How Islam learned to adapt in 'Nusantara'
April-June 2015
By: Yahya Cholil Staquf

Within the regions dominated by “classical Islam” – the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian and Turkish cultural basins and much of South Asia – Islam arrived in the form of a “judge” by subduing, imposing order and adjudicating disputes. In Nusantara, Islam arrived as a guest and was later adopted into the family. In turn, Nusantara Islam developed a distinct character, which is quite different from that manifested by Islam in other regions of the Muslim world.

In the Middle East, for example, Islam is commonly viewed as a socioreligious-political system that is “complete,” “final” and authoritative, offering human beings no choice but to comply with the dictates of that final construction. In Nusantara, on the other hand, Islam is in a state of constant learning. For more than 600 years, its leading practitioners have carefully studied social reality, in order to ascertain the most elegant means to achieve their goals, while maintaining harmony within a diverse and highly pluralistic society.

Although Nusantara Islam is distinct from the Middle East model, this does not mean that it constitutes any form of heresy. Prominent ulama (religious scholars) and other Muslim leaders within the East Indies archipelago have been quite deliberate and prudent in ensuring that the manner in which they practice and promote Islam adheres to the fundamental teachings of the Islamic paradigm, follows its intellectual traditions and maintains an inseverable bond to the established references of classical Islam, anchored in the teachings of authoritative mujtahid (leaders within various schools of Islamic thought) from the earliest generations who lived in the Middle East. In other words, the model of Nusantara Islam is an absolutely authentic stream of Sunni Islam, as preserved and taught by authoritative ulama.

The task of ensuring the authenticity of Islamic teachings, while maintaining harmony with the prevailing social reality, has never been easy. Nusantara’s ulama have traditionally utilized two principal strategies to accomplish this.

The first is to ensure a balanced focus of attention upon the spiritual dimensions of Islam (tasawwuf), so that the animating spirit of religion, as a source of universal love and compassion, is not neglected when issuing judgments (fatwa) involving the formal/exoteric norms of Islamic law.

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