Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, Banda Aceh, Indonesia (photo: AP)

Indonesia's Muhammadiyah Movement
Moderation as Weakness

The Indonesian Muhammadiyah movement was founded one hundred years ago as a reformist socio-religious movement. But its initially moderate interpretation of Islam has been marginalised by hardliners over the past few years. By Bettina David

In late November Indonesia's Muhammadiyah, one of the world's largest mass Muslim organisations, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its foundation – an event that passed by almost unnoticed by western media.

With more than 25 million members, it is Indonesia's second largest Muslim organisation. Together with the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama ("Awakening of Religious Scholars", NU), a group with 30 million adherents, it represents a moderate strain of Islam that has long characterised society in the southeast Asian island kingdom.

pictured: the head office of Muhammadiyah in Jakarta (photo: Wikipedia)
"Vision of an Indonesian-Islamic modern age": The Muhammadiya represents a moderate strain of Islam that has long characterised society in Indonesia

​​Founded in 1912 by Ahmad Dahlan (1868–1923) in the central Javanese sultanate of Yogyakarta, the movement stands for the vision of an Indonesian-Islamic modern age.

Dahlan was influenced by, among others, the ideas of the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh and other pioneers of a fundamental reform of Islam – one that aimed to cleanse it of "un-Islamic" local traditions, demanded a strict return to the Koran and Sunnah, and aimed to show – using a rational interpretation of these sources – that Islam need not exclude modern science and technology.

Ahmad Dahlan was descended from a family of religious scholars. Despite his alignment with middle eastern reformist Islam, he remained throughout his life in the service of the Sultan's Palace – a traditional centre of Javanese Islam known for its religious syncretism.

The ethos of the Muhammadiyah ideology

The Javanese approach – decisive espousal of one's own convictions without necessarily allowing this to lead to direct confrontation – also had a defining influence on the organisation he founded. Muhammadiyah pursues the dissemination of its ideas via a broad network of social, charitable and educational institutions.

Thousands of mosques, just over 10,000 nurseries and schools, 172 colleges, innumerable hospitals, orphanages and elderly care homes are testimony to the group's commitment to civil society.

The importance of education and rational thought was paramount. The ethos propagated in Muhammadiyah ideology is characterised by an almost Calvinist-style emphasis on values such as self-discipline, punctuality, diligence, selfless charitable engagement for the community, order and a personal responsibility to God.

The role of women

The education of women was an important concern from the outset. The women's organisations within Muhammadiyah – 'Aisyiyah and Nasyiatul 'Aisyiyah – are committed to a range of issues such as gender-sensitive interpretations of the Koran and for the empowerment of women on a grassroots level.

Followers of Muhammadiyah group of Muslims perform special prayer in Jogjakarta (photo: Tarko Sudiarno/AFP/Getty Images)
Islam and gender politics: The two women's organisations within Muhammadiyah are committed to a range of issues such as gender-sensitive interpretations of the Koran and for the empowerment of women on a grassroots level

​​The organisation's schools and universities have produced a great many people who have had a considerable influence on Indonesia's political, social and religious life from the colonial era right through to the contemporary age of democratisation, and who laid the foundation stone for the formation of the nation's Muslim middle class.

In contrast to the NU, most members of Muhammadiyah are derived from the urban milieu. The fact that the movement has survived one hundred years of far-reaching political and social transformation is not least owing to its ability to adapt flexibly and pragmatically to relevant cultural and socio-political realities.

Spirit of optimism and backlash

In the 1980s and 1990s, Indonesian mainstream Islam was influenced by the neo-modernism advocated by prominent liberal Muslims such as Nurcholis Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid from the Muhammadiyah and NU milieu. At the time, the views of thinkers such as Fazlur Rahman and Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid were openly and intensively received and discussed – in particular at Islamic universities – in Indonesia, probably more so than in any other Muslim country.

Abdurrahman Wahid (right) and Bambang Yudhoyono during prayer (photo: AP)
Abdurrahman Wahid (right) – Indonesia's president from 1999-2001 – had a major influence on Indonesian mainstream Islam. Under president Yudhoyono (left) however, Islam in Indonesia has become much more conservative

​​But the strengthening of Islamist movements and the West's "War on Terror" over the last decade have also left their mark on Indonesia. Until 2005, the organisation was led by Ahmad Syafi'i Ma'arif – the liberal advocate of a decidedly pluralist Islam. He was then succeeded by one of the movement's hardliners, Din Syamsuddin.

The movement has since experienced a clear shift to the right, and progressive personalities such as Syafi'i Ma'arif have long lost the influence they once had. Their views are however still being heard and openly discussed in the media.

Global polarisation constraints

It is exactly this – the organisation's integrative ability to unify both progressive and conservative voices under one umbrella and maintain a balance that is sometimes tilted to the left, and sometimes to the right – that appears to be under increasing threat from the constraints of global polarisation.

Since the 1990s, and even more after the end of the Suharto era, trans-national ideologies such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir are attracting a continually growing number of student supporters. Although it once wowed youth with its vision of a truly Islamic society, in comparison to these new dynamic movements Muhammadiyah appears like a colossus of mostly older men and women ossified by its hidebound hierarchies and obdurate bureaucracy.

Young people now find idealism and the opportunity to take an active part in shaping society according to one's own ideas under the banner of political Islam, the trans-national alignment of which also corresponds to clearly burgeoning aspirations of global positioning, recognition and participation.

Radical voices drive the debate

As a result, the once so progressive Muhammadiyah is increasingly finding itself in the paradoxical situation of losing its clout due to its moderate stance: the group is too liberal for the radicals, and too conservative for the liberals.

A rally of Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters (photo: AP)
In Indonesia's public discourse, it is the radical voices like the Hizb ut-Tahrir that are increasingly driving the debate, Bettina David writes

​​Being moderate now appears to be viewed as a weakness and an inability to take a clear stance. Instead of bringing new ideas to the table, it seems as though movement is now mainly concerned with issuing defensive reactions. In public discourse, it is the radical voices that are increasingly driving the debate.

But while on the one hand there are complaints that the group's own mosques and institutions are being infiltrated by representatives of political Islam such as the PKS (Justice and Prosperity Party), on the other hand it is obvious that similar ideas have long featured in Muhammadiyah's internal discourse – views that are also being represented by the movement's own protégés.

Under Din Syamsuddin, the organization has reacted to domestic Islamic terrorism and the increasing incidents of violence against religious minorities, such as the Ahmadiyya, in an evasive and often contradictory manner.

As part of its centenary celebrations, Muhammadiyah organised an International Research Conference from late November until early December. This not only gave the stage to figures within Muhammadiyah, but invited renowned international scholars to talk about the history and the future of the movement and the urgent need for a reset of its position and social vision. The fact that in this process, dialogue with the West still appears to be important to the movement, is a moderately hopeful sign.

Bettina David

© 2012

The author has been an expert on Indonesia for many years, and publishes journalistic and academic articles on the role of Islam and how Indonesian society is changing.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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