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Rasjidi, Muhammad

Azyumardi Azra
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Rasjidi, Muhammad

Muhammad Rasjidi, a prominent figure in modern Indonesia, was known not only as the first minister of religious affairs of the Republic of Indonesia but also as an intellectual, academician, and a reformist-polemicist later in his life. As a result, he is often regarded as a contradictory person in certain aspects of his thought.

Education and Travels

Rasjidi was born on A.H. 15 Rajab 1333 / 20 May 1915 C.E. in Kotagede, a small village in Yogjakarta, the capital city of what is now the special region of Yogjakarta, Central Java. His original name was Saridi, which sounds very Javanese. Later Ahmad Syurkati, the reformist leader of Persis (Persatuan Islam, or Islamic Union) gave him a very Islamic name, Muhammad Rasjidi. In his memoir, he admitted that he was raised in an abangan (nominal Muslim) Javanese family:

"I am an Indonesian citizen from Javanese ethnic group. My family was the one that was usually called keluarga abangan [nominal Muslim family], meaning that they were adherents of Islam but did not practice its rituals in daily life. I studied Islam and it was hard for me to perform the five daily prayers regularly and often failed to do them, and I also often perform them in one single time, this is called qadha. The Javanese called it kolo. It is only after I got older I was able to do Islamic rituals in designated time. In my soul there was an “abangan Islam—the Islam of those people who did not have knowledge and understanding of Islam; Islam that was adhered to by my father, Atmosudigdo. I was able to sing pangkur, mijil, kianti [all Javanese traditional songs]; I was able to write Javanese characters; when I got married, I chose to wear blankon and wiron [traditional Javanese outfits]. I love to listen to gamelan, to watch human wayang and serimpi dance.… But in my soul there was also orthodox Islam; I memorized the Alfiyah of Imam Malik, Matan Rahbiyyah and many others.… But I was also a modern Muslim. Even though I did not study at Dutch school, but I was able to read books in Dutch. In addition, I was fluent in English and French.” (Rasjidi, 1968, pp. 9, 10, 11)"

Rasjidi’s personal account reflects the syncretic Islamic religious life in Java at the time. He was, however, brought up by his father in the Islamic tradition and was taught by a private teacher to read the Qurʾān. Later, he was sent to Ongko Loro, a Dutch-style school that used Javanese as its language of instruction. Later, most likely on the request of his father, he moved to a Volk [primary] school affiliated with the reformist Muhammadiyah movement. Saridi found that Muhammadiyah schools were much better, because they taught students not only “general” or secular sciences but also religious subjects. Later he continued his education at Muhammadiyah Kweekschool, a Dutch-style teacher school.

But Saridi was not satisfied with the rote-learning method prevalent at his schools. From this dissatisfaction came his intellectual and spiritual search. He began to read newspapers like Swara Oemoem and Kedjawen, and through this reading he discovered that Ahmad Syurkati, the chief leader of Al-Irsyad, a reformist organization, had founded a school in Lawang, East Java. He wrote to Syurkati, who accepted him as his student. However, Saridi soon became dissatisfied with the Irsyad school, which he found to be similar to the Muhammadiyah ones. That is why he sought yet another school. But before he left Lawang, he was granted by Syurkati a new name, Muhammad Rasjidi, which he would adopt only after he returned from the ḥajj pilgrimage to Mecca a few years later.

Even though Rasjidi was not satisfied with the Muhammadiyah and Al-Irsyad schools, he owed an intellectual debt to both of them. His early questing educational experience is the origin of the passionate reforming zeal that contributed to his prominence as one of the most outstanding figures of Islamic reformism in Indonesia.

