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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sufism, Proto-Sufism, and Pseudo-Sufism: Rethinking the Development of the Discourse on Sufism in Indonesia

By: Asfa Widiyanto

Reviewed Article: Julia Day Howell, “Sufism and the Indonesian Islamic Revival”, in: The Journal of Asian Studies 60, no. 3 (2001), p. 701-729.

Sufism in Twentieth-Century Indonesia

In this article, Howell is at pains to show that Sufism, or inner expression of Muslim religiosity, is one of the signs of Indonesian Islamic revival. Looking back to the history, she shows the close connection between Sufism and pesantren. However, there was a challenge from modernist movement to the tarekat and Sufism. This pressure was also directed to the so-called kebatinan (Javanese mysticism). Under such pressure, Sufism still holds importance in the pesantren. One indication of the survival of Sufism within the pesantren is the establishment of the Jam’iyyah Thariqah Mu’tabarah Nahdhiyyin.

Sufism as a Part of the (Indonesian) Islamic Revival: New Forms and Interpretations

In the later part of the twentieth century, Sufism underwent revitalization. Many tarekats experienced new growth, and Sufism found expression through new institutional form of urban societies. There were new appreciations of Sufism by Muslim modernist scholars, such as Hamka and Nurcholish Madjid. Even, Abdul Munir Mulkhan, noticed that there has been a turning towards Sufism in Muhammadiyah. Howell points out that it contributed to soften the distinctions between Modernist and Traditionalist.

The rehabilitation of Sufism and the enthusiasm of the (Indonesian) Islamic revival seem to stimulate the increasing participation in the tarekat. Howell also points out the increasing number of women in the tarekat, which shows the (new) kinds of recruitment other than via pesantren connections. And these open modes of recruitment change the image of tarekat from a secret mystical group into a mass religious movement.

Since 1980s there was increasing number of middle-class in the tarekat, as it is clearly observed in the case of Tariqah Qadiriyyah wa Naqshbandiyah in the pesantren of Suryalaya, and the tarekat of Naqshbandiyah under the leadership of Prof. Dr. Kadirun Yahya, M. Sc. However there remains negative images of tarekat among the middle-class, like viewing it as authoritarian and secretive organization, and there also problems of social distance in pursuing spiritual direction in rural environments.

In response to this situation, Sufism has been adapted to various institutional forms of urban societies. Some of them still use the names of “pengajian” or “tarekat” , but modify them (like Abdullah Gymnastiar and his Pesantren Daarut Tauhid); others use the names of “foundation”, “institute”, “seminar series”, “intensive course”, or “spiritual workshop” (such as Yayasan Wakaf Paramadina, Klub Kajian Agama (Religion Study Club), ICNIS (Intensive Course and Networking for Islamic Sciences), and IIMaN (Indonesian Islamic Media Network). To distinguish from older Sufi forms, this last group often identify with the terms as “Neo-Sufism”, “Positive Sufism”, and “Practical Sufism”.

Howell argues that Sufism will continue to be a significant part of Indonesian life as long as certain features of the socio-political environment of religion remain in place. If attractiveness’s to Westernization increase and Islamist movements gain political dominance in Indonesia, the prospects of Sufism would become poor.

Sufism, Proto-Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism: Notes on the Discourse on Sufism in Indonesia

In order to cover the current use of the word Sufism in contemporary Indonesia, Howell tries to use the term in wider sense, as “the interioriozation and intensification of Islamic faith and practice” (see p. 702), by referring to William Chittick’s entry in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Modern Islamic World. However, I think that Howell failed to understand properly Chittick’s writing instead of taking it partially to support her own purpose. Chittick employs the two currents of Sufism, i.e. drunken Sufism –which is mostly expressed in Sufi poetry—and sober Sufism –which finds its expression through Sufi prose.(1) For Chittick, expressions of sobriety (ṣahw) and intoxication (sukr) often have rhetorical purposes. So, sober expressions of Sufism do not necessarily mean that the author know nothing of intoxication.

It is seen that Howell use the term of Sufism as identical with the so-called akhlaq or ihsan. This is the wider usage of the term, and it will mislead our understanding of the nature of Sufism. For the sake of better understanding, we should notice Simuh’s understanding of Sufism as “the teaching or belief that knowledge of the real truth and God may be obtained through meditation or spiritual insight, independently of the mind and senses”. For Simuh, it is a clear and distinct definition (jāmi’ wa māni’), and the definition which does not stress this notion is vague.(2) So, the definition which seems to cover everything, in fact, means nothing. It is in line with this train of thought that R.A. Nicholson, as quoted by Simuh,(3) emphasizes that “the essence of Sufism is best displayed in extreme type, which is pantheistic and speculative rather than ascetic or devotional”.

