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.


Fusionism has also fueled debates in Western academic corridors over the very purpose of the post-Enlightenment university. During the nineteenth century, Western universities began to disavow their medieval Christian roots in favor of a secularized, scientific self-image. Specialized research into “isolable problems that could yield answers” largely displaced earlier modes of “large-scale” metaphysical inquiry.24 As a result, theology gradually lost its status as “queen of the sciences,” and disciplinary divisions came to define academic life.25 It was against this broader backdrop that the so-called insider–outsider problem emerged in the new disciplines of anthropology and religious studies. The insider–outsider problem refers to the complex relationship between adherents of a particular cultural or religious group (“insiders”) and their scientific, scholarly observers (“outsiders”). It encompasses a series of interrelated epistemological questions. For starters, is it possible for scholarly outsiders to understand, let alone to analyze, a set of beliefs and practices that they do not share? If it is, then what are the most effective methods for studying the cultures and religions of others? Building on these crucial questions about epistemic access, the insider–outsider problem also compels scholars to weigh the relative authority of insider-versus-outsider modes of knowledge. Should insiders have the power to explain their own culture or religion, or do scholarly outsiders possess the necessary emotional distance from and hence objectivity with which to analyze and even critique?26 While especially pertinent to anthropology and religious studies, these questions reflect larger intellectual and ethical anxieties about the post-Enlightenment university as a whole.

The insider–outsider problem has divided contemporary scholars of religion, especially the theorists among them, into two generally rival camps. In one camp are scholars, such as Bruce Lincoln and Russell T. McCutcheon, who draw a sharp distinction between insider and outsider forms of knowledge.27 They see theological insiders and religious-studies outsiders as “utterly different” because, in contrast to the former’s interest in universal and transcendent truths, religious studies functions primarily as a historical discipline.28 In Lincoln’s words, scholars of religious studies should “insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, communities, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.”29 Proponents of this approach characterize theologians as data, not colleagues, and see themselves as “critics, not caretakers,” of religious traditions.30 They are, in many ways, dualists. In the other camp are scholars, such as Robert Orsi, who endow insider accounts with an authority that complements and even counterbalances outsider knowledge. They invite insider voices into the seminar room in an effort to enrich scholarly conversations and challenge academic assumptions. As Orsi writes, “[This] way of approaching religion . . . is meant to eliminate the comfort of academic distance and to undermine the confidence and authority of the claims ‘we are not them’ and ‘they are not us.’31 This position stands in direct opposition to the dualist aspirations of the first camp.

The insider–outsider problem arrived comparatively late to Islamic studies, where it took on a particularly postcolonial hue.32 This delay dovetails with the field’s demographic history. Unlike their Jewish and Christian counterparts, who had deep roots in the Western academy, Muslim intellectuals had been direct and sometimes indirect subjects of European empires and therefore had few opportunities to pursue Western-style higher education and fewer chances still to secure faculty positions at European or North American universities. They remained a relative anomaly until the mid-twentieth century. These demographic patterns began to shift in the wake of decolonization. Starting in the 1950s, newly independent Muslim governments in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere helped to finance Muslim scholars who aspired to Western graduate study. At the same time, Palestinian exiles and Muslim dissidents from various repressive regimes looked to Western higher education as a way to remake their lives and achieve some degree of stability. Not all these Muslims became fusionists, but their growing presence in Western universities forced the academy to confront difficult questions about the state of Islamic studies as a field. Inevitably, these questions were never only about personal religious commitments; they were always intertwined with colonial and postcolonial power dynamics.33

