“Struggle for epistemology” reassessed

“Islamization of knowledge” is a concept propagated by the highly influential scholar of Islam from Malaysia, Syed Naquib al-Attas. This concept is based on his thesis, which can be described as an attempt to reinstate the Sunni Islamic worldview on an epistemological level. While the movement is very much within the vein of the 20th-century Islamic revival, it is distinguishable from other strands as intellectually-centered. The concept is based on an Al-Attas’ thesis; any attempt of Islamization oblivious to the effect of modernity and secular-liberal institutions is a corrupt mode of the philosophy. A critical contribution of the thesis is a deconstruction of fundamental issues regarding modernity and the Western modes of thinking encroaching toward the Islamic notions and terminology. As such, proponents of Islamization advocates for the Islamic epistemology, which is considered to have cultivated its own worldview complete with its own socio-political premises and perceptions. These are considered to be markedly different from the one based on the Western enlightenment philosophy.

In a glance, it sounds like a project to reinstate the “pristine” mode of Islamic thought processes, which is, as indicated by Wael Hallaq, doomed to fail under the current secular-liberal dominions. Indeed, Al-Attas’ project in Malaysia met the premature failure, with only his ideas being disseminated across the globe. The IoK program was reproduced in multiple Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. However, we’re yet to witness its substantial impact over the society. This is even if we take into account some of the recent trends among the Western Sunni Muslim intellectuals to “rediscover” Al-Attas. Indeed, there is a trend to reinvigorate the intellectual assets that are useful for the “reconstruction” of the epistemology. The lineup starts from the classics such as Iqbal, Bennabi, and Izetbegovic, to the contemporary postcolonial academics such as Talal Asad, Hallaq, and Massad. Al-Attas fits right into the roster, with providing the epistemological deconstruction from the linguistic and terminological perspectives.

In light of this, we can analyze the “failure of the Islamization program” in the vein of Roy’s “failure of political Islam”. The failure goes hand in hand with the recent “struggle for epistemology” agenda espoused by the reformist elements of orthodox Sunni revival. The objective of the “struggle for epistemology” is to reinstate the orthodox Sunni traditions and socio-political conditions, which enable a morality-based governance, through the reconstruction of Islamic epistemology. Crucially, this agenda is based on a premise that the contemporary order of secular-liberal institution is possible to be reversed or even mutilated into something more deconstructible. This premise, judging from recent political developments, is optimistic at its best, and destructive at its worst. The foundation of secular-liberal order is already firm with the state as a basic unit of its component. However, criticism of modernity asserts that the state, with its incentive for self-sustenance, is destined to be self-destructive. Reasons given here normally include a limitless technological advance, greed toward economic growth, environmental destructions, and irreversible desecration of family value. Critics also love to mention that technological and bureaucratic solutions to such issues are inevitably inviting another problem; as such, the problem of modernity cannot be fixed by “more” modernity.

On the most rudimentary level, these criticisms are hastily crafted with the use of the very concepts and issues that are part of the discourse belonging to the modernity itself. In other words, such criticism is based on the premises and principles of modernity, not based on an Islamic epistemology. This is discounting the fact that the proposition of “self-destructing” state and “modernity causing even more modernity” can be easily challenged; the relatively successful project of social-democratic governance that balances ethical concerns, economic needs, social justice, and environmental sustainability proves this point. On top of that, there is no tangible alternative to modernity, which makes everything seems like a cover for mere frustrations arising out of the modern society with no particular directions. I have yet to witness any concrete solutions being exercised or promoted by the proponents of Islamization missions, that can be acted upon by the ordinary persons like us, as a way to construct an alternative society or polity that is based on supposedly pristine Islamic values.

In addition, it is vital to remember here the following: firstly, regression of the Western order does not in itself constitute the void where an alternative order can be reconstructed. This caveat needs to be made in light of certain conflation of secular-liberal order with the Western dominance. This is a glaring mistake, considering the fact that the majority of the international society has already been deeply embedded within the secular governance and liberal world economic system. The challenge of totalitarian superpowers, exemplified by China and Russia, not only proves this point but poses even more difficult questions of how Muslims can cope with ruthless states with no semblance of the Western humanist idealism. Secondly, the criticism in itself is contingent on the very order that they pertain to attack. It is ironic that the only economically advanced or lucrative condition allows the intellectual development itself. This cannot be clearer, seeing such intellectual endeavor is a luxury for the Western-raised or educated Muslims. The majority of Muslims in Muslim society worldwide are not only unequipped for such discourses. They have been dangerously reactionary to the point that constantly damaging its ideological legitimacy by turning the discourse into a presupposition of the superiority of Islam against the others. Theological discussions aside, it is in no way we can manage to convince any other non-Islamic social groups to accept such a proposition.

