Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Itinerant scholars

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Who were the first to bring Hinduism to Indonesia? For some time scholars have upheld theories about military expansion from India to Southeast Asia, resulting in 'Indian colonial states'. Thisksatria-theory had to be rejected however, because Indian annals and chronicles do not mention any large-scale military operation to this area.

Similarly, the later vaisha-theory, seeking the bearers of Hinduism in traders, is not able to explain the highly sophisticated expression of literary and religious relations between the two areas. Ordinary traders did not have access to the books, which could be used only by trained Hindu Brahmans or Buddhist monks.

Modern theories therefore consider religious specialists as the main actors in the (partial) conversion of Indonesia to Indian religious traditions.

Hindu scholars

This transmittance of knowledge came not only from religious scholars travelling from India to Indonesia. Many young Indonesians went the other way round. Nalanda, in North India, had an international 'university', where in the seventh century AD more than ten thousand students were enrolled, a good minority of them from Indonesia (see H. D. Sankalia,The University of Nalanda, Madras, 1934).

As late as the end of the fifteenth century, when Java's northern coast had already embraced Islam, an Indonesian student took a new religious book with him to Indonesia. The Siwaratrikalpa is a story of a war in Schwarzenegger style with much blood and crying, to the better glory and honour of Lord Shiwa and one of his devotees.


After major parts of Indonesia converted to Islam this Indian connection was broken. Although many coastal areas of India had large Muslim settlements and good schools, and some Indian scholars even made good careers as divines in the Islamic courts of Aceh, the Arabic holy places of Mecca and Medina now became the favourite destinations for Indonesian students. They went abroad to acquire the highest degree of knowledge in islamic studies.

From the sixteenth century onwards there are many proofs of the abilities of Indonesian students. Again and again they brought the newest developments in Islamic law, theology and mysticism to their home countries. The debates and changes in Mecca were often followed somewhat later by similar religious revolutions in the archipelago.

Many prominent families in Minangkabau, West Sumatra, have a forefather who was with the Padri in Mecca about 1800, and who learned there the radical and aggressive doctrines of the Wahhabi. A later generation was imbued with the heterodox mysticism of the Shattari order, which was in turn denounced by the generation of about 1880, followers of the much more orthodox Naqshbandi order.

Of course, not everyone could send their boys (and indeed sometimes also girls, although mostly as wives) to the holy land. ThePadri area in Minangkabau is located at a level above 500 meters. These hills are not suited for rice cultivation, but are the proper area for cash crops such as coffee. Only farmers who received cash for their products would finally be able to send their children to Mecca. So the cash economy helped to define the boundaries of some Muslim reforms as well.


During the rubber boom of the early twentieth century the Sumatran farmers no longer sent their children to Mecca. Mecca still remained a centre of devotion, the place of the yearly pilgrimage, the hajj, while Medina continued to attract people to the shrine of Muhammad. But one should not go to that place for learning. This was at least the warning given by the nationalist leader Haji Agus Salim, for some time secretary at the consulate of the Dutch East Indies in Jeddah, to the young Islamic poet Hamka in 1925.

In the first half of the twentieth century Cairo was the centre of Islamic learning. This was considered to be the nucleus of the renewal of Islamic education. The great Muhammad 'Abduh (died 1905), rector of Al-Azhar University, was a symbol for the return to a reformed Islam, turning back to the basic sources of Qur'an and prophetic sayings (hadith).

Mukti Ali

However, times continued to change. The young Mukti Ali, a Dutch-educated revolutionary, who was well acquainted with English, decided to study in India after World War II. He had heard of names like Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. He finished his Islamic education in India with a doctoral degree in about 1952. But he was not satisfied, went further to the West and was accepted in Canada as an MA student at Montreal's McGill University.