Debates over the insider–outsider problem in Islamic studies have coalesced around two specific moments. The first began in the late 1970s with the publication of Orientalism (1978). In his landmark book, Edward Said criticized the Western academic study of Islam as an imperialist discourse reliant on racialized tropes about Muslims’ inferiority and their irredeemable otherness.34 By exposing European and American scholars as custodians of a racist and colonizing discipline, Said helped usher in the age of postcolonial theory. However, he denied any ambition to elevate Muslim (or Arab) insiders over scholarly outsiders, writing, “It is not the thesis of this book to suggest that there is such a thing as a real or true Orient (Islam, Arab, or whatever); nor is it to make an assertion about the necessary privilege of an ‘insider’ perspective over an ‘outsider’ one.”35 Despite this clear declaration of intent, some of Said’s harshest critics read his argument as a straightforward pro-insider polemic. Bernard Lewis, for example, caricatured Said’s critique as akin to suggesting that only Greeks should study classics. He dismissed the position as both “absurd” and “alarming.”36 Other scholars took a more nuanced perspective on the simmering insider–outsider tensions. In the early 1980s, Richard C. Martin invited colleagues to consider what the growing numbers of “Muslims in the classroom on both sides of the lectern” might mean for the field’s future.37 He solicited essays from both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars for his book Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies (1985). Although the exchanges were often acrimonious, Said’s book compelled a postcolonial reckoning with disciplinary methods and values in Islamic studies.

The second moment unfolded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The surging public interest in and fear of Islam conferred a new political salience on the field in the early 2000s. Academic scholars of Islam appeared on cable-news shows and wrote popular-press primers on the Qurʾan, Muhammad, and the contemporary Middle East. In this charged political climate, Aaron W. Hughes devoted substantial energy to “provoking” renewed debate over the insider–outsider problem in Islamic studies.38 Hughes’s multiple essays and books argue that, in an effort to defend Islam against malicious attacks, too many academics resort to essentialist apologetics that paint Islam as an inherently peaceful and pluralist religion. Building on Lincoln and McCutcheon’s work, he dismisses this brand of scholarship as deeply theological in nature and hence beyond the proper academic scope of religious studies. Hughes reserves his harshest criticisms for Muslim intellectuals who practice what I call fusionism and what he calls “liberal Muslim theologizing.”39 Unsurprisingly, more than a few scholars have challenged Hughes’s negative assessment of the field.40 Because this book’s conclusion addresses Hughes and his allies in greater depth, it will suffice here to state that the insider–outsider problem possesses a particular resonance in our post-9/11 era.

Rather than jump headlong into these debates, this book has a different set of aspirations. I trace the history of insider–outsider politics in Islamic studies as a window into the field’s discursive norms and authority structures. At the center of this history is, undoubtedly, the ideal of objectivity. Interestingly, academic claims to objectivity generally run parallel to Muslim claims to authenticity. Objectivity, too, is a constructed and highly contested concept. It purports to demarcate scientific, universal knowledge from its subjective, culturally specific imitations. Consequently, the concept of objectivity functions as a potent source of academic authority. Academic scholars frequently make explicit and implicit claims to objectivity in order to garner greater legitimacy and respect within the Western academy. They—or, to break from the objective, third-person posture for a moment, “we”—also criticize scholarly opponents as insufficiently objective, thereby casting them as less-authoritative members of the university community. Fusionists have been lightning rods for objectivity-related conflicts. Critics question the legitimacy of their commensurability work and suggest instead that Islamic religious commitments render fusionists questionable academics at best and beyond the pale of the academy at worst. These conflicts help reveal the often hidden processes behind who gets to count as an “academic” and who does not in Islamic studies. They also hint at submerged and yet substantive alternatives for how to navigate insider–outsider politics in the field.

This book also shines a light on the extent to which so-called academic “outsiders” have become entangled, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in “insider” projects of Islamic reform. As Said demonstrated, Western academics have long possessed cultural, religious, and political presuppositions about Islam that translated into essentialist and disparaging scholarship on Muslim societies. Yet Wael Hallaq argues that Said’s focus on Orientalism’s representational injustices has led many to overlook the “performative” power—that is, “the remolding, refashioning, and, in short, re-creation of [Muslim] subjectivities”—associated with the Western academic study of Islam.41 As we will see, Orientalists and their social-scientific counterparts have shaped modern Islamic thought in myriad ways. Countless academic publications have been read, translated, and selectively appropriated by Muslim intellectuals who engage with these works as part of their own religio-political agendas. Prominent professors, such as H.A.R. Gibb, took these interconnections a step further and actively cultivated relationships with Muslim activists, sometimes writing across thousands of miles to offer words of encouragement and advice for reformist endeavors. Some, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Leonard Binder, recruited promising Muslim intellectuals to study Islam at Western universities and then served as their teachers and mentors, and others regularly consulted on Islam-related policies for Western governments and development organizations. Ultimately, Western academics have rarely, if ever, been neutral observers of modern Islamic thought; they are instead active participants in American foreign policy and in Muslim movements to reform Islam. These activities blur the distinction between academic “outsiders” and Muslim “insiders” to the point of nearly erasing it altogether.