His reformism also arose from Cairo, where he began his study in 1931—but not from the al-Azhar University, where he initially studied. He was in fact dissatisfied with the Azhar education system, which proved similar to that of pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding schools) in Indonesia. That is why he moved to Cairo University together with his fellow Kotagede Kahar Muzakir, who introduced him to Sayyid Qutb, the future leader of the Ikhwān al-Muslimūn, or Muslim Brotherhood. At Cairo University Rasjidi studied philosophy—still then considered by many to be an “un-Islamic” subject; there were only six students in his class, and he gained his B.A. from the university. In addition to his studies, Rasjidi was active in Jamʿiyyah al-Khayriyyah al-Talabiyyah al-Jawiyyah (est. 1931; later Persatuan Pemuda Indonesia-Malaya/Association of Indonesian-Malayan Students [PERPINDOM]) under the leadership of Djanan Thalib, the first Indonesian to earn a degree from the Azhar University.

Rasjidi found Cairo an important center of Islamic reformism whose strong emphasis on pure Islam was called Salafism, as proposed by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838/39–1897), Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905), and Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935). One of the most important themes of Salafism is the return to the Qurʾān and valid ḥadīth and opposition to unwarranted innovation (bidʿah). This intellectual environment meshed with Rasjidi’s religious tendencies when he returned to Indonesia and became known as a “guardian of the Muslim faith” for his insistence on pure Islam. He was no longer an abangan Muslim, but an orthodox; he strongly opposed aliran kepercayaan or kejawen (Javanese spirituality). But he stopped short of condemning the followers of kejawen as non-Muslims. In his opinion, they remained Muslims who lacked a complete understanding of Islam, so it was the duty of those who understood Islam to teach them.

Returning from Cairo to Kotagede in 1938, Rasjidi married and was expected by his parents to run their small business. But he decided to be a teacher at Madrasah Maʿhad Al-Islami, Kotagede. Later, when some Muslim leaders founded the Pesantren Luhur in Solo (Surakarta), Rasjidi became a lecturer on Islam and Arabic. Pesantren Luhur, a tertiary institution of learning, was short lived; it was closed when the Japanese invaded Java in 1941.

In addition to teaching, Rasjid was very active in national movements for independence. He became a member of newly founded Indonesian Islamic Party (Partai Islam Indonesia, PII) and was elected by its first congress in Yogyakarta in 1940 as a member of the PII National Committee. Rasjidi was also active in the Islam Studies Club, aiming to envision Islam in a modern context. Not least important, he became a prominent member of Muhammadiyah, the reformist organization that had been established in 1912. During the Japanese occupation he was a leader of Masjumi, a federation of Muslim organizations that founded by the Japanese. He was also in charge of Islamic library in Jakarta, a meeting place for Muslim leaders from all over Indonesia.

Representing Independent Indonesia

With the end of Japanese occupation and declaration of Indonesia’s independence on 17 August 1945, Rasjidi soon occupied a number of important positions. Initially was the state minister for Muslim affairs in the first cabinet of Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir (14 November 1945–12 March 1946), replacing Wahid Hasjim. The Sjahrir cabinet I was short lived, but Rasjidi was reappointed in the Sjahrir cabinet II (12 March 1946–2 October 1946) as the first minister of the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA).

There is no clear account of the establishment of MORA. It was proposed initially, on several occasions, by a number of Muslim leaders. The concept was soon supported by Muslims, who believed that it was a logical outgrowth of similar offices like Het Kantoor voor Inlandsche Zaken (under the Dutch government) and Shumubu and Shumuka (during the Japanese administration). But the ministry was opposed by the Christians and nationalists. Therefore, during his time as minister, Rasjidi spent much of his time defending the raison d’être of MORA, arguing, for instance, that the ministry was a realization of article 28 of the 1945 Constitution. He maintained that MORA was intended not to interfere in religious matters but rather to improve the religious life of the entire population. He also tried to reassure non-Muslims, who were worried that MORA would serve only Islam.

