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A Man of Light Passes Away in Indonesia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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It must be a sign of the times that while the latest diatribe from the fugitive terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri gets top media billing, the passing away of one of contemporary Islam’s most enlightened scholars receives virtually no mention.

And, yet, Nurcholis Madjid, is certain to have a more lasting impact on the development of Islamic thought than either al-Zawahiri or his fellow fugitive Osama bin Laden.

Madjid, who died last Monday aged 66, was one of Indonesia’s most daring Islamic thinkers and in large part responsible for the defeat of extremist and obscurantist currents that have emerged there in the past few decades.

He is survived by a wife, and two children — a daughter, Nadya Madjid, 34; and a 32-year-old son, Ahmad Mikail Madjid.

Nurcholis Madjid whose name means “the Pure Light of the Glorious One” was a true figure of the enlightenment in the world’s most populous Muslim country. Born in 1939 in the eastern tip of the island of Java the son of a Muslim teacher and preacher, Madjid spent his childhood in Koranic madrassahs learning Arabic and theology. That gave him a strong sense of identity, which, in turn made it possible for him to reach out to other worlds without fear or fascination.

“Those who reject the West, indeed all non-Islamic civilizations, are unsure of themselves,” Madjid told me in 1998 as Indonesia was entering a period of political turmoil. “Then there are others who, fascinated by the West, feel ashamed because they never quite became themselves.”

Madjid, however, rejected the fashionable idea among Islamists that contact with a non-Islamic culture represents a kind of pollution. Having completed his basic Islamic education, he moved on to learn Dutch and English and ended up obtaining a Ph. D from the University of Chicago in 1984.

For the son of a Muslim preacher, this was an unusual trajectory.

At the time Indonesian Islam was dominated by the Nahdat al-Ulama (Movement of Clerics) known by its initials NU. NU had been founded as an anti-colonialist organisation, a retreat from the alien Western-dominated world into Islam. Its network of religious schools known as pesantren, was founded in the 19th century in reaction to the Dutch Ethical Policy which, many Muslims feared, was designed to de-Islamicise the Dutch East Indies. The NU scorned everything western: the Dutch language, western dress, and, above all, Western sciences.

But, obeying the law of unintended consequences, the NU strategy led to the exclusion of pious Muslims from key positions in the administration, the economy, and the armed forces. The best jobs went to those who had a Western education and mastered the Dutch language. This meant rapid socio-economic advancement for non-Muslim minorities, especially the ethnic Chinese and Hindus who had no difficulty with the idea of obtaining a Western education for their children.

“Many Muslims feared any contact with Western education,” Madjid recalled. “They were afraid because, deep down, they didn’t think Islam was strong enough to hold its own {against the dominant} world culture.”

Madjid, however, had no such fears.

“I had confidence in Islam’s ability to shine,” he recalled.

At the same time, Madjid also rejected the postmodernist idea of cultural cross-dressing and shape-shifting.

“If you know who you are you can understand others and learn from them,” he liked to say. “But if you are nobody in particular, or just anybody at different times you can neither learn from others nor teach them.”

For almost 20 years, during which he taught at Indonesia’s Islamic Institute, this was to be Madjid’s message.

A generation of Indonesia scholars took that message and, in turn, transmitted it to millions of fellow Muslims throughout the archipelago. That generation came to the fore almost at the same time that new and extremist brands of Islam, often imported from the Middle East, were appearing in Indonesia.

These movements- ranging from the Ikhwan al-Moslemeen (Muslim Brotherhood) to the more obscurantist Jamaa Islamiyah (Islamic Society)- preached a message of exclusion, calling on Indonesian Muslims to erect walls against other communities.

Madjid’s message, however, was one of openness and inclusion. He rejected the idea that all faiths, apart from Islam, had been abrogated and thus were worthless. Tolerance, pluralism, and diversity were values that Madjid regarded as essential not only for social peace in Indonesia but for peaceful coexistence among nations in an era of globalisation.

Rejecting nationalism as “one of the most pernicious inventions of the West”, Madjid liked to refer to Indonesia as “more of a united nations than a nation.”

He saw Indonesia is an &#34imagined&#34 state.

The very word Indonesia was invented by Dutch ethnologists to describe areas of Southeast Asia that had come under Indian cultural and ethnic influence. The anti-colonialist groups fighting for independence adopted the word in the late 1920s. They then tried to forge a measure of unity in an archipelago of 17000 islands and over 100 different ethnic communities by inventing a lingua franca to replace dozens of local languages.

The ideal structure for Indonesia as a new nation-state would have been a federal system. But that was rejected by its founding fathers, notably Sukarno, who dreamed of creating a powerful state rather than a happy and prosperous nation.

With all powers concentrated in Jakarta it was inevitable that totalitarian ideologies would soon dominate the new elite. Within a decade of independence that elite was divided between the totalitarians of the left, preaching socialism, and the totalitarians of the right who raised the banner of fascistic nationalism. The division ripped the Indonesian armed forces apart, leading to the massacre of the Communists in the 1970s.

Madjid saw Islamism as a new brand of totalitarianism, this time wearing a religious mask.

“Using religion as a tool of politics is dangerous for both politics and religion” he liked to say.

That did not mean that Madjid was preaching anything like the radical secularism that Ataturk introduced in Turkey. He admitted that people of faith cannot but be influenced by their religious beliefs when making political judgements. And no state had the right to intervene with the way people lived and practised their faith as individuals. What was not acceptable was to use the power of the state to impose one particular interpretation of faith in the name of the collective will

Madjid helped popularise many classical concepts of Islamic politics that frighten the Islamists like the name of Allah is said to terrorise the evil genies.

These included “maslehah” the concept of “the common good” the ultimate yardstick of policy. Another is that of “tamkin” the concept of “governing with the freely obtained consent of the people”.

There is also the crucial concept of “sabr” (patience) which stipulates that, whenever achieving the ideal may cause massive hardship or opposition in the real world it is best to wait for future opportunities for doing so.

Madjid will be sorely missed at a time that the Islamists are returning to the offensive in Indonesia, trying to smuggle their totalitarian vision of faith through a process of permeation.

Madjid believed that Muslim clerics and intellectuals in general should resist the temptation of becoming rulers and, instead, should act as the conscience of their societies.

In 2004 Madjid, for a brief moment, appeared to be tempted to ignore his own advice and considered an offer to become a presidential candidate for Golkar, one of Indonesia’s largest parties. Fortunately, however, Madjid, also known by his nickname Cuk Nur (Passionate Light), was restrained by his guardian angel at the last moment.