Lux et Veritas: Curricular Changes at an Islamic University

by Ramon

Nowhere perhaps is the question of religion’s role more fraught than in religious schools, which necessitate decisions, oftentimes fruitfully avoided in a pluralistic society, about the specific values and teachings that a culture passes on as its most lasting inheritance to its children. Universitas Islam Negeri  (UIN), one of the premier Islamic universities in Indonesia, was originally founded as a center to train and produce Muslim scholars to guide society, but in recent years, as Dr. Sudarnoto Hakim, a Vice Rector of the University explained to us on Monday, it has opened up its curriculum to include the hard and social sciences. This change, at a university still responsible to the Ministry of Religion, has produced backlash from more hard-line, elderly Muslims who worry about a university, and by proxy, a culture losing its way.

The changes have come as the university recognizes that the challenges of the modern world cannot be met just by imbibing doctrinal Islamic views but require as well other knowledge and skills, along with the argument from within Islam that there is no separation between religious and worldly life. The erasure of that line goes both ways, though, and the changes are still a far cry away from the West’s liberal arts and the myriad ideologies and worldviews that infuse them; at UIN all studies are grounded in Islamic values.

While the University officials we talked to believe that the criticism it faces represents the minority viewpoint in the country, the change has caused some consternation among the excellent religious scholars as increasingly more students study the sciences and humanities and fewer and fewer commit to Islamic study. Yet religious devotion is still vibrant in student culture, as reflected in the conservative dress codes and the prevalence of Islamic student groups on campus. Interestingly, though, the most extreme Islamic student groups in Indonesia have their base in the secular universities where Dr. Hakim speculated that they do not feel checked by elderly religious figures and faculty who can authoritatively temper the fervor of youth.

Though far from Yale, UIN’s story felt oddly similar to the history of our own university which was originally founded to train religious leaders and later expanded to a full and diverse study of the liberal arts. One wonders what the officials at UIN might make of the conclusion, at least for now, of that story: a school whose Christian roots, except for an occasional chapel and the presence of the divinity school, have largely withered away.

Yet in another sense, UIN’s change is characteristically Indonesian. Prof. Dr.Komaruddin Hidayat, the Rector of the University, explained that Islam in Indonesia bears an inclusive streak from its past, the confluence of the mystical emphasis of 13th century Islam which privileged the personal over the political and the traders who brought Islam to Indonesia during this to time who, as voyagers across many worlds, adopted a more tolerant doctrine than their stricter compatriots in Arabia. While Islam is by far the dominant religious faith in the country, those historical roots have produced a country that incorporates and celebrates its rich diversity – creeds and languages, flora and fauna.

Prof. Dr. Hidayat went on to characterize UIN as a bridge across the sectors of the society. Another professor termed it a catalyst, responsible for the transformation of her own faith from the rote teachings characteristic of many rural madrassas to the broader horizons and personal discovery that are the scars of scholarly study and discussion among diverse people. Prof. Dr. Hidayat continued, describing students’ time at UIN as one of rebirth as Indonesians and later as children and citizens of the world. This at times heady vision mirrored in many ways his description of Islamic faith and practice, one grounded in universal values, acknowledgement of one God, good behavior, and devotion to prayer. “It’s easy,” he told us with a slight chuckle, and though reminded as he excused himself at the end of our meeting to pray what commitment that entails, part of me wondered, with all due respect, whether he was making it seem too easy. Aspersions were cast at Huntington’s thesis of Clash of Civilizations, the ritual flogging of many who insist on a multicultural, peaceful world. With no defense of all of Huntington’s argument, the Rector did not seem to give sufficient weight to the conflicts that actively persist and the deeper, more intractable mysteries of religious faith.

Those tensions somewhat appear in students’ frequent criticism of corruption in Indonesian business and society, a fairly large problem and concern in the country. The Rector told us that after Indonesia won independence many groups felt entitled to some reward for the large investment they had made in the fight. The splitting of spoils required compromise, and much of it fell along ethnic lines. This led to a culture of ethnic solidarity in hiring practices –“if you’re a farmer from Sumatra, you are going to chose your friend from Sumatra.” Though the Rector would not directly commit to this, couched as some of his excellent talk was in the general yet sometimes evasive style of those little used to being interrupted and much accustomed to wearing many hats when they speak, my sense was that corruption now manifests itself as personal enrichment. O bygone community values!

The Rector is very active on several anti-corruption task forces. The challenge now, he told us, is to reform and empower the effective instruments of state against the creeping phenomenon of a ‘weakening state’. He holds much hope for a new law analogous to the Freedom of Information Act in the United States which gives citizens more room to push and question the government on public policy and forces the state to answer them. Recently, a high-ranking police official has caused a sensation with detailed allegations of abuse and corruption. We were cautioned to his motives by the traditional Indonesian saying, “Throw a rock, hide your hand.” While books and not rocks are the weapons of choice at UIN, it is certainly keeping its hand lifted, as by opening new fields of study it pushes the conventional role of the Islamic university.