Where we go to study Indonesian Islam?
Luthfi Assyaukanie, Leiden | Fri, 06/25/2010 11:38 AM | Opinion
For many, to study Islam means going to an Islamic institution. That's why some
Indonesian students go to the Middle East or to local Islamic higher learning
institutions such as the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta or
This idea is partly justified if your understanding of the word "study" is to
convert to a certain understanding of Islam. But it's certainly incorrect if by
"study" you mean to explore knowledge.
Religion as a knowledge does not belong to religious institutions, but rather
to secular higher learning colleges. And if we speak about qualified higher
learning institutions, Western universities are the most competitive ones.
Thus, if you want to study Islam, particularly Indonesian Islam, it should not
be at UIN or a Middle Eastern institution, but rather at such universities as
in the Netherlands, the United States, or Australia. Let me explain why.
Like many other branches of disciplines, Islam has become a form of knowledge,
even an industry. For some, it is not only a religion but also a career.
In the past, centers of Islamic studies were designed to produce imams or
religious leaders, but also to produce professionals to fill bureaucratic
posts, either in government owned institutions (such as the Religious Affairs
Ministry) or in the private sector (law firms, think tanks, and research
In other words, studying Islam is not merely studying its doctrinal aspects,
but also exploring many aspects of related disciplines. Thus, apart from
studying theology at centers of Islamic studies, students are also required to
study sociology, anthropology, psychology and political science.
It is quite unfortunate that the traditional Islamic learning institutions in
the Muslim world fail to understand this change. The world has changed and the
way people perceive reality has also changed.
The idea that Islamic learning centers are the sole place to produce imams or
religious preachers is no longer valid. Islamic learning centers cannot compete
with the mushrooming imams and religious preachers who seem to come out of
In Indonesia it is clear that to become an imam or religious preacher
unfortunately has nothing much to do with knowledge.
It is more about oratorical skill and how smart someone in using religious
rhetoric. People who have no background in Islamic studies could be imams or
successful evangelists had they been able to attract audiences to listen to
As a matter of fact, many of them have poor religious knowledge. But by citing
one or two verses of the Koran and putting on Arabic garb they claim to have
the authority of the religion. And naively, the public often listen to them.
Meanwhile, students who really studied Islam could rarely do that. Of course,
some of them could manage it, but the number is still lower compared to the
number of graduates the Islamic centers produce. After all, Islamic centers
were not designed to produce religious celebrities or televangelists.
In the Western world, centers of Islamic studies are designed to produce
scholars and experts. Whether in the future students will become imams or
religious teachers is entirely up to them. Centers of Islamic studies are part
of universities, and the role of universities is to inculcate science and
knowledge to their students. No more, no less.
It is no wonder if then universities treat these centers in a highly
professional manner. The University of Melbourne from which I gra-duated, for
example, would promote its program of Islamic Studies like the department of
International Studies or Anthropology or Media Studies.
The students of Islamic Studies, as its ads say, could go on to a career in
areas such as "foreign affairs, international trade, immigration, ethnic
affairs, journalism, social work or teaching."
What is fascinating and important about Islamic learning centers in the West is
not only their treat-ment of the discipline, but also the way they handle the
Nowadays, if you want to study Islam, it is not in Mecca or Cairo, but in
Boston, Chicago or Oxford, where you can find the best resources (books,
articles, audio-video materials, etc). Similarly, if you want to study
Indonesian Islam, it is not in Jakarta or in Yogyakarta, but in Leiden, Manoa,
Melbourne or Canberra.
Based on my recent findings, the best institution in terms of the size of its
collection on Indonesian Islam is KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of
Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) at Leiden University. It has more than
10,000 books on Indonesian Islam in various languages and no less than 8,000
books written in Indonesian.
The library outnumbered the collection of the Library of Congress in the United
States, whose collection on Indonesian Islam has now reached 4,928 titles of
which 3,885 are in Indonesian (see table).
The United States remains a country whose universities have good collections of
books on Indonesia. Cornell University used to be the Mecca for Indonesian
Despite the fact that this role has been replaced by several Australian
universities (particularly ANU, Melbourne and Monash), Cornell's library
contains the best collection in the world on Indonesian Islam.
The Australian National University has also been recognized for having a large
collection on Indonesian studies. It is widely regarded as the best university
in Australia for studies on Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
So, anytime you are considering studying Islam, especially Indonesian Islam,
you know where to go.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the KITLV, Leiden, and a senior lecturer at
Paramadina University, Jakarta
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