Spirit of progressive and
moderation in ‘Sang Pencerah’

Recently Indonesian people just enjoyed the Sang Pencerah (The Englightener) film, directed by Hanung Bramantyo. The story was about the founder of Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, Ahmad Dahlan (1868-1923). The plot is based on the dynamic of Dahlan’s efforts to establish the country’ second largest religious organization.

The film described the spirit, passion and persistence of Ahmad Dahlan to make better understanding of and beautiful practices of Islam. He got strong resistances from many Muslims, who even described him as infidel.

Other lessons from the story are Dahlan’s moderation, his wide range of interaction, and his willingness to learn from others that are considered as “un-Islamic”. For Dahlan, differences are not some thing to be shunned. He did not reluctant to take something better than his own from others. He, for example, created classroom with tables, chairs and blackboard as that did in Dutch and Christian schools for his Madrasah where public considered it as the alien and infidel system.

To learn about the organization, he also joined Budi Utomo, an organization of mostly Javanese aristocrats from which he blamed Kyai Kejawen (Javanese Kyai). The close relation between Ahmad Dahlan and Budi Utomo is interesting. It reflects his nationalist sense and asserts, as Ahmad Najib Burhani (2004) already noted, that Muhammadiyah was more appreciated to Javanese culture and identities in its early period than that thereafter.

Although, Dutch colonial archives also recorded a number of Javanese aristocrats, the priyayi, involved in Muhammadiyah activities. As if they want to combine “modernity” with local identity, Dahlan preferred to wear a formal suit with jarit or sarung and a batik turban for his head rather than Arabian robe as usually wore by Kyais in the era.

On Muslim-Christian relation, a sensitive issue frequently causes tension and conflict in contemporary Indonesia, Dahlan’s opposition to Christianity was not implemented in physical clash. He of course worried to massive activity of Christian mission.

Nevertheless, instead of running mass mobilization to burn churches, Dahlan built Islamic schools, orphanages, and hospitals — the methods he took from Christian missionaries — as a tool for restrain penetration of the mission.

Historical documents reported that Dahlan visited churches and made dialogues and debates with pastors a number of times. He can be accredited, therefore, as a pioneer of interreligious dialogue for this matter.

So far Muhammadyah is categorized as a Muslim modernist and to some extent puritan. In the sociology of religion discourse, it was commonly assumed that the puritan movement was religiously orthodox and less tolerant. But, the Sang Pencerah shows otherwise, presenting Dahlan’s and Muhammadiyah’s moderation, openness and progressiveness.

Nowadays, Muhammadiyah has grown up and developed as a giant civil Muslim society representing the “pseudo state” of the country. It manages thousands of mosques and religious gatherings, thousands of schools, hundred of universities, more than five hundreds hospitals and clinics, hundreds of orphanages, disaster management units and other microfinance institutions.

Structurally, Muhammadiyah has various departments and chambers in every province as well as representative offices almost in every district, subdistrict and even villages.

But these organizational bodies are now overwhelming Muhammadiyah’s missions. Critics said its routine programs’ lack of innovations now trap the Muhammadiyah. The trend of the growing rigidity in religion among its members criticizing to progressive and a pluralist point of view have restrained the dynamic of an intellectual journey among its members.

Learning from the spirits of the Sang Pencerah, my query is therefore, where are all Dahlan’s openness, progressive, and moderation legacies gone?

The movie is a actually a big critique of leaders, members and constituents of the Muhammadiyah who are now narrow minded, intolerant, have poor social respect, are rigid and allergic to progress. The movie is questioning Muhammadiyah’s readiness to enter in its second century.

The movie would say: “The first century Muhammadiyah was initiated by Dahlan’s reform trough openness, progress and moderation. In this second century, to be a pioneer of the reform, Muhammadiyah needs more than that because the locus and tempus as well as socio-cultural challenges are more complex than that of a century ago.”  

In a broader landscape, the moderation and openness legacies of Dahlan are also applicable to quest current hatreds and violence affiliated to religion that currently frequently appear. The destroying of Ahmadiyah mosque, for example, just reminds me of the bitter experience when Dahlan’s first langgar was overthrown. The blame to progressive Muslim figures as sesat (astray) reminds me accusations and derision against Dahlan as Kyai Kafir.

The Sang Pencerah has provided valuable lessons: A figure with a progressive vision but moderate and tolerant of any differences, who was patient and humble to any critics.

The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University’s Department of Comparative Religion, Yogyakarta. Currently he is fellow at the Training Indonesian Young Leader Program, Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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