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On the role of interreligious dialogue in religious studies programs at Indonesian state Islamic universities.

The academic study of religion has seen a crucial re-examination of its disciplinary identity over the past decades that has challenged the theoretical foundations and core concepts around which this identity is constructed. The process has led not only to greater disciplinary self-awareness but also to an understanding of the study's genealogy and to an ongoing concern with the theoretical basis and constitution of the field. This essay is, at least partially, informed by this genre of scholarship that demands we use the same kind of critical scrutiny and intellectual rigor with which we study the institutions and behaviors of religious subjects to examine the disciplinary parameters in which our own production of knowledge about religion takes place. It is concerned with the role of interreligious dialogue in religious studies programs at Indonesia's state Islamic colleges and universities, not so much as an object of study or as a practice but in terms of the shaping influence it has on the self-understanding of the academic study of religion itself.

In tracing the development of the study of religion in the state system of Islamic higher education in Indonesia from its beginnings in the 1960's to the present, the article highlights the significant link the discipline has with interreligious dialogue. Quite different from the resistance of United States scholars in the emerging discipline of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who mostly sought to remain aloof from theology and sociopolitical involvement, Indonesian scholars have been led by a specific set of idiosyncratic circumstances to place the study of religion beyond purely academic concerns and to connect it to theological and ethicopolitical goals.

As a result of the specifics of the Indonesian case, this short contribution certainly is limited. But, this will not prevent my extrapolating a more general claim from it. To anticipate my conclusion, I want to claim that the relevance of interreligious dialogue for the academic study of religion in Indonesia (and by implication for the discipline itself) lies beyond the myriad of fascinating cases of dialogue encounters and interreligious cooperation that we will do well to study as expression of contemporary religious reality in the challenge it poses to conceptualizations of our field that limit it to a mere scientific interest in particular religious expressions or the concept of religion itself.

Indonesian State Islamic Colleges and Universities

The beginnings of state Islamic higher education go back to the foundation of the State Institute of Islamic Studies or Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN) in Yogyakartag in 1960, from which it quickly expanded to other parts of Indonesia. (1) One of the hallmarks of this system has been its leaders' commitment to the modernization of Islamic studies or, as Dhofier calls it, to its "intellectualization" through a conscious embrace of both Western and Islamic intellectual traditions. (2) This process was facilitated in part by student and faculty exchanges and institutional relationships with universities in Western Europe and North America among which the cooperation with McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies was a particularly prominent example. (3)

Paralleling the state's larger goals for national modernization, the innovative efforts in the IAIN system received considerable government support, which resulted in the broadening of the curriculum through the increased integration of religious with general sciences. Educational innovation has also aimed at the study of Islam itself through the updating of teaching methods and the introduction of nondogmatic and contextual approaches. (4) These developments reflect a long history of intellectual openness and instructional inventiveness that have allowed Muslim educators in the state system to be responsive to and to shape Islamic intellectual discourse on relevant social issues. The development of religious studies as its own academic field, to which we turn our attention next, exhibits the same dynamics of social responsiveness, intellectual openness, and institutional modernization.

Religious Studies in the State System of Islamic Higher Education

The history of the study of other religious traditions by Muslim scholars in Indonesia, as Steenbrink has documented, predates the modern era. (5) In its institutional form the way we find it today, however, the emergence of the study of religion or Comparative Religion (Perbandingan Agama) as it became known in the IAIN-system historically is connected to Mukti Ali who served as founding chair of Comparative Religion at the IAIN in Yogyakarta in 1961. His influence on the development of the field, first institutionally in Yogyakarta and later nationally as Minister of Religious Affairs (1971-78) has earned him the honorific, Bapak Ilmu Perbandingan Agama (father of religious studies) in Indonesia. Influenced by scholars such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Joachim Wach, Ali had a broad conception of religious studies that linked the field beyond scientific and theoretical concerns to theological and practical ones, chief among them the promotion of interreligious dialogue. (6)

