Home » Religion » Islam » Popular Islam
Indonesian Muslims attend Friday prayers at the Istiqlal mosque (Photo: WSJ)

Popular Islam

OurIndonesia – Unlike Islam in the Middle East or Classic India, Indonesia has never recognized the power structure of Imperial-Islam. The pre-colonial Islamic sultanates are local products, the result of a dialectic between the large tradition and the small traditions which vary from one area to another .

Islam’s expansion across the Indonesian islands through trade resulted in a multipolar organizational nature of pre-colonial Islam. Pre-colonial Muslim guilds always emerged to contest the power of the “state’s” authority. In several “city states” along the Indonesian archipelago –like at Banten, Demak, Gresik at Java, and Pasai at Aceh, Goa at Celebes, or Bacan at the Moluccas, for instance, the guild-trade organizations of the Muslims frequently limited the monarchy’s authority.

Western colonialism’s arrival prevented the success of “Islamic Protestantism” in Indonesia. Colonialism destroyed the middle class economic basis of the Muslim trade, marginalizing the Muslims economically and politically, and leading Islam into an enduring peasantization.

From the commercial and “royal” culture, Islam underwent what is called ruralisation. The elimination of theulama’s authority from the indigenous bureaucracy eventually caused them to move downward, and develop what is called as “popular Islam”, a form of Islam that is centered in the Islamic boarding schools.

The popular Islam tradition since the 18th century that is more socially basedseems to have contributed to the long-term foundation of Indonesian politics in the 20th century. Yet the market of indigenous political ideology has also been influenced by nationalism and socialism, although neither can challence the breadth and depth of popular Islam.

In the 20th century popular Islam became the essential factor for the growth of anti-colonial political movements. Popular Islam also became the basic material for the growth of non-state organizations, extrastate, with their civil political agendas. Finally, in its interaction with the ideological sources of other anti-colonialism movement, such as nationalism and socialism, popular Islam has become differentiated.

In the national politic constellation, popular Islam eventually interacts with the sources of the wider movement and thought at the same time as differentiation and pluralism occur. Popular Islam from independence up to the Suharto era was not only the domain of the traditionalists, but also of the modernists and liberalists (or “secularists”).

Observing the developments that have occurred throughout the independence period up to the new order (Suharto era), popular Islam’s differentiation and pluralisation has also created polarizations at the political level. This polarization was particularly notable when the modernists come into the state sector through ICMI, while the traditionalists, represented by NU, maintained their social basis.

Interesting transformations have been occurring rapidly during the last decade. The reformation movement has not led ICMI in building their social-politic and economic infrastructure, whereas the traditionalist through their new political party PKB, enabled Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) to become the president and invited NU to come into the state sector for the first time after more than eight decades of being on the outside.

Nevertheless, NU, PKB and Gus Dur had been holding out for 9 months. Like ICMI, they don’t have enough time to build the political-economic infrastructure through gaining access to wider economic and political power sources. Gus Dur’s dismissal from the government also symbolized a bigger symptom: the re-dismissal of NU and traditional Islam by the state. Is this symptom permanent, is NU destined by history to remain outside the system? What is their next role in relation to the state?

At the same time, the liberal Islam circle – which emerged from the latest generation does not have enough resources yet to play a more concrete social-political role. It however, must be counted as a new potential source for the development of popular-Islam discourse. We are waiting for their role in the future, considering their strategic potency for the urban sector.

The popular Islam we know nowadays, in the variants of traditionalist, modernist or liberalist, has provided structural and ideal precedents for the growth of civil-politics, civil society, and civil democracy. Whatever the diversity of discourse, interest, and role of those three variants at the politic, social and cultural sector, inside and outside the country, the popular Islam’s resources they manifest in several articulations has enriched our choices to construct democracy amongst the ummah.

It depends on us, how we manage that rich inheritance and rearticulate it with a social and religious discourse that is compatible with our context now – pluralism, freedom and social dignity.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.