Whose Islam?
The Western University and Modern Islamic Thought in Indonesia
Megan Brankley Abbas



FOR DECADES NOW, Indonesian Muslims have joked about the existence of a powerful McGill mafia in Jakarta. They laugh about its rumored control over the country’s elite Islamic universities and sprawling religious bureaucracy. They exchange sheepish grins about the suspected mob ties of colleagues and friends.1 While clearly intended as hyperbolic humor, the phrase “McGill mafia” also has a firm foundation in reality. Since the 1950s, nearly 200 Indonesian Muslims have earned graduate degrees at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies, and another 1,400 scholars have participated in McGill-sponsored training programs.2 They include a minister of religious affairs (Mukti Ali), a former rector of the State Islamic University in Jakarta (Harun Nasution), multiple high-ranking religious bureaucrats (Kafrawi Ridwan, Timur Djaelani, and Murni Djamal), and an entire cohort of contemporary public intellectuals. Rectors of major Islamic universities in Jakarta and Surabaya have also cited McGill’s institute as the model for the academic programs they aim to build.3 Indonesian Muslims have other curious entanglements with Western academia. In 1995, the mass modernist organization Muhammadiyah elected Amien Rais (b. 1944), a professor with a PhD in Islamic politics from the University of Chicago, to serve as its national chairman. Although he was the first Muhammadiyah leader with Western academic credentials, Rais was certainly not the last. The next two chairmen, Ahmad Syafii Maarif (b. 1934) and Din Syamsuddin (b. 1958), also held doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively. The late twentieth century thus witnessed the rise of an alternative and decidedly academic model of Muslim religious authority in Indonesia.

While this shift was perhaps most visible in Indonesia, it has not been confined to the archipelago nation. On the contrary, Muslim intellectuals from across the globe have transformed Western universities into places where Muslims study and sometimes teach Islam. Their ranks include globally prominent scholars, such as Mohammed Arkoun (1928–2010), originally of Algeria; Naquib al-Attas (b. 1931) of Malaysia; Ismail al-Faruqi (1921–86) of Palestine; Hassan Hanafi (b. 1935) of Egypt; Nurcholish Madjid (1939–2005) of Indonesia; Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933) of Iran; and Fazlur Rahman (1919–88) of Pakistan. These senior scholars have, in turn, opened the doors of Western academia for countless young Muslims to follow in their footsteps. Some have secured their own faculty positions at Western universities, and others have returned to their native countries to serve as bureaucrats, politicians, and public intellectuals. From their various positions of influence, Western-educated Muslims have used their academic training to fuel their visions of Islamic reform.

This book repositions the Western university as a significant site for the production of Islamic knowledge and Muslim religious authority over the course of the last century. These are typically understood as the functions of madrasas or other explicitly religious schools. As traditional institutions for Islamic learning, madrasas have a long history that dates back, in some regions, to the tenth and eleventh centuries. They have provided advanced instruction in core Islamic disciplines, including Qurʾanic exegesis (tafsir), hadith studies, logic, Arabic grammar, and especially jurisprudence (fiqh) for centuries. Given their centrality to the Islamic intellectual tradition, madrasas have attracted a fair share of academic attention in recent years. Scholars have overturned pervasive stereotypes that madrasas are unchanging bastions of unthinking traditions by investigating their varied epistemological and institutional logics and highlighting their capacities for internal criticism and dynamism.4 Some have traced colonial-era movements to introduce modern pedagogies and secular subjects into the madrasa milieu.5 Others have researched how postcolonial madrasas continue to evolve with their changing political circumstances, sometimes choosing to partner with secular developmentalist states and, at other times, fomenting resistance and even rebellion against state power.6 This literature demonstrates that madrasas and other Islamic schools remain, without a doubt, important and vibrant intellectual institutions where students learn to embody and shape their religious tradition. However, they no longer exist as the only—or even the primary—spaces where aspiring Muslim scholars study Islam. In the second half of the twentieth century, Western universities emerged as a viable alternative for Islamic religious education.

