Paramadina is a thriving Islamic educational organisation which aims to influence Jakarta's middle classes. It was set up in the mid eighties by modern scholars associated with Nurcholish Madjid. The main question for discussion, says its current director Dr Komaruddin Hidayat, is 'how to bring Islam within the context of modern Indonesia'.
Getting to Paramadina took me to Pondok Indah, Jakarta's showcase suburb. Elsewhere in the city things accrue fungal-like on the pavements: food vendors, street stalls, bajaj drivers and car minders. But in Pondok Indah the pavements were uncluttered and the shopping centre still glittering. In a courtyard behind a McDonald's outlet I found Paramadina.
It was Saturday, lunchtime, and most of the staff were taking a break before the afternoon lecture series began. In a back room a conversion discussion was underway and I was welcome to listen in.
Four people sat around a board room table. The catechumen was a young Spaniard, Angel. In Madrid he worked as a consultant with McKinsey and Company. Across the table sat his fiancee, a Sundanese he had met in Spain. They had known each other for eight months. Her hair was uncovered, she wore makeup and jewellery. Next to her was a veiled companion. Neither woman spoke during the conversation.
At the head of the table sat Dr 'A', large, convivial and certain. He did this work voluntarily, he said. In daily life he was involved in multi-level selling. What was that, I asked? Like Amway, he explained. Many very good multi-level selling textbooks are Australian. His role was to answer Angel's questions. This was their second encounter and there would be more.
Why did Muslim women wear veils? asked Angel. Islam wants women to emphasise their humanity, replied Dr A. Mostly we see women as objects: in advertising they expose their bodies and this degrades them to non-humans. Islam says please clothe yourself and be a human being.
Then the same principle should apply to men, said Angel. No, men are not like that. There is certainly a rule about men's clothing but there is still a difference in the way women see men and men see women.
But there are other things I still don't understand, said Angel. We started this session with the idea that Islam is a religion that makes you understand everything you are being told. I want to know, why are you able to marry more than one woman? Polygamy! exclaimed Dr A. I think in Islam it is not incumbent but it is possible according to individual circumstances and capacity.
But, asked Angel, in the Koran it is said that you can marry more than one woman? Yes, but not if you cannot do justice. If you can do justice, marry two, marry three ....! Maybe in another culture you don't allow it but you have a mistress outside whose position is worse than the position of a woman who becomes a second wife. She has no rights in inheritance, in social position.
In principle we believe the best is monogamy. Polygamy is, you can say, for emergency - there is always an emergency door.
Angel moved on: Now I am going to ask you a very tricky question. There are things done to women that make them suffer when they grow up.
Dr A understood. Circumcision. Oh it is just the same for what men have to undertake! In the rules not all agree on this - it is not a matter of wajib, obligatory things. There are different views among scholars about its status and if you have children you can abandon it. I
am sure I will not do it, replied Angel, even if I really convert. It is something I really cannot understand. I have of course many questions but that is enough for today.
The director's office was upstairs, a long way from the conversion discussion. Through the glass doors of the bookshelves I could make out words like 'deconstruction' and 'Hans Kung'. Dr Komaruddin Hidayat explained that Paramadina students are often Western educated. 'They are settled economically but they feel they need intellectual justification for being Muslim.'
In the foyer people were gathering. Books on Islamic themes were displayed on a table inside the door, a book on Islam and bioethics for example. A youngish woman of Chinese background said this was her seventh year of Paramadina courses. Her knowledge of Islam was not enough: 'This is the place I can get more and learn that we are moderate, tolerant.'
A doctor was interested in mystical Islam. A retired gynaecologist sought 'rational Islam' after a lifetime of 'traditional Islam'. They moved into the commodious lecture room. This course was on 'The Tao of Islam'. Maybe, said the first doctor, in Western countries there are wrong ideas about Islam.
Margaret Coffey recently visited Indonesia to make two radio programs on religion for Radio National. She lives in Melbourne.