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



Like most historians, I am rather suspicious of clean-cut origin stories, and the same holds true for the origins of this book. I can tell its story in many ways, and I’m honestly not sure which is the most accurate. This project might have begun toward the end of my second year in graduate school at Princeton University. I had left a seminar frustrated with our class’ reductionist debate over whether Fazlur Rahman, the late and well-respected professor at the University of Chicago, should be classified as an academic scholar or an Islamic thinker. I determined that I would later revisit the issue with greater nuance and humility. Or perhaps this project began a year earlier, when I noticed in another seminar that three of the most recent chairmen of Muhammadiyah, the largest Muslim modernist organization in Indonesia and arguably the world, possessed doctoral degrees from American universities. I was fascinated by the pattern, but those around the seminar table dismissed it as mere coincidence. It is also possible that the book’s origins stretch back even further to my undergraduate semester studying at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. With the help of the Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies, I had enrolled in several Indonesian history courses at the university. I was excited to be learning Indonesian history alongside Indonesian classmates speaking in Bahasa Indonesia, and yet I was also surprised to discover that my course syllabi were dominated by English-language texts written by American and even Dutch historians—texts that most of my classmates could neither read with any fluency nor easily locate in Yogyakarta bookstores or libraries. I wondered why Indonesian college students learned their nation’s colonial and postcolonial history mostly from Western academic texts. As an American, I could hardly remember ever reading a history of the United States written by a non-American, with the exception of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Regardless of when the seeds were first planted, this book has its roots in questions about the dynamics of Western academic and Islamic religious authority: Who gets to count as an academic scholar of Islam and for what reasons? How have Western universities shaped Islamic politics and modern Islamic thought since the mid-twentieth century? What would a more ethical relationship between Western universities and Muslim intellectuals, whether in Indonesia or elsewhere, even look like?

These motivating questions emerged from two particular aspects of my life. First, I have spent the past two decades struggling with the many manifestations of American exceptionalism and imperialism. I was fifteen years old on September 11, 2001. I vividly recall sitting in my tenth-grade social-studies classroom when a teacher popped her head through the door to tell us to turn on the television because something major was happening. My class watched, live on television, the two World Trade Center towers collapse and reeled when we saw reports that another plane had crashed about an hour away from my Pittsburgh suburb in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. While 9/11 certainly altered my sense of security, it only magnified my youthful, blind patriotism. I donated all my meager savings to memorial funds. I wore red, white, and blue to school for the next month. Over the next few years, however, disillusionment began to creep in. First, there were our catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and then my college history classes on European imperialism, the Cold War, and the modern Middle East. I began to ask myself whether the United States was actually an empire, and if so, then what role did American universities play in maintaining that global dominance. I still believe in the university as a space for critical thinking and intellectual discovery but am also wary that we resemble our British, French, and Dutch colonial predecessors more than we care to admit.

Second, in graduate school I cultivated a respect for faith-driven scholarship. It was a surprising development (even for me) in light of my very secular upbringing. Indeed, beyond a vague notion that my family was Christian because we hunted for pastel-colored eggs and chocolate rabbits on Easter and exchanged presents on Christmas, I had never attended church and knew little about Jesus and the Bible beyond what I had learned in my public high school. Yet it was the academic study of religion that shook my certainty in my secular worldview. Learning about Islamic epistemologies and Muslim virtue ethics helped me to see that my definitions of education and ethics were simply that, mine, and that viable and compelling alternatives existed. In the early stages of researching this book, I was particularly struck by the clarity of intellectual purpose and the ethical commitments that drove Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s and Fazlur Rahman’s work. While I have occasionally experimented with personal religious practice (primarily Islam), I find it difficult to make any sustained jump into a religious tradition, despite a lingering dissatisfaction about where I stand. I remain a decidedly secular historian, albeit one with unabashed religious curiosities.

While this book is concerned with recent history, I am an archival historian by training and believe in the value of contemporaneous documentary records for reconstructing the past. I thus traveled widely in search of institutional and personal documents about the role of the Western university in modern Islamic thought. Specifically, between 2012 and 2016, I visited the National Archives of Indonesia (Jakarta); the Fazlur Rahman Collection at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (Kuala Lumpur); the Wilfred Cantwell Smith Papers at California State University, Northridge (Los Angeles); the Islamic Research Institute (Islamabad, Pakistan); the International Institute of Islamic Thought (Herndon, VA); the McGill University Archives (Montreal); the Princeton University Archives (Princeton, NJ); the Cornell University Archives (Ithaca, NY); the University of Chicago Archives; and, perhaps most importantly, the Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY). Not every archive held materials that were directly related to the book, but all helped me to see the scope of the story I sought to tell. I worked to supplement this archival research with oral-history interviews because they could provide insights into the individual personalities and everyday institutional dynamics that are rarely captured in official documents. Accordingly, I sought out opportunities to conduct interviews with a range of American, Canadian, and Indonesian scholars between 2012 and 2013. These interviews were informal and wide-ranging conversations, which I either recorded digitally or documented through copious note-taking. Because I asked participants to reach far back into their memories to recall what were sometimes mundane university occurrences, the interviews were often more impressionistic than detailed recountings of specific events. I used them mostly to gain a more textured perspective on daily life and to ask for clarification about any perplexing archival finds. I thus rarely cite interviews as the sole source for analysis.

In addition to archival research, I conducted some interviews and observations at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta during a research trip to the Indonesian capital in 2013. Yet because of the nature of my research, I wrestled with whether and how to forge more substantial academic connections in Indonesia. I was acutely aware of both the potential for feedback loops and the privileged, albeit contested, position of Western academics at Indonesian Islamic universities. I decided that it would be prudent to adopt a “first do no harm” approach. As a result, I avoided examining contemporary scholars because my analysis could have an unintended impact on their careers. I also strove to write—especially the conclusion—from a self-consciously Western academic perspective. As the following pages surely attest, I continue to struggle, in both theory and practice, with the ethics of such transnational scholarly networks. It is my hope that this book will spark conversation about these difficult issues so that future scholars can make more thoughtful and confident decisions about why and how we wish to study Islam in our twenty-first-century world.