He was born in Kota Gadang, West Sumatra, on 8 October 1884. Indonesian people often call him Haji Agus Salim or The Grand Old Man due to his life devoted to Indonesian independence and diplomacy. His first name was Masjudul Haq which means the defender of the truth.
At the beginning, Salim was interested in studying medicine. So, he tried to apply scholarship but he failed. At the age of 22, he took a job at the Dutch consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia respecting his mother’s last wish who expected him to study religious science from his uncle, Syaikh Ahmad Khatib. Briefly Salim had studied Islam since his childhood.
In his speeches of public lecture at Cornell University in 1953, the theme of Islam has become a major focus. Islam in what Salim thought was not interpreted with a particular religious identity but it was an attitude of resignation, submission and surrender (islam). Therefore, Islam in the Koran basically doesn’t refer to any particular religion.
Salim has expressed often the meaning of Islam as submission and resignation as recorded in the Koran. Consequently Muslims are basically people who have surrendered to the submission to the rule. The interpretation was reasonable considering him as a person who could understand and speak Arabic very well.
In explaining Islam, Salim was inspired by a verse in Koran which states that the true religion (din) is the sight of God is Islam (Ali Imran: 19). According to Salim, din is generally translated as agama (religion)—a term that is familiar. But it actually has various meanings that could be interpreted as to serve and to obey. In many religious books, din also means a law which can determine that everything is a virtue when we obey and vice versa.
The logical consequence of the meaning of Islam that had been conveyed by Salim is that Islam is fundamentally inclusive and it doesn’t refer to a particular religious identity formally. It is Islam that teaches submission and obedience to His rules. In other words, Islam in his view is any religion that teaches those attitudes.
Observing the phenomenon of today’s religious life, the tendency that is happening among Muslims is the strengthening of narrow Islamic patterns. They fall in blind fanaticism and act as if their faith they believe in is the only truth. It even led to intensified intolerance which is not in line with our diversity.
The diversity is not always accepted openly in Indonesia, particularly in the religious life. From year to year, the level of religious intolerance always increases. The Wahid Institute’s annual report (2013) on violations of freedom of worship and intolerance noted that in 2008, the amount of intolerance range was in 105 cases. In 2013, the practices of intolerance had increased to 245 cases.
Intolerance itself implies the inability of society to face the differences and the inability to live together in the midst of a plural society. But unfortunately the government didn’t act decisively in this matter. In most cases, the act of intolerance in Indonesia was based on religion or belief that causes the misdirection of other religious sects such as intimidation, discrimination, threats of violence, assault, and destruction of houses of worship.
The act of intolerance that has occurred in Indonesia also reflects the diversity of social patterns that become increasingly exclusive. Muslims can’t accept the differences and that’s why they often misdirect others under the pretext of deception. In their view, there is only one truth in Islam and the truth can only be obtained through their religiosity.
The phenomenon I mentioned above must not be in line with what Salim aspired. He said that the understanding of Islam should not be narrowed. Islam has become a religion of the “institutionalized”, whereas Islam was not revealed to remove any religion. In Salim’s view, Islam was revealed to be the grace of universe and the essence of all religions. Islam has always been based on the spirit of openness to spread love and peace.
In addition to the meaning of Islam, Salim in one shot had ever delivered a Friday sermon talking the unity of Islam in 1923. The starting point of Salim’s discourse was a verse of Ali Imran: 103:
“And hold fast, all together, unto the bond with God, and do not draw apart from one another. And remember the blessings which God has bestowed upon you: how, when you were enemies, He brought your hearts together, so that through His blessing you became brethren; and [how, when] you were on the brink of a fiery abyss, He saved you from it. In this way God makes clear His messages unto you, so that you might find guidance.”
Islamic unity in Salim’s view is the unity that has a foundation of faith to ethics and purposes of everyday life. Islamic unity he aspired was not something impossible or utopia but it was something that is always related to charity and efforts for the struggle of independence. In other words, the unity of Islam in Salim’s speech was in the context of Indonesia. It was reasonable considering Islam at the time as the identity of the indigenous (pribumi).
In the years before independence, Islamic identity that was synonymous with the identity of indigenous is very important to emphasize. Because, Islam at the time referred to an ideological struggle against the occupation and it was proven by the establishment of the Sarekat Islam (SI). In addition to that, Sukarno delivered a speech about Islam that could go along with nationalism and Marxism in 1926.
Islamic unity presented by Salim in his sermon will be more meaningful if it is associated with what is still happening today. The Friday preachers now still convey the themes that are actually irrelevant. They focus on the Islamic unity, whereas the national unity is more needed.
What Salim had conveyed about Islamic unity was essentially linked to national unity. Therefore, a Friday preacher should deliver a national vision and negate the hatred that always produces hatred. With that sort of vision, a preacher can become meaningful when he focuses more on national unity than Islamic unity.
What is occurring at this time just is the opposite. Instead of understanding Indonesia Islam deeply, most Muslims try to imitate the lifestyle of a certain Islamic nation due to their inferiority. The trend of hijab and separating men and women in public forum are the examples that show the lack of confidence of their national identity.
Salim criticized such religious patterns. For him, separating men and women in public forum is the Arab habit and it is not in accordance with the teachings of Islam which supports the emancipation of women that exists in Koran.
Besides the issue of the veil that came from Arab customs, Salim also spoke about the importance of our confidence as a nation of Indonesia. Although he had deep insight of Islam and mastering several foreign languages, he never changed the accent. “We don’t need to apologize because we can’t change our tongue and that would actually show our weakness. Importantly, don’t violate the rules of the language,” he said (Roem, 1977).
What Salim elaborated about Islam should be understood very well in order to counter Islamic radicalism that grows day by day. Islam in salim’s view is Islam that has a spirit of dynamic changes without negating its basic principle: tauhid.