Islam in a Democratic State: A Lifelong Search

Oleh: KH. Abdurrahman Wahid

There is a verse in the Koran: “Enter perfectly in Islam (by obeying all the rules and regulations of the religion)” (udkhulu fi al-silmikaffah, al-Baqarah (2): 128). Herein lies a fundamental point of contention among Muslims. if one translates the words “al-silmi” into ‘Islam’, it follows that there has to be a formal Islamic entity, or the necessity of creating an Islamic political system. Meanwhile, those who translate the words into ‘peace’ point the way to a universal entity, which need not manifest itself in any particular polity, including an “Islamic” one.

Those who are bent on formalization of the religion will interpret al-silmi as inherently Islamic, thus committing themselves to a system regarded as representing the “wholeness” of the teachings of Islam in life. This implies the necessity for a system that truly represents the aspirations of all Muslims. It is understandable why some would consider Islamic political parties as a-priori in politics. Of course, democracy has taught people in Indonesia to respect the existence of Islamic political parties, but that does not mean people have to follow them.

Similarly, under a democracy one must still respect the rights of those who question the need for such an Islamic system, which would automatically set up non-Muslims as “the other”. This would mean that, in the context of a nation-state, the implementation of an Islamic system would subordinate non-Muslims under Muslim citizens, in effect making them second-class citizens. Any discussion on this subject are useful, because they affect the “nominal” Muslims, those who are perceived not to have fully applied the teachings of Islam in their daily lives. This segment of Muslims–often called the ‘abangan’–are often deemed “un-Islamic” by members of Islamic parties or organizations, the santri, who claim to live fully in line with the principles of their religion.

If an Islamic system is a must, why then is there a disorganized array of rules in the Koran that every Muslim should adhere to? The norms about being a ‘good Muslim’, as mentioned in the Koran, are to wholly accept the teachings of Islam; help those in need (one’s kin, orphans, the poor), uphold one’s professionalism, and to be patient in trying times.

If by adhering to these santri ideas, one is considered a faithful Muslim, then there should not be any need for an Islamic system to enforce them. This has been a very crucial point of contention among Muslims, especially since many Islamic beliefs have emerged in many places that no longer emphasize the need to build such a system.

Thus, when the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)–the “awakened ones” in English, declared the founding of the National Awakening Party (PKB), without declaring the political body an Islamic party, this author came under merciless criticism for months. These people did not realize that the NU, since the beginning, had accepted religious pluralism as a way toward nation-building.

A long time ago, at the 1935 NU Conference in Banjarmasin, attendees had to answer a question: Is it a must for Muslims to defend the land of Indonesia, or the Netherland Indies as it was called at that time, which was governed by non-Muslim Dutch colonialists? The conference came up with an answer: Yes, it is a must. It was a must then, because within the boundaries of that colonial territory, the teachings of Islam could not be practiced freely by the people in their daily lives. The answer was also yes, because of the evidence–indeed the tradition–of Islamic kingdoms within that territory. Thus, a new Islamic system would not be necessary, and one should respect the differences of ways, and opinions, among Muslims in that land.


The Banjarmasin line of reasoning made it possible for the NU leadership to support president Soekarno and vice president Hatta to lead the nation. Thus, the creation of formal, political Islamic bodies was not the only way in the struggle to uphold Islam in this country. This viewpoint lasted well into Suharto’s New Order era. Officially an Islamic people’s organization and not a political party, the NU could channel its Muslim aspirations through the secular Golongan Karya (Golkar Party).

The differences along this path “of struggle”–between those who believed in Islam as a political system on the one hand, and those who did not wish to carry out the struggle to formalize an Islamic polity on the other–were familiar and accepted by the followers of Ibn Taimiyah several centuries ago. This idea is best summed up in the famous Muslim adage: “There is no religion without a group, no group without leader, and no leader without compliance” (la dinailla bi jama’ah, wa la jama’atailla bi imamah, wa la imamatailla bi tha’ah).  Did this phrase not show the need for such a system? In truth, there is nothing in that adage that specifically says anything about the need for an Islamic system. All systems were recognized under the principle, as long as they ensured the application of Islamic teachings in the life of the nation-state.