Sufism, if we look into the history, is the result of a long process of crystallization and extensification of the notion of ihsan and akhlaq. The pioneers of this movement were who the so-called “zuhhad”, “’ubbad”, and “nussak”. This movement is still in the boundaries of ihsan and akhlaq, and some scholars deem this movement as “proto-Sufism”, the embryonic stage of Sufism. Sufism gained its formation in the second century A.H. onward, by the elaboration of its initial concepts such as hubb, maqamat, and ahwal. In the eighteenth century onward, emerged the so-called Neo-Sufism, which attempts to develop the new type of Sufism that bases mainly on the notion of ihsan and akhlaq. I consider this movement as the result of the fear towards Wahhabism (the syndrome of Wahhabism) –which claims to be the guardian of God-given law (khadim wa haris asy-syari’ah). This movement is not apt to bear the name Sufism rather than “pseudo-Sufism”. And it represents a distorted ilk of post-Wahhabite Sufism.

Neo-Sufism gains its elaboration in the hand of the father of Neo-Modernism, Fazlur Rahman, and spreads in various Moslem world through –amongst others—his students. Nurcholish Madjid is one the prominent figures in provoking the idea of Neo-Sufism in Indonesia. It is also the influence of Hamka (in his Tasawuf Modern and Tasawuf: Perkembangan dan Pemurniannya) –who figures out Sufism in the sense of akhlaq and ihsan, even, he claims that it is the true and pure Sufism—that gives new orientation in the discourse of Sufism in Indonesia. By the above-mentioned influences, the mainstream discourses of Sufism in contemporary Indonesia are “Modern Sufism”, “Neo-Sufism”, “Positive Sufism”, “Urban Sufism” and “Practical Sufism”.

I also want to highlight Howell’s conclusion that the common interest of Sufism contributed to the softening of distinctions between the Modernists and Traditionalists. However, it should be noted that Traditionalists elaborate Sufism as it is understood by Simuh, Chittick, Nicholson, and Nasr, while Modernists develop the notion of Sufism as equating to akhlak and ihsan, and bring about the terms as “Neo-Sufism”, “Modern Sufism”, “Positive Sufism” and the like. This last version of “Sufism” (will) immediately bring about Islamic revival (an-nahdah al-islamiyyah) in Indonesia, as Howell’s thesis. While, the first version, needs along time to give rise the (pervasive) revival, waiting the rise of persons –either leaders or scholars-- who can integrate the rational and intuitive thoughts (such persons are called sages, or, borrowing Suhrawardi al-Maqtul’s term, al-hakim al-muta’allih) as they were in the golden age of Islam.

Lugduno Batavorum, medio April 2004


[1] William Chittick, “Sufi Thought and Practice”, in: John L. Esposito (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Modern Islamic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), vol. 4. Parallel to this explanation, Seyyed Hossein Nasr distinguishes between Arabic Sufism –which mostly finds its expression through Sufi prose— and Persian Sufism –which mostly finds its expression through Sufi poetry (See his writing, “Introduction: Persian Sufi Literature: its Spiritual and Cultural Significance”, in: Leonard Lewishon (ed.), The Legacy of Medieval Persian Sufism, (London: Khaniqah Nimatullahi Pubilcations, 1992).
[2] See his book, Tasawuf dan Perkembangannya dalam Islam, (Jakarta: RajaGrafindo Press, 2000), p. 12-14.
[3] Ibid. p. 145.



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At February 16, 2010 at 12:41 AM, Blogger Asfa Widiyanto said...

Thanks to Adib, Mansur, Husnul, Meryem, Fatima, Mas Kholis, Kang Oman, Ike, Roman, Sarah, Lobna, Awat, Gül, Rosa, Bekim, Jasmin, Marie, Habib, Mohammad, Pak Zuhri, Pak Tomo, Bu Emi, Anni, Rangga, Wahyudin, Asep, Tomi, Pak Taufiq, Pak Rahmat, Munajat, Irfan and many others, who with their own ways have inspired me to create this blog. Thanks also to Ike who has designed the blog.


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