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Ahmad Najib Burhani
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Muhammadiyah is the largest modernist movement in Indonesia, claiming to have more than 30 million members and sympathizers. Besides being characterized as modernist Islam, the Muhammadiyah has also been characterized as Calvinist Islam, Protestant Islam, Puritan Islam, and reformist Islam. The establishment of the movement in 1912 was partly inspired by the Islamic reform movement in Egypt led by Muḥammad ʿAbduh. It has successfully implemented that reform into practice by achieving enormous success in three areas: education, health care, and philanthropic activities.

Establishment and Growth

Muhammadiyah, founded by Ahmad Dahlan in 1912, is not only the largest, but also the oldest modernist movement in Indonesia. Initially, the organization was intended only for people residing in Java, but since 1921 it has expanded its operation all over the Indonesian archipelago. Now the organization has started to further expand to several countries, including Malaysia and Thailand. The Muhammadiyah claims to have more than 30 million members and sympathizers (Syamsuddin 2015, p. 147). Although this number is disputed by some research indicating that it has a far smaller number than claimed (Bush, 2014), in terms of influence the organization is obviously one of the most influential Muslim movements in Indonesia.

The statute of the Muhammadiyah identifies the organization as “an Islamic movement that advocates al-amr bi al-maʿrūf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar (enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong), promotes tajdīd (reform), and based on the Qurʾān and sunnah” (Muhammadiyah, 2010). Observers and scholars, however, have characterized the movement by various labels, such as puritan movement, reformist movement, and chiefly modernist movement. The brand currently promoted by the organization to identify itself is Islam Berkemajuan (Progressive Islam), which means an Islam that encompasses values of progressiveness to build an excellent civilization and become a mercy for the universe (Nashir, 2018).

The inspiration behind the establishment of the Muhammadiyah is indubitably linked to the reform movement in Egypt led by Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905). Although ʿAbduh is the one who had the idea, it was Dahlan who successfully put his idea into practice. Rationalization and modernization are two key terms that recur frequently in the Muhammadiyah’s efforts to reform religious matters. The organization proposed that Muslim people should use reason as the prime tool by which to understand and practice their religion. The movement highly appreciated the role of the intellect in human actions. Dahlan was convinced that people would feel happy if they could replicate their ancestors. Sometimes people did not know why they had to perform certain rituals. They carried out some kinds of religious observances simply to preserve or honor their predecessors’ customs. If they honored their forefathers’ customs, they believed that they would be saved and blessed, if not they would be cursed. In response to that, Dahlan (1986) says “People must follow the true terms and conditions which are in accordance with the holy intellect.” Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that any superstitious practices were continually eradicated from human belief systems by the movement. Pursuing this view, Dahlan (2002, p. 346) then states:

"Actually, humans want no destiny but safety and happiness in this world and in the Hereafter."

The path for achieving human destiny requires the use of common sense, that is, the common intellect. A good intellect is characterized by the ability to select with care and consideration, and to place (the decision) in a courageous heart after selecting it.

If these objectives were to be achieved, the movement believed that education was the main vehicle. Accordingly, the establishment of schools tied in neatly with the concern about modernism and rationalism. The Muhammadiyah attempted to modernize the traditional system that prevailed in the Muslim community in the East Indies, particularly in Java. Replicating Dutch schools, Ahmad Dahlan introduced a model school with new systems and methods in education, such as using a class system. In Muhammadiyah schools, besides religious lessons, students were also taught secular sciences. Currently, the Muhammadiyah has 2,604 elementary schools, 1,722 middle schools, 745 high schools, 546 vocation schools, 160 pesantren, and 177 colleges and universities (Muhammadiyah, 2015a). The number of Muhammadiyah educational institutions is surpassed only by educational institutions owned and managed by the Indonesian government.

Another effort of the movement to modernize its ummah was by founding numerous health and social welfare institutions. The Muhammadiyah provided a modern alternative for most Indonesian people at that time for curing and healing their ailments. Previously, reliance on dukun (traditional healers) when people suffered from certain illnesses was common in Indonesian society. The Muhammadiyah then provided an alternative by pioneering the use of a modern medical system. The Muhammadiyah’s health institutions are classified into three groups: hospitals, clinics, and maternity and pediatric clinics. Currently, there are over four hundred health institutions belonging to the organization, and also over three hundred social welfare institutions throughout Indonesia.