Within the confessional context of the IAIN, the study of religion as envisioned and developed by Ali was not a purely social-scientific endeavor of scholarly objectivity. Despite his advocacy of social-scientific approaches in the study of religion, Ali did not refrain from theological assessment of other religions and could assert the theological superiority of Islam over other religions. In his foundational work on the subject he stressed that the study of other religions served to demonstrate the truth of the Islamic tradition and pointed to the Qur'an as the point of departure and ultimate criterion by which the truth of other religions could be assessed. (7) Beyond theological aims, however, Ali explicitly connected the new field to broader social goals, centrally to the promotion of social harmony and interreligious understanding. Emphasizing the search for similarities across different religions, Ali directly linked the study of religion to interreligious dialogue as a means of promoting social engagement and mutual understanding. Beyond his time as Chair of Comparative Religion at the IAIN in Yogyakarta, during which he laid the intellectual foundations to his approach, Ali oversaw the expansion of programs for the study of religion in the IAIN system through the development of curricula and teaching materials as Minister of Religion in the 1970s. He remained an important advocate for the field well beyond his ministry.

During Ali's time as Minister of Religion, the orientation toward interreligious dialogue in the study of religion at the IAIN rose to the level of state policy. (8) Under Suharto national development had become the central focus of all ministries, including the Ministry of Religion. The emphasis Ali's conceptualization of religious studies placed on interreligious dialogue and understanding across the boundaries of religious communities dovetailed with the New Order government's interest in promoting social stability and harmonious coexistence as a precondition for the country's economic development. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that the New Order government was responsible for creating the vibrant intellectual currents that took root and developed at the IAIN, it nonetheless will seem evident that the sociopolitical changes ushered in by the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 and the transition to democratic governance have had significant effects for both the institutional and the intellectual dynamics in the state system of Islamic higher education.

Religious Studies in the Reformation Era

In the Reformation Era that followed Suharto's New Order, Islamic colleges and universities have continued to play a significant role in the public discourse on Islam and multireligious citizenship. In the public debate over the collective and legal recognition of Islam's role in Indonesian society, the state system of Islamic higher education generally can be found on the side of nonstatist expressions of public Islam. Scholarly assessments of the state system's contributions to Indonesian civil society are characterized by an emphasis on the continuity beyond the New Order era of the modernizing and moderating influence on the Muslim educational scene, as well as on the wider public debate. (10) For its promotion of an inclusive view of religious diversity and for fostering interreligious cooperation, the study of religion in particular has been described as "a pillar of social harmony." (11)

The state system's contributions to interreligious harmony, however, have been complicated by the wider societal debate over the future of Islam in Indonesia. As Lukens-Bull shows, it is a debate that takes place in a context of increasing accusations of heterodoxy. (12) Criticism and even hostility from conservative groups condemning the state system's outlook as anti-Islamic could be heard during the New Order period as well. (13) What is new in the current situation is that the charges are exacerbated by the transformation of many institutions into full research universities. The growing incorporation of new departments in the social and natural sciences as well as the integration of nonreligious programs in existing departments has brought not only new disciplinary but also ideological diversity to campus. Questions about the place and role of religious studies in Indonesia's public Islamic higher education sector echo broader concerns over what the system should be and who speaks for it. More in-depth research will be necessary to assess fully the spectrum of responses to these challenges, but a cursory look at recent developments is suggestive of possibilities for the future.

Current Trends

In mid-November of 2014 I attended a two-day national symposium with about forty faculty members from religious studies programs at state Islamic colleges and universities who had come together in Yogyakarta to discuss the current status of their field. In examining challenges that the study of religion faced at their institutions, participants highlighted competition for funds in the expanding curriculum as well as a negative image of the field among outsiders who misunderstood the comparative dimension of the study in terms of theological value-judgments. In response to these challenges, the participants founded the Association for the Study of Religion (Asosiasi Studi Agama or ASA) and, as their first order of business, issued a set of recommendations to the Ministry of Religious Affairs that included changing the field's name from Comparative Religion to "Studi Agama-Agama" or Religious Studies, as well as making religious studies courses part of the general education curriculum required of all first-year students. Participants underscored the contemporary social relevance of religious studies and explicitly connected their recommendations to the founding history of the field under Ali by emphasizing its central orientation toward tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The discussion and recommendations of the newly established Association for the Study of Religion are characteristic of wider trends in religious studies programs, as seen in the following discussion of three prominent programs at Universitas Islam Negeri (State Islamic University or UIN) Jakarta, UIN Yogyakarta, and UIN Semarang.

