Thursday, May 31, 2007

From traditional Ulema to modern Intellectuals

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (May 31, 2007)

Al Makin

Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni recently criticized Indonesia's kyai (Muslim clerics) for their deep involvement in politics at the cost of the quality of Islamic education. The minister voiced his criticism when opening a meeting of the Islamic Boarding Schools Association (RMI) in Jakarta.

"Some Muslim clerics prefer to be involved in politics rather than becoming educators ... and as a result, religion-based education in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) has become somewhat disorganized," The Jakarta Post reported the minister as saying in its May 19 edition.
The government and political parties often use Muslim clerics for political purposes as they have big followings at the grassroots level. For the clerics, such relationships benefit them politically and, quite often, financially also.

One may venture to say that the traditional role of the kyai in setting moral standards have lately been overshadowed by their political involvement. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that their fatwas are often no longer divorced from political interests.

In addition, some of them have spent enormous energy in supporting certain political figures. If this involvement in the head-to-head politics continues, it will leave them with less energy to think about the development of their pesantren in facing up to competitive education in an increasingly globalized world.

Interestingly enough, the above remarks by Basyuni recall the same concerns expressed a long time ago by a former religious affairs minister under Soeharto, Munawir Sjadzali.
Sjadzali, however, was more worried about the decline in the number of ulema, and their intellectual capacity in facing up to the modern world. Therefore, he encouraged the emergence of what he referred to as ulema plus.

At the practical level, he responded, up to 1988 at least, in two ways: his pilot project setting up five special Muslim high schools, or madrasah aliyah program khusus (MAPK), and his determined efforts to send young Muslim intellectuals to study abroad. The first project has been discontinued, while the second one continued until recently.

In Munawir's vision, ulema plus referred to those clerics who were prepared, or able, to shift from performing the traditional role of a cleric to performing that of a modern intellectual, or even to combine both roles.

By doing so, Munawir broadened the meaning of ulama to include those educated in religious tradition and who have also mastered modern knowledge and science. It was expected that this type of cleric would be better capable of addressing modern problems.

The recent satirical comments by leading Indonesian novelist Ahmad Tohari are also relevant in this regard. According to Tohari, the mass migration of clerics to the political arena is also the result of the lack of modern skills possessed by the graduates of Muslim religious schools. As a result, they are unable to compete in the "real" sectors, such as the economy or professions. Joining, or even establishing, political parties to be a quick fix for such people as they strive to improve their financial and economic positions.

When discussing the roles played by Muslim clerics, it is also worth remembering that the meaning of the word ulama in Arabic is not restricted to those who have mastered religious knowledge, but also the secular sciences and skills.

Thus, in so far as a person provides guidance and a valuable contribution to society, he can also be categorized as an ulema.

Unfortunately, it is rarely that we come across clerics with the intellectual capacity to be included in the ulama plus category.

As regards Basyuni's criticisms, it remains to be seen what he will do to address the problem, and reduce the involvement of clerics in head-to-head politics. Hopefully, steps will be taken by his ministry to prepare a phalanx of young, educated and dedicated ulemas

The writer is a lecturer at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Yogyakarta, and a doctoral candidate at the Seminar fuer Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients at Heidelberg University in Germany. He can be reached at


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