Nurcholish Madjid: Remembering Indonesia’s Pre-eminent Islamic Reformer

Nurcholish Madjid: Remembering Indonesia’s Pre-eminent Islamic Reformer


ON 3 JANUARY 1970, a young Muslim scholar stood before a large audience in Jakarta and delivered what would be the defining speech of his career. He observed that while Islam was developing rapidly in Indonesia, very few Muslims were attracted to Islamic politics. It was, he said pithily, a case of “Islam yes, Islamic party no!” His words were more than an observation about community attitudes; he was also endorsing the trend away from political Islam. For him, Islam’s future in Indonesia lay not in politics, but in cultural, intellectual and educational activity.

The speaker was Nurcholish Madjid and his address created a furore. To understand why his words aroused such a reaction, one must know something of Nurcholish himself and the challenge facing political Islam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nurcholish was, at that time, one of the brightest young stars in the firmament of Indonesian Islam. He was a gifted intellectual with natural leadership qualities. He had twice been elected chairman of the country’s largest Muslim student body, the Muslim Students Association (HMI), and a leading role in Islamic politics seemed inevitable. Indeed, he was paid the accolade of being known as the ‘Young Natsir’ (Natsir Muda), a reference to the former prime minister and chairman of the Masyumi Islamic Party, Mohammad Natsir, who was the most revered figure in modernist Islamic politics.

At the same time, political Islam confronted its greatest challenge in thirty years. Soeharto’s New Order regime, which had come to power in 1966, was proving unexpectedly hostile to Islamic parties. Instead of allowing Islam a major role in the new administration, Soeharto appeared determinedly ‘secular’ in orientation and set about controlling Islamic parties and marginalising any dissenting Muslim group. Islamic parties looked to young figures like Nurcholish to provide the intellectual and political counter-attack to the regime’s secularising tendencies and reassert an overtly Islamic agenda.

Thus, Nurcholish’s ‘Islam yes, Islamic parties no!’ came as a bitter blow to Islamic politics, directly challenging the hallowed notion that faith and politics were inseparable. It was a brave repudiation of political struggle at a time when Muslim politicians were calling for revival. More than a few senior party leaders, particularly on the modernist side of politics, condemned him for ‘betraying’ the Islamic cause. Amid the storm of criticism were also expressions of support for Nurcholish. The regime welcomed his remarks and quietly encouraged him to develop his ideas further. More importantly, many young intellectuals and activists were galvanised by his call for a new type of Islamic struggle. They shared his disillusionment with political Islam, believing it had failed the Muslim community, and also felt that confrontation with the regime would invite further execration and repression. These sentiments helped to drive the emergence of a new movement, generally known today by the term ‘Cultural Islam’ In time, this movement generated and popularised innovative new thinking on Islam which would have a deep impact on the Muslim community and its attitudes to politics and religion. Nurcholish became the pre-eminent figure in Cultural Islam and one of the few Indonesian Muslim intellectuals with a genuinely international reputation. (He visited Australia on numerous occasions, usually as a keynote speaker at conferences on Islam.)

For thirty-five years following his 1970 speech, Nurcholish was rarely far from the public spotlight His public statements, which ranged across subjects as diverse as popular culture, human rights, political reform, social morality and Islamic philosophy, hermeneutics and history, were widely reported and often sparked debate. In addition to this, he also established a pioneering liberal Islamic organisation and affiliated educational institutions which had a major effect on Islamic discourses. Even at the end of his career, he proved capable of surprising friends and pundits alike when he entered practical politics in search of a nomination for the presidency. Until his death in August 2005, Nurcholish challenged conventional wisdom and successfully advocated change and reform. In this essay, I will reflect on his life, his thinking and key achievements, as well as his impact on Australian thinking about Islam.


