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Harun Nasution

Muhamad Ali
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Harun Nasution


academic and public intellectual, elaborated various dimensions of Islam and promoted a rational understanding and educational reform in the Sunnī Muslim–majority country of Indonesia. Nasution contributed to the rise of Indonesian Muslim academics and intellectuals, while synthesizing Islamic rationalist and Western methodology in an attempt to reform Muslim society and advance the nation.

Reformist Life

Harun Nasution was born in North Sumatra on 23 September 1919. His father, Ahmad Jabar Ahmad, was a merchant and a religious judge who knew the Arabic-Malay script (jawi). After attending a Dutch elementary school, Nasution went to Moderne Islamiestische Kweekschool, a private training school for religious teachers conducted in Dutch and Malay. His mother wanted him to study and become a prayer leader or imam in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The young Nasution lived in a time when the older generation (kaum tua) and the younger generation (kaum muda) would often debate on religious and social issues; Nasution was a curious young man, frequently asking questions of teachers and probing certain sociocultural practices he considered made little sense. He questioned the conventional Muslims’ prohibition of petting dogs, the necessity of taking ablution before holding the holy Qurʾān, and other religious issues considered taboo.

Nasution went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, studied Arabic, but continued to read books in Dutch, and later decided to go to Egypt in 1938. While in Cairo he visited al-Azhar University, studied with religious teachers, but simultaneously worked and joined the Indonesian-Malaysian Youth Union and followed the current news from Indonesia. He decided to study philosophy at the Department of Ushuluddin (the Fundamentals of the Religion) of al-Azhar University in Arabic, while learning English and French. Yet he was unsatisfied with the al-Azhar’s pedagogy of memorization and lack of critical studies. He took classes at the Department of Education at the American University in Cairo and wrote a final paper assigned by his advisor on labor condition in Indonesia. His personal economic condition led him to find work to support his study and life, but he continued learning by means of interacting with people, as well as reading books, magazines, and daily newspapers.

During World War II, Nasution wrote essays on social and political issues related to Indonesia. He continued to be an informal liaison between the affairs of the Middle East and those of Indonesia, which led him to different posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta, Saudi Arabia, and Belgium. He returned to Indonesia in 1953, but did not join or support any political party competing for its place and reputation in Indonesia. He argued that political parties worked for party interests, rather than for the nation.

From Jakarta, Nasution returned to Egypt to pursue his study in the Dirasat al-Islamiyyah, which resembled the Department of Islamic Studies, but did not require memorization of texts. He was able to spend time discussing his ideas and learning about philosophy, history, mysticism, jurisprudence, and the development of the Muslim world. He was also interested in studying Indonesia’s state philosophy, Pancasila, and the economic situation under President Sukarno. But his sense of curiosity was not entirely fulfilled. He learned about different aspects of Islam through books by European and American Orientalists, who made him increasingly interested in Islamic studies. He read the publications of the Aḥmadīyah sect, whose base was in London and whose understanding of Islam appeared to him more rational than other Islamic organizations. In September of 1962, Nasution was offered the opportunity to pursue his advanced study at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Canada. He wrote his M.A. thesis on the concept of the Islamic state according to the Masyumi in Indonesia, as he learned that scholars had written about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī in Pakistan instead of similar ideas in Indonesia. For his dissertation, Nasution wrote about the place of reason in Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s theology and the Muʿtazilah impact on his theological system and views. From Canada, Nasution returned to Jakarta where he became a professor at the State Institute for Islamic Studies (Institut Agama Islam Negeri; IAIN) of Jakarta, and an author of works covering different aspects of Islamic sciences.

Reforming Islamic Higher Education

Nasution observed that the state institutes for Islamic studies in Indonesia had been traditionalist, dominated by the Middle Eastern curricula and pedagogical models, with much focus on jurisprudence and ritual. He became committed to introducing reform in Islamic thought and education, inviting academics and intellectuals from various different fields of social sciences and humanities to disseminate their ideas in the universities. When appointed a rector of the IAIN of Jakarta, he inserted introductory courses on the science of religion and philosophy to the curriculum, among other subjects. His inclusion of the diverse sub-disciplines of Islamic knowledge, particularly theology, philosophy, and mysticism, into the dominantly legal and ritual curricula in Islamic universities led to more diverse and tolerant perspectives of Islam among students and scholars. He viewed the teaching of rationalist theology as an alternative to the traditional, particularly fatalistic theology that emphasized the will of God and the trust in God, as well as contributed to the passive and underdeveloped attitudes of the Muslim community toward science, technology, and progress.

