How would one define Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago) and how does it differ from Islam of other regions around the world? The concept is the major theme of the Nahdlatul Ulama’s (NU’s) 2015 congress next month. This has become a topic of discourse and to some extent has led to a counterproductive debate in regard to the name, not the substance. Indeed it is possible to define Islam Nusantara, both theoretically and practically. Attaching an attribution — be it a school of thought, an ideological interpretation or even a region — to the word “Islam” for the sake of description or to emphasize its different interpretations or empirical implementation is theoretically plausible and has a precedent in Islamic history.
In the formative era of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) or in the early Abbasid era, there were the ahl al-hadith or the traditionalists in Hijaz emphasizing textual and Medinan living traditions (known also as fiqh-Hijazi). There was also the ahl al-ra’yi or the rationalists in Iraq emphasizing the use of independent reasoning and maslahat or general good (known also as fiqh-Iraqi). The traditionalists and rationalists have led to the birth of two out of four major Sunni schools of fiqh: Hanafiyyah in Iraq and Malikiyyah in Hijaz.
This case reflects how different contexts lead to different interpretations in the early history of Islam. Their difference was even at the epistemological level — this is why they are called madhhab. This also forms a counterexample for those who argue that there is only one Islam and that adding an attribution after the word “Islam” thus implies that Islam in itself is not yet enough so that it needs to change according to different surrounding circumstances. In fact, from its early history, Islam (or, to be precise, fiqh, as it has very much to do with the understanding of rules) has always adapted to the place and time where it sits. With different places, you will have different faces of Islam.
Now, does Islam in Nusantara have a method of interpretation distinct from that of any other region? It does not, at least as seen from the mainstream. Islam Nusantara does not bring any new way of interpretation. In fact, Islam’s “orthodoxy” formation in general has come to an end; and there is little sign so far that radical criticism of the conservative interpretation will emerge — unless some dare to re-enliven the interpretations brought up by, for instance, Indonesia’s “liberal” Muslims, a blooming movement in the early years of last decade.
In the middle of the last century, some Indonesian Muslim scholars offered what they called Indonesian fiqh, to refer to a fiqh that adapts to or takes into consideration the legitimacy of the local custom or ‘urf. This idea was popularized by, among others, the professors M. Hasbi Ash-Shiddieqy and Munawir Sjadzali, the late former religious affairs minister. Among others, Ash-Shiddieqy said the shaking of hands between men and women who were not related was allowed since it was unproblematic in the customs of Indonesia. Among the opinions brought up by Sjadzali was that, contrary to the traditional opinion of Muslim jurists on division of inheritance, in which men get double compared to women, Indonesian women may get equal rations with men.
The professor based his arguments on the experience at the iconic Klewer Market in Surakarta, where most traders were women while their husbands were unemployed. Given this precedent and scholarly legitimacy, then, NU’s task in defining and promoting Islam Nusantara is to further such ideas.
Therefore, if Islam Nusantara is defined as an interpretation of Islam that takes into account local Indonesian customs in forming its fiqh, it is fully understood even in the light of Islamic legal tradition, and it is, once again, not new. The new aspect is merely the name. The idea underlying the notion of Islam Nusantara is the same as Islam in any other region where Islam has interaction with local culture. Recently, European Islam was ascribed to the renowned Tariq Ramadan, in reference to Islam that has interacted with the culture and values of Europe, including its politics and secular ideas such as human rights, democracy, liberalism, etc.
With regard to Islam Nusantara, among its empirical implementations is NU’s preservation of such traditions like prayers for the dead (tahlilan), prayer gatherings and meals to ensure the safety of important events (slametan), pilgrimage to the graves of forebears or those considered saints (ziarah) or even homecoming or mudik for Idul Fitri, and so on. These are among the traditions that relatively constitute the uniqueness of Islam’s face as implanted in Nusantara, even before the archipelago was named Indonesia. Also, in terms of Indonesia as a state, NU, along with Muhammadiyah, has accepted the Pancasila state ideology as a consensus between the secular nationalists and the Islamists. This acceptance of Pancasila, a political maneuver where Islam is not formally stated in the Constitution, has to some extent exempted Indonesia from the civil war of Middle Eastern countries, which was not helped by the absence of reconciliation among the religious and the secular factions.
However, modern challenges should be faced by Islam Nusantara, as the 21st century’s challenges are not the same as those of the last century. If Islam Nusantara is merely defined in the light of traditional Islamic concept of ‘urf, it is not enough for our 21st century problems.
How would Muslims of Nusantara deal with Shiites and Ahmadis, for instance, who are regarded as deviantor even infidels (kafir), by some Muslims? This is one of the major problems of today’s Indonesian religious life. No doubt, this judgment of deviance or infidelity leads to discrimination. One also cannot deny that those discriminating against the Shiites, leading them to flee their villages in Sampang in Madura, East Java, are people of NU. In this respect, if Islam Nusantara has no proposed solution for such problems and there is no effort to handle reconciliation and put an end to injustice undergone by Shiites and Ahmadis, Islam Nusantara is merely a new name for old content.