Religious reforms advocated by the Muhammadiyah include the empowerment of women. To achieve that, the organization established a sister organization, ʿAisyiah, in 1917, which became one of the earliest women’s organizations in Indonesia. With this reform, women were no longer confined to domestic activities. However, typical of modernist religious movements, although women were freed from traditional confinement, they were still segregated from males in various social and religious activities. Instead of being integrated into the Muhammadiyah, they were provided a different venue for their activities. It was only in this century that women started to be integrated, although not fully, into the Muhammadiyah by the automatic appointment of the chairwoman of ʿAisyiah as an ex-officio chair in the leadership of the Muhammadiyah.

Indeed, the formation of the Muhammadiyah as a modern organization itself was a clear evidence of the intention of the movement to modernize the Muslim community in Indonesia. Organization was indisputably believed to be the best vehicle by which to achieve these goals. In fact, it is in the very form of organization that the element of modernity is profoundly realized in the Muhammadiyah. The movement has been leaving behind the model of charismatic leadership and instead emphasizing what is called “collective-collegial” leadership. This model of leadership does not rely on a single person to guide and lead the organization and to become a patron for all the members. The Muhammadiyah has tried to avoid the cult of personality, for instance, by not portraying the chairman as larger than the organization and endowed with unrivaled wisdom. The founder and the first chairman of the organization, Ahmad Dahlan, was undoubtedly a charismatic leader, but after his death in 1923 the organization relied more on collective leadership. As an organization, the Muhammadiyah does not give privilege and favoritism to the descendants of Dahlan. All members, regardless of their ethnic background and family lineage, have the same chance to lead the organization. It is this tradition that has made the Muhammadiyah experience having chairmen from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The last four chairmen of the Muhammadiyah were Sundanese (Haedar Nashir, 2015–2020), Sumbawa (Muhammad Din Syamsuddin, 2005–2015), Minang (Ahmad Syafii Maarif, 2000–2005), and Javanese (Muhammad Amien Rais, 1995–2000).

Religious Characters

The Muhammadiyah is an open organization that welcomes all Muslims, regardless of their religious background and inclination. Officially, the Muhammadiyah classifies its members in three categories: common members (anggota biasa), special members (anggota luar biasa), and honorary members (anggota kehormatan). The first category is for all Indonesian Muslims who join the movement. The second category is for non-Indonesian members of the Muhammadiyah. The third category is for those considered by leaders of the Muhammadiyah as having contributed significantly to the movement through their knowledge, expertise, or power (Muhammadiyah, 2010).

Although the Muhammadiyah has been identified generally as a moderate Muslim group, in terms of religious inclination, anthropologists and analysts have found some members as having certain religious inclinations, such as Murni (puritan Muhammadiyah), Munu (Muhammadiyah-Nahdlatul Ulama or traditionalist Muhammadiyah), Musa (Muhammadiyah-Salafy or Salafy Muhammadiyah), and Mulib (Muhammadiyah Liberal or liberal Muhammadiyah). This diverse religious inclination is certainly a consequence of being an open organization. One implication of this diversity is the recurrence of a tug-of-war between the different groups, particularly in the last decades, and the subsequent swing of the pendulum between opposing camps. Some scholars (Bruinessen, 2013) have indicated that ideologically Muhammadiyah is very prone to ideological change with the latest swing being between liberal and puritan groups during the last congresses in Jakarta in 2000, Malang in 2005, and Makassar in 2015, among the examples. Each group was and is still trying to pull the Muhammadiyah in opposite directions, reflecting their own interests.

Some of the activists from the puritan group, who were dissatisfied with and disputed the Muhammadiyah agenda, left the organization and joined the more Islamist movements, such as Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr, Salafy movements, and Wahdah Islamiyah (IPAC 2018). They felt that their interests no longer tallied with the programs of the Muhammadiyah. As a result, it is unsurprising that numerous people in the Islamist movements in Indonesia formerly had ties with the Muhammadiyah. In the opposing camp, there are Muhammadiyah members who regard the movement as showing extreme rightist tendencies and signs of heading in that direction. They are convinced the Muhammadiyah is too Islamist. In their eyes, the movement is too rigid and conservative, no longer able to serve as a sanctuary for progressive paradigms. In this respect, it is no wonder that some liberal activists also have a Muhammadiyah background. The move of some members of the Muhammadiyah to other Islamic movements has influenced the quantitative decrease in membership of the Muhammadiyah since the turn of the century.