This cabinet was also short lived, and Rasjidi was replaced by Fathurahman Kafrawi as new minister of MORA; a few weeks later Rasjidi was appointed its secretary general. Before long he was assigned a very important task, serving as the secretary of a diplomatic mission under the leadership of the renowned Haji Agus Salim to oppose the return of the Dutch to Indonesia and to win international recognition for newly independent Indonesia. This group left Indonesia on 17 March 1947 for New Delhi to attend the Conference of Inter-Asia Relations and later visited a number of Arab countries. They won recognition for Indonesian independence from the conference as well as from King Farouk of Egypt on 2 June 1947 and later also from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

Following the Round Table Conference of The Hague (1949), Rasjidi was appointed to take over the former Dutch embassy and consulate, respectively in Jidda and Mecca, and to become Indonesian ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with office in Cairo. In 1953 he was moved to Tehran and returned to Jakarta thirteen months later. This was the end, for a time, of Rasjid’s government career. Afterward he devoted much of his time to intellectual pursuits.

Rasjidi never ceased pursuing knowledge. In Cairo he became acquainted with the well-known French authority on Sufism Louis Massignon. With his support, Rasjidi won a Rockefeller scholarship that allowed him to continue his advanced study in Sorbonne. On 23 March 1956 Rasjidi defended his dissertation, “L’evolution de l’Islam en Indonesia; ou, consideration critique du livre Tjentini,” which was later published as Documents pour servir à l’histoire de l’Islam à Java (1977). He passed the defense cum laude and became the first Indonesian to earn a doctoral degree from a French university. His main argument was that Javanese mysticism and spirituality were not deviant from Islam, because they originated from Sufism.

Rasjidi’s academic career was once again disrupted by his appointment as Indonesian ambassador to Pakistan (1956–1958). He then returned to the academic world to teach Islamic history and law (sharīʿah) at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, at the invitation of the eminent scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916–2000). This time was pregnant with intellectual exchanges with other McGill professors such as Smith, Toshiho Izutsu (1914–1993), and Niyazi Berkes (1908–1988), and with visiting professors like Joseph Schacht (1902–1969), an expert in Islamic law from Columbia University, New York. Rasjidi contested Schacht’s arguments that the Prophet Muhammad did not have authority in law, but religious authority only. Rasjid argued that Schacht lacked solid understanding of Qurʾānic terms. In fact he questioned Schacht’s hidden motives for rejecting the validity of the Prophetic Tradition (ḥadīth).

Rasjidi’s challenges to Schacht created a furor at McGill’s Institute for Islamic Studies. Berkes, a secular Turkish scholar, accused him of being too orthodox to be allowed to teach at McGill. Izutsu was more understanding. Nevertheless, Smith, director of the Institute, canceled Rasjidi’s teaching appointment. Rasjidi then moved to Washington, D.C. to become executive director of the Islamic Center (1963). In this role, at a conference on Islam and Peace at the University of North Carolina, he became involved in a polemic with Majid Khadduri. The latter had argued, ever since his War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955), that Islam (or precisely Dār al-Islām) is in a perpetual war against Dār al-Ḥarb—the non-Islamic world. Rasjidi objected, saying that Islam prohibited Muslims from waging war against friendly non-Muslims. As at McGill, Rasjidi’s contract was not renewed by the Islamic Center.

Guardian of Islam

Returned to Indonesia, Rasjidi soon established himself as the “guardian” of the Islamic faith. He was at the forefront in defense of Islam from the perceived threats. Confronting the political hegemony of the Communists in the first half of the 1960s under President Sukarno, Rasjidi wrote Islam menentang Komunisme (Islam against Communism, 1966) to expose the fallacies of Communism. The resulting repression from the Sukarto regime led Rasjidi to self-exile to Saudi Arabia, where he was selected as a board member of Rabithah Al-ʿAlam Al-Islami (Association of the Muslim World). Later, after his return to Indonesia following the failed communist coup of 1956 and Sukarno’s fall from power, Rasjidi was appointed chief representative of this organization in Jakarta. He also became professor of Islamic law and institutions at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. In this position, Rasjidi criticized many Indonesian Muslims who, in his view, lacked sufficient knowledge of Islam.