While fusionist thinking destabilizes discursive norms in both the Islamic and Western academic traditions, its story cannot be confined to intellectual history alone. On the contrary, the history of fusionism intersects at multiple points with colonial and postcolonial geopolitics. It was, after all, the experience of Dutch colonialism that precipitated the dualist crisis at the turn of the twentieth century, and it was amid the Indonesian nationalist movement that Muslim intellectuals began to dismantle dualist structures and thinking. This relationship between ideas and political context is notoriously difficult to define. In recent years, some scholars have stressed the (near) hegemony of Western liberalism and its wide-ranging power to remake Muslim societies according to its own categories and metrics.42 Others recognize these global power dynamics but emphasize the creative agency and intellectual flexibility Muslims exhibit in navigating our complex world.43 This book seeks to balance the two positions. On the one hand, I trace how Cold War politics shaped Western academic frameworks and dictated the material resources available to Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. I also examine how Indonesian politics empowered some Muslim intellectuals and closed the door on others. Power dynamics certainly circumscribe possibilities. On the other hand, fusionists often respond to global politics and institutional dynamics in unexpected ways. They frequently appropriate academic methods and arguments for projects that would make their Western colleagues rather uncomfortable. Some study and teach at Western universities only later to speak out against their experiences and lead Muslim resistance to Western academic encroachment. As a result, I argue that this brand of soft power is more diffuse and unpredictable than both its policy advocates and scholarly critics often care to admit. It is perhaps for these very reasons that soft power has had such a pervasive and enduring impact on Indonesian Islam.

In the second half of the twentieth century, fusionist thinking became especially intertwined with Cold War development politics.44 Modernizing military regimes in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere staked their political legitimacy on calls for Western-style development. They pursued economic policies designed to increase agricultural production and strengthen the urban middle class and pushed social programs such as increased access to education and family planning. Many fusionists were attracted to this rationalist and pragmatic model of governance. They also possessed a similarly friendly disposition toward the West. The resulting fusionist alliances with modernizing military regimes bolstered their authority as religious bureaucrats and favored public intellectuals. Fusionists used their positions of influence to spread their thinking and push for reforms to Islamic educational, legal, and social policies. In Indonesia, Suharto’s New Order state often implemented fusionist ideas that balanced Islam and development. Yet this pro-development posture also had negative repercussions for fusionist thinkers. Traditionalist and especially Islamist opponents criticized fusionists’ penchant for authoritarian allies and their willingness to compromise Islamic values for the sake of some Western-inspired definition of development. Oftentimes fusionists were derided as sellouts. These attacks highlight that political power in Muslim-majority countries did not always—or usually—translate into robust claims to Islamic authenticity or religious authority.

Cold War development politics also helped to open space for fusionist thinking on the Western academic side of the border. Beginning in the 1950s, Western governments recruited academics to help fight the Cold War in Muslim societies. They encouraged research on modern Muslim politics, in particular, because it could be used to inform the policy-making process. The political attention produced a boom in Islamic studies. A handful of scholars—such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith at McGill University—used this opportunity to build relationships with Muslim reformers and to nurture the first generation of fusionist thinkers. By the mid-1960s, social scientists began to insert modernization theory into the conversation. As the dominant social-scientific paradigm of the period, modernization theory rested on a Western liberal foundation that encouraged scholars to evaluate other cultures on the basis of their similarity to or difference from postwar America. Many social scientists working on the Middle East concluded that Islam, in all its perceived difference, was an obstacle impeding modernization. They came to believe that Islam required its own Protestant-style reformation. As a result, social scientists started to speak openly about Qurʾanic hermeneutics and other topics related to Islamic religious reform. In these ways, the Cold War–era development discourse both spurred Muslim intellectual interest in Western academic disciplines and encouraged Western academic engagement with Islamic reform.

