Progressive Islam in Indonesia


A review of Faith, Moral Authority, and Politics: The Making of Progressive Islam in Indonesia, by Alexander R. Arifianto.

At a time when Islamic organizations are central to the politics of Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Malaysia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim-majority countries, Alex Arifianto’s doctoral dissertation addresses the important question of why Islamic organizations change their theology from a fundamentalist orientation to a progressive theology. By focusing on the causal mechanism behind these shifts to progressive doctrine, Arifianto’s dissertation presents a model for understanding change within religious actors more broadly. His model might be used, for example, to explain the shift of the Catholic Church to liberation theology or Jewish organization’s embrace of liberal ideas of citizenship instead of more exclusivist variants of Zionism. Arifianto’s dissertation is a significant contribution to promoting tolerance, democracy, and peaceful methods of conflict resolution in our age of post-secular politics.

To explain the shift in Islamic organization’s theology, Arifianto develops a “moral authority leadership” theory. He draws on the classic social theorist Max Weber’s work on charismatic leadership; Weber argued that charismatic leaders emerge during crisis situations, drawing on new religious doctrines to restore order and prosperity to their societies. Due to the instability of the environment and the power of their charisma, these leaders could transform society and religious institutions. While Weber’s prototype for a charismatic leader was Martin Luther’s pioneering break from the Catholic Church, Arifianto argues that this kind of religious reform can be seen far beyond the confines of Christianity in medieval Europe. He suggests that charismatic Islamic leaders, when drawing on ideas that resonate with their constituency and when drawing on cooperative relations with the state, are able to carry out transformative changes to their organization’s theology in the direction of progressive doctrine.

Chapter 1 is a succinct introduction to the dissertation, outlining the puzzle, the author’s synthesis of rationalist and constructivist approaches to the study of religion and politics, and laying out the core hypotheses. Arifianto’s hypothesis #1 is that major ideational changes in religious organizations are driven by “moral authority” leaders. These leaders achieve their status through their expertise and charismatic attributes. This status gives them credibility with their followers to implement and institutionalize their ideas within their organizations. Hypothesis #2 is that the presence of an institutional organizational culture that tolerates new religious ideas helps to bolster support for reform and discourages opposition. Hypothesis #3 is that a peaceful relation between a religious group and the state minimizes the likelihood of repression against the religious group and its members, allowing reformers to implement their reforms.

The chapter then discusses the author’s cases of successful and unsuccessful reform: the successful reform pathway is represented by Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) movement, while the unsuccessful reform pathway is represented by Indonesia’s Muhammadiyah movement. Both movements are central to contemporary Indonesian politics as well as being woefully underrepresented in the broader literature on religion and politics. Arifianto’s work is, therefore, both theoretically important and empirically helpful in exposing Indonesia’s mass Islamic organizations to a wider audience.

Chapter 2 outlines a review of literature of previous works in the study of religion and politics, the theoretical framework, and the methodology. Arifianto develops the concept of moral authority leadership, outlining the theoretical argument for the theory, and the independent, intervening, and dependent variables. He differentiates his theory from the work of prominent rational choice scholars like Anthony Gill, cultural determinists like Samuel Huntington, and interpretivists like Lisa Wedeen. He details the causal mechanisms and pathways that make the reforms advocated by moral authority leaders and their supporters become successfully or unsuccessfully institutionalized. He then outlines the two case studies, which illustrate the potential pathways taken by religious reformers in the NU and Muhammadiyah. Lastly, the chapter describes the data sources and the method. Arifianto drew most of his data from Arizona State University’s extensive holdings of primary and secondary historical documents on Indonesian Islam. In addition, he conducted field research in Indonesia from May – August of 2010. The Institute for the Study of Islam and Society (Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial – LKiS), the Wahid Institute established by Abdurrahman Wahid (NU), and the Ma’arif Institute established by Syafii Ma’arif (Muhammadiyah) were especially valuable sources of historical documents.

Chapter 3, “The Successful Reform Pathway: The Case of the Nahdlatul Ulama,” analyzes the successful institutionalization of progressive Islamic ideas within the NU. Under this pathway, the moral authority leadership of Abdurrahman Wahid interacted with the NU’s tolerant institutional culture and cooperative relations with the state to produce theological change. Wahid came from a family of NU leaders, including being directly related to two founders of the NU, Hasjim Asj’ari and Bisri Syansuri. Educated in the NU’s boarding schools (pesantren) as well as by a Dutch tutor, Wahid studied Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Upon his return to Indonesia, he joined the leadership ranks of NU and rose quickly to the position of Secretary General of the NU clerical (ulama) council in 1979 by building a coalition of like-minded reformers. Arifianto suggests that Wahid’s moral authority status among the NU community helped to solidify the support of other senior NU clerics. His writings from this period draw from both classic Islamic and Western philosophy into a synthesis that is “compatible with modernity” especially democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance (p. 136). Arifianto argues that these ideas were successfully institutionalized in the NU due to Wahid’s educational and genealogical pedigree, combined with his powerful charisma and the NU’s tolerant culture. As a result, Arifianto suggests that the NU continues to be at the forefront of promoting democracy, tolerance, and human rights even after Wahid’s departure from the helm of the NU. Wahid is Arifianto’s archetype of a charismatic religious leader; the author implies that other reformist-minded religious leaders would do well to study Wahid’s strategies for successful theological reform.

