M. Hilaly Basya , Leiden | Sat, 10/17/2009 1:11 PM | Opinion
Munjid's article "Thick Islam and Deep Islam" (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 16, 2009) is interesting to discuss. He stated that rural Muslims practice Islam as culture and tradition and this is what he defined as deep Islam.
In contrast, he compared them to urban Muslims who perform Islam more as identity (thick Islam). Rural Muslims are successfully uniting Islamic teachings with their local culture and emphasizing the substance of Islam such as human rights, elimination of poverty, injustice, economy, and education.
Hilman's article entitled "Cosmopolitan Muslims: Urban vs Rural Phenomenon" (Oct. 2009) responded to these ideas critically. For Hilman, thick Islam and deep Islam are neither urban nor rural phenomena.
I would like to critically explore rural Muslims from a historical perspective. In my view, what has been explained by Munjid about rural Islam is biased. He neglected several important factors that have shaped the outlook of rural Muslims. He directly concluded that pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) were the determinant factor influencing the practice of rural Islam as a culture.
In my view, the form of Islam in rural areas, especially in Java, has been influenced by a complex interaction between political interests, cultural contests and the supremacy of Javanese identity. In the early time of Islamic development in Java, Javanese Muslims still emphasized boundaries between Islam and Javanese traditions. They called on Muslims to abandon local traditions (Ricklefs, 2006).
Gradually, the boundaries become unclear. As far as I am concerned, pesantren were not the prominent agency that was obscuring the boundaries. Kings were the actors who played an important role in smudging the boundaries. Sultan Agung, the king of Mataram who lived in the 17th century, was one of the kings that attempted to reconcile Javanese traditions with Islam.
He combined the Islamic calendar with the Javanese calendar. On the one hand, it seems that as the king of Mataram in which Javanese customs were strongly held, he needed to appreciate these traditions in order to strengthen his legitimacy. On the other hand, as shown from label as a sultan from Mecca, he had a close relationship with Muslims.
In addition, most Javanese elites who are described by Ricklefs as abangan (Javanese elites), disliked Muslims. There are three important books that can be mentioned here: Babad Kedhiri, Suluk Gatholoco, and Serat Dermagandul, which were published in the 18th and 19th centuries.
These books depicted abangan's hatred toward Muslims. Babad Kedhiri, for instance, mentioned that "Islam is a tragedy for Javanese" (2007:189). Suluk Gatholoco stated that "Allah is stupid and has no budi" (moral values from Buddhism). In addition the book said it was the Budha age that was truly Javanese (2007:195). While Serat Dermagandhul asserted that "if you adhere to the religion of the walis (Muslim clerics), you should go far away to Arabia and join people there" (2007:198).
These books indicate that Islam faced hostile response from Javanese elites. That is why Muslim elites, mostly kings, reconciled Islam and Javanese tradition. Based on these findings, we understand why Wali Songo preached Islam with local culture (Javanese tradition). The main problems faced by rural Muslims were not secularization and modernization, but the supremacy of Javanese traditions. It also indicates that rural Islam needed a long time to be successful. Therefore, the different social political context is one of the important factors influencing the way rural Muslims perform Islam.
This is different to what urban Muslims faced. They negotiated Islam with secularism. So far, urban Muslims are divided in various forms. Some of them become fundamentalists. They tried to revive Islam as performed in the early time of Islamic development. They rejected secularism and to some extent modernity as well.
Other urban Muslims emphasized spirituality. They attempted to overcome the challenge of alienating secular life. And the rest become progressive-liberal. They are able to negotiate Islam and secularism. Therefore urban Muslims have different characters of Islamic understanding.
Compared to urban Muslims, rural Muslims were late to struggle with secularism and modernity, at least, after Indonesian independence. In the 1950s, rural Islam represented by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) had difficulty with modernity (Clifford Geertz, 1960:162-198). Some younger NU activists often called the members to study secular (modern) disciplines.
They were disappointed with conservatism performed by pesantrens that only taught religious subjects such as fiqh, tafsir, and tasawuf.
Unfortunately, conservatism and traditionalism were hegemonic within NU's mainstream. Moreover, in the early time of its development, NU paid no attention to modern problems such as labor problems and the emancipation of women. The emergence of modern or progressive thoughts of rural Muslims only appeared in the 1980s, after the urbanization of rural Muslims began to study secular subjects in urban universities.
It is important to note that the development of a society is determined by their interaction with its social condition, and their individual awareness that is shaped by their social relationship with others. The progress is not uniform and linear. There is always contestation and negotiation. Rural Muslims are lucky to have progressive "young" ulemas who are able to provide space for negotiation and dialogue about Islam, Javanese traditions and modernity.
The writer is a student at Leiden University, the Netherlands and a lecturer at the University of Muhammadiyah Jakarta