Home » Education » University » Where to Study Indonesian Islam?

Where to Study Indonesian Islam?

OurIndonesia – For many, to study Islam is to go to Islamic institutions. That’s why some students go to the Middle East or to local Islamic higher learning institutions such as the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta or Yogyakarta. This is partly true if you mean by “study” is to convert to certain understanding of Islam. But it’s certainly wrong if you mean by “study” is exploring knowledge.

Religion as a knowledge does not belong to religious institutions, but rather to secular high-learning colleges. And if we speak about qualified high learning institutions, Western universities are the most competitive ones. Thus, if you want to study Islam, particularly Indonesian Islam, it is not in UIN or in the Middle Eastern institutions, but rather in such universities as in the Netherlands, the United States, or Australia. Let me explain why.

Like many other branches of disciplines, Islam has become knowledge, even an industry. For some, it is not only a religion, but also a career. In the past, centers of Islamic studies were designed to produce imams or religious leaders. In the meantime, however, they are designed to produce professionals to fill the post in some bureaucratic positions, either in the government owned institutions (such as the Ministry of Religion) or private sectors (such as law firms, think tanks, and research centers).

In other words, studying Islam is not merely studying its doctrinal aspects, but also exploring many aspects of its related disciplines. Thus, apart from studying theology, in the centers of Islamic studies, students are also required to study sociology, anthropology, psychology, and political science.

It is quite unfortunate that the traditional Islamic learning institutions in the Muslim world fail to understand this changing situation. The world has changed and the way people perceive the reality has also changed. The paradigm that the learning Islamic centers are solely the place for producing imams or religious preachers should totally be revised. Islamic learning centers cannot compete with the mushrooming imams and religious preachers who seem to come out of nowhere.

In Indonesia, as we can easily observe, to become an imam or religious preacher has unfortunately nothing much to do with knowledge. It is about oratorical skill and how smart someone in using religious rhetorics. People who have no background in Islamic studies could be imams or successful evangelist had they been able to attract the audience to listen to their speech. As a matter of fact, many of them have poor religious knowledge. Only by citing one or two verses of the Quran in addition to putting on the Arab garbs, they could claim to have held the authority of the religion. Naively, people listen to them.

Meanwhile, students who really studied Islam rarely could do that. Of course, some of them could manage it, but the number is still lower compared to the number of graduates the Islamic centers have had produced. After all, the Islamic centers were not designed to produce such religious celebrities or televangelists.

Knowledge Resources. In the Western world, centers of Islamic studies are designed to produce scholars and experts. Whether in the future the students are going to be imams or religious teachers, it is entirely up to them. Centers of Islamic studies are part of university, and the role of university is to inculcate science and knowledge to the students. No more, no less.

It is no wonder if then the university treats the centers highly professionally. The University of Melbourne where I graduated, for example, would promote its program of Islamic Studies like the department of International Studies or Anthropology or Media Studies. The students of Islamic Studies, as its ads said, could get their career in areas such as “foreign affairs, international trade, immigration, ethnic affairs, journalism, social work and teaching.”

What is fascinating and important about Islamic learning centers in the West is not only their treatment of the discipline, but also the way they handle the knowledge resources.

Nowadays, if you want to study Islam, it is not in Mecca or in Cairo, but in Boston, Chicago, or Oxford, where you can find the best resources (books, articles, audio-video materials, etc). Similarly, if you want to study Indonesian Islam, it is not in Jakarta or in Yogyakarta, but in Leiden, Manoa, Melbourne, or Canberra.

Figure: Books on Indonesian Islam in Five Major Western Libraries

Library Indonesian Language All Languages
KITLV Leiden 8,681 10,099
Cornell University 4,852 5,601
Library of Congress 3,885 4,928
University of Hawaii 2,919 3,328
Australian National University 1,460 1,992


Based on my recent finding, the best institute that has great collection on Indonesian Islam is KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) of Leiden University. It has more than 10,000 books on Indonesian Islam in various languages and no less than 8,000 books in Indonesian language. The library outnumbered the collection of the Library of Congress in the United States, whose collection of Indonesian Islam has now reached 4,928 books of which 3,885 are in Indonesian language (see the figure).

United States remains the country whose universities have good collections of books on Indonesia. Cornell University used to be the Mecca for Indonesian studies. Despite the fact that its role has now been replaced by Australian universities (particularly ANU, Melbourne, and Monash), its library is still the the richest amongst other libraries in the world with regard to its collections of books on Indonesian Islam. Whereas in Australia, Australian National University has also been recognized for having a large collection of Indonesian studies. So far, it is the best university in Australia for studying Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

So, anytime you consider to study Islam, especially Indonesian Islam, you know where to go.


This article is originally published in the Jakarta Post.