A comparison of the initial curriculum developed under Ali with current course offerings in religious studies at UIN Jakarta reveals both continuities and changes. The individual religions studied have been broadened considerably beyond Islamic and Christian traditions that dominated in Ali's time. Similarly, courses on methodological approaches to religious studies include a much wider array of disciplinary perspectives from anthropology to sociology, psychology, philosophy, and phenomenology. A greater emphasis on issues of contemporary sociopolitical relevance can be detected with the addition of special-subject courses such as on fundamentalism and gender. This is paralleled by increased attention to local religious expressions in classes on indigenous religions as well as on specific Indonesian expressions of the officially recognized traditions. (15) The curriculum at UIN Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta largely resembles the courses offered at UIN Jakarta, although some distinctive developments can be discerned.

Like its counterpart in Jakarta the religious studies program at UIN Yogyakarta comprises a robust curriculum with courses on different social-scientific approaches to the study of religion, individual religious traditions beyond the officially recognized ones, including Judaism, Japanese Shinto traditions, and New Religious Movements, as well as a variety of upper-level courses taking up topics of contemporary social relevance. The program's deliberate engagement with Western and Islamic intellectual traditions, however, finds additional expression in a new set of courses on Islamic and Western approaches to the study of religion. Going beyond the regular introductory courses to the field, this mandatory two-semester sequence is divided into a course on Western scholarship followed by a semester-long study treating Islamic approaches to religious studies from the classical works of Shahrastani and al-Biruni to such neo-modernist scholars as Fazlur Rahman, as well as specifically Indonesian examples represented by the theories of Mahmud Junus and Ali. (16) Even though the special attention the religious studies program at UIN Yogyakarta gives to theoretical and meta-theoretical questions does not signal the absence of special-topic courses on contemporary issues, it is in the religious studies program at UIN Walisongo where engagement with a specific set of sociopolitical questions has become the organizing principle for curriculum development in recent years.

Since 2009 the focus of the religion program at UIN Walisongo has been Religion and Peace Studies (.Agama dan Perdamaian). According to Dr. H. Abdul Muhaya, who served as the Dean of Islamic Theology between 2006 and 2010, the curricular redesign was motivated by both internal and external questions about what the program's role was within the university's expanding institutional structure and how it contributed to students' Islamic identity formation. (17) The opportunity to develop a topical focus on peace studies presented itself with the establishment of the Walisongo Mediation Center on the UIN campus. (18) Both personal and programmatic connections facilitated the center's relationship with the Department of Comparative Religion. Senior faculty members in religious studies had been involved in the founding of the center, and a number of faculty from the department were among the early cohorts to receive mediator training. In addition to the availability and interest of religious studies faculty to teach in the intersection of religion and peace, explains Muhaya, the religion program's central objective to bring about mutual understanding and respect among religious communities for the sake of national unity related programmatically to the center's mediation focus. (19) The result of the integration efforts was a comprehensive curricular revision in 2009. Most courses currently offered under the umbrella of religious studies relate directly to issues of religious conflict and its resolution.

A comparative look at these three cases illustrates that the religious studies programs at UIN Jakarta, UIN Yogyakarta, and UIN Semarang share in common their practitioners' openness to a wide range of intellectual traditions and disciplinary perspectives, a visible engagement with socially relevant issues, and the explicit linking of their field with the promotion of interreligious dialogue and harmonious interfaith relations. In the Reformasi Era the central status of interreligious dialogue in the hierarchy of the program's goals and objectives has been reinforced in all three programs by the addition of a mandatory class on Islamic relations with other religions under the course called Interreligious Dialogue (Dialog Antar Agama) or Interreligious Relations (Hubungan Antar Agama). (20) Continuities with the spirit of Ali as the field's founding father are readily discemable. Notwithstanding idiosyncrasies, each program's insistence that the study of religion should contribute to the religious identity formation of Muslim students and stimulate interreligious dialogue configures the field in ways that serve both theological and ethico-political ends.

