The Qur’an is the foundational text for Muslims around the world. Yet much of the literature on the Qur’an written in the modern period, particularly in major ‘Muslim’ languages other than Arabic, is not easily available to a wider audience. This is especially true of Muslim scholarship on the Qur’an in Indonesia. Much has been written and published in Bahasa Indonesia (the official language of more than 12 per cent of the Muslim population of the world), on the Qur’an and other Islam-related topics, but little of this has been made accessible to the non-Indonesian reader.
This book seeks to address these gaps by making available to an English-speaking audience a sample of essays on Qur’an-related topics by intellectuals from Indonesia. The volume emphasises a diversity of voices in order to provide a ‘snapshot’ of topics associated with the Qur’an in Indonesia today. Many of the essays are not strictly examples of traditional tafsir; rather, they are attempts made by the authors to engage the Qur’an with contemporary life. Some have addressed theoretical issues, while others have examined practical problems. The compilation in this publication thus reflects the concerns, interests and approaches of a new generation of Indonesian Muslim scholars. The articles remain part of a creative effort among Indonesian Muslims to project new ideas and to assert that Islam and the Qur’an are compatible with the aspirations of Indonesian Muslims today.
Approaches to the Qur’an in Indonesia are, of course, related to developments both in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Muslim world, such as Egypt and the Indian sub-continent. New ideas explored in those areas became readily available in Indonesia, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, despite such external influences and exchanges, Indonesia’s own social, political and intellectual contexts have provided the main basis for the development of fresh and innovative approaches to the Qur’an in the later part of the twentieth century.
The essays represent a variety of trends of Islamic thought in Indonesia, from traditionalists to modernists and neo-modernists. The topics considered include the history of Qur’anic exegesis and the contributions of key Qur’anic exegetes such as Hamka and Quraish Shihab; the interpretation and reform of Islamic law; questions about women’s struggles for equal rights; human rights; inter-faith relations; and the use or misuse of Qur’anic symbols.
The first chapter, by Emeritus Professor Anthony Johns, sets the scene for the rest of the volume. For the past four decades, Professor Johns has contributed enormously to the understanding of tafsir literature in the Malay world. His chapter provides an overview of exegetical scholarship in modern Indonesia, tracing the development of the tafsir tradition up to the modern period and giving a historical context for more general discussion in the volume.
The next three chapters deal with aspects of Qur’anic exegesis and translation in the work of three important and sometimes controversial Indonesian intellectuals – Hamka, Quraish Shihab and H.B. Jassin. In chapter six, Taufik Adnan Amal and Samsu Rizal Panggabean address the scarcity of studies on tafsir in Indonesia and the limitations of traditional methods of interpretation. Then the book turns towards the application of the Qur’an in everyday life. In the chapters by Lukito, Marcoes-Natsir, Mudzakir and Azra, the authors directly address some difficult issues in Indonesia today, including abortion and the use of Qur’anic verses in contemporary politics.
In the final chapter, the late Nurcholish Madjid (d. 2005) deals with the topic of religious pluralism in the light of the Qur’an. In his view, humankind must approach God by following the ‘straight path’, which according to the Qur’an, is a path that is common to all prophetic religions. Since God is the one source towards which all believers strive, there should be no conflict or distinction between those who follow different religious traditions; all of them must be considered essentially on the ‘true path’. This view of religious pluralism, as interpreted by Madjid, is gaining ground in Indonesia in neo-modernist circles, although it is still challenged by many traditionalist scholars.
The book therefore is a collage of essays, some more scholarly than others, intended to show the range of ways in which the Qur’an is studied, approached and explored in contemporary Indonesia. There is a receptive readership for these writings in Indonesia among the younger generation, particularly those of a ‘liberal’ persuasion. This generation was born in the 1970s and 1980s, and includes those influenced by early neo-modernists like Nurcholish Madjid, emerging scholars trained in the Institut Agama Islam Negeri system (IAIN, State Institute of Islamic Studies) and more recently those associated with the ‘liberal Islam’ trend. One of the most hotly debated issues in Indonesia is the ability of Islam to meet the challenges posed by modernity. Given that the most ardent supporters of Islam’s ability to negotiate through issues of modern life are found in the young generation of more liberal-minded Muslims, the expectation is that intellectuals will be bold in their attempts to demonstrate this ability.
One potential reason for the creative approaches to the Qur’an in Indonesia is that, in addition to the high degree of religious tolerance in Indonesia, scholars often have been free to experiment with creative ideas in the religious arena. Another reason may be that, although Muslim scholarship in various parts of modern-day Indonesia goes back several centuries, this scholarship is less rooted in a continuous tradition than in other parts of the Muslim world. This allows a high degree of fluidity and flexibility in scholarship, and one can be relatively free to approach the Qur’an in a more creative way. Whatever the cause, evidence of this creativity can be found in the essays of this volume, which will contribute to a greater understanding of some aspects of Islamic thought in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.