Wed, 31 Aug 1994

Darul Arqam: A historical reflection

Nine provinces have banned the activities of the controversial Kuala Lumpur-based Darul Arqam sect in Indonesia and press reports say other provinces are considering following suit. Intellect Azyumardi Asra doubts the ban will be effective.

JAKARTA (JP): To date at least nine provincial prosecutor's offices have banned the beleaguered Darul Arqam.

What is most interesting in this case is that the decisions to outlaw the Islamic religious movement were not issued by the Attorney General's Office as some people had expected. Instead that office has let the provincial authorities decide for themselves.

This indicates that the highest level Indonesian authorities are attempting to avoid giving the impression that they have been under pressure, in the name of ASEAN solidarity, to bow to the Malaysian government's desires to ban the movement.

Despite all this, it is really doubtful whether the bans issued here can be effective. Several instances these days have shown us that the banning of allegedly "deviationist" religious movements suffices largely on paper only. Some of them -- the most notorious being the Inkarus Sunnah -- are smart enough to survive by changing their names, or even by adapting, at least temporarily, to suit the political establishment.

There is little doubt that Darul Arqam has generated one of the most widely debated controversies in Indonesia in recent times. Other Islamic organizations banned in the past included Qadiani Ahmadiyyah, which originated in India, Islam Jamma'ah (Community of Islam) and Inkarus Sunnah (Denial of Prophet Muhammad's tradition).

In contrast, Darul Arqam has created at least two divisions among Indonesian Moslem scholars and organizations. The first group thus created consists of those who regard Darul Arqam as having gone astray because of "heretical" teachings. This group advocates the sect's banning on this basis. Religiously and intellectually, this group belongs to the reformist wing of Islamic school of thought as reflected in Muhammadiyah and some leaders of the Council of Indonesian Ulemas (MUI) who have a reformist background.

The second group is those whose members claim there is almost nothing wrong with the teachings of Darul Arqam. In other words, the movement's doctrines and practices are still within the realm of Sunni orthodox faith. Therefore, at least from a religious point of view, Darul Arqam should not be outlawed. This group largely consists of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) scholars who have been typified as the traditionalist wing of Islamic school of thought by observers.

Conflicts between Islamic reformism and traditionalism are not new. They can be traced back throughout history in the development of Islamic doctrines and practices.

The basic tenets of Islamic reformism, preached vehemently by such outstanding scholars as Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1787), Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1838-1897), and Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905), are that Islam should be understood and practiced in their "pristine" form. These scholars in turn influenced reformist organizations like Muhammadiyah, which has preached that Islam should be freed not only from bid'ah (unwarranted innovations), khurafat (superstitions) and tahyul (delusions), but also from the unquestioned following (taklid) of the religious scholars or ulemas.

Therefore, the reformists, or purists, oppose some long- standing Islamic institutions, such as the tarekat (Sufi brotherhoods), which are considered to be full of unwarranted innovations or doctrines, such as the belief in the messianic figure of the Mahdi. All of these are central to Darul Arqam.

In contrast, the traditionalists cling to the customs that were developed by the "People of the Sunnah" (the traditions of the Prophet) and the community of believers (Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama'ah) throughout Islamic history. The special emphasis on the Sunnah by these people, leads them to adopt almost the entirety of the hadits (the sayings of the Prophet), including those segments which have been classified as weak by certain scholars.

As a result, the religious world view and the practices of the traditionalists are pregnant with innovations and additions. It is no surprise that traditionalist Moslems in Indonesia, including NU and Darul Arqam, have practiced various kinds of tarekat, or elaborated rituals under the leadership of ulemas, who command the total obedience of their followers.

Given differences in their religious world views and practices, one may reasonably expect that the conflicts between the reformist and traditionalist Moslems will endure. The banning of Darul Arqam will not resolve the conflicts. The sparks remain in the ashes and will burst forth into flame if any sort of fuel is added.

The writer is a lecturer of the Post Graduate Faculty at the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Jakarta.