Pemikiran & Peradaban
The Muhammadiyah and the roots of Indonesian nationalism, democracy, and civil society
By Ahmad Syafii Maarif
What does the Muhammadiyah stand for? Founded on November 18, 1912 by Ahmad Dahlan in Jogjakarta, the Muhammadiyah is basically a non-mazhab though not anti-mazhab Islamic modernist movement, both in jurisprudence and in theology. This movement has tried to judge critically the theologico-legal discources and opinions developed for centuries by all schools of thought in Islamic history with the Qur’ân and the sunna of the Prophet as the main sources. With this characteristic, the Muhammadiyah hopes to have more freedom and space to understand and interpret the teachings of Islam in line with the dynamic changing situation. Therefore, because of its flexibility in interpreting Islam, this movement from the very beginning has had no difficulties to say welcome to the ideas of Indonesian nationalism, democracy, civil society, and other relevant contemporary issues, as I want to elucidate further.
The Muhammadiyah and its contribution to the Indonesian nation-state
The Muhammadiyah’s counterpart, Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union) with its prominent God Father, Ahmad Hassan , for instance, had totally rejected all forms of nationalism. For Hassan, nationalism as a political ideology was no other than the concept jahiliyah (pre-Islamic practices and norms). Framed theoretically by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and J.J. Rousseau (1712-1778), nationalism has, in the past 250 years, overtaken every corner of the globe as the most powerful political ideology. Philosophically, the deification of the nation-state is the foundation of nationalism. For Hegel, and in some ways, for Rousseau as well, the state is a God-like creature. As such, it is the most object of man’s devotion.
For the Muhammadiyah, this philosophical background of nationalism was also naturally denied and rejected, but its practical aspect was harnessed as an effective tool to fight against Dutch colonial rule. As a liberating force, Islam in the eyes of the Muhammadiyah shared the nationalist ideal of freedom from any alien domination, both politically and militarily. In the history of modern Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah movement was one of the most important and influential socio-religious movements involved in this process of liberation. Its socio-educational strategy of enlightening the minds and hearts of the common people has contributed significantly not only to independence, but also to imbuing spiritual meaning into the future of a free Indonesia. The Muhammadiyah also inherited the spirit of the ‘ulamâ’s religious resistance to colonialism. Thus, the Muhammadiyah’s philosophy is that the life under foreign or domestic exploitation is not a life of honor and dignity. And for this reason, the freedom of a nation or an individual is absolutely sacred, and a Muslim should fight to achieve it at any cost.
The Muhammadiyah not only helped support the independence movement, but also laid the foundations for Indonesian democracy and civil society. 33 years before Indonesia declared its independence, the Muhammadiyah put forth in its first constitution (Anggaran Dasar) the right of majority to elect its top leadership, whlle embarking on an educational program to educate Indonesians who could lead Indonesian society. Until now, the Muhammadiyah has established and fostered around 20.175 schools/madrasahs, from the level of earlier education for kids to universities, 457 hospitals and clinics, hundred of orphanages, houses for the elders, and other humanitarian institutions and services. Indeed, there have been hundreds upon hundreds of Indonesian scholars, generals, politicians, social workers, and civil servants who attended, if not graduated, from Muhammadiyah’s school system. This is the way through which the Muhammadiyah has given a substantial meaning to nationalism.
Organizationally, this Islamic movement adopted a strategy of keeping out of practical politics, thus enabling its members to actively and creatively concentrate their works towards educating the masses, helping the weak, and offering spiritual values to safeguard and shape the course of modern Indonesian culture. This has enthroned the Muhammadiyah as one of the leading Islamic movements in the world. I would say that in terms of its gigantic socio-religio-educational networks, that there is no other social and educational Islamic movement in the world comparable to the Muhammadiyah.
The Muhammadiyah and its current challenges
However, I must admit that qualitatively, in terms of the moral restoration of the Indonesian nation, Muhammadiyah’s goal is far from realized. This country has a Muslim majority, but corruption has become rampant in all sectors of life, from city centers to remote villages. The lines have blended to such a degree that it would be difficult for us to clearly distinguish between corruptors and recognized leaders and elites, between traitors and heroes. From this perspective, Muhammadiyah’s prophetic mission will be harder and harder in the future. There is a long way to go before restoring the moral life of Indonesian people, especially the elite. We are facing serious moral problems.
