Opinion

A century of Muhammadiyah
and modern Indonesia

Based on the Hijriyah (Islamic) calendar, on 8 Dzulhijjah 1430 (Nov. 26, 2009), Muhammadiyah will mark the one hundredth anniversary of its existence. Muhammadiyah was established by Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan in 1330 Hijriyah, or Nov. 18, 1912.

As is well known, from the beginning of its movement Muhammadiyah paid great attention to the modernization of the nation. Modern Indonesia, more and less, has been influenced by Muhammadiyah figures.

Of course as a big organization in which many people are involved, Muhammadiyah has experienced dynamic development.

In general, the Muhammadiyah movement is based on modern principles. It is characterized by many modern institutions such as hospitals, schools, universities and banks developed and maintained by Muhammadiyah.

On the other hand, as explained by prominent Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra (1999), Muhammadiyah is less responsive on contemporary issues related to modern social and political problems. Routine activities in maintaining its modern institutions may be one of the factors behind the problems.

Muhammadiyah’s concern in ritual issues is also another factor in waning Muhammadiyah interest in sociopolitical issues. It is indicated from the edicts issued by the Majelis Tarjih (law-making council) Muhammadiyah board that most of the edicts are related to bid’ah (heretic worship).

Many believe that conservatism on the part of Muhammadiyah regarding contemporary Islamic thought is caused by its emphasis on the purification agenda. In fact, as explained by Syamsul Anwar (the law-making council chairman), Muhammadiyah has two agendas: purification and dynamization, or reformation.

In the Ahmad Dahlan era, Muhammadiyah was more responsive to social problems such as in education and the economy.

In the early time of the movement, Muhammadiyah also highlighted reformation. However, in its later development, Muhammadiyah paid more attention to purification issues.

This later tendency cannot be separated from transnational Islamic movements, such as Wahhabism, that have penetrated into Indonesia. The Wahhabi movement has attracted Muhammadiyah activists.

In general, Wahhabism has similar concerns with other salafi movements, which Muhammadiyah is part of. The group has called on Muslims to return to Koran and the Sunnah (the Prophet’s traditions).

In addition, Wahhabis are not tolerant to diversity.

Wahhabism intends to purify Islam from local customs. That is why in certain periods, Muhammadiyah showed a more puritan face seeking to establish pure Islam rather than a progressive face.

Regardless of its dynamic fluctuations, Muhammadiyah still greatly contributes and supports the modern nation-state. Muhammadiyah has no intention of establishing an Islamic state. It is a modernist movement, since the first time Muhammadiyah eagerly provided education for Muslims.

It means that cultural movement is seen by Muhammadiyah as the basic requirement for modern Indonesia. In addition, the nature of Muhammadiyah is shown by its vision and mission mentioned in the Muhammadiyah constitution.

At its 33rd congress in 1956, three leaders of Muhammadiyah – K.H. Fakih Usman, Prof. K.H.M. Faried Ma’ruf and Dr. Hamka – presented the concept of Masyarakat Islam yang sebenar-benarnya (Truly Muslim society).

This concept was accepted as Muhammadiyah’s vision. This concept emphasized social education, not political orientation.

In other words, the concept does not mean establishing an Islamic state. As far as Muhammadiyah is concerned, education is the basic necessity to improve Indonesian dignity.

Furthermore, Muhammadiyah has a strong commitment to supporting secular political government as shown by Ahmad Syafii Ma’arif, the organization’s chairman from 1999 to 2005, who stated at a Muhammadiyah congress that democracy was the best political system to establish human rights and Islamic society.

This commitment has been proved since the early time of Indonesian independence.

Ki Bagus Hadikusumo, the representative of Muhammadiyah in the Pantia Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia (Preparation Committee of Indonesian Independence) agreed that the sentence mentioning the implementation of sharia law for Indonesian Muslims be eliminated from the Pancasila (national ideology) and the 1945 Constitution.

This decision was difficult, since most Indonesian Muslim leaders at that time demanded the state implement sharia law for Muslims.

Hadikusumo, with other committee members, discussed the relation between the state and religion. He realized that Indonesia was a diverse country, so it would be wise to make Indonesia a home for all people.

He convinced Indonesian Muslim leaders that the Constitution, which separated state from religion, was compatible with Islam.

In addition, Muhammadiyah developed modern educational institutions attempting to support the modernization policy developed by the governments of Sukarno and Soeharto.

This fact is the cultural capital of Muhammadiyah scholars and activists. Although in the middle of its movement this organization tended to be puritan, in general Muhammadiyah is still committed to modern values.

In the late 1990s, Muhammadiyah showed its progressive face. Social and political conditions as the impact of democratic transition also triggered this progressive wing to be involved in guiding the transitional period.

Radical Islamic movements colorizing the democratic transition in the post-Soeharto regime have attracted Muhammadiyah scholars’ attention, including that of Amien Rais, Syafii Ma’arif, Din Syamsuddin, Munir Mulkhan, Amin Abdullah, Dawam Rahardjo and Moeslim Abdurrahman.

They have played an important role in countering radical Islamic ideas. The position of these scholars on the Muhammadiyah board gave them the chance to articulate progressive ideas related to Islam and democracy. They criticized the conservative and radical Islamic thought brought by radical Islamic organizations.

Ahmad Syafii Ma’arif, for instance, said radical Islamic ideas had no future in Indonesia since they would disrupt the concept of a modern nation-state that accommodated diversity.

The idea of an Islamic caliphate, for example, would destroy Indonesia as a nation, and democracy as well. Their role in guiding democratic transition to become established or consolidated democracy is significant. It is important to note that the role of Muhammadiyah and similar organizations in Indonesia will influence the future of modern Indonesia.

Hence, Muhammadiyah activists need to always re-evaluate and reform their position in order to be able to support the nation.



The writer is a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University Jakarta (UMJ) and a student at Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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