Education and politics were to play a pivotal role in shaping the thinking of the young Nurcholish Madjid. He was born in Jombang, a rural city in East Java, on 17 March 1939. His father, Abdul Madjid, was a well-to-do Muslim leader and principal of a local Islamic boarding school (pesantren). Unlike most young devout Muslims in Jombang at this time, whose education was solely within the conservative pesantren system, Nurcholish was educated at both his father’s school and in state schools. Thus, he gained both a traditional Islamic education as well as a general secular education. For his secondary schooling he was sent to another unusual choice for a teenager of traditionalist background: Gontor Modern Islamic Boarding School in Ponorogo. Gontor’s approach to education was unique at this time. It placed heavy emphasis on English and contemporary Arabic (rather than classical Arabic, as was taught in most pesantren) and its curriculum combined standard Islamic subjects, such as jurisprudence and theology, with general subjects such as mathematics, geography and science. Moreover, the school insisted on high standards and prided itself on promoting new and creative thinking among its students. It was to have a big impact on Nurcholish’s intellectual development. He thrived at Gontor and emerged as one of its most academically accomplished students. Upon graduation in 1961 he was invited to stay and teach at the school, which he did for four years. This blending of educational approaches and curricula gave Nurcholish a much broader and arguably richer schooling than that experienced by many of his peers. It made him highly receptive to new ideas and encouraged him to develop his own thinking, even if it ran counter to prevailing views. It also instilled a certain eclecticism into his intellectual approach.

The political tumult of the 1950s also left its mark. In 1952, Indonesia’s main Islamic party, Masyumi, split after years of growing tension between its traditionalist and modernist wings. The traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) left Masyumi to form its own party, leaving Masyumi as a largely modernist organisation. Nurcholish’s father was traditionalist but he refused to follow most of his relatives in leaving Masyumi for NU. This led to considerable rancour within Nurcholish’s family and some ostracism of Nurcholish during the mid 1950s. He was sympathetic to his father’s stance and was left with a strong impression of the power of politics to divide communities and lessen the scope for respectful differences.

In the mid 1960s he undertook a degree in Islamic Arts and Culture at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic Institute in Jakarta, the most prestigious of Indonesia’s Islamic tertiary institutions, graduating in 1968. During this time he became increasingly active in student politics and, in 1966, was elected chairman of HMI, a position he would hold for a record five years. This position gave him a national profile, which his January 1970 speech showed he was determined to use in order to advocate Islamic reform. He also played a prominent role in helping to set up the International Islamic Federation of Students’ Organisations and served as its founding assistant Secretary General.

In 1978, Nurcholish embarked on the second major phase of his intellectual development when he commenced doctoral studies at the University of Chicago under the supervision of the famous Pakistani academic, Fazlur Rahman and the American Islamicist Leonard Binder. His six years in the US were to have
a great impact upon his thinking. Both Rahman and Binder were scholars of liberal Islamic reform. Rahman, in particular, drew students from across the Muslim world to study his innovative ideas on contextualised interpretation of the Qur’an and Prophetic Example in order to allow Islam to respond to contemporary developments. Nurcholish wrote his thesis on the great fourteenth-century Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyah. Contrary to many Islamists, who regard Ibn Taymiyah as a source of militant thinking, Nurcholish analysed the more ironic and pluralistic elements of Taymiyah’s work. He returned to Jakarta in 1984 to work as senior researcher at the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (LIPI) and was also a public intellectual and activist.


