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James L. Peacock, Marilyn Trent Grunkemeyer
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The Javanese Islamic reformist movement known as Muhammadiyah has become one of the most important religious, educational, and social movements throughout the islands of Indonesia as well as the most powerful reformist movement in Muslim Southeast Asia.

By the fourteenth century Ṣūfī Muslim traders began arriving at Indonesian ports, and by the seventeenth century there were Islamic conversions occurring at numerous locations. The Ṣūfīs established schools (pesantren) that gave rise to a particular type of Indonesian purist Islam known as santri (the term is also used for its adherents) and dedicated to the Pillars of Islam: the affirmation of the faith (shahādah), the five daily prayers, the yearly tithe, the Ramaḍān fast, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. This practice became polarized with a syncretic tradition fusing Islam with animism and elitest Hinduism.

The Dutch entered Java at Bantam in 1596 and eventually triumphed in a competition for colonialization. By the early twentieth century, increasing westernization had brought confusion and resentment that gave rise to nativist reform and nationalist resistance movements. One of the most constructive of these movements was the Muhammadiyah, founded by Javanese santri in 1912.

By the late nineteenth century, modern Islam had called for a reformative return to the Qurʿān and the simplification of ceremony. It also called for modernization; toward that end, schools and organizations for women and youths were founded. For Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, reform entailed rejection of syncretism, animism, Hinduism, and Sufism; reforming students founded schools, journals, and organizations that spread these ideas throughout Southeast Asia.

The Muhammadiyah emerged from among the santri of Java as a means of coping with the pressures and alienation of their recent history and recapturing a former sense of meaning. It established hundreds of branches with millions of members, missionary movements, clinics, orphanages, poorhouses, hospitals, books, magazines, newspapers, labor unions, farm cooperatives, factories, and schools. In spite of its position within Islam, it had to compete with numerous syncretic and political movements, including Indonesian nationalism and communism. It remains one of several important ideological and moral streams within a pluralistic society.

Ahmad Dahlan and the Muhammadiyah.

The Muhammadiyah was founded on November 18, 1912 in Yogyakarta by Kiyai Hadji Ahmad Dahlan (born Mohammad Darwisj). Dahlan came from a devout Muslim family; his father and maternal grandfather were mosque officials. After education in home, school, and mosque, he went to Mecca. His stay in Mecca lasted for several years and enabled him to study the Qurʿān, theology, astronomy, and religious law, including the works of the Egyptian reformist Muḥammad ʿAbduh. Upon his return he changed his name to Ahmad Dahlan and succeeded his father at the mosque. As he traveled throughout Java selling batik, he taught Islam and encouraged the improvement of Muslim communities. (This pattern of travel and trade remains a central to Muhammadiyah and santri life.) During this period he married his mother's brother's daughter, Siti Walidah, who remained his lifelong wife despite his marriages to four additional women whom he soon divorced.

By 1912, twelve of Dahlan's students and fellow teachers were urging him to form an organization, and thus the Muhammadiyah was born. Dahlan dedicated the rest of his life to traveling and evangelizing for the mission of reformed and purified Islam in its struggle with syncretic mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, feudalism, and colonialism. Even when he became ill he continued to work, making seventeen trips during his last year and insisting, “If I work as fast as possible, what remains can be brought to perfection by another.” At the age of fifty-nine, he died after delegating the continuation of his work to his friends and his brother-in-law.

Dahlan is described by his biographers as possessing the Javanese virtues of stoicism and tranquility; that is, he was able to engage in an outward struggle while maintaining inner peace. In this steadfast determination he was compared to the mythical Hindu hero Arjuna and became a paradigm for Muhammadiyah spirituality and culture.

Dahlan was able to carry out his work throughout tumultuous times because the Dutch did not consider him violent or revolutionary. He remained an official of the court mosque until his death and attempted no radical restructuring of traditional society. Today, the Muhammadiyah's survival can be attributed in part to its separation from politics.

Dahlan infused the Muhammadiyah with a rationalized form of mission and religious life combined with Islamic traditionalism. This is especially conspicuous in his understanding of the role of women in religion and society. He was dedicated to the educational and organizational emancipation of women, encouraging them in independent teaching and public speaking; but, still suspicious of the sensual aspect of women, he strengthened the traditional separation of the sexes in the Muhammadiyah itself and in the structuring of religious and social life. For instance, he fostered the medical education of women so that female physicians could take care of women patients; but he also commanded women to cease wearing jewelry and to cover their heads with scarves. He established a separate women's auxiliary within the Muhammadiyah, the Aisyiyah, which today remains one of the most dynamic Muslim women's movements in the world.

The Muhammadiyah in Modern Life.

By 1930 the Muhammadiyah had established committees covering a wide spectrum of religious and social life: Islamic law, politics, women's affairs, youth, boy scouts, education, library and archives, celebrations and evangelism, social welfare and health care, economic development, and administration of property. It maintains an efficient organization, balanced budgets, and an uncorrupted leadership. Its membership of several million comes from the middle class, whose many activities for the Muhammadiyah are largely voluntary and unpaid. Although some changes have occurred since Indonesian independence (1945)—for example, the rising prominence of the Jakarta branch because of its links to the national capital—the basic structure and the direction of the Muhammadiyah are unchanged.

The Muhammadiyah has provided for almost a century a focused and practical theological vision, a moral system marked by clarity and specificity, and a system of order and meaning for a people whose culture, although rich and aesthetically satisfying, continues to experience rapid and often destructive changes.



  • Alfian. Muhammadiyah: The Political Behavior of a Muslim Modernist Organization under Dutch Colonialism. Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 1989.
  • Ali, A. Mukti. “The Muhammadijah Movement: A Bibli-ographical Introduction.”MA thesis, Montreal, 1957.
  • Eliraz, Giora. Islam in Indonesia: Modernism, Radicalism, and the Middle East Dimension. Brighton, U.K., 2004.
  • Noer, Deliar. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900–1942. Singapore and London, 1973.
  • Peacock, James L.Purifying the Faith: The Muhammadijah Movement in Indonesian Islam. Menlo Park, Calif., 1978.
  • Saleh, Fauzan. Modern Trends in Islamic Theological Discourse in 20th Century Indonesia: A Critical Survey. Leiden, 2001.
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