You are on page 1of 3

Howard M.

Federspiel, Islam and ideology in the emerging Indonesian state: The Persatuan
Islam (PERSIS), 1923 to 1957. Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill, 2001. xii, 365 pp., bibliography,
index. ISBN 90-04-12047-5

[review published in International Journal of Middle East Studies 35 (2003), 171-173]

Among Indonesia’s movements of Islamic reform, Persatuan Islam (‘Islamic Union’,

commonly abbreviated as Persis) has been the most puritan in doctrine and practice, and the
most polemical opponent of traditionalist Islam and local religious practices. Although much
smaller than better known movements such as Muhammadiyah and Sarekat Islam, it has had
an influence far out of proportion to its modest size, due to the intensity of its message and the
forceful personalities of its leaders. Its leading intellectual, Mohamad Natsir, became one of
the first prime ministers of independent Indonesia, went on to lead the largest Muslim party,
Masyumi, until it was banned in 1960, established the Indonesian Council for Islamic
Predication (da`wa), and was for many years one of the vice-chairmen of the Islamic World
League. As the most rigid and literalist of the reformist currents, as well as the most
polemical, Persis often set the terms of the debate with traditionalists and syncretists, and the
numerous fatwas issued by its `ulama were often used as a reference by the followers of other
reformist currents as well.

Whereas the country’s first reformist association, Muhammadiyah (established in 1912),

devoted much effort to modern education and health care besides the reform of ritual and
belief – the Muhammadiyah commands a vast network of hospitals and schools, from
kindergarten to universities – Persis concentrated on the struggle against all bid`a and only
established very few schools. It was also decidedly less political than the modernist and
nationalist Sarekat Islam (‘Islamic Association’, also founded in 1912), the country’s first
modern mass movement. Initially Persis rejected nationalism as incompatible with Islam and
looked unfavourably on politics too; after Independence, some prominent members became
politicians but often had antagonistic relations with their nationalist colleagues. The
association that Persis resembled most closely in reformist spirit was Al Irsyad, which
however was exclusively active among Indonesian Arabs (and also had a significant impact in
Hadramaut and throughout the Hadrami diaspora).

Persis has received much less scholarly attention than the other associations mentioned,
which is a reason to welcome Federspiel’s new book. It is a reworked version of his 1969
Ph.D. thesis (published in 1970), which has long been the only book-length study and, besides
the important observations in Deliar Noer’s authoritative history of Indonesian Islamic
reformism, the chief work of reference on the subject. The present book is more voluminous
than the earlier study but does not add much to it. The time frame remains the same, ending in
1958. The author carried out two additional interviews in 1996 and read only a handful of
relevant Indonesian publications that appeared since 1970, but it the present book he makes
explicit comparisons with Egyptian and South Asian reformism – mostly `Abduh, Rida and
Mawdudi. It was probably thought that these comparisons would make the book also of
interest to the non-Indonesianist reader.

Persis and Al Irsyad have recently attracted some attention because some of the leaders of the
radical Laskar Jihad, that is engaging in jihad against Christians in east Indonesia, were
educated in their schools before travelling to Arabia and Afghanistan, where they linked up
with transnational ‘Wahhabi’ networks. The recent radicalisation of a minority of Indonesian
Muslims does not appear to have had an impact on Persis itself, but the organization has
always propagated a brand of reformist thought that is most consonant with Wahhabi thought.
It is a pity that Federspiel has not thought of making comparisons with Wahhabi literature; but
his summaries of the polemics in which Persis engaged make clear to what extent its thought
resembled that of the Wahhabis. This resemblance is the more surprising since, as Federspiel
claims, there appears to have been little direct influence from Middle Eastern developments
on the thought and practice of Persis. These appear to have developed almost independently,
at least during the period under consideration.

The book is divided into two parts, covering the final decades of colonial rule and the first
decade in Indonesian independence, respectively. For each period, there are chapters
discussing the general political context, developments in Persis as an organization, and its
thought as expressed in print media. Federspiel’s content analysis of its journals suggests that
Persis was perpetually involved in passionate polemics. Persis authors polemicized against
traditionalist Muslims, syncretists, Christian teachers, and ‘deviant’ sects such as the
Ahmadiyya (of Qadian) during the colonial period, and against communists as well as secular
nationalists of various shades in the 1950s. They rejected all religious beliefs and practices for
which they found no basis in the Qur’an and hadith, and they opposed, more strictly than the
other reformists, the jurisprudence of the traditional schools (madhhab). Minor details of
worship, such as whether the niyya, the declaration of intention that precedes the prayer,
should be spoken aloud or not, became the subject of fierce debates that divided the entire
Muslim community. Rituals surrounding death and burial, the belief in saints and visiting
their graves, all sorts of mystical and magical practices that had great currency in Indonesia
— all were unrelentingly attacked, not only in print but also in face-to-face public debates.