Soon after his homecoming from the United States, Nurcholish founded the Paramadina Foundation. This became the main organisational vehicle for his activities thereafter and it soon gained a reputation as the leading liberal Islamic NGO in Indonesia. In many ways, Paramadina established a new paradigm for Islamic organisations. Most existing Muslim organisations until this time were mass based and usually, in rhetoric at least, aimed at grassroots constituencies. By contrast, Paramadina was self-consciously ‘up-market’ in its orientation. It targeted urban middle-class Muslims and members of the elite, including entrepreneurs, senior bureaucrats, military officers, politicians and intellectuals. It organised seminars, study groups and workshops in luxury city hotels, had high quality and expensive publications, and developed well-equipped religious schools and a university catering for well-to-do, fee-paying Muslim children. The main focus of these activities was religious thought and action; political and social commentary was also often present, but rarely was this directly critical of the regime. Paramadina’s aim was to work within the New Order’s authoritarian developmentalist framework rather than confront it. By the late 1980s, the Paramadina approach was proving highly effective. Key figures from the upper strata of the Muslim community were regularly attending its events. They found Paramadina functions to be stimulating, edifying and also politically unthreatening. In this way, the organisation played an important role in making pious Islamic activity acceptable for those close to the regime.

Paramadina’s influence lay not just in the effectiveness of its ‘outreach’ activities, but also in the quality of its intellectual output. Apart from his own prolific writings, Nurcholish brought together a talented group of young scholars, many of them graduates from state Islamic institutes in Indonesia or overseas universities, and supported them in carrying out and publishing research on a wide variety of reform issues. Particular emphasis was given to new interpretations of Islamic scripture and law to support religious tolerance, human rights, greater gender equality and democratisation. The body of literature produced by Nurcholish and other Paramadina intellectuals contains some of the best work from within Cultural Islam of the 1980s and 1990s.


During the course of his long career, Nurcholish put forward a great many ideas which were to impact on Indonesian Muslims. Among his most influential and controversial ideas were those of secularisation and sacralisation. He used these terms in a very specific way. A key argument was that much of the Islamist struggle to create an Islamic state and comprehensively implement sharia was in fact misguided. He asserted that there was no Qur’anic injunction to form nor blueprint regarding an Islamic state and that successive generations of Muslims had come to ‘sacralise’ what were, in effect, human constructions. He therefore called for the ‘de-sacralisation’ of such political concepts and urged Muslims to distinguish between what was based on divine revelation and what was ‘man made’ For Nurcholish, religion was rightly kept to the private sphere and the public sphere should be secular.

These views had significant political implications. They gave intellectual heft and religious legitimacy to the regime’s secularist policies and contradicted the claims of Islamist groups that Islam must be expressed in a political form. Nurcholish made clear that he regarded Indonesia’s pluralist Pancasila ideology as the ideal basis for the Indonesian state and he argued there was no obligation for devout Muslims to support Islamic parties. Some of his Islamist critics accused him of ‘selling out’ to the New Order, but there can be little doubt about the sincerity of Nurcholish’s commitment to these secularisation ideals. The depth and rigour of his argumentation suggests that he was driven by more than political calculation. Nurcholish was by no means the only Muslim scholar advocating secularisation, but he provided the most intellectually sophisticated case of any figure within the Cultural Islam movement.(1)

In the post-Soeharto era (i.e. after 1998), the impact of pluralist thinking such as that espoused by Nurcholish became apparent. At the 1999 and 2004 general elections, a clear majority of Muslims voted for non-Islamist parties. This was in contrast to the 1955 election, when available evidence suggests that most devout Muslims supported Islamist parties. Thus, the connection between piety and Islamism was greatly attenuated, even though Indonesian society experienced rapid Islamisation during the intervening four decades. While Indonesian Muslims were becoming more self-consciously Islamic, their political orientation was increasingly secular.


The last decade of Nurcholish’s life was a period of mixed fortunes. On the one hand, he had risen in eminence and public esteem, and was widely seen as decent, erudite and morally authoritative. On the other hand, the quality of his intellectual output declined during the 1990s. The ever-growing demands on his time left him with little opportunity for research or deeper reflection and his writings became shallower and more repetitive.