What concrete conceptualization of religious studies and its relationship to interreligious dialogue prevails in Indonesia's public Islamic higher education sector will depend not only on whether supporters of an interreligious orientation are able to accomplish their disciplinary goals but also on how and in what form they can successfully position the study of religion within the changing institutional context of Islamic higher education. Although the intellectually hybrid and politically moderate educational tradition that developed within the state system has generally enjoyed the support of the state, one will have to be careful with predictions about the future of such support. The case of Rosnida Sari, a lecturer at UIN Ar-Raniry in Banda Aceh, advises sensitivity to the possibility of future change. At the time of this writing, Rosnida had been suspended from her teaching duties by the university after clerics and fellow lecturers objected to her inviting a gender-studies class on a field trip to a Christian community for an interreligious discussion about gender roles. (21) Although the special political status of Aceh with its application of Islamic law forbids easy generalizations from this case to other provinces and campuses in the state system, it draws attention to the possibility that under changing social and political circumstances the federal or regional governments may very well put into play new sets of restrictions and incentives that could facilitate the development of a very different discourse on how to conceptualize religious studies.


The assertion of the public character of religious studies in its relationship to interreligious dialogue and harmonious interfaith relations confidently configures religious studies in a way that goes beyond detached scientific study. A connection to Western scholars of religion such as Wach and Smith, whose influence on the development of the field since Ali's time was noted earlier, remains visible in the insistence that religious studies ought to promote peaceful coexistence. This influence, however, does not warrant an understanding of the Indonesian discourse as merely derivative of models and theories developed in the Western intellectual tradition. Rather, the ability to draw on achievements in Western human sciences as well as on the rich legacy of Islamic learning and to mediate instead of uncritically adopting one over the other has allowed Muslim educators to advance culturally hybrid models of religious studies that more productively can be interpreted as local particularization of global trends.

It should be clear, then, that the way Indonesian intellectuals connect the study of religion to theological and practical concerns has resulted in an articulation of the field that is not identical to those that dominate in Western academic settings. The conspicuous absence of scholars of religion at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago may be understood as an early indication of the general aloofness of practitioners in the emerging discipline from social and political involvement. Similarly, the uneasy relationship with theology, itself part of the modernist construction of the discipline that emphasized its descriptive qualities against theology's normativity, is thrown into relief every time we feel urged to respond to our colleagues' ambivalence about the continued presence of religious studies in the secular academy by highlighting how our approaches to the subject of religion mirror those our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences use in their own scientific inquiries. Yet, an understanding of the Indonesian examples as local expressions of global trends also ensures that we realize that they are not completely different from developments elsewhere. Meaningful connections can be drawn to a growing body of scholarship in North America that is rethinking the theoretical basis of religious studies and the constitution of the discipline, including the discipline's relationship with theology and the role of civic engagement in both scholarship and teaching. (22)

As North American scholars examining the disciplinary parameters of our knowledge production, we will do well to engage our Indonesian Muslim colleagues for whom interreligious dialogue not only constitutes a subject in the curriculum or a field of practice for both scholars and students but also provides the conceptual framework in which the study of religion takes place as well as its overarching goals and objectives. Such an exchange, itself a dialogical endeavor, will call into question stereotypical notions about each other's practice and lay open the stock of shared concerns and overlapping dilemmas. Central among these are questions the Indonesian conceptualization of the field raises about the by-now-widely-discredited notion of pure, scholarly objectivity and, by extension, about religious studies as disinterested scientific inquiry. Much as Leonard Swidler has done in his life and work, the intertwining of interreligious dialogue and the academic study of religion demands a type of inquiry that is marked by sympathy and openness to the perspectives of others and challenges us explicitly to consider and to take responsibility for the concrete ethicopolitical concerns that this study promotes.

(1) There are at present more than fifty institutions within the network of state Islamic higher education enrolling about one-fifth of the country's students at public universities. For a more detailed discussion of the development of this system, see, e g., Richard G. Kranice, "Islamic Higher Education and Social Cohesion in Indonesia," Prospects: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education 37 (September, 2007): 345-356.

(2) See Zamakhshari Dhofier, "The Intellectualization of Islamic Studies in Indonesia," Indonesia Circle 58 (June, 1992): 19-30

(3) See Fuad Jabali and Jamhari, eds., The Modernization of Islam in Indonesia: An Impact Study on the Cooperation between IAIN and McGill University (Montreal and Jakarta: Indonesia-Canada Islamic Higher Education Project, 2003).