Finally, it is destructive for it does not contribute to solving the numerous societal malaise faced by the developing post-colonial states; ranging from the institutional level of economic stagnation, exploitation, dictatorship, corruption, nepotism, identity politics, terrorism, environmental destruction, commercialization, rampant consumerism and so on. Such fixation on ideology is not only destructive as it fosters political divide. It is the inescapable influence of the secular-liberal institutions that are required to tackle. And yet the advocacy for the supposed epistemological shift is nothing sort of derailment from the tangible issues at hand.

Fortunately, Islamic societies are more resilient and flexible than how past orientalists and contemporary Islamists have envisioned. The institutionalization of Islam, a trend we are witnessing in the relatively stable Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have created a whole new condition of Islam and secular synthesizing each other into a system where religion fosters a development of economic and governmental institutions. Under this condition, Islamization will be instituted through the governmentality, not reformation or ideology. Remarkably, Islam is exploiting secular institutions and liberal orders as much as the latter is taking roots in the postcolonial societies with the help of the former. Undoubtedly, it raises difficult questions of how different such formalized Islam is from mere cultural decorations, and how can we institute morality within this framework without being coercive and oppressive. However, this is the Muslim society we face in the 21st century, and how are we manage to find a solace for morality and piety must be based on this unshakable premise.

Political Islam or pawn in game?

Indonesia is in preparations for the 2019 general election, and the official nominations of presidential and vice presidential candidates completed earlier this month. The incumbent Joko Widodo’s selection of Ma’ruf Amin prompted surprise among voters and observers alike. Ma’ruf serves as the chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) and the advisory council of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The reaction is due to Ma’ruf Amin’s partial involvement in the 2016 blasphemy charge against the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama (Ahok). During this debacle, the MUI chairman was allegedly supportive of the anti-Ahok protests. The feud between the two seems resolved at the moment. However, his other positions on religious, moral, or furuiyya issues are still considered as conservative-leaning. Ma’ruf can be considered as a representative of the “conservative wing” or “old-traditionalist wing” of NU. This is a substantial majority of the post-Abdurrahman Wahid current in the organization. Regardless of Ma’ruf’s actual intentions or his current positions, the pro-Ahok voter base considers that the selection is unjustified. Abiding by the principles, accordingly, some of the Ahok supporters are calling for abstaining from the vote during the 2019 election.

However, more interesting developments are taking place among the oppositions: in particular, the loose collection of the voters who self-proclaiming as the proponents of Islamism. The Islamist voter base is considered to espouse ambitions to increase the visibility and influence of Islam-based morality and piety on wider aspects of society. It is tempting to apply the conventional definition of Islamism here: it usually goes by the idealism of imposing the literal interpretations of sharia, its application in a modern-state fashion, and demarcation of religious-political boundaries. However, observing the development after the selection of Ma’ruf Amin, such definitions are not only implausible, but several thoughts can be contemplated. Firstly, their fixation on antipathy toward Jokowi as the predominant factor for their political mobilization is inevitably relegating their religious causes to the secondary priority. Second, their commitment to tangible goals of religious causes is questioned. Third, it is reinforcing the past-findings by numerous political scientists that the Islamist ambition has already been subsumed by the democratic institution. Finally, this may also question the nature of “political Islam” as espoused by themselves, and as labeled by dissenters and observers alike.

It is possible to discard the issue as a tirade of identity politics as usual. However, by definition, identity politics is a marker of political fixation based on certain social groupings. In the case of Islamism, it is the aforementioned goal of increasing the visibility and influence of Islamic morality that supposedly unite the group. By this definition, the selection of Ma’ruf should’ve swayed the substantial number of Islamist or Islam-oriented voter base to the Jokowi faction. And indeed, it seems the calculation by the incumbent president was based on this political strategy. However, witnessing the debate among Islamists, they seem aren’t malleable to political realignment. This should come as surprising, considering the record of Ma’ruf as a conservative-leaning and even having a strong credential as an Islamic cleric. This goes to show that the unification of Islamist groups and voters are not persisted based on their religious ideological underpinnings.