In 1955 Mukti Ali met there another Indonesian: Dr Muhammad Rasjidi, who had studied in Cairo, Egypt, in the 1930s. Rasjidi had served as a young assistant to the Dutch advisor for Native (=Islamic) Affairs in 1942. He had become the Indonesian Republic's first Minister of Religious Affairs in 1946, and later Indonesian ambassador to Egypt. Rasjidi's ambassadorial work had apparently not been so busy, for he managed to submit a dissertation in 1954 to the famous Louis Massignon in Paris.

After Rasjidi received his French degree, he was invited to Canada to become a visiting professor at McGill. Here he started what two decades later became labelled as `the McGill mafia': McGill graduates who were to hold prominent positions in the teaching and administration of Islam in Indonesia.

Dr Mukti Ali was Minister of Religious Affairs between 1971 and 1978. His secretary-general was Timur Djaelani MA, also McGill. The rector of the most prestigious Islamic Academy at that time was Prof Dr Harun Nasution, who studied for his BA in Cairo, but who received both his MA and PhD degrees from Montreal.

Canada's McGill University in Montreal was the first to attract a large number of Indonesian Muslim students. The programs still continue, have indeed been expanded.


In the early 1970s many students from the highly esteemed Islamic boarding school (pesantren) of Gontor went first for two years to Arabia, where they easily received generous scholarships. By living parsimoniously they tried to save enough for a ticket to Canada or the USA. After studying there for some six months they hoped that good results would provide them with an additional amount of dollars in the form of a scholarship. One among them was the now very influential Nurcholish Madjid, or Cak Nur as he is commonly called, who received both his MA and PhD degrees from Chicago. This was also the route taken by many to McGill.

As Minister of Religious Affairs, Dr Mukti Ali launched various government programs. In 1978 a program started with Leiden University in the Netherlands, which is still continuing as the Netherlands-Indonesian Cooperation in Islamic Studies (INIS). Thirteen Indonesians are currently the kernel here. The majority are taking a Masters' program in Islamic Studies, originally meant for Dutch new Muslim students. One Dutch lecturer is attached to the Jakarta State Academy of Islamic Studies (IAIN), and many visiting lecturers are welcomed yearly.


In the 1980s the program at McGill was expanded, so that for a decade now some 35 Indonesians pursue a university degree at any one time among the heaps of snow in that Canadian city (it holds a record for the highest snowfall of all the great cities of the world).

Other American, besides European and Australian universities have programs for Indonesian students. During the 1980s and 1990s an average of 200 'Western graduates in Islamic Studies' are planned for each Indonesian Five Year Plan.

The reasons for such a great (and expensive) program are clear. Western textbooks, methods and standards are used, or at least pursued in all Indonesian universities. If Islamic science wants to communicate with other sectors of society and wants to keep up with other developments in academic life, it should not have a special position of orientation to the Arab countries of the Middle East only.

The government is very afraid of importing Middle Eastern frustration and fundamentalism into Indonesia. Therefore those students who go to the Middle East on private funds are closely scrutinised after their return home, where they find that a degree of Al-Azhar values now less than a degree of some non-Muslim university in a Western country.

Besides, notwithstanding the continuing and even fast expanding number of those who go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the image of the Arab world in Indonesia is not too good. A Western scholarship provides enough to live on, but in Al-Azhar it does not cover much more than 25% of daily needs. The extensive memorisation, still in use at the highest level in this former temple of Islamic learning, is considered outdated by many modern Indonesians.


This does not mean there are no protests against this orientation to the West. The present rector of the Jakarta IAIN, Prof Dr Quraisy Syihab, an Al-Azhar graduate, is one example of a bright individual who has made a splendid career after studying in the Middle East. He has brought several others with a similar background into prominent positions as well.

However, the fact that Quraisy Syihab's younger brother, Dr Alwi Syihab , graduated at Temple University in the USA, and is now a professor of Islamic Studies at the (Protestant) Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, USA, shows that the desire to study in Western countries not only continues, but even may provide Western universities with Indonesian professors.

Dr Karel Steenbrink teaches religion at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He has been researching Indonesian Islam for many years and wrote this in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 52: Oct-Dec 1997

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