Studying Islam in Western universities provides Muslim intellectuals with the resources and opportunities to experiment with cross-discursive forms of knowledge. For example, they adopt historical research methods so that they can reexamine Islam’s formative period in search of new insights into the faith. They learn about competing hermeneutical theories and devise new ways of interpreting the Qurʾan. They study the social sciences in order to better infuse Islamic values into the policy-making process. By merging empirical and normative research, these Muslim intellectuals open up new possibilities for revitalizing Islam in the modern world. However, they also transgress established discursive boundaries and unsettle existing power structures in both the Islamic and Western traditions. The resulting controversies bring a series of fundamental questions to the fore: What exactly constitutes academic versus Islamic knowledge? Are they and should they be distinct intellectual traditions? Which types of scholars belong in which institutional spaces? Who has the power to make such decisions, and with what consequences do they do so?

At its heart, this book tells the story of the contested border between Western academia and modern Islamic thought. While neither absolute nor impenetrable, the border has long been taken for granted. It has existed to separate Muslim intellectuals and the Western academics who study them into two distinct and even rival traditions of inquiry. Yet, by the late twentieth century, the border proved to be so porous that it threatened to collapse altogether.7 Not only were Muslims studying Islam in Western universities, but Western academics were also teaching at Islamic universities and consulting for Muslim governments. Given its increasingly precarious nature, the border has become a hotbed of activism and controversy. Some have worked to hasten its erasure, and others, fearing an invasion, have endeavored to erect a higher wall and marshal new resources to police it. These movements coexist and often feed off of one another in complicated ways. Ultimately, the collapsing border reveals the possibilities—as well as the perils—of building a more integrated intellectual world.


At the turn of the twentieth century, Muslim leaders across the globe despaired over the state of Islamic education. While traditional madrasas had thrived in the Middle East, South Asia, and—to a lesser extent—Southeast Asia for centuries, the intensification of European colonial rule shook Muslims’ confidence in their educational institutions. They feared that madrasas no longer equipped young Muslims with the knowledge and skills they needed to flourish in their rapidly modernizing societies. Given these concerns about intellectual isolation and stagnation, some Muslims began to call for reform. In South Asia, a constellation of education activists—ranging from Deobandi revivalists to the Cambridge-inspired Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–98)—rejected the educational status quo and established their own Islamic schools. In the Arab world, prominent Muslim intellectuals, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97) and Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), petitioned their fellow Muslims to integrate modern sciences, philosophy, and history into Islamic educational institutions. Despite these early efforts, the fears persisted. The next generation of Muslims continued to worry that Islamic education was woefully out of step with the changing times.

Whether they lived in Cairo or Calcutta, Muslim thinkers diagnosed the root of this crisis as an epistemic framework that I term intellectual dualism.8 As a system of classifying knowledge, intellectual dualism rests on the contention that the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions exist as two distinct and largely independent discourses. Dualists therefore partition canonical texts, methodological tools, rules of engagement, and metaphysical presuppositions into either the Islamic or the Western tradition. They also bifurcate claims to truth itself. Qurʾanic revelation and the values according to which Muhammad lived are understood as “Islamic truths,” whereas modern Western philosophy and Newtonian physics are understood as “Western academic” forms of knowledge. This dualist thinking marginalized madrasa-educated Muslims because colonized societies ran according to Western knowledge. After all, European administrators used advances in scientific disciplines to devise new military, transportation, agricultural, and public-health technologies that supported colonial rule. They promulgated European-style law codes and operated courts according to European standards of procedure. They regulated economic transactions on the basis of political and economic theories popular in Europe. The very language of colonial administration was often English, French, or Dutch. If colonized Muslims wanted to succeed, let alone wield influence, in these colonial systems, they needed to master the language—both literal and metaphorical—of European knowledge. In contrast to the great social utility of European knowledge, traditional Islamic education appeared irrelevant for worldly pursuits such as accumulating wealth or attaining justice through the legal system. Consequently, many Muslims feared that dualism, unless checked, would render Islam obsolete in the age of European-style modernity.

Dualism’s dominance over the past several centuries should not be mistaken as evidence that it somehow captures the way knowledge inherently works. While possessing some explanatory power, dualist thinking tends to obscure the rich internal diversity of both the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions.9 It also fails to account for the full extent of their dynamism. As a result, I draw on Alasdair MacIntyre in order to conceptualize intellectual traditions as “essentially historical” in nature.10 MacIntyre explains:

A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined. . . . Debates may on occasion destroy what had been the basis of common fundamental agreement, so that either a tradition divides into two or more warring components, whose adherents are transformed into external critics of each other’s positions, or else the tradition loses all coherence and fails to survive. It can also happen that two traditions, hitherto independent and even antagonistic, can come to recognize certain possibilities of fundamental agreement and reconstitute themselves as a single, more complex debate.11

In other words, traditions are subject to continuous revision, contestation, and even radical change. They can exist in various forms, or not at all, at different moments in time. I apply this same antiessentialist logic to the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions.12 Neither the contours of the two traditions nor the relationship between them is stable. Dualism therefore exists as only one, historically contingent epistemic framework among other viable alternatives.

