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Nurcholish Madjid

By:
Mark R. Woodward
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Nurcholish Madjid

Nurcholish Madjid (1939–2005), Indonesianscholar and advocate of religious tolerance. Nurcholish was among Indonesia's most daring theologians. His vision of Islam was pluralistic, tolerant, and intended to meet the spiritual needs of a modern urban population. Like other modernist thinkers, Nurcholish rooted his theology in the doctrine of tajdīd or a return to the Islam of the prophet Muḥammad. Unlike other modernists he was more concerned with spirituality than with ritual and social behavior.

Born in east Java, Nurcholish was a scion of one of Indonesia's most celebrated families of Islamic scholars. He was educated at traditional Islamic schools (pesantren) and at the modernist school at Gontor, which emphasized English and secular subjects as well as the traditional Islamic curriculum. He received a B.A. from the State Institute of Islamic Studies in Jakarta in 1968. From 1966 until 1971 he was chairman of the Indonesian Muslim Students Association. He studied with Fazlur Rahman at the University of Chicago, receiving his Ph.D. in 1984 with a dissertation on Ibn Taymīyah's understanding of the relationship between reason and revelation. In the early 1990s Nurcholish held positions at the State Institute of Islamic Studies in Jakarta and the Indonesian Academy of Sciences.

Nurcholish's thought is highly controversial. In the 1960s he challenged the “modernist” position that advocates a literal application of the Qurʿān and ḥadīth in contemporary society. As an alternative he advocated a return to the spirit or underlying principles of Islam as a guide for contemporary conduct. In 1970 he introduced the concept of “Islamic secularization.” This does not mean secularization in the Western sense, but rather the desacralization of certain aspects of human life and knowledge, which, in view of the spirit of Islam, are not properly religious. During this period Nurcholish was influenced by two American scholars: the sociologist Robert Bellah and the theologian Harvey Cox. Older, sharīʿah-centered Indonesian modernists, including Nurcholish's mentor Mohammad Natsir, were outraged.

In numerous publications Nurcholish emphasized the concept of Islamic brotherhood and attempted to extend the boundaries of the Muslim community as broadly as possible. He was a strident opponent of all forms of sectarianism. In his dissertation and in Indonesian publications based on it, he emphasized the philosophically tolerant side of Ibn Taymīyah, who is better known for his polemical castigations of popular Islam. He described his work as an attempt to apply the universal Islamic values in the cultural and historical context of contemporary Indonesia, and he denounced sectarian and fundamentalist groups as cults and defined Islam as being nothing more nor less than submission to God—a definition that allowed him to apply the word “Islam” in discussions of Christians and Jews.

Nurcholish's call for an inclusive, tolerant Islam and for dialogue with other faiths was a bold attempt to resolve the problems of bigotry and intolerance that plague not only Islam but also other major religions. Although he has many supporters among Indonesian intellectuals, the virulent polemics his works incite indicate that such an idealistic vision will be at best difficult to realize.

See also INDONESIA.

Bibliography

  • Barton, Greg. “The International Context of the Emergence of Islamic Neo Modernism in Indonesia.” In Islam in the Indonesian Social Context, edited by Merle C. Ricklefs, pp. 69–82. Clayton, Australia, 1991.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J.Notable Muslims: Muslim Builders of World Civilization and Culture, rev. ed.Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2008.
  • Federspiel, Howard M.Muslim Intellectuals and National Development in Indonesia. New York, 1992. Includes biographical data and English summaries of Nurcholish's works.
  • Hasan, M. Kamal. Muslim Intellectual Responses to “New Order” Modernization in Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur, 1980. Critical analysis of Nurcholish's early works, including English translations.
  • Hefner, Robert W.Civil Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Kull, Ann. Piety and Politics: Nurcholish Madjid and His Interpretation of Islam in Modern Indonesia. Stockholm University, 2005.
  • Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Nurcholish Madjid.Islam: Doctrin dan Peradaban (Islam: Doctrine and Civilization). Jakarta, 1992. Collection of Nurcholish's major works.
  • Nurcholish Madjid.“The Issue of Modernization among Muslims in Indonesia from a Participant's Point of View.” In What Is Modern Indonesian Culture?edited by Gloria Davis, pp. 143–155. Athens, Ohio, 1979. Autobiographical account of Nurcholish's student years.
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