Sunday, September 11, 2011
Historian, author and professor Michael Laffan studied Indonesian in high school in Australia before going on to study Arabic in college. Laffan wanted to connect the two topics and found himself “drawn into a necessary attempt to understand the religion that links so many people across the world today.”
His first book, “Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds” (2002), examined the role of Islam in the Indonesian nationalist movement. Laffan recently spoke with the Jakarta Globe about his newest book, “The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past,” due to be released this month.
How did you pick the topic of this book?
The topic for this book emerged out of my last [book] on the contributions of Islamic actors to the conception of Indonesian nationalism. It was then a step back across the colonial divide to consider just what Dutch scholars and officials made of the faith that so challenged them by the opening of the 20th century.
You’ve said that the Dutch encouraged Islam for their own purposes. What influence do you think the Dutch interaction had on shaping Indonesian Islam?
I have argued that Dutch colonial scholars encouraged certain Muslim reformers whose programs they sympathized with. In their minds, the historical presence of Sufism was a useful explanation for why Indonesians were who they were, but in its contemporary manifestations, Sufism was not held up as a form of faith for the modern future. Rather, they hoped that Indonesians would detach themselves from the various gurus and sheiks and seek out an education that empowered them to make their own individual readings of religious texts.
What do you think will surprise your readers most about the makings of Indonesian Islam?
Perhaps some people may be surprised to learn just how long Indonesians have been actively engaged in Islamic discourse and traveling across the Indian Ocean, and indeed that what we so often see as a traditional form of religion has itself been profoundly shaped in those encounters.
I think some specialists might also be surprised at how shallow the roots of certain mystical orders are, being more the product of very modern connections made in the 19th century, [rather] than ancestral ones in the 13th.
What do you think is the biggest historical misconception about the establishment of Islam in Indonesia?
I think the biggest misconception is that Indonesian Islam must have roots in the teachings of itinerant mystics belonging to what we imagine to be something like monastic orders. While not entirely discounting this possibility, we have to be aware that Islam was spread in many ways and that what now constitutes Indonesia is a web of societies with many different identities and experiences. We also need to accept the idea that Indonesians were themselves present in the ports of South and West Asia too, and that the impetus need not have come solely from holy wanderers in the archipelago.
What year, based on your research, do you think Islam first came to Indonesia?
I am not sure that I actually try to offer a date in my book, which concentrates on the later colonial imaginings of the wheres and whens of Islam in the archipelago. Again, we are all too often limited to suppositions about dates.
Many Indonesians would like to imagine that their ancestors converted soon after the passing of the Prophet, while some scholars limit themselves to the study of inscriptions that point to the 13th century. The definition of what constitutes ‘conversion’ further muddies the picture. Does the presence of one Muslim on Java mark Islamization? Or are we to await the first funerary stone of a 13th century king of Sumatra?
How would you describe Cairo’s influence on Indonesian Islam?
Although it was long known as an authoritative center, with there being evidence of Indonesians seeking juridical opinions from Al-Azhar in the 17th century at the latest, Cairo really only became a scholarly destination in the 19th century.
While many were attracted to the modernist offerings of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida at the turn of the 20th century and then the revised curriculum of Al-Azhar in the decades thereafter, it is perhaps fair to say that there is as much diversity among Indonesians in Egypt as there is at home, so it is too easy to overstate Cairo’s influence.
Certainly, the expanding network of Azharite graduates is having an influence in the country today, but they tend to find a place alongside graduates of other distinguished centers abroad, and indeed at home.
What do you think about the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) and the historical place this body will have in Indonesia, especially that the MUI has gone to Cairo and then come back to participate in Indonesian politics?
I am not so sure that reception in Cairo is anything for MUI other than a source of validation. This body, which now takes in thinkers from a variety of perspectives, has rather successfully reinvented itself over the past decades from being a state-sponsored body that was required to sanction the decisions of the regime to one seen by increasing numbers of Muslims as one that carries authority in its own right.
That said, the various fatwas and edicts that it releases are only effective when people choose to heed them, though time will tell as to whether the state continues to back up or counter its influence depending on the question of the day. Certainly, the recent persecution of [religious minority group] Ahmadiyah is an example of how far things can go when those accused of deviance have little popular support and less state protection.
You’ve spoken about Indonesian Islam as a form that many outsiders view as an ideal form. In recent years, do you think this idea has influenced Islam within Indonesia?
I think that some Indonesian thinkers and outsiders have often chosen to see a sunny future for Islam in Indonesia. Certainly, the democratic developments here seem to offer great promise to other countries undergoing the sorts of radical changes that wracked Indonesia in the late 1990s.
Yet at the same time, the openness of the public sphere, in which all manner of views about tolerance and acceptable practice are put forward, now makes it plain that one cannot rest on a stereotypical view of Indonesians as being somehow more relaxed and open to some sort of Western-dictated modernity.
The influence, in any case, of the view of Indonesian Islam as being distinct has been held up domestically against the influence of groups that, rather like the colonialists themselves, take an outside perspective and view Indonesian Muslims as deficient, and thus seek to impose a more standardized form of daily praxis that some Indonesians label as ‘Arab.’ The truth is that Islam in Indonesia has long reflected currents of thinking and behavior that are subject to as much change beyond the archipelago as within it.
What do you think the trajectory of Indonesian Islam will be?
Given I am more a historian than a soothsayer, I won’t make any predictions beyond saying that Indonesians are ever more aware of the latest trends in Islamic thought and politics abroad and will make their own decisions as to what suits their own needs in years to come.
Picture: Historian Michael Laffan’s new book explores the influences of trade, travel and traditions on the spread of Islam in Indonesia. Photo: courtesy of Princeton University Press.