The history of intellectual dualism is decidedly modern. Although it is possible to find distant precedents in interreligious polemics from late antiquity and the medieval era, recent research points to the nineteenth century as the crucial incubating period.13 It was then, at the height of colonialism, that European scholars took advantage of their increased access to Islamic texts and Muslim societies to build the new academic field of Orientalism. These Orientalists approached Islam as “an all-encompassing, determinant, and unchanging cultural entity” that existed as the antithesis of the modern West.14 This monolithic Islam was despotic, irrational, and drowning in darkness, whereas the West was democratic, rational, and enlightened. While European Orientalists created this civilizational discourse, the essentialist conception did not stay confined to Europe. Rather, it traveled eastward, where it shaped the ways that Muslims approached their own religious tradition. Historian Cemil Aydin argues that many Muslim intellectuals sought “to contest European claims of Muslim inferiority” by reversing Orientalist tropes.15 They characterized Islam as an innately rational and progressive religion capable of competing with Europe. Although positive in nature, these Muslim arguments depended on an equally essentialist, civilizational definition of Islam that ironically “thicken[ed] the racial discourse.”16 By the late nineteenth century, European and Muslim intellectuals had agreed that Islam was a distinct and unified civilization and that it was in perpetual competition with the West. These shared essentialist assumptions enabled dualism to flourish globally.

While undoubtedly an intellectual construct, dualism was never merely an abstract idea; it also structured educational systems, career opportunities, and even social circles in very tangible ways. Nineteenth-century European colonial officials and Christian missionaries, with very few exceptions, built schools that operated independently from the existing Muslim educational systems in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. The languages of instruction were different, as were teacher qualifications and curricular goals. Consequently, Muslim families—whether living in Egypt, India, or Indonesia—faced a stark choice between sending children to modern European-style schools, which provided access to more lucrative professions and powerful social networks, and sending them to a separate system of traditional madrasas that instructed children in Islamic ethics and legal tenets. The existence of these parallel school systems reinforced the explanatory power of intellectual dualism by making the bifurcation of knowledge appear as simple common sense rather than the result of a contingent process. In this sense, dualism was neither natural nor inevitable, but it was, by the late nineteenth century, a reality that shaped the lives of millions of colonized Muslims across the globe. It remains so entrenched in our language and institutions that it is difficult even to write about dualism without reproducing the Islam–West binary.

Upon diagnosing dualism as a serious social ailment, some Muslim intellectuals began prescribing the fusion of the Islamic and Western academic traditions as the best treatment. I call them fusionists, for a convenient shorthand. Fusionists constitute a loose coalition of Western-educated Muslims who reject the dualist bifurcation of knowledge as artificial and instead champion a more unified and universal conception of truth. They strive for commensurability between the two intellectual traditions. According to MacIntyre, such commensurability work “requires a rare gift of empathy as well as of intellectual insight for the protagonists of [one] tradition to be able to understand the theses, arguments, and concepts of their rival.”17 Yet becoming fluent in a second discursive language alone is insufficient; fusionists also must learn to write from within both traditions, “extending each as part of [the] task of integrating them into a single systemic mode of thought.”18 In other words, they must contribute meaningfully to both traditions, even as they weave them together into one coherent and yet enriched design. This ambitious task makes cross-discursive borrowing absolutely indispensable. Fusionists routinely integrate Western academic methods into their normative writings on Islamic reform and likewise infuse Islamic principles and personal faith commitments into their academic research. Indeed, their most important intellectual work occurs at the levels of methodological experimentation and ethical critique. Because they seek to speak simultaneously to Muslim and academic audiences, fusionists transcend the discursive boundary between the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions. A history of fusionist thinking thus helps us see what Nur Amali Ibrahim so aptly calls “hybrid forms of religious practices” and “the hard creative labor that Muslims put in to cope with the continuing hegemony of the West.”19

