The 90-minute film Rahmat Islam Nusantara (promoted in English as The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam) has attracted international attention, along with the idea of Islam Nusantara, after a piece about it appeared in The New York Times. Sharing the theme of Nahdlatul Ulama’s (NU) national congress several months ago, the film was intended to share the idea of Islam Nusantara, Indonesia’s unique style of Islam, with a global audience. The filmmaker wants the international community to see that there are traditional interpretations of Islam that are friendly to local cultures, which are not found in any of the other Muslim-majority countries.
Indeed, being home to the world’s largest Muslim population, the concept of Islam Nusantara basically conveys the message that Indonesian Islam, despite being miles away from the birthplace of Islam, should not be treated as a peripheral tradition while “Arabic Islam” is at the center of the Muslim world. This is one of the problems of today’s international discourse on Islam.
Instead, particularly in today’s context where the international image of Islam is tarnished by the bombings and beheadings committed by the Islamic State (IS) movement and political chaos in the Middle East, Islam Nusantara has the power to change people’s perceptions. Islam has been a major force in the democratization process since the Reform era in Indonesia, and in this respect Indonesia is an answer to the classic question of whether democracy is compatible with Islam (or, to be more precise, Muslims).
The report in The New York Times, along with positive responses from other international media, were right in the premise that Islam Nusantara is a challenge to the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. Indeed, NU was initially founded as a response to Wahhabism: it tried to preserve local Islamic cultures that are legitimate under NU’s Sunni Islam, but considered degradations or violations of the tauhid principle according to the Wahhabists.In this respect, Islam Nusantara is indeed a challenge to IS, as the group’s theology exemplifies Wahhabism.
The radical group’s destruction of the tombs of respectable Muslim scholars and saints, its rigid interpretation of tauhid/monotheism, its narrow definition of what a real Muslim is and should be, the ease with which it declares other Muslims infidels — these are all manifestations of Wahhabism. Thus, Islam Nusantara can lead the theological battle against IS. What Indonesian Muslims perhaps need is more confidence that now is a good time for Islam Nusantara to be further exposed to a global audience via stepping up institutional initiatives.
A critical factor that should be taken into consideration is that some violent acts of IS are not ramifications of, or unique to Wahhabism; they have precedence in the canonical books of fiqh the opinions of classical Muslim jurists. In this regard, good examples are the death penalty for apostasy and homosexual acts (some add heresy and blasphemy as capital offenses), cutting off the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, killing or enslaving captives of war and other Islamic laws regarding crime and punishment (al-hudud wal-jinaya).
These punishments are not unique to Wahhabism. Some of them are even stated explicitly in Islamic scripture; and have been deemed permissible by many Muslim jurists in the pre-modern era. This is why for many Muslims, it is sometimes not easy to say that some of the violent acts of IS are un-Islamic.
I myself was engaged in a discussion of Islamic issues with some young NU intellectuals and activists a few weeks ago, and we found it difficult to claim that the aforementioned punishments were un-Islamic, simply because they have precedence in classical Islamic law. Therefore, to delegitimize them would require a relatively new and sophisticated approach to the Islamic philosophy of law.
Just take the example of slavery Muslims can say whatever they want about Islam’s good treatment of slaves or Islam’s gradual movement toward the abolition of slavery. Yet one cannot find any explicit statement both in Islamic scripture and the classical books of fiqh that prohibits slavery. Even the “Open Letter to Baghdadi” signed by hundreds of the world’s leading Muslim scholars (which seems to have received less exposure in the international media) could not provide explicit scriptural support for the prohibition of slavery.
What we can see in these Islamic jurisprudential issues is that, at least on a practical level, some of the stipulations of Islamic law that were normal in the pre-modern era are no longer considered so in the 21st century, even by many Muslims themselves. And on a theoretical level, these stipulations can still be found in the books of fiqh that are studied by most Muslims around the globe, including in the Indonesian archipelago.
The theological and legal schools of thought embraced by NU’s followers are basically similar to the majority of Sunni Muslims around the globe: Ashariyah/Maturidiyah theology and the four Sunni jurisprudential schools of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. This is why we have Muslim modernists or reformists who are attempting to reinterpret some Islamic teachings that are in opposition with the zeitgeist of the 21st century.
So, the primary question is: how does one delegitimize the violent acts of IS and say that they are un-Islamic? I do not think that the ideas of Islam Nusantara are enough to combat IS on this point. There must be something more than a theological battle. One could propose a reform of Islamic teachings, particularly in regard to legal issues. Others could propose a revision or even abrogation of some Islamic teachings. At the end of the day, if we are to carry out an ideological fight against IS based in Islamic theology, a reinterpretation of some Islamic teachings grounded in a well-developed philosophy is a must.