Nurcholish’s role during the crisis of April–May 1998, in which the Soeharto regime teetered then finally fell, drew particular praise. Invited by the president to facilitate a series of meetings with community leaders over solutions to the crisis, Nurcholish handled the negotiations with Soeharto in a firm but respectful manner. He refused offers of high appointment from Soeharto, instead repeatedly informing the president of the seriousness of the situation and the growing demands that he stand down. Nurcholish’s equanimity at a time of high drama epitomised his approach to public life.

He also wrote passionately in favour of religious tolerance in the years immediately following Soeharto’s departure, when Muslim-Christian conflict led to the loss of thousands of lives in Eastern Indonesia:

Muslims, who in this country are the largest religious community, are taught to believe in the Torah and Gospels, in addition to the Book of Psalms which was revealed by God to the Prophet David, peace be upon him, including other holy books. In this matter, we can conclude from God’s confirmation to the Prophet Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, that he had to believe in any holy book which was revealed by God to humankind. This attitude is in the combination of basic guides regarding his relations with those religions which existed at that time, that is religions that were based on holy texts revealed by Almighty God to those who lived in the same time as the Prophet, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him. (Qur’an chapter of an-Nahl 16:26)
The intensity of the recent conflict in our society, which is thought to have involved religious adherents in a level of atrocities which is difficult to comprehend, makes it reasonable to pose the question, ‘Is there some way to bring toget
her faiths in this country so that they (religious communities) do not have to destroy each other?’ [. . ]
God’s words . . . clearly prohibit the Islamic community from being in conflict with adherents of other scriptures, [and] instead [call on us to behave] in the best possible way, including ensuring politeness. The Islamic community, moreover, is commanded to stress always that all of us, the followers of different scriptures, together worship the One Almighty God, and together surrender themselves unto Him.
In fact, even if we think we know for certain that other people pray to an object which is not the One Almighty God, we are still forbidden from behaving improperly towards those people. Towards even those who carry out attacks and improper behaviour, we must still preserve good worldly social relations. The words [of the Qur’an] apply here: “For you, your religion; for me, my religion” …
We should foster the attitude to truth which he [the Prophet Muhammad] provides to develop our plural society and nation. Regardless of differing religious means, methods or paths to God, nonetheless the God whom we want to approach is the same God, the One Almighty God. God to whom all hands extend to gain His protection. God from whom all lowliness seeks His glory, and all difficulties yearn for His ease. That is the God of all humankind, without exception.

Not all of Nurcholish’s actions during these last years attracted admiration from his supporters. In 1990, he refused to condemn a violent attack on the offices of the magazine Monitor by Muslim youths, after the publication of a readers’ survey in which the Prophet Muhammad was ranked the eleventh most admired leader (the magazine’s Catholic editor was placed eighth in the survey and Soeharto first). Nurcholish defended the youths’ actions saying they were “understandable”, for which he was accused of condoning violence. In 2002, he became embroiled in a controversy over his daughter’s reported betrothal to an American Jew. Nurcholish initially denied knowing his future son-in-law was Jewish but then declared he would oppose the marriage if the fiancé did not convert to Islam. He even released personal correspondence with his daughter in order to defend himself. Some commentators regretted that Nurcholish’s actions ran counter to his own earlier advocacy of mixed religious marriages.

Nurcholish had one final surprise in his life as a public figure: he announced in 2003 that he would seek Golkar’s nomination for the presidency, the party which had been the electoral vehicle of the New Order. This dismayed many of his colleagues. They argued that it was a futile gesture as he had little prospect of success. Moreover, the choice of Golkar, the party of the old status quo, would seriously dent his reputation as a reformer and give rise to charges that he was driven by ego. In customary style, Nurcholish calmly argued that his proposed candidacy was intended to provide choice to Indonesian voters, as nearly all the other leading candidates were politicians, businessmen or retired generals. He cast his actions as pro-reform, asserting it would challenge the vested interests within Golkar and give the party the opportunity to demonstrate that it had changed since the Soeharto years. After several months of cash-strapped campaigning, Nurcholish eventually withdrew from the race in late 2003, claiming that the Golkar leadership had skewed the selection rules against his candidature. He particularly objected to the decision of the Golkar chairman, Akbar Tanjung, to stand – a nomination which was also be to unsuccessful. Ultimately, Nurcholish’s foray into practical politics appeared ill-advised. He stood little chance of winning against far better organised and resourced opponents and there was a somewhat quixotic quality to his choice of Golkar, the most hard-headed and pragmatic of political machines.