If the development discourse fueled the entanglement of Western universities and modern Islamic thought in the twentieth century, then international aid organizations acted as a collective accelerant. Private philanthropic foundations such as Rockefeller and Ford donated millions of dollars to both academic programs in Islamic studies and major development initiatives in Muslim-majority countries.45 They funded research-related travel for individual Western academics, financed graduate study at Western universities for promising Muslim scholars, and issued grants to emerging fusionist centers, such as the Islamic Research Institute in Pakistan and the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Indonesia. These private foundations also worked closely with governmental agencies such as the United States Agency for Inter national Development (USAID) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to build a pro-development cohort of Western-educated Muslims. Given their financial resources and political influence, these aid organizations acted as powerful mediators that were able to forge connections between Western academics and Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia and beyond.

Western fears about Islamism added a new dimension to Cold War development politics. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution and the resulting hostage crisis persuaded many Americans that Islam could be nearly as dangerous as communism. The assassination of Anwar Sadat by radical Islamists in 1981 only seemed to confirm these fears. While expedient foreign-policy exceptions were made for the Afghan mujahedeen, the Pakistani regime of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, and the Saudi royal family, the cultural tide was shifting.46 The perceived Islamist threat garnered increasing attention from Western governments, aid organizations, and academic scholars. Together, they conducted research on the relationship among Islam, development, and democracy and worked to empower newly designated “moderate” Muslims through exchange programs and targeted development assistance. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror intensified these collaborations among American foreign-policy makers, development organizations, Western universities, and fusionist Muslim intellectuals in significant ways. As Saba Mahmood astutely observes, “The United States . . . embarked upon an ambitious theological campaign aimed at shaping the sensibilities of ordinary Muslims whom the State Department deems to be too dangerously inclined toward fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.”47 This political climate made fusionist thinkers into a favored tool of American soft power yet again. However, I suggest that it is too early to write this unfolding twenty-first-century history. Archives in Indonesia, the United States, and Canada are generally closed for the post-9/11 era. Moreover, scholars’ careers are still evolving and hence on the line. Instead of wading into these waters without sufficient archival evidence, this book focuses on the twentieth-century roots of what Mahmood terms “the politics of Islamic reformation.” After all, the border between Western academia and modern Islamic thought was already collapsing well before 9/11.


To understand the history of any border necessitates investigating both sides of the line. Accordingly, the following chapters weave together into one unified history the seemingly disparate tales of traveling Indonesian Muslims, the Western universities that hosted them, and the state ministries where they worked. To begin, chapter 1 locates Indonesian Muslims as part of a global movement to bridge the gulf between the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions. As the Indonesian Revolution gathered momentum in the 1940s, Muslims of diverse persuasions banded together to establish the Islamic College (later known as the State Islamic Institute [IAIN]) as an institution that would reject dualism and instead equip Muslim students with both Islamic and Western academic forms of knowledge. The vision struck a chord with Indonesian Muslims, and the Islamic College quickly expanded into a nationwide network. Despite these outward signs of success, the original consensus to combat dualism was superficial. Cracks soon began to appear in the governing coalition. This chapter focuses on two particularly prominent Indonesian Islamic thinkers, Mahmud Yunus and Mohammad Natsir, who played critical roles in designing and then running IAIN. I investigate the ways the two scholar-activists cited, criticized, and appropriated Western scholarship in their efforts to construct a distinctly modern form of Islamic thought. Both Yunus and Natsir were committed to overcoming dualism, but they offered two different and perhaps irreconcilable visions for how to accomplish that goal. Compounding these intellectual disagreements were the severe resource shortages and rising intra-Muslim partisanship across the IAIN system in the 1960s. While the mission to integrate Western and Islamic modes of knowledge managed to survive these challenges, the fissures were harbingers of larger conflicts to come.

