Hilman Latief , Leiden | Sat, 08/29/2009 2:10 PM | Opinion
Achmad Munjid published an interesting article entitled Thick Islam and Deep Islam (The Jakarta Post, Aug 16, 2009) in which he analyzed Islam as perceived, formulated and practiced by Indonesians in both urban and rural areas.
His notion draws attention to the continuing process of Islamization in the country. This is marked in part by the outward appearances of Islamic symbols in the public sphere: Islamic newspapers, magazines, electronic media (TV, radio, cell phone ringtones), etc.
Despite the fact that the so-called Islamic identity has become more obvious, at least symbolically, Islam in urban areas has been presented in more sophisticated ways. Urban Muslims, as seen in their social, economic and political activities, understand Islam not only from Islamic tenets as derived from Islamic sources, the Koran and Sunnah (Prophet Muhammad's words).
Their idea of Islam is therefore not restricted to the lists of classical books in fiqh (jurisprudence), exegesis (tafsir), and hadith (tradition). In their eyes, Islam is a living tradition whose values and principle can be translated into the social and economic domain.
While I agree with Munjid's notion of an emerging Islamic identity in the Indonesian social, economic and political landscape, I do have some objection to his binary model of "an opposition between thick and deep Islam" that polarizes Islam in urban and rural areas. The first is what sort of "thick Islam" and "deep Islam" Munjid means, as far as his article is concerned, it is not conceptually clear.
Munjid argues that "thick Islam" has to do with Islamic formalism, and this, he argues, is an urban phenomenon. He also argues that deep Islam can be found in rural areas because people in rural areas have practiced Islam "more as culture and tradition" and have learned Islam over decades in pesantren (Islamic boarding schools).
In this respect I think his analysis is oversimplified as he does not explain further the differences between "a more sophisticated rural culture and tradition" and a "symbolic urban culture and tradition".
He seems to say that rural Islam is not too symbolic in comparison to urban Islam. In my view, his argument is not only weak, but theoretically unconvincing.
My first and very basic questions are: what are thick and deep Islam, and what are the parameters guiding us to define "thick" and "deep"? Are Islamic traditions and culture "embedded" in rural Muslims not symbolic?
Munjid's concern over the manipulation of "thick Islam" due to political interest or abuse is understandable, but is it simply related to the "thick Islam" rather than "Islamist ideology". How and where should we put ordinary Muslims "less" ideological among urbanites?
I do agree that those who are defined as belonging to "thick Islam" or "deep Islam", if I borrow Munjid's expression, can be seen from people's endeavor to understand what Islam is and how they learn it. Some people may go to schools that teach Islam in a more systematic way, such as pesantrens.
In pesantren, santris (the students of pesantren) can indeed closely interact with various Islamic sources, ranging from classical works to modern books. They might have learned from those sources that Islamic expression is not monolithic. Classical respected "ulemas", in particular, have written treatises explaining how varied Islamic expression is.
Others might have seen and learned that Islam can contribute a lot in the social development process of society and therefore they may attempt to transfer their understanding of Islam into their everyday life.
For them Islam is not simply a set of teachings disconnected from reality. But my point is that we cannot simplify this phenomenon, let say, by using the urban or rural phenomenon to define "thick Islam" and "deep Islam". To me, the two terms have nothing to do with the terms urban or rural. I profoundly disagree with Munjid on the issue of rural vis a vis urban as a starting point of analysis.
I do see rural Muslims faithfully practicing Islam, praying in the mosque and reading Koran in the mosque every night. But how accessible is Islamic literature that people in rural areas can reach is about, for example, modernization, poverty eradication and economic development? Due to some factors (education, access to economic sources, and social resources) of course, their expression is restricted to "cultural symbolism".
I also know there are urban Muslims that are acquainted with Islamic literature and at the same time are able to express their symbolic attitude in a more sophisticated way. Islam is perceived as "a way of life" by which educated urban Muslims are able - or at least try to -transform Islamic ideals concretely.
The establishment of hospitals, orphanages, Islamic schools, Islamic banks, Islamic media and even modern pesantren, which are of course very symbolic, are an urban phenomena. Development-oriented programs provided by modern philanthropic institutions, for example, are urban phenomena alike.
In sum, religious expression in the public domain is symbolic whether it appears in urban or rural areas. "Thick Islam" and "deep Islam" can be easily discovered in both urban and rural areas.
During Ramadan, we may see how rich their Islamic expression and symbolism is, which of course will manifest differently in both urban and rural areas.
We should also remember that in recent times religious expression in society cannot escape the influence of the complex interplay between the state and market.
Abundant Islamic publications, the innovation of Islamic fashion and the "Islamizing" of public sphere are to some extent the results of such complexity. Not simply because of the "thick" and "deep" understanding of Islam.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism because of thick Islam cannot simply be associated with Muslims either in urban or rural areas. Likewise, "Liberal Islam" that is supported by urbanites that are rural in origin and its "opponents" (Islamists) who are also quite knowledgeable about Islam also represent urban phenomena. The point lies in their ideologies that are contested in the public life.
I remember the late Nurcholish Madjid introduced inclusive and transformative Islam to urban Muslims as a means of "cosmopolitizing" Indonesian Muslims.
So that Indonesian Muslims could cope with the complexity of life, could participate in the poverty alleviation programs and could make everyone in the country live together in harmony. Nurcholish is just one example of a person trained in Islam in both rural and urban areas.
There are also some Muslim social activists who are not trained in formal Islamic education, but are able to manage social institutions appropriately. They are attempting to be cosmopolitan Muslims by contextualizing Islam into social and economic development processes in the country.
Islam in urban or rural areas is very complex and "thick Islam" or "deep Islam" is more complex than what we imagine. But I do agree with Munjid's suggestion that deepening and contextualizing Islam in a plural society is needed, especially in facing hostile fundamentalism in from both religious and secular regions of the globe.
The writer is a lecturer at the School of Islamic Studies, Muhammadiyah University of Yogyakarta, and Ph.D Research Fellow at Leiden University, the Netherlands.