Beranda Opinion English Religious Studies in Higher Education

Religious Studies in Higher Education


Can Perguruan Tinggi (PT) Islam (Islamic Higher Education) in Indonesia become a pioneer in studying non-Islamic religions and non-Muslim societies?

It is interesting to question and ponder: why are there so many non-Islamic universities, especially those with Christian and Jewish affiliations, that have study programs, departments, departments or research institutes on Islam and society Muslim?

On the other hand, why is it almost difficult to find Islamic tertiary institutions (or those managed by Muslims) that have study programs, majors, departments, or research institutions on non-Islamic religions and non-Muslim communities, such as Christian studies, Jewish studies, Buddhism, Hinduism, local religions, and the like?

Various HEIs in the West, such as the United States (US), Canada, Australia, or European countries—public or private, large or small campuses, research campuses or teaching colleges, both denominational (affiliated to certain religions/religious groups) and non-denominational—have study programs to study the phenomena of various religions in the world, both local and transnational religions, including Islam.

Not only in Western countries, but in the past few years, universities in East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan) have also started opening Islamic studies programs. Universities in Singapore, particularly the National University of Singapore, have had Islamic studies programs for a long time.

This Islamic study program is spreading to various departments and majors, especially in the fields of social sciences and humanities (history, anthropology, sociology, political science, archaeology, and so on), not just in religious departments or majors. Even in the law faculty (like at Harvard), they also have a strong Islamic law division.

Denominational campuses in the US, such as those affiliated with Catholicism (University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Boston College, etc.), Judaism (such as Brandeis University), Mormonism (such as Brigham Young University), or some “Protestant campuses” (Emory University, Graduate Theological Union, Union Theological Seminary, etc.) have excellent Islamic studies programs.

The alma mater of the author, Boston University, which is affiliated with the Methodist Christian denomination, also has a multitude of Islamic study programs spread across various faculties and departments.

To meet the needs of the Islamic study program, these campuses recruit experts and specialists (lecturers, researchers, orfellows), both “secular scholars” (atheists or agnostics) and scholars from certain religions (including Muslim scholar), who focuses in the field of religious studies Islam or Muslim society.

In other words, not only non-Muslim graduates, but Muslim graduates from several countries (including Indonesia) have also become many educators and researchers about Islam and Muslim communities on Western campuses.

The tradition of Islamic studies in the West

Translation: The tradition of Islamic studies in the West began with groups of orientalists, consisting of scholars and historians who studied various aspects of traditions and “oriental cultures” – meaning Asia and the Middle East (MENASA), including religion, language, literature, philosophy, law, and history in the 18th/19th century CE.

It should be noted that not all orientalists study Islam and Muslim society. However, there are orientalists who are experts in the field of Islamic studies, Muslim society, or the famous Arab/Central Asian region at that time, such as Ignaz Goldziher from Hungary, Theodor Noldeke from Germany, and Christian Snouck Hurgronje from the Netherlands.

By many scholars, this trio of orientalists is considered as pioneers of Islamic studies in the West. Among the three orientalists, Hurgronje is the most popular in Indonesia. Among Muslims, Hurgronje is considered as an “intellectual stooge” of the Dutch, even though he has contributed in the field of Islamic and Muslim studies.

Other renowned Orientalists in the field of Islamic studies, Muslim society, or Timteng’s history and geoculture are Joseph Schacht, Hamilton HR Gibb, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Philip K Hitti, or Montgomery Watt. They have written many academic works about Islam, Muslims, and/or Timteng.

Social scientists, particularly sociologists and anthropologists, were initially not interested in the study of Islam despite Max Weber, who is considered one of the founding trio of sociology (alongside Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx), mentioning Islam in his works.

As for the founders of Anthropology, such as Franz Boas or Bronislaw Malinowski, they did not touch upon Islam/Muslim at all in their works.

In anthropology, to the best of the writer’s knowledge, British anthropologist Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard began studying Islam and Muslim society through his work, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (published in 1949), which discusses the Sufi group or Sanusiyah order in Libya.

Following the tradition of Evans-Pritchard, an American anthropologist, the late Clifford Geertz, then researched Islamic communities in Indonesia (Kediri, East Java) and Morocco in the 1950s/1960s.

