Nurcholis Madjid and Moderate Islam

Nurcholis Madjid and Moderate Islam
Nurcholis Madjid

Nucholis Madjid (pron. Noorkholees Majeed), popularly known as Cak Nur* (pron. Chaa Noor), is a celebrated figure so far as Indonesian Muslim intellectual goes. He is among a few Indonesian intellectuals who were requested to come to Istana Merdeka (Indonesia's presidential palace) by then President Suharto in early 1998 to discuss, among other topics, whether he should step down or not.

According to his own statement during his visit to India months later, he's among the person who were giving the tough response: not only should Suharto step down. He had to step down. And indeed, in June 1998 Indonesia and the world witnessed Suharto announcing his resignation from Indonesia's highest office, ending his 32-year sweet and bitter authoritarian rule thus opening a new era called Reformasi (reform). The nation and the world celebrated. CNN and BBC broadcast the momentous and historic events an uninterrupted 24-hour coverage. The first ever that Indonesia got such a huge coverage on positive notes. Cak Nur's words at that moment of Suharto's fall "History counted by every second" was so popular quoted not only by national media, but by international print media as well.

During his talk in New Delhi at the time, he's talking tough and very frankly about everything particularly on government matters, something uncharacteristic of him who were known for his soft-spoken style. At the time he's talking to us, we started to be aware that something had changed. With his unusual tough and undiplomatic words before Indonesian diplomats who attended the meeting along with us--Indonesian students--as though he wanted to convey a strong message that a change, an important one, had just happened. And it's time for us to shift our coward-wrapped-by-softness attitude towards frankly-speaking kind of talk in criticising the government or any corrupt practices done by them.

I recall Soetjipto Wirosardjono (pron. Soocheepto Weerosarjono), one of my favorite Tempo magazine columnist in 1980s, once said that in criticising the government he had to make his words as diplomatic as possible so as to not offend any particular official in which case might lead him to jail on the ground of treason or subversion which could "threaten the national interest, a raison d'etre that is commonly used by any authoritarian government anywhere. Indonesian students abroad used to get "advice" from our diplomats whenever we'd have a meeting with high-level officials who visit a country where we study about things we should and should not ask during question-and-answer session with them. It's in this respect, it seemed, why Nurcholis Madjid talked in front of government official in most unorthodox way.

His thought on Islam and State

During 1970s, Cak Nur made a controversial statement that sparked nation-wide response, pros and cons on the need of separation between Islam and politic. His "Islam Yes! Politics No!" jargon drives a long debate among moderates who support his idea and conservatives who advocate the establishment of Islamic state. During 1980s, he yet again sparked a controversy. His statement in a seminar about "secularism and secularisation" and his other ideas on theological matters upset many conservatives Muslims among whom even regard him as an "apostate."

One should remember, however, that apart from his many controversial idea on Islam and state and his firm belief that Islam should occupy Muslim private domain only, he's a pious Muslim who prays five-time a day and avoids what Islam forbids. In his book Agama dan Peradaban (Religion and Civilization) he said that one who believes in God, Islam in this case, should observe whatever God or Islam commands as natural consequences to that belief. In other words, Cak Nur seems to remind the agnostic belief of the fact that believing in God without any need to observe what God commands is self-contradictory.

Father of the Nation

He is a man of principle. He believes strongly what he said. When he says something he says with his heart.** This kind of attitude earns him respect from friends and foes alike. His eagerness to see Indonesians united on common ground of Indonesianness, rather than tearing apart by communal fanaticism, attracts many followers of various background.

After the fall of Suharto's Orde Lama (new order) regime in late 1980s, he's the only prominent intellectual who resisted the temptation of power and continue voicing his idea of united Indonesia and of tolerant life-style among different faiths He came from Jombang, Jawa Timur (East Java), the most populuous province in the country.

Despite disagreement with some of his ideas, especially on religious matters, one may not and should not ignore his contribution on two most important thing: his relentless efforts in uniting various perception on nationhood and in advocating the need of tolerance among various faiths, ethnicities and regions to see the nation grows strong in facing the challenges ahead.

Second, his pioneering and inspiring role in making discourse on Islam and Indonesia among intellectual and academician alive and kicking, one important requirement to foresee the grimness or brightness of a nation. A nation who feels satisfied with status quo and stuck with it is a nation of backward people. History tells us that nation with such attitude is awaiting other nation/s to "colonise" us. A kind of nation that drives a colonialist ideolog like Rudyard Kipling justifies British colonialism on the ground that it's the "duty" or the "burden" of more advanced nation (read, white people) to "help" the backward ones. Nurcholis Madjid just help us to be aware of this situation. It's not exaggerated, therefore, that media dubbed him as the father of the nation for his commitment, dedication and contribution to the nation and at the same time his abstinence from politics at the time when opportunity wide-open.

A big nation would always remember and appreciate any contribution of its best sons and daughters, to learn what is right from them and to forgive but not to repeat any mistake done by them. Afterall, they are humans who are trying their best for the country.


*'Cak' literally means elder brother. Used generally in certain area in East Java. It's used by many East Javanese people to call those who they respect and hold dear and is so close to their heart. For Cak Nur, however, the term Cak is used nation-wide indicating how popular he is even now, years after his death.

**Not every intellectuals speaks for what they believe in; some speak for their stomach. Proposing a new idea by "order" from particular sponsors. Hence the inconsistencies and disgrace to some.

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