llectual life is rich and vibrant, it is little known elsewhere, primarily because most Indonesian scholars write in the Indonesian language and not in English.
Among the most well-known Indonesian writers on Islam is Nurcholish Madjid, rector of the Paramadina University, Jakarta. This collection of essays is the first major English translation of Madjid’s writings. The essays cover a diverse range of issues but are shaped by a common concern for an understanding of Islam that takes into account the myriad challenges that Indonesia is today faced with. They reflect Madjid’s quest for developing a contextually relevant interpretation of Islam that, departing from traditional notions in some significant respects, can help in the process of building a pluralist and more democratic society based on social justice.
Madjid’s search for a contextual Indonesian Islamic theology draws upon his understanding of what he calls the underlying ‘spirit’ of Islam. Like other Muslim liberals, he makes a distinction between the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of religious tradition, insisting that the former must be given primacy over the latter. This opens up the possibility of novel ways of dealing with a host of issues of contemporary concern-from popular culture, women’s rights and religious pluralism to the nature of the polity-that might depart from earlier models that are rooted in the corpus of traditional juridical opinions or fiqh. Madjid sees these new perspectives as emanating from a process of ijtihad, which he defines as ‘a method of rational and realistic interpretation of Islam’ based on the principle of ‘public interest’ (p. 60). If equality and social justice are cardinal pillars of Islam, then, he says, developing new ways of imagining Islamic law through ijtihad are required in order to realise core Islamic values in today’s context, although this does not mean that tradition must be wholly jettisoned. Based on this interpretation of ijtihad, Madjid argues that gender equality and equal treatment by the state of all citizens irrespective of religion are actually in accordance with the spirit of Islam, although he recognizes that this argument departs in significant respects from traditional fiqh understandings. Likewise, Madjid makes the interesting conceptual distinction between Islam as a religion and Arab culture, critiquing the deeply-rooted notion that the two are somehow inseparable. By distinguishing between the two he is able to argue for diverse culturally-rooted local expressions of Islam that, he argues, are equally ‘Islamic’ in content and in spirit.
The question of the ‘Islamic state’ is discussed in considerable detail in the book, and Madjid strongly opposes this notion, which he sees as a recent ideological construct of modern-educated apologists. To reduce Islam to an ideology, he seems to argue, is to bring it down to the level of the profane. It can then be open to manipulation by vested interests, who might seek to impose their own limited notions of Islam in the name of God’s religion, a crime which Madjid equates with the sin of shirk or polytheism. God, Madjid writes, is beyond full human comprehension. Since every understanding of religion, including of Islam, is limited simply by the fact that humans are not infallible, for the state to impose a certain understanding of Islam is to seek to play God, a heinous sin in Islam. Furthermore, he says, a state based on a particular religion can easily degenerate into dictatorship and oppression, and this Madjid sees as clearly un-Islamic. Asserting that politics are ‘not an absolute part of the core of Islam’ (p.64), he insists that the distinction between the sacred and secular realms must be maintained, although he also argues that religious values, such as social justice and democratic governance, must influence political affairs. In this regard, he sees all religions having a role to play, for they are all seen as sharing a commitment to certain...
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