UIII and the Islamic Intellectual Tradition

The decline of Muslim world, especially in the fields of science and economics, has long captured the attention of Muslim activists and intellectuals all over the world. It raises a collective concern that encourages various efforts to trace the causes of the decline and at the same time seeks to overcome the obstacles. Since the perspectives used to look into those problems vary, the solutions do vary too.

Some people believe that the causes of the decline are moral decay, loss of unity, and deviation from the Guidance of the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. While others believe that certain parts of the constructed "Islamic teachings" have lost their relevance, since they are the product of the thoughts of the scholars or mujtahid at that time that need reinterpretation and recontextualization. The purpose is not to change the scriptures, but to reinterpret them to meet present needs.

The first group to call for the so-called “Islamic revival” or the “revival of Islamic religion” gained its momentum in the 15th century of Hijriyah. Since then, many efforts have been made to realize the agenda. Its main feature is the affirmation of identity through Islamic symbols such as Islamic State, Islamic clothing, Islamization of science projects, and implementation of sharia in totality (kaffah). This group is usually called the revivalists, or more explicitly, the fundamentalists.

Meanwhile, the second group called for the "Renewal of Islamic Thought". In contrast to the first group that is past-oriented, this group sees the past as a historical legacy that must be viewed critically and inspiringly. This group encourages an ijtihad in every era that moves dynamically. Even though the Revelation still occupies the central position, the right to freedom of thought is endorsed. Because only with critical and independent reasoning can new knowledge emerge. This group is commonly known as the reformist. In modern times, the traces of this group can be traced since Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Iqbal, etc. While the first group can be seen in the thoughts of Amir Syakieb Arsalan, Hassan al-Banna, Seyyed Qutbh, Abul A'la Maududi, etc.

Despite the fierce competition and friction between the two groups, both groups essentially fight for the revival of the Islamic civilization that has been slumped for a thousand years. In their own way, they try to show which side of the teachings of Islam can wake the Muslims from this long slumber. Of course, we must not forget the roles of the orientalists who – regardless of their motives – have contributed in exploring and presenting various aspects of Islamic civilization from the past that were once missed by the Muslims.

We accept those series as a process of dialectical and creative dialogue that give birth to a kind of synthesis in the form of acknowledgment that Islam has become one of the very significant contributors in the development of world civilization. The problem is whether the Muslims are ready to respond and fulfill this historical task. Because, one of the most prominent characteristics of the great Islamic civilization in the past - and is currently missing - is its open and appreciative nature to outside civilizations. Tolerance and scientific tradition are the characteristics of the Islamic civilization that are always mentioned proudly, but where do they go? The answer is: they have moved to the West. Some will even claim that they have been "stolen" by the West, which is why they are no longer considered as the “offspring” or “product” of the Islamic world.

The good news is that a more positive and appreciative view of the Islamic world is now emerging in the Western world. Various centers of Islamic studies in Western universities in recent decades are even getting more advanced than those in the Islamic world, especially in terms of methodologies and interdisciplinary approaches. That is one of the reasons why Islamic universities in Indonesia have been sending their students to study at Western universities since the 1970s. In line with the view that the Western world has abandoned the paradigm of pure orientalism and has begun to have a positive attitude toward the Islamic world, sending Muslim students to study in the West is no longer seen with the stigma that they will become orientalists after they graduated. As a result, the Muslim students and alumni of Western universities have been accepted with pride and actively take on parts in academia, government agencies, and society.

One of the shortcomings that are still visible is that the West somehow still regards Islam to be synonymous with Arab, Persian, and African regions. Meanwhile, larger Islamic regions such as the Indonesia-Malay archipelago are still neglected, whereas Islam has carved a fairly long and deep trace there. It is very unfortunate that studies about this region are still lacking. It looks like countries with a majority Muslim population such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are too occupied with their domestic affairs. How can they pay a greater attention to the Islamic world at large, while to their own region is neglected? The Muslims in Arab and Persian regions have given birth to a very glorious civilization. What about the Muslims in the Indonesia-Malay archipelago? Islam has existed in this region for almost a thousand years. The answer why it has not been able to do the same should baffle all of us. It is our own homework.

One of the reasons why UIII was established is to answer that question. We know that the Islamic intellectual tradition in the Indonesia-Malay archipelago is very rich, but it has yet been properly exposed and introduced to the Western and other Islamic worlds. The Islamic intellectual tradition in this region was pioneered in the 17th century by Hamzah Fansuri, Syamsuddin Sumatrani, Nuruddin ar-Raniri, Abdurrauf Singkel, Abdusshamad al-Palimbani, Nawawi al-Bantani, Kyai Ihsan Kediri, Mangkunegoro IV, R. Ronggowarsito, etc.

In the early 20th century, intellectual tradition was prominently shown by influential figures such as H.O.S. Cokroaminoto, H. Agus Salim, K.H. Ahmad Dahlan, A. Surkati, A. Hasan, M. Natsir, etc. And in the contemporary era continued by reformist figures such as Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, M. Dawam Rahardjo, A. Syafii Maarif, Jalaluddin Rakhmat, etc.

UIII is determined to continue and elevate the long intellectual tradition to the international level with full awareness. The world needs to be shown that the Islamic region of the Malay Archipelago is a fertile and rich place with intellectual traditions that used to be the main feature of the Islamic civilization. Compared to the Islamic region of the Middle East which is always turbulent, the Islamic Malay Archipelago region is relatively peaceful. A harmonious and tolerant life has become the character of the Muslims in this region, hence they are able to give positive energy to world peace.

With better education in the Muslim world, this big agenda has become more likely to be taken more seriously now. Islamic universities these days already have the awareness to get involved in rebuilding a tolerant civilization and Islamic intellectual traditions. UIII humbly positions itself as one of those universities.

At the same time, the dichotomy of struggle between the Islamic revival group and the reformist group, will slowly melt away. They will eventually meet at one point of consciousness to synergize with each other. And UIII hopes to be a bridge for that noble goal.***