Fusionism is closely connected to Islamic modernism but is not synonymous with it. As a movement, Islamic modernism is substantially older. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Muslim modernists set their sights on reimagining the Islamic tradition so that Muslims could better meet the demands of their rapidly changing societies. Modernist thinking rests on three pillars. First, modernists insist that Islam, in its pure form, is a rational and progressive religion. Accordingly, they see their work not as reforming Islam itself but rather as removing centuries’ worth of rust to reveal Islam’s original dynamism. Second, they stress the importance of the spirit—Islamic values and social ethics—rather than the letter of the law. This emphasis on principles enables flexibility on particular legal and social matters. Third, modernists criticize the practice of taqlid, or adhering to interpretative precedent within one’s school of law, as little more than “blind obedience” to earlier Islamic scholars. Instead, they advocate ijtihad, or returning directly to the Qurʾan and Sunnah to derive fresh, reason-based interpretations of these source texts. They see ijtihad as the key for preserving Islam’s relevance and vitality in the modern world. Like their modernist forefathers, fusionists share these three commitments. However, they practice their own version of ijtihad that is grounded in Western academic methods and disciplinary frameworks. As this book demonstrates, not all modernists engage in or even accept such cross-discursive ijtihad.

By engaging in fusionist thinking, Muslim intellectuals have contributed new perspectives on two perennial tensions in the Islamic tradition. The first involves the relationship between reason and revelation. Fusionists, like their modernist predecessors, insist that Islam is a rational faith. They repeatedly argue that the Qurʾan enjoins humans to exercise their capacity to reason and reflect on the world around them. Because they see reason as a revelatory imperative, fusionists eagerly embrace Western academic disciplines as modern manifestations of human rationality. They are especially drawn to academic methods that address a second major tension: how to balance Islamic claims to universal truth and the reality of relentless social change. As we will see, some employ historical research methods to trace the contextual manifestations of timeless Islamic principles, such as modesty and justice. Other fusionists study literary hermeneutics to consider new interpretative approaches to the Qurʾan or explore anthropology to theorize about cultural diversity within Islam. Still others embrace political science and economics as crucial tools for translating Islam’s universal principles into effective policies for the contemporary world. Despite these diverse disciplinary interests, fusionists use academic forms of knowledge to imagine an Islam that is both universal in nature and flexible enough to adapt to modern contexts.

In addition to their intellectual contributions, fusionists often wield social and political influence, thanks to their roles as mediators between Western institutions and Muslim communities.20 They are able to speak both discursive languages and therefore translate between the two spheres. At the international level, fusionists apply for and win Fulbright scholarships and participate in similar exchange programs at American, Canadian, and European universities. They sometimes serve as official diplomats or unofficial representatives for Western development organizations such as the Ford Foundation. Taken together, these linkages constitute a transnational scholarly network that provides Muslim thinkers with access to significant financial and institutional resources. Fusionists also mediate between religious and more secular domestic constituencies in Muslim-majority countries. Their commitment to balancing Islamic universality and social change frequently opens access to high-level posts in developmentalist governments. In Pakistan, Oxford graduate and former McGill professor Fazlur Rahman ran the Islamic Research Institute and served as a close advisor to military modernizer Ayub Khan in the 1960s. In Indonesia, members of the so-called McGill mafia staffed General Suharto’s religious bureaucracy for decades. Fusionists use this proximity to political power to craft Islamic policies on a range of important social issues.

Because of their new cross-discursive forms of knowledge and access to political power, fusionist thinkers pose a collective challenge to established models of religious authority that are, for the most part, based on claims to Islamic authenticity.21 Authenticity, of course, is a constructed and highly contested concept. It purports to capture the essence of a desired identity in something that can be embodied or even owned by certain group members. Islamic authenticity typically involves a perceived continuity with the Islamic discursive tradition and especially with its foundational sources, the Qurʾan and the Sunnah. While fusionists insist that their approaches to Islam recapture the rationality and dynamism of the Qurʾan and the Prophet’s life, they often encounter fierce resistance from fellow Muslims who castigate their cross-discursive scholarship as foreign in origin and hence inauthentic. These conflicts can sometimes claim national and even international headlines. After devoting the better part of the 1960s to advising Ayub Khan, Rahman faced mass protests and even threats to his personal safety because of his academic-style writings on Islamic reform. He was forced to resign as director of the Islamic Research Institute and leave Pakistan altogether, taking up a faculty appointment in the United States instead.22 In the 1990s, Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943–2010) gained international notoriety when Cairo University denied him promotion on grounds that his literary-inspired approach to the Qurʾan was un-Islamic. Rather than let the university handle the matter, Islamists seized on the case. They denounced Abu Zayd as an apostate and eventually convinced a court to dissolve his marriage on the basis that he was no longer a Muslim. Abu Zayd and his wife subsequently fled Egypt and went into academic exile in the Netherlands.23 These controversies underscore the extent to which fusionist thinkers disrupt prevailing intellectual norms and raise difficult questions about what constitutes authentic Islamic knowledge, who possesses it, and how exactly modern Muslims should respond to Western intellectual dominance. The recurring and heated debates over these questions have left an indelible imprint on the politics of Islamic education and Muslim religious authority.