Rasjidi also made a critical assessment of Christians, who, in his view, lack a good understanding of their own religion, as can be observed in the history of Christianity in Europe. He maintained that the Christians have had negative impacts on the dynamics of civilization in Europe. Therefore, he asserted that Christians did not have a moral right to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Protecting Muslims from being baptized is one of the most distinctive intellectual contributions of Rasjidi. His concern undoubtedly related to the heightened conflict between Muslims and Christians in the second half of the 1960s. It was reported that some six million Indonesian Muslims converted to Christianity in the aftermath of the attempted Communist coup for fear of being accused of being Communists. At the same time, Christian missionaries were considered very aggressive in Aceh, South Sulawesi, and some other places across Indonesia. Responding to this unhealthy religious tension, Rasjidi wrote a number of works, among them Mengapa Aku Tetap Memeluk Islam (Why I Remain an Adherent of Islam); Sikap Umat Islam terhadap Ekspansi Kristen (Muslims’ Response to the Expansion of Christianity); Kasus RUU Perkawinan dalam Hubungan Islam dan Kristen (The Case of Indonesian Marriage Bill in the Context of Muslim-Christian Relations [banned by the government]); Sidang Raya Dewan Gereja Sedunia di Jakarta 1975: Artinya bagi Dunia Islam (World Church Convention in Jakarta in 1975: Its Meaning to the Muslim World); and Dari Rasjidi dan Maududi kepada Paus Paulus VI (From Rasjidi and Maududi to Pope Paul VI).

Rasjidi also raised the issue of what he considered unfair missionary activities to the Interfaith Congress in Tokyo on 28 October 1968. There he cited at length a code of conduct for Christian missionaries devised by Daniel J. Fleming of Union Theological Seminary, New York. The code urged that religious conversion be conducted in a civilized way, without recourse to unfair means.

Other Rasjidi polemics in the 1970s were directed against two prominent Indonesian Muslim intellectuals: Nurcholish Madjid (1939–2005), former national leader of the Association of Muslim University Students (HMI); and Harun Nasution (1919–1998), rector of the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN). Rasjidi bitterly opposed Madjid’s ideas on Islamic renewal, “liberalization,” and “secularization,” and his doctrine of “Islam yes, Islamic party no.” Rasjidi’s Koreksi terhadap Drs. Nurcholish Madjid tentang Sekularisasi (Correction on Nurcholish Madjid Ideas about Secularization) criticized almost every detail of Madjid’s ideas.

Rasjidi also criticized strongly what he regarded as Harun Nasution’s efforts to spread the spirit of “liberal Islam” among students of IAIN through his book Islam ditinjau dari berbagai aspeknya (Islam Seen from Various Aspects). Rasjidi’s critique was entitled Koreksi terhadap Dr. Harun Nasution tentang “Islam ditinjau dari berbagai aspeknya” (Correction to Harun Nasution’s “Islam Seen from Its Various Aspects,” 1977). It accused Nasution of being an orientalist agent and reviver of the rationalist Muʿtazilite thought—and therefore a threat for Islam and Muslims in Indonesia. Rasjidi also saw a similar threat in the thought of Ahmad Wahib (1942–1973), as outlined in his posthumous Pergolakan pemikiran Islam (The Struggle of Islamic Thought, 1981).

Despite his strong defense of Islam, Rasjidi was no doubt a fervent nationalist as well. He strongly believed that there was no incompatibility between Islam and Pancasila (the Five Principles), the official ideological basis of the Indonesian state. He saw no conflict between his Islamic belief and Indonesian national ideology. Therefore, while critical of government policies harmful to Muslims’ interest, Rasjidi showed no sign of disloyalty to the Indonesian nation-state.


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