(4) Beyond the use of social-scientific methodologies, a particularly noteworthy example of intellectual openness in Islamic studies is that the study of Islamic law does not privilege a single school of law or madhhab but draws on all the established Islamic legal schools. See Azyumardi Azra, "From IAIN to UIN. Islamic Studies in Indonesia," in Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad and Patrick Jory, eds., Islamic Studies and Islamic Education in Contemporary Southeast Asia (Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Ilmuwan, 2011), p. 51.

(5) See Karel L. Steenbrink, "The Study of Comparative Religion by Indonesian Muslims," Numen 37 (December, 1990): 141-167.

(6) See Zainal Bagir and Irwan Abdullah, "The Development and Role of Religious Studies: Some Indonesian Reflections," in Bustamam-Ahmad and Jory, Islamic Studies and Islamic Education, p. 58.

(7) See Mukti Ali, Ilmu Perbandingan Agama: Sebuah Pembahasan Tentang Methodos dan Sistima (Yogyakarta: Yayasan Nida, 1969).

(8) See Herman Beck, "A Pillar of Social Harmony: The Study of Comparative Religion in Contemporary Indonesia," in Gerard Wiegers, ed., Modern Society and the Science of Religion: Studies in Honour of Lammert Leertouwer (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 332.

(9) For a recent assessment of state system's contribution to democratic consolidation, see Miriam Kunkler, "How Pluralist Democracy Became the Consensual Discourse among Secular and Nonsecular Muslims in Indonesia," in Mirjam Kunkler and Alfred Stepan, eds., Democracy and Islam in Indonesia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 53-72.

(10) The continuity of this tradition has found expression most recently in the development and implementation of an ambitious civic-education program that has replaced the ideological Pancasila courses compulsory in the Suharto era across all campuses in the state system. For an analysis of the program's intellectual roots, see Elisabeth Jackson and Bahrissalim, "Crafting a New Democracy: Civic Education in Indonesian Islamic Universities," Asia Pacific Journal of Education 27 (March, 2007): 41-54.

(11) Beck, "Pillar of Social Harmony."

(12) See Ronald A. Lukens-Bull, Islamic Higher Education in Indonesia: Continuity and Conflict (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

(13) See, e.g., discussion of charges of "modernization" and "liberalization" in Abdullah Saeed "Towards Religious Tolerance through Reform in Islamic Education: The Case of the State Institute of Islamic Studies in Indonesia," Indonesia and the Malay World, vol. 27, no. 79 (1999), p. 178.

(14) See Burhanuddin Daya, "Kuliah Ilmu Perbandingan Agama pada Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN)," in Burhanuddin Daya and Herman Leonard Beck, eds., Ilmu Pebandingan Agama di Indonesia dan Belanda (Jakarta: INIS, 1992), p. 186.

(15) See Media Zainul Bahri, "Teaching Religions in Indonesian Islamic Higher Education: From Comparative Religion to Religious Studies," Indonesian Journal of Islam and Muslim Societies 4 (December, 2014): pp. 182-183.

(16) See Ahmad Muttaqin, "Science of Religion, Comparative Religion, and Religious Studies: Perbandingan Struktur Kelembagaan dan Keilmuan Kajian Agama-Agama di Perguruan Tinggi Islam Negeri Indonesia dengan Tiga Universitas Negeri di Amerika Utara" (Individual Research Report, Fakultas Ushuluddin dan Pemikiran Islam UIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta, 2003) pp 45-53

(17) Dr. H. Abdul Muhaya (Dean of Fakultas Ushuluddin, UIN Walisongo, 2006-2010), in discussion with the author, November 20, 2014.

(18) Founded in 2004 in cooperation with the Arizona Agricultural Mediation Program at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, the Walisongo Mediation Center offers training programs for mediators and supports the development of mediation centers at other educational institutions within the state system.

(19) See Muhaya, discussion with author.

(20) See Muttaqin, "Science of Religion," p. 41.

(21) See Ridwan Max Sijabat, "Govt Urged to Protect Pluralist Lecturer in Banda Aceh," The Jakarta Post. January 8, 2015; available at http://www.thejakartapost.eom/news/2015/01/08/govt-urged-protect-pluralist- lecturer-banda-aceh.html.

(22) The special issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74 (March, 2006) on the future of the study of religion in the academy offers a pertinent overview of this body of scholarship.
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Author:Pohl, Florian
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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