Aside from Geertz, the late Fredrik Barth of Norway was also a pioneer in the study of Islamic anthropology. Barth conducted extensive research on Muslim communities in Oman, Iran, Pakistan, and Bali.

Islamic studies in the West have experienced a boom since the 9/11 terrorism tragedy in the US. Since then, many universities in the West have opened Islamic study programs or research institutions to research “the Islamic world.”

Religious Studies in the Islamic World

If in the West there are many companies that open Islamic studies, in the Islamic world on the contrary, it’s difficult to find Islamic companies or “public companies” managed by Muslims that have study programs or research institutions that focus on non-Islamic studies and non-Muslim societies.

In general, HEIs owned by Muslims focus on the field of study of Islamic sciences (for example Islamic law, tafsir, hadith, etc.) or secular sciences (exact sciences, engineering, information technology, economics, business, computers, artificial intelligence (artificial intelligence), and so on).

This trend is not only in central Indonesia but also in other Islamic regions, such as North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

What is interesting, especially in the context of Central Indonesia, is that Jewish-affiliated companies in Israel (such as The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, The University of Haifa, and so on), as well as Christian universities in Palestine (such as Jerusalem University College) or Lebanon (such as Saint Joseph University of Beirut), also offer Islamic studies programs, in addition to language, literature, and Arab/Central Indonesian culture.

However, not a single Islamic affiliated institution offers study programs on Judaism, Christianity, or Hebrew language.

Companies in Indonesia, especially those with Islamic affiliations or managed by Muslims, do not have any programs that offer non-Islamic religious studies or cater to non-Muslim communities. There are several universities and research centers that have programs or research centers for Central and Eastern Indonesia, but they are predominantly focused on Islam.

Despite being known as a Muslim community, Timteng also serves as a shelter for Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Druzes, Khaldeans, Baha’is, Hindus, and so on.

Can PT Islam Indonesia emulate the intellectual work ethic and academic spirit of Abu Raihan al-Biruni (973-1048), a Persian Muslim scholar from the 10th/11th century CE who was dubbed the “Father of Comparative Religion” for his study of non-Islamic religions (including Hinduism) and their languages (including Sanskrit)?

A number of fundamental factors

In addition to being driven by political motivations (such as colonialism or to study politics and Islamic/Muslim radicalism), Islamic studies in Western universities are also based on a scientific spirit, academic ethos, and a strong desire to understand the intricacies of Islam and the Muslim world.

Therefore, the tradition of Islamic studies in the West, to borrow a term from Mahmood Mamdani, former professor at Columbia University, can produce unfriendly orientalists (who are biased and less friendly towards Islam/Muslims) and friendly orientalists (which is fair and friendly to Islam/Muslims).

Despite varying motives and objectives, the tradition of Islamic studies in the West has produced many non-Muslim scholars (especially Christians, Jews, or secular) who are experts in the field of Islamic religion and Muslim society.

Meanwhile, the lack of Islamic universities that offer non-Islamic/ Muslim community religious studies programs has resulted in a scarcity of Islamic scholars knowledgeable in the study of other religions and non-Muslim communities.

There are several fundamental factors that cause the lack or even absence of Islamic PT (or those managed by Muslims) that open non-Islamic religious or non-Muslim community study programs. For example, the low or nonexistent interest and academic and research interests among Muslims to study and learn about the religion and communities of other religions.

However, studying and learning about religions and other religious communities can improve knowledge of different religions, enrich religious perspectives, minimize misunderstandings about other religions, and strengthen interfaith relations.

Can PT Islam in Indonesia become a pioneer in studying non-Islamic religions and non-Muslim societies?

Can PT Islam Indonesia emulate the intellectual work ethic and academic spirit of Abu Raihan al-Biruni (973-1048), a Persian Muslim scholar from the 10th/11th century CE who was dubbed the “Father of Comparative Religion” for his study of non-Islamic religions (including Hinduism) and their languages (including Sanskrit)?

Note: this article was published by Kompas (27 October 2023) and was translated by using both Microsoft Azure Open AI and Google Translation AI.

Artikulli paraprakReligious Tolerance in the United Arab Emirates
Artikulli tjetërPilpres 2024
Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.


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