Shifting to the distinctly different space of the North American academy, chapter 2 tells the story of several Indonesian Muslims who traveled to McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies to study and teach Islam. Wilfred Cantwell Smith founded the institute in 1951 to facilitate sustained encounters between Western academics and Muslim intellectuals. He hoped that researching and learning together would encourage McGill’s diverse scholars to engage in deep interreligious dialogue and to experiment with new research methods for the sake of greater cross-discursive understanding. Smith believed that this fusionist model would revolutionize both Western academic and Muslim approaches to Islam. Several prominent Muslim scholars, including Fazlur Rahman, of Pakistan, and Mukti Ali and Harun Nasution, both of Indonesia, took advantage of McGill’s unique intellectual environment to conduct their own fusionist experiments. This commensurability work proved to be exceedingly difficult. In addition to the substantial challenges involved with integrating two intellectual traditions, established Western scholars used the ideal of objectivity as a means to exclude Muslim fusionists from the academic guild. As a result of these objectivity politics, McGill’s brand of fusionism gained little traction in Islamic studies, but its model for cross-discursive research did leave a lasting imprint on the many Muslims who passed through the gates of the Montreal campus.

Chapter 3, in turn, follows three influential McGill alumni—Ali, Nasution, and Mohamad Rasjidi—back to Indonesia and examines their efforts in the 1970s to reimagine Muslim politics and reform higher Islamic education. At the start of the decade, Ali and Nasution forged mutually beneficial partnerships with Suharto’s developmentalist state and subsequently received appointments as minister of religious affairs and rector of IAIN Jakarta, respectively. They used these powerful positions to spread fusionist thinking. At the ministry, Ali created new opportunities to train Muslims in Western academic methods and forged a transnational scholarly network that connected Indonesian Muslims to Western universities. At IAIN Jakarta, Nasution redesigned the undergraduate curriculum to include more Western-style disciplines and wrote popular fusionist textbooks. Ali’s and Nasution’s high-profile work attracted resistance from fellow Muslims. Drawing on his own bitter experiences at McGill, Rasjidi emerged as a particularly outspoken opponent of fusionism. He publicly criticized Nasution for adopting Western academic frameworks that, in his eyes, misrepresented Islam to impressionable Muslim college students. He assailed Western academic credentials as inauthentic and as a neoimperial threat to Islam. Despite this vocal opposition, Western-educated Muslims were able to institutionalize their fusionist visions, thanks to the support of Suharto and Western developmentalist allies.

Chapter 4 chronicles the experiences of a second generation of Indonesian scholars who studied Islam at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s under professors Leonard Binder and Fazlur Rahman. At first glance, Binder and Rahman seem like an odd pair. Binder, a political scientist, was an avid proponent of modernization theory, whereas Rahman was a historian of the Islamic tradition and a prominent Islamic activist in Pakistan. Nevertheless, they collaborated for nearly a decade on a major Ford Foundation–sponsored project titled “Islam and Social Change.” The multicountry project combined the social sciences and modern Islamic thought in order to create what Binder and Rahman saw as an authentic Islamic model of development. It also opened up a surprising space for Muslim theological reflection and fusionist research at Chicago. Indonesian graduate students Amien Rais, Nurcholish Madjid, and Ahmad Syafii Maarif capitalized on this space to reconsider the relationship between Islam and development and apply their new ideas to the evolving political landscape back in Indonesia. Together, Chicago faculty members and students demonstrated how porous the purported wall between “normative” Islamic thought and “empirical” social-scientific research and between Muslim “insiders” and academic “outsiders” actually was.