Beyond Islamic universities, Nasution lectured on the role of religious education in secular universities like the University of Indonesia. He promoted the training of students and scholars to possess the following characteristics: religious, faithful to one God, pious, philosophical, rational, dynamic, broad-minded, and prepared to participate in inter-religious cooperation, thus helping develop science, technology, and art for national interest. To him, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religious Affairs should play a crucial role in reforming the curricula and developing the capacity of their teachers and professors. Nasution was aware that his lectures, speeches, and writings were too philosophical for traditional Muslims to accept and follow, but his intellectual reform was indeed primarily targeted at a more philosophical group. Change should come from the top, he maintained.

His two volumes entitled Islam Seen in Its Various Aspects summarize his intellectual journey and systematize Islam into multiple aspects: ritual, spirituality, morality; history and culture; politics; social institutions; law; theology; philosophy; mysticism; and, lastly, reform. The two books were used as a textbook for students, teachers, and scholars at Islamic institutes and secular universities in need of a broad, accessible, yet scholarly and multidimensional approach to Islam.

Promoting Rational Islam and Development

Harun Nasution believed that Islam was inherently rational if it was based on both revelation and reason without contradiction, as both come from God. He followed the intellectual path of Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Aḥmad Amīn, and Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, but he also learned from Orientalists who approached Islam more rationally than many other Muslims had done before. He was influenced not by Orientalist and Western thought; but cited and reinterpreted Qurʾānic passages and ḥadīth narratives that emphasize the use of reason. He argued that the perception that the Qurʾān contained everything was false because God had given human beings reason, the natural world, as well as scriptural revelation.

Muḥammad ʿAbduh particularly influenced Harun Nasution in terms of distinguishing between the absolute and the relative. ʿAbduh divided the teachings of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth into the domain of worship, which was unambiguous and detailed, and the domain of social relations, often ambiguous and only in the general terms. The specific interpretation and application of the general teachings could change according to time and place. The absolute contained the oneness of God and the fundamental teachings, and the relative encompassed historical interpretations and practices, related to economics, politics, and government. The concept of khilāfah, deputyship of God, for example, was relative, whereas just leadership was the absolute. Justice was reinterpreted according to the Qurʾān, ḥadīth, and the theological, philosophical, mystical, and legal schools of thought. For Nasution, many of the classical, medieval, theological, and legal thoughts and practices were no longer applicable for modern Muslims to follow, but they contained rationalist and traditionalist methods in approaching Islam. Nasution made a reference to Caliph ʿUmar, who did not give money to the newly converted, as stated in the Qurʾān and exemplified in the ḥadīth, because he saw no reason for such policy when the Muslim community had become stronger.

Nasution’s lectures on Islamic theology and its different streams were in response to the existing books on Sunnī Ashʿarī theology which marginalized the Muʿtazilah, Shīʿī, and other theologies. The book presented comparisons between them and sought to analyze the different attitudes toward free will and predestination, divine justice, divine actions, divine attributes, and the concept of belief. All the theologies should be deemed Islamic because they all use reason and revelation in addressing the questions. They vary only in the degree given to reason and revelation and on the ways of interpreting the Qurʾān and ḥadīth. Nasution further argued that Muʿtazilī liberal theology engaged with Greek philosophy and supported the development of science and technology, whereas the traditionalist Ashʿarī theology hindered it due to its dogmatic and literal interpretation of the scripture. The Ashʿarī books had tended to charge the Muʿtazilah theologians as being kāfir. Among the Muʿtazilis, there was also the charge of kāfir against the Ashʿarī. But Muslims were free to choose which theology was suitable for them, citing a ḥadīth, “difference in thought in my community is a blessing.”

On philosophy, Nasution introduced al-Kindī as well as others, who believed that philosophy and revelation were not incompatible and argued that to learn philosophy was not forbidden because theology, something all Muslims should learn, is part of philosophy. On Sufism, Nasution discussed its origins and, instead of addressing Ṣūfīs, briefly covered the Ṣūfī paths, such as al-zuhd (asceticism), al-maḥabbah (love), al-marifah (knowledge), al-fanāʾ (annihilation), al-baqāʾ (subsistence), and waḥdat al-wujūd (unity of existence). By introducing the diversity and richness of Islamic theology, philosophy, and mysticism, Nasution wanted to reform the Muslim community from within its own tradition. In his observation, a secular community saw philosophy as being the producer of naturalism, materialism, and atheism, whereas religious communities would maintain philosophical ideas in line with their religions.

Religious reform, rather than secular Western modernism, was a necessity for Muslims to live in the modern time characterized by the development of science and technology. Nasution, as well as others, believe that Muslims should adapt their religious understandings to modern scientific advancement. Having reviewed reformist ideas in Egypt, Turkey, and Indo-Pakistan, which emerged as a response to their contact with the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nasution believed that the twentieth century had witnessed some signs of reform, in the Muslim world, but much more were in order. He argued that fatalistic theology made people live passively and rational theology made people active and productive. In Indonesia the absolute will of God had long prevailed, rather than the theology of human free will. Consequently, Indonesian Muslims had lacked productiveness in science and technology. Mystical organizations focusing on the hereafter at the expense of this world were flourishing but did not support people’s rationalism and productiveness. According to Nasution, Muslim universities and schools should teach a theology of the Law of God or sunnat Allah, with its rational, philosophical, and scientific basis, to challenge the traditional theology of fatalism.