In order to further analyze this issue, the selection of Ma’ruf demands re-configuration of the extent Islam has been influencing the existing institutions. The aforementioned subsumption of Islam by the democratic institution is the furthest thing from the diminished influence of religion and its morality in the face of secular encroachment. Instead, what we’re witnessing here is the normalization of the religious candidate and conservative Islamic attitudes across the political spectrum. It is the post-reformasi and post-Islamization settings that matter in this context. Indeed, through the long contemporary history of Islam in Indonesia, the configuration of leftist-nationalist/socialist + traditionalist-Islam vs rightwing-nationalist + Islamism has been persisted up until the election of Abdurrahman Wahid. However, the traditionalism represented by Ma’ruf is already distinct in its quality from what is espoused by Sukarno-era NU leadership or Wahid-led post-traditionalist strands. This “traditionalist revival” has indeed acted as a mobilizing factor for the recent “conservative turn” or even the blasphemy case against Ahok. The cooptation of this conservative wing of traditionalist Islam by the supposed left-wing government is a sign of the democratic institution already being handheld by the conservative Islamic values which are widely espoused by the rising middle-class Muslims and even the bureaucrats themselves. Paradoxically, it is under this condition that the call for Islamism rings hollow when the proponents aren’t equipped to support the supposedly more “Islam-friendly” candidate. This incident is a vivid case of how mutual influence of democratic institution and Islamic values leading to the lesser persuasiveness of the political Islamic project as an emblematic call for purifying the corrupt secular society.

What unites the Islamist factions and enables their alliance with the right-wing nationalists? This is reaching an area outside of my expertise, but certain reasonings (and its flaws) can be speculated. The most conventional explanation is the nativist/lower class/charismatic vs globalist/upper class/technocratic divide which has been witnessed worldwide. This explanation, however, does not take into account the fact that both Prabowo and Sandiaga, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the opposition respectively, are in no way representing the former social classes (which is also a commonality in Trump’s America or Farage and Boris-led Brexiteers; I believe this proves that the conventional explanation is severely limited in its explanatory power). Indonesianists would explain this from the perspective of old-establishment vs new-establishment contestation, with Prabowo and Islamist factions representing the power configuration of the final decade of the Suharto regime, and the Jokowi and NU supporters amounting to the opposition. While this explanation seems more persuasive, it requires additional clarification on the issue of incorporation of conservative Islam by the Jokowi administration. The final hypothesis is the application of the Western social justice discourse onto the Indonesian political landscape. This considers Islamist and nationalist factions as the old-guard of the privileged societal establishment, and their enmity toward Jokowi stems from the perceived toleration of socially vulnerable classes by the administration. While social justice dimension seems to be a highly influential dynamics in the West, it is severely limited when interpreting the situation outside of the Western world. Indeed, this frame of reference also does not address the Jokowi’s increasing compromise toward right-wing viewpoints.

Although the big picture requires more deconstruction, it has become glaringly clear that the political Islam as we’ve conventionally defined in the past decades has been irreversibly altered its form. This has occurred through the dynamics of the democratic institution and gritty reality of local politics. While political scientists who analyze the general Indonesian political landscape have other resources to tackle with this issue, the discourse centered on Islam is required to jettison themselves from the old framework of Islamism and political Islam. Through the analysis, it’s starting to feel less confident in framing Islamism as a shared experience throughout the extreme variety of the Muslim societies worldwide. Indeed, some of the experts have been flirting with the idea of exporting some sort of lessons learned from one Muslim majority country to another. This consideration seems out of touch in light of the observation of the development in Indonesia. Instead, what we’re witnessing here seems to be the case of blending of Islam with the democratic institution that occurs in completely non-linear fashion between different regions and states. What entails from this institutionalization and bureaucratization of religion should be analyzed from the perspective of blurring between religion and secular. The first step of the analysis is to discard the notion of political Islam and accept the premise that Islam is already everywhere, and that it is not an underlying contention between different parties and factions anymore.