After returning to Indonesia in the early 1980s, the three Chicago alumni quickly ascended the ranks of Indonesian Islamic leadership. Rais and Maarif were elected as consecutive national chairmen of Muhammadiyah, and Madjid’s work as a Muslim public intellectual made his into a household name across the country. Chapter 5 traces their meteoric careers to show that Western-educated Muslims wielded unprecedented authority in the 1990s, but they also faced mounting anti-fusionist criticisms. Muslim opponents, following Rasjidi’s example, castigated fusionist thinking as overly Westernized and hence inauthentic, and postcolonial theorists within Western universities attacked the academy as mired in Western cultural presuppositions and imperialist politics. Indonesian fusionists responded to these concerns about epistemological imperialism with new philosophies of cross-discursive engagement. I analyze Rais, Madjid, and Muhammadiyah activist Amin Abdullah’s writings to highlight the depth and diversity of these fusionist responses. Still, they were not able to persuade everyone. Many Islamist opponents doubled down on criticisms that Western academics were not neutral scholars but rather situated actors whose ties to Western governments and development agencies rendered them little more than agents of American soft power. While Western-educated Muslims were able to survive and even thrive amid this rising wave of suspicions, the specter of academic imperialism continued to haunt the fusionist project at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Taking a step back from the historical narrative, the book’s conclusion reflects on the present and future of Islamic studies as a field. Given the entanglement between Western universities and modern Islamic thought, how should we conceptualize the purpose of academic scholarship on Islam? What are the ethics of conducting research in such an intertwined world? In search of potential answers, I draw from religious studies and postcolonial theory to first identify three possible responses and then evaluate their relative strengths and limitations in the hope that, collectively, they might help us navigate our increasingly integrated and yet bitterly divided world.


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.

24. Roberts and Turner, Sacred and the Secular, 11.

25. Roberts and Turner, 43–106; Marsden, Soul of the American University.

26. For an introduction to the insider–outsider problem, see McCutcheon, Insider/Outsider Problem.

27. Other notable advocates of this position include Jonathan Z. Smith and Donald Wiebe.

28. McCutcheon, “Study of Religion,” 14.

29. Lincoln, Gods and Demons, 1.

30. McCutcheon, Critics Not Caretakers.

31. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 7.

32. For other comments on the relative isolation of Islamic studies from wider trends in religious studies, see Adams, “History of Religions,” 177–93; and Richard C. Martin, “Islam and Religious Studies: An Introductory Essay,” in Approaches to Islam, 1–18.

33. The insider–outsider problem has also impacted the study of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Native American religions in distinctly postcolonial ways. Patton, Who Owns Religion?

34. Said, Orientalism. The late 1970s also saw Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s publication of Hagarism, a revisionist history of Islam’s origins that brazenly declared itself “a book written by infidels for infidels.” The book—and that quote in particular—produced its own heated discussion about insider–outsider politics in the field. Crone and Cook, Hagarism, vii–viii.

35. Said, Orientalism, 322.

36. Lewis, “Question of Orientalism,” 49–56.

37. Martin, “Islam and Religious Studies,” 9.

38. Hughes, Situating Islam; Hughes, “Study of Islam,” 314–36; Hughes, Theorizing Islam; Hughes, Islam.

39. Hughes, Theorizing Islam, 5.

40. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion devoted an entire 2012 issue (vol. 24) to Hughes’s provocation and several scholarly responses. Internet-based discussions include Safi, “Reflections,” and a series of 2014 posts in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog at

41. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism, 101. For more discussion of Hallaq, see this book’s conclusion.

42. Hallaq, Impossible State; Hallaq, Restating Orientalism; Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire,” 323–47; Mahmood, Religious Difference.

43. Ahmad, Islamism and Democracy; Rudnyckyj, Spiritual Economies; Ibrahim, Improvisational Islam.

44. Recent books on twenty-first-century intersections between religion and development include Fountain, Bush, and Feener, Religion; Clarke and Halafoff, Religion; and Scheer, Fountain, and Feener, Mission of Development.

45. For detailed studies of Cold War–era foundations, see Berman, Influence; and Parmar, Foundations.

46. Mahmood Mamdani offers some trenchant analysis of how the U.S. government distinguished between “good” and “bad” Muslims during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.

47. Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire,” 329.