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

It is clear that these spiritual insights provide “doctrinal legitimacy and protection” that not only authorizes but actively encourages the participation of Muslims in the affairs of a highly pluralistic society. This profoundly spiritual worldview also provides a psychological and emotional safety valve for Muslims, who might otherwise be disturbed by others’ rejection of Islamic proselytism (da‘wa) or their reluctance to fully adopt the formal teachings and rituals of Islam. Due to their understanding of Islam as an “offer of salvation,” Nusantara ulama consider proselytism as an attempt to “save” others, which will only succeed if the persons concerned are willing. If not, the proselytizer has no responsibility for the decision of others to choose a different path in life.

The second strategy referenced above is to position Islam as an equal citizen within a highly pluralistic society, rather than as the beneficiary or carrier of a violent, supremacist ideology. Nusantara ulama generally believe that public affairs should be managed with the consent of all parties concerned. In Nusantara, Muslim leaders have rarely been burdened by the expectation or demand to impose Islamic law on others.

Nusantara ulama creatively seek “space for maneuver” in regard to Shariah, to remain closely involved within the wider social arena, without abandoning their affiliation with, or practice of, Shariah itself. In the case of the Minangkabau tradition cited above, ulama utilize the Shariah-sanctioned practice of allowing the distribution of inheritance in accord with any consensus reached among heirs. Thus, local customs (adat) that might otherwise conflict with fiqh (Islamic law) are positioned within the “realm of consensus.”

This approach to Islamic law has served as the basis for Nusantara ulama to accept the secular state of the Republic of Indonesia and reject the establishment of a so-called Islamic state, or caliphate. Because Islam arrived in Nusantara as a respected guest and not a conqueror, Muslims generally accept the fact that they are not the only party destined to determine the fate of society as a whole. Nusantara’s political systems – and particularly the relationship between state and religion – have traditionally reflected consensus among all the stakeholders concerned. Even Islamic kingdoms such as Jeumpa, Tambayung and Mataram have traditionally been regarded as the product of consensus among adherents of traditional law (adat), rather than the embodiment of a formal “Islamic state.”

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