Traditionalism revisited

One recent trend of Islam in Indonesia is a decline in influence posed by the traditional authority belonged to the voluntary organizations (ormas) such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, and the rise in the number of Muslims who form their religious outlook in a manner more independent from association with such traditional institutions. This trend has posed renowned questions of the role of the institution toward the formation of Islamic identity: what constitutes the institution of the traditional Muslim community in Indonesia, and how would it shape what kind of identity? In order to examine these questions, it is vital to stand on the premise of the composition of institutional formation providing the grounding for the religious outlook. The focus of research will be the traditionalist strain of Muslim movement in Indonesia, exemplified by organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Nahdlatul Wathan, as the movement is based on the presumption of the traditional institution as the founding mechanism of religious outlook. It will then be able to argue that societal changes surrounding the individual Muslims, including urbanization, marketization, commercialization, and politicization have contributed greatly to the drastic alteration of the institutional composition, which then affects the outcome of the religious upbringing.

In addition to the contribution to the understanding of Indonesian Muslim society and its mechanism of both rural and urban settings, the study would further understand the construction of orthodox Islamic institution. This study is formulated in the backdrop of the recent orthodox Sunni revival experienced by the Muslim society worldwide. Orthodox Sunni revival has shown the Muslim society’s strong willingness to constitute its own formation and understanding of modernity based on the institutions distinct from the western contemporaries that have been propagated as a universal goal. Although this scheme can be often controversial from the perspective of values based on the enlightenment philosophy, this study aims to emphasize on often overlooked side of traditionalism as a bulwark against extremism, fostering of the cohesivity of Muslim middle class, and its flexibility in an adaptation of locality. Through this emphasis, it is hoped for an academic possibility in the further exploration of the cultivation of strong and cohesive orthodoxy positing itself within the liberal-secular order.

Putting the Indonesian experience within the context of Sunni orthodoxy will be the first task for the research question. Indonesian experience of traditionalism is extraordinarily unique, and yet it exemplifies the aspect of traditionalism inherent within its dynamic. Here it is possible to argue that the traditionalism in Indonesia has experienced stages of development throughout its history. Broadly, the development can be considered begun with the indigenous cultivation, and then identification and competition with the modernism, and the schism between the progressive (often dubbed as post-traditionalist) and conservative wings. However, the movement in its entirety still very much sustain the mechanism of its institution. The institution is based heavily on the educational system, cohesivity of the community, and foundational principles of Islamic orthodoxy. Such institutional composition shaped the formation of this Islamic identity, which emphasizes the cohesive, wasatiyyah (middle way, balanced) approach. It is through such institutions that several attributes of the traditionalism that are widely recognized today, including amenability to the tolerance, democracy, pluralism and civil society were cultivated.

With rapid urbanization and influx of foreign-based reformism based on puritanical religious interpretations, such traditions have lost its dominance over the religious authority, leading to the fragmentation of institution on the individual level. Under this premise, we may also question the recent trend of “conservative turn” among several Islamic groups in which cadres of Nahdlatul Ulama are not exceptions. The blasphemy charge against the incumbent governor of Jakarta Basuki Purnama was famously supported by countless of NU members and their leaders including the chairman of the religious board Ma’ruf Amin. This fact has been framed as a case of diminishing authority of the NU leadership and the flirtations of local leaders with the more transnational oriented puritanical Islam, or the issue inherent in the highly decentralized structure of NU organization that allows individual charismatic local leaders to mobilize their followers in its own capacity. However, it is important to take one step further in the analysis of alleged NU sympathy with the anti-Ahok sentiment exemplified by the 212 movements. One may argue that we need to discern the Muslim support of the anti-Ahok sentiment into several strands and orientations, through the analysis of ideological underpinning. It is expected to distinguish the “conservatism” espoused by the puritanical Islamic reformism and traditionalist Muslims, which may be different in its propositions toward the support of the blasphemy charge.

It is hoped that through this study, the mechanism of how the traditionalist institution maintains its capacity of identity formation is revealed, in which we expect the drastic difference in the outcome of the religious outlook from the emerging institution void of the traditional characters. At least by formality, traditionalism will put importance on the science of scriptural interpretations; this would automatically disqualify the majority of the pop-televangelism or Internet personality who practically perform a role of puritanical Islamic activism. If we identify the cases of NU members flirting with such cult of personality, we may be able to identify the compromise of the educational and identity-formative institution as the root of the problems. The compromise may occur from a variety of socio-economic reasons: urbanization leading to the shrinking of human resource, weakening of the authority of NU leadership leading to the diminishing appeal of traditional education, traditionalist’s belated attempt at establishing the online and media presence, and the growing middle class refusing to adhere to the traditional educative system which has been deemed as outdated, informal and inaccessible to the job market.

