Qur’an Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005), also widely known as Cak Nur, was a great neo-modernist Muslim thinker from Jakarta, Indonesia who introduced a new way of interpreting Islam through culture and influenced Indonesia’s development through desacralization and a religious-based, nationalized civil society. Madjid changed the vision of Islam for Indonesia with his famous slogan, “Islam Yes, Partai Islam, No,” a bold idea that dismissed the need for an ‘Islamic state’ and called for more recognition of the ‘spirit’ of Islam. He strongly advocated for the ‘cardinal principles’ of Pancasila, the Indonesian constitution, in which he emphasized the idea of civil society found in the Qur’an. One of Islam’s most well known theologians, Madjid founded Paramadina in 1986, the non-profit foundation, which today owns Paramadina University in Jakarta. In his quest for liberal Islam, the Paramadina organization was arguably his ultimate achievement in promoting secularization and democracy in Indonesia. Though Madjid did not focus on Qur’anic exegesis, his interpretations of the Qur’an socialized a neo-modernist approach, as he carefully looked at religious texts and reinterpreted them, developing an “inclusivist” understanding of Islam. The Paramadina Foundation’s manifested Qur’anic notion of civil society fostered a liberal Islam in Indonesia, but also reinforced challenges for Pancasila and national unity.
Madjid used the word madina as a core theme of his speeches and his writings as a scholar and political activist. The etymology and cultural significance of the name Paramadina is quite fascinating. For instance, most of us know that Medina (or Al-Madinah), “the Radiant City,” is the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Medina was also the ideal Islamic city-state. As a result, many people interpreted the name Paramadina as “for the city,” para meaning “for” and Madina, “city”. Others believed that the foundation actually meant “our prime religion,” interpreting Parama as “prime” and dina, “our religion”. Madjid eventually accepted the name as “our prime religion” though it is not certain as to why. Even more interesting, the word madina can be found in the Indonesian phrase masyarakat madani, which translates to “civil society,” the ultimate focus of the Paramadina foundation.
Masyarakat madani has now entered the Malay-Indonesian lexicon and is used by scholars, and government officials since the time of Soeharto (1990s). Habibie, ICMI’s first president, used the term extensively. The commissioned book Transformasi Bangsa menuju Masyarakat Madani (Nation Transformation towards Masyarakat Madani 1999) was authored by ICMI members and Nurcholish Madjid (319 Bakti).
Islamic scholars of the Ciputat school of thought, who published numerous works on civil society, further popularized Masyarakat madani. Little do many of us know that the phrase “liberal Islam” was coined at Paramadina itself. Paramadina activists were also influenced by masyarakat madani and were considered members of the alternative name, “the Liberal Islam Movement.” The Paramadina Foundation is a highly cultural and religious landmark for Indonesia’s struggle of Islam as most of its founders were members of the “1966 Generation” who were actively politically opposed against Soekarno (1945-1967), the first president of Indonesia.
Following Soekarno, President Suharto seized power in Indonesia as dictator and recruited many technocrats, who later became part of the 1966 Generation and Paramadina. These technocrats became intellectual activists within the liberal Muslim community with the agenda of restoring cultural Islam and an Islamic community (322 Taji-Farouki). Madjid was extremely influential during this time: even Suharto recognized the credibility of his ideas pertaining to Indonesian identity; Sudharmono, the former vice president of Indonesia, claims to have studied Islam at Paramadina. Though his ideas regarding Pancasila were controversial, the Indonesian government and civil society generally accepted Madjid. He was also part of the 1998 Reformasi era and fought for long-overdue social, cultural, and political reform during Suharto’s control. It was in the post-Suharto aftermath that Madjid increasingly advocated for the core characteristics of Paramadina: inclusivism, pluralism, tolerance, and democracy (322 Taji-Farouki).
Madjid understood the influence of education in society as his education influenced him to improve it; Paramadina and Paramadina University are socio-religious and educational institutions that aim to shape individuals so that they pense sa culture, rethink their culture and definite their own culture rather than accept being dominated by it (500 Bakti). I believe Madjid’s philosophy for Paramadina was arguably inspired by his own educational upbringing, which was religious and liberal, local and international.