Nasution’s promotion of rational Islam went hand in hand with the development ideology of the New Order under President Suharto (1966–1998). With a liberal rational philosophy and mentality, he supported national development and the resolution of its problems and effects. Nasution was in support for the Indonesian state ideology of Pancasila, the five pillars comprising elements of monotheism, humanism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. He elaborated the first pillar on belief in one god in light of the belief in one god or tawḥīd as interpreted by the Muʿtazilah who rejected divine attributes as being false associations with the divine essence. He cited Ṣūfī master Ibn al-ʿArabī on the unity of existence and the pure devotion to the one god only. On the second pillar regarding a just and civilized humanity, Nasution cited Qurʾānic passages, such as 7:189; 10:19; and 49:13, which were related to the ideas of human diversity and humanity. He saw the third pillar of Indonesian unity as being supported by the Islamic teaching of loving one’s country. He further suggested that the fourth pillar, peoplehood on the basis of consultative representativeness, was elaborated in terms of Islamic ideas of piety and shūrā or consultation (3:159; 42:38). Nasution discussed the five pillars on social justice by quoting the Qurʾānic passages instructing an act of justice (16:90) and prohibiting the concentration of wealth among the rich (59:7). For Nasution, the five pillars were also Islamic teachings and Muslims should not see contradiction between Islam and the state’s philosophy.

On governance and politics, Harun Nasution agreed with other modernist scholars who argued that Islam does not specify a form of state and only teaches principles and values, such as enjoining good and forbidding evil (3:104), becoming a middle path society (3:143; 34:15), and forming a just and consultative government (51:42; 42:159). In the domains of law, economics, culture, and security and defense, Islam provides only principles and values rather than a system that changes according to time and place.

In line with the President Suharto’s ideology of religious harmony, Harun Nasution supported interfaith dialogues, religious tolerance, and interfaith cooperation. To ease the tension between Islamic and Christian groups, he urged the government to host Muslims and Christians in dialogue and to work together to address common issues such as education, family, and other social problems. It is true that in monotheistic religions there are intolerant teachings, but there are also tolerant ones. In Indonesia, to cultivate a spirit of religious tolerance, certain efforts were envisioned: to see truth in other religions, to minimize difference in religions, to emphasize commonality in religions, to nurture brotherhood in the same god, to educate people to be “good,” to emphasize tolerant teachings, and to avoid attacks among different religions. Nasution hope that, in pursuing interfaith cooperation, a non-governmental inter-religious institution could be established to address common social problems, provide religious guidance in the modern society, and improve the religious life of the people. Religious groups should conduct research on social and religious problems, conduct seminars on these problems, disseminate research outcomes, improve religious morality, and increase awareness of the function of religion as guidance for balancing life in modern society.

Producing Critical Muslim Intellectuals

Harun Nasution’s ideas and reform met with positive responses from Muslim students and intellectuals, as well as criticism by others. He was criticized for rehabilitating and promoting the Muʿtazilī thought considered heretical or at least controversial in Indonesia and for adopting Western historical approaches in studying Islam. But according to others, Nasution did not intend to weaken the Muslim faith. He taught Muslims about the positive and negative sides of Islam in its history, and to come to make their own choices. More fundamentally, Nasution sought to reconcile reason and revelation. Others criticized Nasution for being dry, elitist, and failing to focus on the socioeconomic problems of oppressed and marginalized people in society. They wanted more concrete intellectual projects and translation into plans of action for transforming Indonesian society. Yet Nasution, and the younger academics who continued his intellectual legacy including non-Muslim intellectuals, believed that any concrete social and institutional change should begin with changing intellectual thoughts and perspectives. More specifically, the teaching of philosophy in Islamic and other religious institutions, which had become a subject of suspicion because it could weaken the faith, could actually open the gate of understanding other sciences, and could reveal and even reinforce the true meanings of religion in history and society.

Harun Nasution contributed to the rise of an intellectual tradition at the Islamic institute and universities across the country. His rationalist ethos, scientific inquiry, openness, and courage to question established doctrines paved the way for Islamic progressivism and opened the door to traditionalism in society. Nasution was a true believer in science and religion as effective tools in modernizing the Muslim community in Indonesia.


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  • Muzani, Saifu. “Muʿtazilah and the Modernization of the Indonesian Muslim Community: Intellectual Portrait of Harun Nasution.” Studia Islamika 1 (1994): 91–130.
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  • Shuhaimi Ishak, Mohd. Islamic Rationalism: A Critical Evaluation of Harun Nasution. Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia Press, 2009.
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