The real problem of Indonesia since its declaration of independence in 1945, in my view, has been the problem of clean, strong, and effective leadership. Unfortunately, for the most part, the Muhammadiyah has not yet been able to provide the nation with these types of leaders yet. Perhaps the Muhammadiyah has, in fact, from the very beginning, not been equipped with the means to give to such leaders. But we must note that Indonesia is not alone here. Almost all Muslim nations are facing the same acute moral problems. Translating Islamic moral ideals into the concrete realities of social life remain problematic for the entire Muslim world. The work of Muhammadiyah is this direction will be meaningless unless all sectors of society are ready to share this prophetic mission deliberately and seriously. A nationalism or democarcy that is not imbued with clear moral vision will no doubt bring a nation into bankrupcy, total or partial.
According to its Constitution, the Muhammadiyah is an Islamic movement to carry out the mission for enjoining the good and forbidding the evil under the guidance of the Qur’ân and the sunnah of the Prophet . And the long-term goal it wants to achieve is “to uphold and uplift the religion of Islam so as to create the true Islamic society.” From the perspective of moral restoration of Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah has so far not much done yet. Here lies the great and real challenge of Muhammadiyah and other Indonesian religio-moral movements. To hope the political parties to meet this challenge in the present moment is equivalent with the hope of a horned horse, because a horse has no horns. This is one of the ironies facing Indonesia as the largest Muslim nation in the world.
In my view, the Muhammadiyah in entering the second centenary of its existence should also focus on the issues of human brotherhood, pluralism, democracy, tolerance, and equality. In the context of our discussion, by pluralism I mean the acceptance of many groups in society or many schools of thought in an intellectual or cultural discipline. If this definition is extended, one must accept the reality of the existence of many different religions, philosophies, ideologies, nations, tribes, ethnicities, and cultural bacgrounds as hard facts of history. These differences, according to the Qur’ân, are not to divide but to enrich our human vision and understanding of reality. “O mankind Behold, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is mostly deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” The requirement of knowing one another is both the religious and sultural foundation behind building up a universal human brotherhood and pluralism. This cultural building can only be solid and effective if we are ready to accept the reality of differences with tolerance.
Then comes the concept of equality among men. Without accepting the principle of the equal status of mankind there will be no justice and sincere brotherhood on this planet. In my understanding of the Qur’ân, the spirit of brotherhood should not be confined just between believers of different faiths, but it is also possible to creat it between believers and non-believers, even atheists, provided no one has a hidden agenda to eliminate and destroy the other. The Qur’ân is firm in the defense of religious freedom: “For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, all monastries, churches, synagogues, and mosques–in [all of] which God’s name is abountly extolled–would surely have been destroyed.” In this verse, the Qur’ân has made it clear that the mention of God’s name is not only found in mosques, but also in monastries, churches, and synagogues. But, of course, we must also admit the fact that in and under certain circumstances, the Qur’ân is more tolerant than those Muslims who claim to be the only representatives of religion and truth. This is whrere the culture of intolerance comes from.
To sum up
The Muhammadiyah is quite optimistic to see the future of Islam in the world. Though Islamic civilization in the present era lags behind Western technological and materialistic progress, that core–its inner dynamic or èlan vital–never dies out. Almost all Muslims believe that they indeed have the future, of course, on the condition that they are ready to correct their past mistakes and inner weaknesses. This strong faith in God’s mercy and justice has prevented them from committing intellectual and spiritual suicide by giving into nihilism, a phenomenon found now in the age of post-modernity.
 See P.P. Muhammadiyah, Anggaran Dasar dan Anggaran Rumah Tangga Muhammadiyah Part 2, Article 1. Jogjakarta: Suara Muhammadiyah, 2005, p. 9.
 Ibid., Part 3, Article 6.
 See the Qur’ân chapter al-Hujurât verse 13.
 Ibid., Chapter al-Hajj verse 40.
Resource: A key-note address delivered at International Research Conference on Muhammadiyah /IRCM, on the campus of Malang Muhammadiyah University, Nov.29-Des. 2, 2012.