Madjid completed his early education in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. He began at Madrasah al-Wataniyyah in the 1960s, a boarding school rooted in religious Islamic learning and attended Pondok Modern Gontor, another religious school, in East Java for high school. At the State Islamic University of Syarif Hidayatulah in Jakarta, Madjid was twice elected president of the Muslim student association, Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam (HMI) in 1967 and 1969. At this time, Madjid was fluent in Arabic and deeply revered the Qur’an; his leadership of HMI, the largest student organization in Indonesia, attracted the attention of the Saudi Arabian government, which sponsored his hajj in March 1969. Soon after, he completed his thesis at the State Islamic University titled al-Qur’an: ‘Arabiyyun Lughatan wa Alamiyyun Ma’nan about the Qur’an and the Arabic language.
A few years later, Madjid was accepted to the University of Chicago where he met Fazlur Rahman, the neo-modernist Muslim Pakistani American scholar who persuaded Madjid to pursue a PhD in Islamic Studies. In 1976 Madjid was participating in an international research seminar program on Islam and social change at the university and wanted to study Political Science. However, Rahman saw his passion for Islamic civil society and offered to mentor Madjid in Islamic Studies, pressing that the world needed more modern Islamic scholars. Madjid’s Qur’anic interpretation and perception of Islam was hugely influenced by Rahman, who shared many of young Madjid’s notions about Islam in civil society, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and Qur’anic teachings. Rahman was especially concerned with the Qur’anic teachings’ role in the achievement of social justice and the ideal civil society, which helped open Madjid’s eyes to the problems facing the Islamic world. Rahman also emphasized that political parties could not provide a solution. This led Madjid to “look behind the legal rulings to the values enshrined in the Islamic revelation”–the Qur’an–to see if there was a way to enhance Pancasila as the cornerstone of national unity (493 Bakti). This inclusivist understanding of Islam in part earned Madjid the name of a neo-modernist.
At the University of Chicago, Madjid was also introduced more to Ibn Taymiyyah thought, whose ideas were particularly important to his quest for liberal Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah was one of Islam’s most famous theologians; he was a member of the Pietist school founded by Ibn Hanbal, who is considered the source of Wahhabiyyah, the mid 18th century traditionalist movement for socio-moral reconstruction of society. In addition, Ibn Taymiyyah sought the return of Islam to its sources, these sources being the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which deeply resonated with Madjid. Madjid’s understanding of Ibn Taymiyyah played a part in the formation of his personal view of the inclusivity of Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah’s values of social justice, religious pluralism, tolerance, and democracy are all reflected in Madjid’s passionate embrace of Pancasila, Indonesia’s constitution.
Madjid wanted Indonesia to take a “peaceful, consensual, and solidarity-based approach” to humanity that relied on culture (495 Bakti). This approach was promoted by the Paramadina Foundation, an institution based on paguyuban, community. The community model seen in Paramadina is seen as open, plural and universal but Madjid’s unbreakable attachment to the concept of Madina, the ideal city-state, is what arguably hindered him from addressing a more global, open-minded civil society (496 Bakti). His neo-modernist perspective allowed him to interpret Qur’anic legislation to yield new laws for the present situation (17 Muin). In the process of formulating common values for Paramadina that favored a socially just, pluralistic, democratic civil society, he still failed when it came to addressing the prevalent issues of gender equality and discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.
Though Madjid did not produce any tafsir during his lifetime, through the guidance of Rahman he developed his own opinions about the ways Qur’anic teachings could achieve social justice and civil society in modern Indonesia; his concept of the ‘spirit’ of Islam hinted at a more metaphorical understanding of the Qur’an. In addition, he theorized about the authority of traditional ideas such as fiqh. Like Rahman, Madjid propagated the “heuristic device of contextuality” in his Qur’anic interpretation, specifically in terms of the way in which fiqh was meant to be practiced in civil society. One major example of this is how the Qur’an declares what will happen to an individual who turns aside from his Islam. Another example shows how the Qur’an declares that a human being is free to accept or reject belief in God and His Prophet:
One who seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he will be among the losers [Q. 3:85].
Whoever believes, let him believe, and whoever rejects belief, let him reject it. We have prepared for those who do evil a fire that envelops them [Q. 18:29]