Such preliminary findings will lead to the contemplation of possibility regarding the construction of modern and cosmopolitan traditionalism that is accessible to the burgeoning middle class. Sign of such occurrence is already there. Increasing number of pesantren which formed based on the mixture of the modern and religious curriculum has been building a network of its kyais and teachers educated in the Middle Eastern centers of learning, including Medina, Qatar, Cairo, Malaysia, and Morocco. Middle-class Muslims feel comfortable sending their children to such pesantrens, where such foreign-trained individuals are considered a certification of the institution’s religious credentials. It is within these transnational exchange of knowledge that we’re witnessing the revival of classical Sunni orthodoxy, which in itself a global phenomenon. The revival of orthodoxy may be able to reconstruct the institutional framework for the traditionalism, albeit in completely different settings of urban, cosmopolitan, modern, and capitalistic. How would this “neo-traditional” way of Islamic institution be able to shape what kind of Islamic identity, is a follow-up question to the thesis that is outlined at the beginning of this essay.

Islamic-secularity: bureaucratization, commercialization and democratization

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, has been experiencing a rapid growth of its share and population belonging to the middle class. This trend, fostered by the economic growth and urbanization, has been leading to a heightening of an Islamic consciousness which historically had been relegated to the rural population or minority elites. The process of growing Islamic consciousness, also known as Islamization, is often hastily associated with its potential political implications. Most predominantly of which is the ascendance of Islam-oriented governance that seeks to impose Islamic systems and regulations, reversing the previously prevailing institutions and societal norms, namely the market economy, democratic institution and secular norms. However, past researches have shown that the result of Islamization in Indonesia has never been a black and white overturn of the existing institutions, notwithstanding the sporadic ideological call by the puritan-reformist elements. Instead, it is leading to a build-up of curious synthesis of such institutions with the Islamic values and morality, only made possible after the establishment of middle-class consciousness shaped after the Islamic identity.

Political scientists have long been pointing out the democratic institution subsuming the Islam-oriented or Islamist political parties of its ideological character through its bureaucratic and structural nature, as well as blurring of secular-religious distinction among the non-Islamic political parties. Recent findings have shown that the majority of Muslim leaders in the rank of voluntary organizations (or ormas, an abbreviation of organisasi masyarakat; societal organization) have affirmative outlook toward the democracy with the caveat of protection toward the collective Islamic identity. Transnational puritan-reformist ideology, which often considered as antagonistic toward the existing secular-oriented institution, has been shown to be cunningly utilizing the secular concepts such as citizenship and nationalism on its own gain. The Indonesian government has also been intensifying the regulations that tailor the boundary of piety and morality through its legal sources, which has been dubbed as an ongoing process of bureaucratization of Islam.

Such cases can be described as outcomes of existing institution and Islamic values influencing each other toward the construction of more “Islamified” secularity, which became possible through expansion of middle class with the majority of the recipient of the institutions and bureaucrats themselves abiding by particular religious norms. This is even more pronounced in the field of economics, business, and finance. Sharia-compliant finance and banking system, as well as halal industry, are the foremost and already mature system of a market economy and Islamic values synthesizing into a composition of Islam and secular. In recent developments, there’s a growing augmentation of such moral boundary into the arena previously unknown to the Islamic jurisprudence. One of the exemplary cases is a sharia-oriented shopping center or convenience store, exemplified by 212 Mart which is named after the 212 protest, a highly-publicized movement that culminated into the blasphemy charge of the incumbent governor of Jakarta Basuki Purnama. 212 Mart proclaims to be a sharia-compliant store and follows the religious prescription made by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI). As such, they only sell halal certified products or locally made foods.

In spite of its confrontational naming that may agitate secular-liberal oriented individuals, 212 Mart is the furthest thing from an Islamic opposition against modernity, secularity, and institution that entails them. 212 Mart is more of a case of the commodification and consumerization of Islam and its religious values, that function as a mechanism of further integrating the Muslim community into the market economy. However, it will be a simplistic argument to assert that the religious values and morality will be reduced into its formality within the secular institution that prevails over them. Instead, what we have is the unique case of secularity that entails religiosity, which wouldn’t be possible without the consumers abiding by Islamic religious norms. This “Islamic secularity” can be considered as the most visible marker of the Indonesian middle class and its embracing of the modernity with local manifestations. Tracing such examples of Islamic secularity, we may be able to map the extent of such middle-class community constructing a socio-economic sphere shaped by both secular system and religious values.