Looking at this shift, theology seems to be the weakest point of the Muhammadiyah. As shown in the survey on religion inclination of the leaders of the movement (Burhani, 2018), the majority of the members of the Muhammadiyah are moderate, but the basis of this religious stand is very pragmatic. The foundational ideology that sustained the Muhammadiyah for more than a century is called the theology of al-māʾun (kindness), based on the teaching of the Qurʾān in sūrah al-māʾūn (107: 1–7). This doctrine says that observing religious rituals without translating them into amal sholih (Ar. al-aʿmāl al-shāliha) is meaningless. Based on this, the Muhammadiyah has taught its members to always translate and transform religiosity into real activities in society, particularly in the form of schooling, healing, and feeding the needy. The involvement of Muhammadiyah members in these activities made them more realistic in their religiosity and restricted them from being dragged into extreme religious tendencies.

Political Affiliation

Officially the Muhammadiyah decided to be neutral in politics and take no allegiance to any political parties in Indonesia. However, considering the number of members and sympathizers it has, as well as infrastructure owned by the movement, the Muhammadiyah has nevertheless attracted politicians and political parties hoping to drag the movement into political arena. Historically the Muhammadiyah has been drawn into the arena of political activities and parties several times. The organization was actively involved in the struggle for Indonesian independence during the 1940s. The Muhammadiyah also became the strongest component of the Masyumi party in the 1950s and 1960s. In the New Order regime, which started after Suharto came to power in 1966, the Muhammadiyah participated in the establishment of Parmusi (Partai Muslimin Indonesia, Indonesian Muslim Party) in 1968. However, since 1969 Muhammadiyah has adopted a neutral stance toward political parties in Indonesia, allowing its members complete freedom to participate in political activities.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, the Muhammadiyah was midwife for the establishment of a new political party, the National Mandate Party (PAN), led by its former chairman, Muhammad Amien Rais. However, after disillusionments with the political maneuvers and alliances of this party, the Muhammadiyah decided to withdraw again from activities in political parties. Nowadays, the Muhammadiyah formally refuses to take sides with any political parties and has been using slightly different slogans in its political position. During the leadership of Ahmad Syafii Maarif (1998–2005), the Muhammadiyah adopted the slogan “keeping the same distance from all political parties” (Maarif 2009, p. 234). During the leadership of Din Syamsuddin (2005–2015), the slogan was “to stay close [but keep a healthy distance] to all political parties” (Jainuri, 2015, p. 50).

In fact, by distancing itself—or staying close, but not directly becoming involved in—from political parties, the Muhammadiyah has contributed significantly to balancing democracy in Indonesia. This can be seen from a policy closely related to that position, namely allowing its members to join any parties, including secular ones such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). That policy has certain implications in reducing the political stream based on religion and the sharp dichotomy between secular and Islamist parties. By deciding not to be active in political parties, and instead remaining active in social and religious activities, the Muhammadiyah seeks to strengthen civil society as a pillar of a healthy democracy. Indeed, by focusing on education, the Muhammadiyah has actually been able to exert a powerful influence on politics without necessarily participating in political parties.

Different from its stance on political parties, the Muhammadiyah has adopted a cooperative attitude toward the government throughout most of its history, both in the colonial and Indonesian administrations (Alfian, 1989; Fuad, 2004). While many Muslim organizations refused to receive funding from the colonial government, the Muhammadiyah decided to accept it, even though the amount was very small compared to that given to Christians (Shihab, 1998; Mujiburrahman, 2006). After Indonesian independence in 1945, the Muhammadiyah has always been involved in the government, either directly or indirectly, such as by the appointment of Muhammadiyah activists to the presidential cabinet.

The involvement of the Muhammadiyah in the government and its indirect participation in politics clearly indicate the difference between the organization and other Islamist movements such as Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr that have continuously promoted a caliphate, against democracy and a nation-state. The Muhammadiyah has never had any problems with democracy and a nation-state. During the formation of Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah was still part of the groups advocating the establishment of a state that gives strong favoritism to Islam, but this position has changed. During the Congress in Makassar in 2015, the Muhammadiyah clarified again its position on Pancasila, nation-state, and caliphate. It is summarized in the declaration of “Negara Pancasila sebagai Dār al-ʿAhdi wa al-Syahādah” (Pancasila State as the Abode of Covenant and the Space of Testimony) (Muhammadiyah, 2015b). With this declaration the Muhammadiyah shows its strong commitment to Indonesia and its unwavering acceptance of nation-state and Pancasila, the national ideology. It is an indirect refutation of the utopian vision of a caliphate as continuously promoted by the Islamic Liberation Party (Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islāmī) and the temptation to create an Islamic state in Indonesia.


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