In mid 2004, Nurcholish fell seriously ill to liver disease. A long-time hepatitis sufferer, he elected to undergo a liver transplant in China. The operation went badly and his condition deteriorated, forcing his emergency evacuation to Singapore. When photographs of an emaciated and haggard Nurcholish were published in the Indonesian press there was widespread shock and sympathy for his condition. He eventually returned to Jakarta and died on 29 September 2005. He was given a state funeral.

The tributes and outpouring of emotion at his passing provide a measure of his standing. The prominent liberal scholar, Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, described Nurcholish as an Islamic theologian and philosopher without peer in Indonesian history and spoke with sadness that no longer was there a scholar capable of delivering “big bangs” in Islamic discourse. Other eulogists described him as a “locomotive of change” and the intellectual who had done more to promote reform than any other Muslim leader. Typically, Nurcholish also had his detractors. The Islamist writer, Adian Husaini, published a book setting out Nurcholish’s “mistakes” as a Muslim scholar and accusing him of undermining rather than defending Islam.

In Australia, Nurcholish’s death occasioned only a few press articles – a reflection of how much local media coverage is now preoccupied with Islamic radicalism rather than liberalism. Despite this, Nurcholish had a considerable influence on Australian perceptions of Indonesian Islam. He visited our shores regularly during the 1980s and 1990s, usually to speak at conferences and seminars, and he helped to spread awareness of new, pluralistic thinking within regional Islam. He also became the subject of various studies on ‘progressive’ Islam by Australian academics, including Greg Barton, Anthony Johns and Abdullah Saeed. Of particular interest to these scholars was his exegetical and hermeneutical thinking. Along with Abdurrahman Wahid, Nurcholish became the public face of Indonesian Islam, that of tolerance and moderation, until supplanted by the malign visages of militants such as Amrozi and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir.

On balance, Nurcholish had much to commend him. He was a remarkably productive intellectual whose output contained some of the most impressive thinking to be found in recent Islamic scholarship in Indonesia. He helped to change the way in which Muslims think about their faith and was particularly influential in regard to the issue of secularism and Islam. He also inspired a generation of younger scholars to espouse more liberal and pluralist interpretation of Islam. At a time when much attention in Western countries such as Australia is devoted to promoting ‘moderate’ Islam, Nurcholish’s life and work are worthy of further study.


There are numerous good quality English-language texts on Nurcholish Madjid. Robert Hefner’s Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratisation in Indonesia (Princeton University Press, 2000) offers an eloquent and sympathetic account of Nurcholish and the Cultural Islam movement, as also does Greg Barton’s ‘Neo-Modernism: A vital Synthesis of Traditionalism and Modernism in Indonesian Islam’, Studia Islamika 2:3, pp.1–75. Muslim Intellectual Responses to ‘New Order’ Modernisation in Indonesia by Mohammad Kamal Hasan (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1980) has a detailed examination of Nurcholish’s thinking as well as translations of some of his key texts.
(1). Other Muslim scholars who argued for a secular approach included Abdurrahman Wahid, a former Nahdlatul Ulama chairman and Indonesian President (1999–2001), Djohan Effendi, a senior researcher at the Department of Religion, and Ahmad Wahib, a young intellectual.

Dr Greg Fealy is a Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Indonesian Politics at the Australian National University. His most recent book, co-edited with Virginia Hooker, is Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia: A Contemporary Sourcebook, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2006.

© Greg Fealy

Overland 186–autumn 2007, p.48

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