Chapter 4, “The Unsuccessful Reform Pathway: The Case of the Muhammadiyah,” presents a sharp contrast from the NU’s institutionalization of progressive ideas. The chapter analyzes the case of the Muhammadiyah, an Indonesian Islamic organization with a modernist theological orientation. In the 1970s and 1980s, two reform-minded religious leaders, Nurcolish Madjid and Syafii Ma’arif, attempted to implement and institutionalize progressive Islamic ideas within the organization. Yet, these reforms were unsuccessfully institutionalized due to the strong opposition of activists within the organization. Unlike the NU, revivalist preachers who were educated in the Middle East, and their ideological descendants, have retained control of the Muhammadiyah for most of its history. Due to this institutional culture, which favors the theological positions articulated by reform opponents, conservative were able to block the reforms and successfully prevent the reforms from being institutionalized. The chapter shows how progressive theological reforms fail to be implanted in an Islamic organization when the ideas promoted face an institutional barrier in the form of intolerant culture.

Chapter 5 concludes the study. Arifianto restates his question: why do Islamic organizations change their theology and identity away from a fundamentalist or revivalist orientation to  progressive Islamic theology? He argues that the answer is that moral authority leaders play an important role in promoting reforms within their respective organizations. They utilize a wide range of strategies to promote and institutionalize reforms within their respective groups, both ideational and instrumental. The theological reforms within the NU were successful due to the existence of a moral authority leader within the organization who used his charismatic appeals to win over the support of potential followers and the inclusive institutional culture of the organization. Meanwhile, the lack of reform within the Muhammadiyah occurred due to the lack of charismatic leader and the institutional culture of activists who reject alternative interpretations of Islam.

Chapter 5 also highlights the theoretical contributions of the dissertation, with implications beyond Southeast Asian studies. First, Arifianto demonstrates that theology is not a fixed social construct, but is subject to constant reframing. Second, Arifianto makes a contribution to the literature on Islamic politics and social movements by outlining the process by which Islamic movements can embrace democratic norms and institutions, religion – state separation, and tolerance toward non-Muslim minorities. Third, Arifianto details how religious leaders combine ideational goals, persuasive narratives, and material incentives to gain support from within their religious organizations and allies from the outside of the organization in their efforts to institutionalize their ideas. Fourth and finally, Arifianto pinpoints the variables that are endogenous to religious organizations that may explain the successful or unsuccessful institutionalization of new ideas; Islamic groups that have a history of tolerating new ideas and have peaceful relations with the state are more likely to be successful in institutionalizing reforms.

Arifianto’s theoretical template for successful theological reform originates in Protestant Reformation Europe, but is handily applied to the world of Southeast Asian Islam. In the future, I suspect that other scholars will build on Faith, Moral Authority, and Politics: The Making of Progressive Islam in Indonesia to explain the behavior of religious actors around the globe. That would be a fitting result for a piece of research that is so creative and vital to helping scholars understand the origins of support for tolerance, democracy and human rights among modern religious organizations.

Jeremy Menchik
Assistant Professor
Department of International Relations
Boston University

Primary Sources

Institute for the Study of Islam and Society (Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial – LKiS)
The Ma’arif Institute
The Wahid Institute
Moeslim Abdurrahman (ed.), 2003. Muhammadiyah sebagai tenda kultural [Muhammadiyah as a cultural tent]. Jakarta: Ideo Press and Ma’arif Institute.
Nurcolish Madjid (ed.), 1995. Islam, agama kemanusiaan: Membangun tradisi dan visi baru Islam Indonesia [Islam, religion of humanity: Building a new tradition and vision for Indonesian Islam]. Jakarta: Paramadina Press.
Abdurahman Wahid (ed.), 2006. Islamku, Islam Anda, Islam Kita: Agama, Masyarakat, dan Negara Demokrasi [My Islam, the Author’s Islam, Our Islam: Religion, Society, and the Democratic State]. Jakarta: The Wahid Institute.

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2012. 253 pp. Primary Advisor: Okechukwu C. Iheduru.

Image: Nahdlatul Ulama Flag, Wikipedia Commons.

    1. Dear Walid,
      Thank you very much for your inquiry. You can search for the dissertation online with relative ease.
      Dissertation Reviews does not distribute or disseminate dissertations.
      With best wishes,
      Leon Rocha (Managing Editor)

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