The Spirit of Muhammadiyah: Dakwah bil hal
Author: Minako Sakai, Deputy Head of School and Associate Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Canberra
It is my pleasure to contribute to Suara Muhammadiyah, the oldest Islamic magazine published in Indonesia. This article presents my impression and experience of Muhammadiyah along my research journey on Islam in Indonesia in honour of the 48th Muktamar of Muhammadiyah in 2022.
My first encounter with Muhammadiyah was through scholarly publications I read when I was an undergraduate student in Sophia University, Tokyo in the 1980s. I became interested in the role of Islam in Indonesia, particularly in analysing if Islam shapes the future directions of development policies in Indonesia. The Iranian revolution in 1979 triggered my interest to explore if other Muslim countries would emphasise the role of Islam in future directions of socio-economic development.
One of the long-standing research questions for my research was set to explore whether modernisation means Westernisation. In other words, it is important to analyse if development strategies reflecting local values could offer solutions for rural development and gender equality. It was in the 1980s when the image of Indonesia, governed by the Suharto’s administration, had little emphasis on Islam in the community and governance.
During my study for my BA Honours thesis, I read key books on Islam in Indonesia: Purifying the Faith (1978) by Peacock, Religion of Java by Geertz 1960, and The Crescent Arises over the Banyan Tree by M. Nakamura (1976, PhD thesis). These three books introduced me to Muhammadiyah as an influential reformist Islamic organisation in Indonesia. I noted the role of Muslim traders who supported the development of Muhammadiyah especially in Java. Yet my chance to study Muhammadiyah did not arrive until I started my research on Muslim social activism in the 2000s.
During my PhD research (Sakai, Kacang Tidak Lupa Kulitnya, 2017) in the 90s in the highlands of South Sumatra, I encountered for the first time Muhammadiyah education in person. My adopted parents lived in the centre of Lahat and a junior high-school, run by Muhammadiyah was located just a few meters from their house. I walked past the Muhammadiyah school every day and veils worn by female Muslim students attracted my attention. All the female students were wearing a jilbab. Jilbab then appeared rather novel among coffee and rubber growing farmers in Lahat, especially Gumai community.
Two of my adopted sisters, both of them were teachers of secondary school, wore no regular headscarf. The traditional head cover for Muslim women in the area was a hat (topi) with a cloth (kain). The use of jilbab among Muhammadiyah students was explained to me as evidence that Muhammadiyah represented was urban reformist Islam, reducing non-Islamic tradition in rural areas. Such explanations echoed the analyses presented by the forementioned books on Muhammadiyah and syncretic Islamic tradition in Java (by Sakai, ‘Still Remembering the Origins: The Continuity of Syncretic Islamic Practice among the Gumai in South Sumatra, 2017). In Lahat I did not see any strong organisational activities by NU, either. Thus, I came to think that it was important to study Islam as a wholistic way, reflecting diverse Islamic orientations influencing the social fabric of Indonesian society (‘Islamic Orientations in Contemporary Indonesia: Islamism on the Rise? by Sakai and Fauzia, 2014).
In mid 2000s I strongly came to see the influence of Muhammadiyah through my interactions with people involved in Islamic economy and philanthropic organisations. The founder of Muhammadiyah, KH. Dahlan was vocal in taking action to solve social problems as a Muslim. When I started research on Muslim social activism such as Islamic microfinancing institutions (BMTs) and Islamic philanthropic organisations, I encountered a key concept, dakwah bil hal or propagation by action.
Most of the activists I met through my research on BMTs, women’s economic empowerment, and inter-faith social collaborations did not claim that they were Muhammadiyah members. Yet, they acknowledged affinity or educational affiliations with Muhammadiyah. Dakwah bil hal was often mentioned as an Islamic concept that underpins their social engagement. Remaja masjid or Muslim activism groups often stated that Muslim faith and propagation by action are never to be separated. This understanding propels people to take action to solve socio-economic problems.
The wide spread of the concept of dakwah bil hal is attributed to the exemplary social engagement programs Muhammadiyah has undertaken since its onset. The spirit of Muhammadiyah is not only tied to programs run by Muhammadiyah alone, but also has become embedded widely in Muslim community life in Indonesia. I wish to congratulate Muhammadiyah on continuing to engage with the community.