Indonesia: "East Meets West in Indonesian Education"

Common Ground
Ali Noer Zaman argues that the impact of an innovative approach to Islamic studies has resulted in "a fresh reading of some Islamic treatises, which are not regarded as being fixed, or unalterable, in the way that the Qur'an is".
"The State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN) is a unique institution within the national Indonesian educational system. This public, university-level establishment's unique characteristic lies in its modern and interdisciplinary curriculum that combines Western social scientific approaches and classical religious knowledge. This is a centre of Islamic education which produces open-minded students.
IAIN was first established in Jakarta and Yogyakarta in 1960 as an institution that functioned to educate individuals for religious offices, especially for the Department of Religious Affairs. The main subjects taught were Islamic theology, Islamic jurisprudence, Arab language and literature, and Islamic preaching.

At the beginning, its educational materials and methods were not so different from those of pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), where lecturers dominated the teaching process and took classical religious sources from the Middle Ages as the main references. Not surprisingly, the school graduated students with relatively rigid points of view.

However, a crucial change occurred with the introduction of two distinguished scholars and alumni of Islamic studies from McGill University in Montreal, Canada in the late 1960s, early 1970s. A. Mukti Ali was an expert on comparative religion, and Harun Nasution a doctor of Islamic theology.

Both scholars introduced a western scientific approach, emphasising rational and systematic understanding of Islamic classical literature. Therefore, in addition to religious studies, students were asked to read books on sociology, anthropology, psychology, history and philosophy – subjects that were regarded as alien by Muslim students at the time. Both scholars applied different methods of teaching, but each required the active participation of students. And mastering foreign languages such as Arabic and English was a must.

The impact of the introduction of such an approach to Islamic studies was a fresh reading of some Islamic treatises, which are not regarded as being fixed, or unalterable, in the way that the Qur'an is. Examining certain aspects of Islamic tradition and studying the works of Muslim thinkers, such as Al Ghazali, and liberal-atheist western philosophers, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, at the same time became common practice. There was no fear that students would be labelled religious rebels.

Another initiative undertaken to improve the quality of its academic life involved sending lecturers to western institutions, including McGill, Leiden University in the Netherlands, and in smaller numbers, to American and Australian universities. This policy, which augmented the already established policy of sending students to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, gave students a rare opportunity to not only meet distinguished scholars and professors from Western countries, for example Wilfred Cantwell Smith, but also those from Middle Eastern countries, such as Muhammad Arkoun (Algerian) of Sorbonne University in France and Fazlur Rahman (Pakistani) at Chicago University, among others.

The opportunity to explore great libraries with extensive collections of ancient and modern books was another advantage. This academic "exile" was a journey that would enrich students' study of Islam, fostering a new perspective they would bring to their home institution.

According to Robin Bush, an American scholar who once worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia, IAIN and its alumni are the main supporters of civil society and democratic movements in Indonesia. They are also partners for dialogue with other religious communities and are well-known for their pluralist and tolerant religious views.

Critics of the work developed by alumni and academicians of IAIN are not difficult to find. Ironically, it is Professor H. M. Rasyidi, the first minister of Religious Affairs and the first Muslim Indonesian doctor at Sorbonne University in France, who warned against what he called the secular impact of the introduction of western approaches to Islamic thinking.

This kind of critique is motivated by old prejudices and fear of the western world. Though amongst the guardians of the classical Islamic tradition, they are the minority, and consequently the new system of Islamic education in IAIN continues to operate undeterred.

Amid the emergence of religious radicalism in post-Suharto Indonesia, the role of IAIN in defending religious harmony is indispensable. Its capacity to synthesise western and Islamic traditions is a key tool in the quest to find solutions to cultural and religious conflicts."

By: Ali Noer Zaman

8 April 2008

Ali Noer Zaman is a writer and lives in Jakarta. He is an alumnus of the State Islamic University (UIN) of Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service