|Islamic Knowledge, Authority and Political Power: The Ulama in Colonial Indonesia|
|Written by Jajat Burhanudin|
|Thursday, 14 August 2008 00:00|
This thesis is to be viewed in the framework of handling the cited issue. In spite of fundamental changes resulting from modernization of Muslim life, the ulama continue to exist as a socio-religious elite enjoying highly-esteemed positions. The Indonesian experience provides us with ample evidence of such a continuing pivotal role of the ulama. The modernity appears to have provided the ulama with ample opportunities and possiblities in their ways of defining Islam and creating authority. The ulama’s engagement in modernity began in the early twentieth century, when they started using modern devices and facilities in their movement to defend the traditionalist Islamic ideas and practices against the attack of reformist leaders. Since that period, some of the ulama involved in publishing journals and magazines, in addition to continue using kitabs in their pesantrens. In 1926, under direction of the traditionalist leaders of East Java, the ulama established a modern organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), following the path the reformist leaders had already grounded with the founding of Muhammadiyah in 1912.
The ulama’s engagement in modernity continues to develop alongside the modernization of Indonesian society. In contemporary period of Indonesia, the Muslims of the country are now witnessing how the ulama participate in such diverse roles, going beyond their traditional domain in the religious institution in the villages. In addition to their traditional role as the leaders of pesantrens, some of the Indonesian ulama are now also engaging for instance in presenting Islam through print and electronic media, which before had been regarded as belonging exclusively to reformist Muslims in the cities. Moreover, some ulama also participate in national political arena of Indonesia, showing their continued influences and roles within Muslim society.
With these facts, it is clear that the ulama have been able to maintain their existence in the changing Indonesian Muslims. The ulama therefore can no longer be associated only with the Islam of the past and its sometimes old-fashioned clinging to tradition. They responded to the new demands of modernity.
This study aims to present the neglected aspect apparent in the previous studies on the Indonesian ulama, namely a historical process which has enabled the ulama to have such a social and intellectual foundation as to remain holding an important position in Indonesian Islam. The discussion of this thesis is intended to give a historical explanation of what is now emerging as a key conceptual language of the contemporary ulama, the revitalization and reformulation of tradition to be adapted to the new demands of modernity. It should be stated that what constitutes the heart of the continuing pivotal roles of ulama in the modern world is the ways the ulama mobilise the tradition to define the issues of religious identity and authority in the public sphere and to articulate their changing roles in contemporary development of the Indonesian Muslims.
Hence, the intellectual and socio-political roots of the ulama become the focus of this study. As such, investigation over the intellectual network the ulama established, the socio-political experiences they underwent, the challenges they encountered in the changing realities of Indonesia, and the Islamic ideas and practices they discoursed in the courses of their history hold such a central significance in this study. And all those mentioned become the core discussion of this thesis. I argue that what is now appearing as the social and cultural capitals of the ulama, which have enabled them to reconstruct, reformulate, and modify the tradition, is an accumulated result of the very long historical process of their defining Islam for, and creating authority within the Muslim community.
In Indonesian experience, the colonial period has a specific importance in the history of ulama. It was during the period that the number of ulama’s institutions of learning—pesantren, surau and dayah—grew considerably, and network with the Middle East intensified, which then led the rise of Mecca as the heart of Indonesian Islam. Likewise, due to the Dutch colonial policy on Islam, this period led the ulama to evolve as a distinct community, different from Dutch-supported religious elite, penghulu. This ulama’s development of becoming “the other” was then heightened with the rise and the advance of Islamic reformism, leading the ulama to emerge as self-conscious community that identified themselves in specific religious terms and social behaviour.