Federspiel rightly gives much attention to the intellectual heavyweights of the organization,
Ahmad Hassan, Mohamad Natsir, and Isa Anshari, who were most visible in such public
debates. Hassan was the chief religious authority, with whose name Persis came to be most
closely associated. An unassuming and largely self-educated man, born in Singapore of Indian
parents, he issued numerous fatwas on matters of daily belief and practice, that were
distinctive for their strict dependence on Qur’an and hadith in matters of ritual and their
rationality in other matters. Hassan always remained aloof from practical politics (although in
the last years of Dutch rule there was a famous exchange of letters between him and Sukarno,
and he supported the declaration of independence). In 1940 he moved from Bandung to
Bangil in East Java, far from the political turmoil of the capital, where he established what
became the major Persis school, the only one that taught no other subjects but religion.

After Independence, Natsir and Anshari became leading lights of the Muslim party Masyumi,
and especially the latter fiercely polemicized against communists and secular nationalists.
Natsir’s criticism of Sukarno, on the other hand, sprang less from a religious rejection of
nationalism then from his dismay with the president’s increasingly dictatorial attitude. Unlike
some other Masyumi politicians, who relied on patronage politics, Natsir firmly believed in
Western-style democracy and professional and accountable administration, and he was in this
respect more inspired by the socialists — he collaborated closely with the Socialist Party of
Indonesia — than by Islamic political thought.

Federspiel duly summarizes what he finds written in the Persis media, but the study is weak in
analysis and the author does not always appear to understand the implications of what he read.
When he describes the numerous polemics in which Persis personalities took part, he only
summarizes the arguments of one side of the debate. With one or two exceptions, the
arguments of those against whom Persis polemicized are not presented at all or only in the
rephrasing by their Persis critics. It is as if one overhears a person quarrelling on the
telephone: we get a good idea of the subject of the conversation but may well miss the essence
of a disagreement. One would have liked to hear what the other side said.

Federspiel’s quaint translations of Arabic and Indonesian terms and expressions also raise
doubts about the carefulness of his readings. He translates al-Fatwa (the name of a journal) as
“the Legalist”, al-Lisan as “the Voice”, al-Furqan as “the Criterion”, Aliran Islam as “Islamic
Alignment” (instead of “the Islamic current”). In lengthier passages that he summarizes I
often wondered what the original might have said, for they made little sense to me. Frequent
errors in the translation of Indonesian book titles in the bibliography make one wonder how
well he knows that language.

His comparisons of Persis leaders with Muslim thinkers elsewhere remain underdeveloped.
Having summarized some of Ahmad Hassan’s general teachings on Islam, for instance, he
concludes that these are closely related to “standard Sunni teachings as expressed by the
classical theologian al-Ash`ari, by the modernist Muslim thinker Muhammad `Abduh and by
the neo-fundamentalist activist Abdul A`la Mawdudi (sic!).” Leaving aside whether the latter
two can be said to have expressed “standard Sunni teachings,” Federspiel does not make clear
what the similarity with these thinkers consists of — apart from the belief in the uniqueness
and perfection of the Qur’an, Muhammad’s genuine Prophethood and some other generalities.
He does not attempt to attest any of the ideas specifically associated with these thinkers in the
writings of Ahmad Hassan or any of the other Persis-affiliated authors. Nor does he make any
serious effort to discover where Persis distinguished itself doctrinally or in attitude from other
reformist currents.

What is of lasting value in this book, then, is a useful overview of the activities and especially
the literature produced by an important but neglected Muslim movement in Indonesia. A more
profound analysis, and a study of developments since 1958, both well worth while, will have
to wait for another scholar.

Martin van Bruinessen

Utrecht University

Other studies referred to:

Howard Federspiel, Persatuan Islam: Islamic reform in twentieth century Indonesia. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Modern Indonesia Project, 1970.

Deliar Noer, The modernist Muslim movement in Indonesia 1900-1940. Kuala Lumpur, etc.:
Oxford University Press, 1973.