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Nurcholish Madjid (Foto: andriewongso.com)

Islam is a Hybrid Religion

OurIndonesia – I have just come from Los Angeles and Berkeley to join an activity regarding Indonesia at both universities, Berkeley and UCLA. There is a mixed feeling from the outsiders’ point of view toward the diversity of Indonesia. On one hand there are hopes, on the other hand there are worries. The problem now is to manifest and increase those hopes and reduce the worries, and to eliminate it at all if we could.

For example concerning Islam. Indonesia now is hit by several symptoms that are identified by the westerners as extremism or fundamentalism. They are very worried of these symptoms. But whenever we remind them that those all are occurring in the civil liberties arena, their worries decreased.

All the appeared symptoms recently are a part of the freedom of discussing or liberty discourse. By these liberty discourse, its not only the clarities which is achieved, but also the process of relativisation, and even the process of devaluation.

For example: Jihad. Nowadays jihad becomes a word that is a part of common discourse. In the discussions about jihad, the productiveness to make an argument belonged by them who are reading. For who are not, even if they regularly use jihad as rhetoric, sooner or later lose its base and balance.

Then, the word jihad that had been terrifying formerly, now undertaking the clarifications. By that clarification, the devaluation upon the meaning of jihad occurred as public rhetoric, and therefore become merely daily issues.

During the ‘eighties there was an Islamic revival. Today however the Islamic world is experiencing a crisis. Part of this lies in its confrontational attitude or feeling towards the West. I call this a “feeling”, because the actual confrontation does not exist.

What exists is the perception as the result of historical experience, which is rhetorically repeated: the crusades, invasion, etcetera. So that matter precipitates within the Muslim’s consciousness and what emerges is a symptom that appears as anti-Western.

Actually it is an anomaly, because the Qur’an itself indicates that when the world was divided into Rome (west) and Persia (east), the Muslims sided with Rome, and not with Persia. Similarly the surah Al Rum, which delivered the news to the prophet Muhammad’s followers about the defeat of Rome by the Persians, made the people of Mecca, the prophet’s enemies happy.

Although geographically Arabia was connected with Persia, much of Arab Jazeera endured Persianisation. Nevertheless, the heart of Muslim is actually closer to that of Rome because of the connection with the Christianity.

That potential for conflict is conveyed by scholars like Simon van Den Berg, the interpreter of the polemic book of Averroes, Tahafut al-Tahafut, which is so famous and which has influenced the ways of thinking of many Muslims. In the preface, van Den Berg said that this connection is one important feature of Islam that Westerners do not understand.

He said: “if it is true that we could say the western culture is actually Maria Sopra Minerva –the Christian religion adapted to local cultural conditions — then the Islam is also built upon Greek culture. So, what is called as Kalam science (logic), theologia, is an adaptation –at least from the methodological side- of the Greek philosopher’s Aristotlean way of thinking.

The people called ahlussunah waljama’ah were followers of al-Asy’ari whose definition of God is very Aristotelian. For example, we have the sayings ofwajib, mubah (allowed),and mustahil (impossible) and think of God as eternal (qadim).

Logically God must be qadim which must be alpha, meaning having no beginning and making it impossible for God to be jadee (new) or preceded by his non-existence. So the words wajib and mustahil, which are central to the kalam discourse among the ahlussunah, are based in Aristotelian logic.

According to Ibn Taimiyah, God’s 20 Aristotlean attributes are bid’ah. It is true that God is qadim, but, Ibn taimiyah said, “so what?” rationally it is true, but what is the function? In those 20 attributes, ghafur (the merciful) and wadud(the lover) are excluded. The reason is because it is impossible to formulate through Aristotelian logic that “God rationally must be merciful” though that God exists without beginning can be understood rationally.

Islamic culture is an amalgam, a hybrid of several cultures. Consider the mosque as the most basic example. At Pondok Indah there is a mosque called the blue mosque. There is no mihrab (chamber) and no small place for an imam in the front. Why? Because its architect, Ismail Sufyan, believed that themihrab imitates the structure of churches.

But if he is to take this to its logical completion, there should be no minaret or tower because the minaret is an adaptation from Persian Zoroastrian architecture. “Manarah” means the fireplace, because the Zoroastrians understand God as a substance that cannot be illustrated. So they symbolized him in terms of fire as fire is a substance that is beyond description.

That is why Zoroastrians are often thought to be fire worshippers. To strengthen the holiness of fire, the fire is kept in a high building, called manarah, the fireplace, thus the derivation of the word “minaret”. This explanation has been completely distorted in the popular saying: when the baby prophet Muhammad was born, the minaret of the Zoroastrians fell.

So, when the Islamic ummah developed and the sound of the azan (call to prayer realted to azan meaning in the high place)was intended to reach the widest radius as possible, the architects borrowed this feature of Zoroastrian architecture.

In the prophet’s time, azan’s simply used the roofs, for example as in the case of Bilal, the muezzin of the Prophet. Thus the story of how the minaret became part of Islamic culture is another example of the hybrid nature of Islam as well as the fact that culture is not an exclusive and monolithic phenomenon but complex and constantly changing.

There is also no such thing as a pure Arabic language and the Qur’an’s language is itself a hybrid of many languages. According to an Arabian ulama who lived 1100 years ago, in his book Al-Mu’arrab, there are many central terms derived from other languages.

For instance the word and term shirath;al-shirath al-mustaqim (the straight path) is derived from the Latin languagestrada. Al-qisth (justice) is derived from the Greek Qisth which in the English language became just. Qishtash is justice. In short, the Arabic language of the Qur’an is not pure Arabic.

There is also Malay language Inside the Qur’an: kafur. In an illustration “we would be given in heaven a beverage of kafur.” (wayusqauna biha ka’san kana mizajuha kafura). Kafur was at that time an important commodity in the Middle East, possibly even so in the age of prophet Solomon.

The term kafur baruswas not used for bedbug as we use it nowadays, but as a word for an expensive beverage imported from Barus. “Kafur” thus served as a symbol of luxury in the Qur’an. Thus you can see that words and their meanings can even dramatically change over time and that culture is definitely not monolithic and static. Everything is hybrid.


This article is a part of public lecture of Prof Dr Nurcholis madjid at Taman Ismail Marzuki in the ceremony of Islamic Cultural Center (ICC). Its Indonesian version was published in IslamLib.