This thesis began its discussion with the period of pre-colonial Islamic kingdoms of the archipelago, when the ulama played such important roles as kadi (qª¼Ì) and shaikhul Islam (shaikh al-Islªm) in strengthening the Islamic performance of the kingdoms. This appeared as a major characteristic of the period, that the ulama existed as a religious elite and part of the ruling elites of the kingdoms (kerajaan) of the archipelago. This portrait of the ulama ended as the socio-political and cultural landscapes of the archipelago—then referred to as ‘the lands below the winds’—began to change, which occurred alongside the fall of the Islamic kingdoms. Due in part to disruption by the Western companies—primarily the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC)—in the trade network of the archipelago, the fall of Islamic kingdoms became a turning point in the history of ulama. The ulama were transformed from appointed officials of the kingdoms to leaders of the Islamic learning institutions established outside the kerajaan domain—pesantren in Java, surau in Minangkabau and dayah in Aceh.
With the pesantren, surau and dayah, as well as the Sufi order (tarekat), the ulama had their own institutional foundation for defining Islam and in turn creating religious authority. The ulama appeared as the sole experts of Islam and the religious practices of the Muslims living in the surrounding areas. This process was heightened as the ulama’s network with the Middle East intensified, marked with the formation of Jawi (Southeast Asian Muslim) community in Mecca in the late nineteenth century. Through the wide circulation of religious books (kitabs) and the requests for fatwas to Meccan ulama, the Jawi community greatly contributed to making Mecca in the late nineteenth century “the heart of the religious life of the East-Indian archipelago”. Mecca emerged as the intellectual destination where the ulama learned Islam and then transmitted it to the archipelago, as the experiences of such leading Jawi ulama as Nawawi Banten (1813-1897) and Mahfudz Termas (1868-1919) testified. And the pesantrens—the majority of which were led by the Mecca-trained ‘ulama—acted as the basis for further transmission of Islam to the Muslims of the areas.
Meanwhile, the Dutch colonial policy on Islam in the Indies contributed to strengthening the formation of ulama as a distinct community. Under the influence of such leading Dutch scholars as K.F. Holle (1826-1896) and Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), the colonial policy was directed to creating a new and hence colonized religious elite, the penghulu, to be drawn into the colonial orbit. The ulama, on the contrary, were pushed—due to the involvement of some ulama in the protest movement against the Dutch—to live in the rural areas and consequently outside the colonial knowledge. In such a situation, while enjoying their status as the social elite in the rural sphere, the ulama underwent a consolidated process of becoming a distinct community. As the lives of Khalil Bangkalan (1819-1925) and Saleh Darat (1820-1903) demonstrated, the ulama emerged as what came to be called the santri community, in which the Islamic teachings were strictly be observed. Later, the meaning of santri extended from only student of pesantren to denoting the religious community as such. Thus, the ‘ulama of pesantren evolved into self-conscious communities that identified themselves in different religious terms and social behaviour from the Dutch-appointed elite of penghulu and the priyayi or native aristocracy.
Having become the nucleus of santri community, the ulama had a strong foundation, in terms of both social and cultural spheres, which enabled them to respond to the changing Indies in the early twentieth century. The Dutch-sponsored modernization and the rise of Islamic reformism—due to the shift of an intellectual network from Mecca to Cairo, Egypt—led the ulama to face the strong wave of social and religious changes which challenged their authority as the sole expert of Islam for Indonesian Muslims. Yet, the ulama had a strong ability to continue to exist in the changing Indies. As the life of the doyen of early twentieth century ulama, Hasjim Asj’ari (1871-1947) revealed, the ulama engaged in re-formulating the so-called traditional Islam, in addition to modernizing the Islamic learning centres, the pesantrens, which had became one of the basic pillars of their existence.
The ulama’s participation in the changing Indies is none the more evident than in the formation of mentioned ‘ulama association, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). With the NU, the ulama’s defining Islam for Indonesian Muslims intensified and their creating their religious authority enhanced. And this continues to proceed in contemporary Indonesia, showing that the ulama’s social and cultural capitals have enabled them to maintain an important position in Indonesian society and politics, and of course to continuously create their authority in order to maintain their own roles in the changing society in modern Indonesia.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 23 October 2008 21:24|