the mosaic. Dhuhri pointed out that most of the seven thinkers discussed in the book have a Western educational background. He also asked for further insight into why these seven were selected in lieu of other influential figures. For example, Azyumardi Azra and Amin Abdullah have greatly influenced higher education in Indonesia, and Al Yasaʿ Abubakr has written on the modern implementation of sharīʿah in Indonesia.

Dr. Hasbi Aswar reiterated that there is a wealth of underappreciated intellectual production coming out of Southeast Asia. He commended the inclusion of Naquib Al-Attas, Osman Bakar, and Kuntowijoyo in the book, considering them to have made genuine attempts to conceptualize Islam as a source of solutions to modern problems. He also questioned the inclusion of Harun Nasution, categorizing him not only as a reformist but a liberal whose ideas often coincided with Western orientalism.

Dr. Aswar also interrogated using the term “reformism” to refer to this intellectual phenomenon, particularly in light of how the same or similar terms have been used by various groups, such as Western reformers who seek to fundamentally revise Islam from its foundations, or the Wahhabi movement which claimed to be engaging in tajdīd. He asked for greater clarification regarding how Aljunied’s usage of “reformism” can be distinguished from other movements, such as liberalism or traditionalism.

In addition to factors mentioned by the previous speakers regarding why Islamic thought in Southeast Asia has limited global reach, Aswar pointed out the political and technical obstacles. With the rise of populism in Indonesia, for example, people have become increasingly afraid to express their views and engage in intellectual production. Additionally, a smaller proportion of Indonesian scholars write in English, compared to Malaysia and Singapore. 

Discussion

Hanaa Aisha: How do we support and study the reform agenda whilst so many claim the banner of reform?

Aljunied: One hallmark of being a reformer, as exemplified by the seven figures studied in the book, is having the courage to express their ideas despite potential hostility from their communities and states. In my work, Islamic reformism is an analytical concept for understanding these thinkers, not a philosophical ideal or prescriptive solution. Though there are countless thinkers who could be studied under this banner, I chose these seven because they reflect the main strands of thought which impact how we view modern issues.

[Audience question]: What has been the influence of “Islam Nusantara” in Indonesia?

Aswar: “Islam Nusantara” was introduced by Abdurrahman Wahid, and became the brand of Nahdlatul Ulama. However, it remains distinctly associated with NU and isn’t seen as representative of Indonesian Islam more broadly.

Dhuhri: I think the concept of “Islam Nusantara” can be developed to better represent the history and cosmopolitanism of the region.

[Audience question]: Although the reformists in Dr. Aljunied’s book are well-known to Southeast Asians, most people nevertheless tend to align with mass movements and organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. 

Aljunied: You’ll find that several of the thinkers in my book were involved in these large Islamic movements and influenced their members. The current youth population, however, is relatively averse to these large organizations and prefers micro-movements that utilize digital activism. This phenomenon needs further study.

Shukri: This question correctly identifies the gap between intellectual thought and the general masses. Even though these thinkers participated in various movements, the reform agenda has not proliferated throughout the population. People in general are disconnected from scholarship, partly owing to the inaccessibility of academic discussions.

Hossameldeen Mohammed: How would you evaluate the Kuala Lumpur Summit of 2019, which gathered many Muslim political leaders and reformists? 

Aljunied: It was a noble effort, but the momentum didn’t last and the summit has since been forgotten. Mahathir Mohamad was unseated soon afterward. So we cannot rely on political leaders to initiate these discussions and affect change, and should instead take ownership ourselves.

Shukri: The KL Summit was primarily a counter-hegemonic political project led by certain countries; it was bound to fail because it didn’t carry a larger ideational purpose of creating ummatic sentiment.

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