1. For one example, see Mujiburrahman, Humor, Perempuan, dan Sufi, 181.

2. Jabali and Jamhari, Modernization of Islam, 20–21.

3. Jabali and Jamhari, Modernization of Islam, 36.

4. For several prominent examples, see Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet; Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought; and Moosa, What Is a Madrasa?

5. For notable scholarship on colonial-era Islamic education, see Metcalf, Islamic Revival; Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt, 63–94; Messick, Calligraphic State; and Zaman, Ulama in Contemporary Islam, 60–86.

6. For research on the postcolonial politics of Islamic education, see Starrett, Putting Islam to Work; Zeghal, “Religion and Politics,” 371–99; Hefner and Zaman, Schooling Islam; Ahmad, Islamism and Democracy, 83–136; and Hefner, Making Modern Muslims.

7. Some other scholars have also noticed this collapse. For example, Michael Feener observes that “for well over a century now, the blending of emic and etic discourses on Islam has been a complex and creative dynamic in Muslim thought”; see “Cross-Cultural Contexts,” 273. And Carool Kersten refers to Western-educated Muslim intellectuals as “working in the interstices between and betwixt cultures and academic traditions”; see Cosmopolitans and Heretics, 1.

8. For previous uses of the term dualism in this context, see Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 58, 62, 96; Hashim, Educational Dualism in Malaysia; and Azyumardi Azra, Dina Afrianty, and Robert W. Hefner, “Pesantren and Madrasa: Muslim Schools and National Ideals in Indonesia,” in Hefner and Zaman, Schooling Islam, 182–91.

9. Talal Asad and Shahab Ahmed have both conceptualized Islam, despite its undeniably diverse and contested existence, as a coherent tradition. I follow their lead. Asad, Idea of an Anthropology of Islam; Ahmed, What Is Islam?, 270–97.

10. MacIntyre, Whose Justice?, 8.

11. MacIntyre, 12.

12. Admittedly, MacIntyre argues that academic philosophy alone houses multiple and competing traditions of inquiry. He would therefore presumably challenge my designation of Western academia as an overarching intellectual tradition. While acknowledging the existence of profound intellectual differences, I argue that academics do share some core principles—among them, a respect for reason-based inquiry, scholarly agency, and individual creativity—and work within the common institutional space of the modern university. This latter fact shapes the material realities of academic life in myriad ways, from access to funding to the tenure and promotion process. These are the tangible markers of academic community, and they largely transcend intellectual and disciplinary commitments. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions.

13. Jung, Orientalists; Laffan, Makings of Indonesian Islam; Purohit, Aga Khan Case; Datla, Language of Secular Islam, 20–55; Aydin, Muslim World.

14. Jung, Orientalists, 7.

15. Aydin, Muslim World, 69.

16. Aydin, 69.

17. MacIntyre, Whose Justice?, 167.

18. MacIntyre, 164.

19. Ibrahim, Improvisational Islam, 8, 11.

20. Gyan Prakash makes a similar argument about Indian elites and their ability to translate between British scientific epistemologies and indigenous Indian forms of knowledge. Prakash, Another Reason.

21. For recent discussions of Islamic authenticity, see Lee, Overcoming Tradition; and Lukens-Bull, Islamic Higher Education, 71–3.

22. Abbas, “Western Academia and Pakistan,” 736–68; Zaman, Islam in Pakistan, 66–74.

23. Hirschkind, “Heresy or Hermeneutics,” 35–50; Najjar, “Islamic Fundamentalism,” 177–200.