Thus, this author is of the opinion that an Islamic paradigm does not necessitate an Islamic system. This is important to remember, because until this day, there are those who continue to strive to include the Jakarta Charter in the nation’s Constitution. Since the Indonesian democracy was founded by rule of law and equality before the law, then those who push to establish Indonesia as an Islamic state are clearly against the country’s democratic ideals.

The santri (the literal meaning of the term is “students”) are sure that the power to punish and to reward one’s actions is held in the Hands of Allah. An adage found in the Koran and also expressed in the Hadith says: “To reward and to punish is the nature of Allah” (yutsibuwayu’adzibu man yasya’).

To what extent does the state play a role in handing down punishments to wrongdoers? Could the state in the name of Allah give worldly punishments? Is man freed from the fires of Hell, if he has been punished by the state? If yes, then is there duplication between the state as the image of Allah on earth, and the power of Allah Himself to deal out punishment. Would not this duplication go against the Prophet’s hadith: “Idra’ al-hududbisu-syubuhat/do not implement the hadd law when the issue is not clear).” It was understood from this hadith that in a court of law, a judge should not rule for the death penalty if he is doubtful whether the defendant is truly guilty as charged. It is also clear that there is a limit to the power of the state, while the Power of Allah is unlimited.

From that simple reasoning, one can draw a conclusion that no state should be named an Islamic state, not without taking away its necessary obligations to its citizens. Even in basic matters of punishment and reward answer will end up with the wrong conceptions about the relationship between religion and state. it is vital we reflect seriously and deeply on any calls to create a theocratic Islamic state, especially in a multicultural and diverse nation such as ours.


Serious intellectual endeavor is needed to outline the relations between a state and a religion, if we wish to safeguard the existence of our diverse nation. If we prematurely voice the necessity to found an Islamic state, with no clear concept about what this means, this would be a reckless and irresponsible undertaking. Even more so, if the proponents are found to have another agenda for advocating theocracy, such as the desire for Islamic parties to gain power because they regard the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) as their political “defeat” on the national stage.

The idea of federalism, which set the NKRI concept against the aspirations of the provinces to be more independent from the central government, could be seen as a separatist demand. Yet all the provinces wanted was more budget revenue and the power to make decisions on a regional level. Thus, what they desired was actually a federal “function” of government, instead of the literal partitioning of Indonesia into seven federal republics.

The best way to find out if the pro-federals–those diametrically opposed to the NKRI–are really a minority in Indonesia is through the ballot, through a general election. The last major elections, monitored and certified by international observers, came out with the majority of political parties demanding the streamlining of central government power, and more autonomy for local houses of representatives (DPRDs)–not the central government–to appoint heads of local government and to determine their own budget revenue and spending.


The proponents of federalism had to explain to people that their idea was not intended to shatter the Republic of Indonesia into smaller sovereign states. Unitary states such as Japan and France give full autonomy to their provinces-states to hold regional elections and to determine their budgets. Local governments even run their own police departments. Thus the independence of regions from central government does not necessarily mean the demise of unitary state–it instead is meant to accommodate and channel federal aspirations. In short, a “federative” state is not the same as a federal one.

The dearth of such a line of reasoning has created major misunderstandings among political parties. On the one hand, we have those who defend the NKRI and resist federal ideas; on the other we have supporters of federalism with deep suspicions of the workings of the NKRI. Both sides have legitimate claims and interests. The suspicions between the two camps are tragic to say the least. The NKRI proponents are painted by their opposition as nationalists and the federal state advocates as Islamists by their opponents. Symbolic politics often get in the way of real dialog, when it is quite possible both sides could agree on a one state with federal characteristics, with independence for the regions, as earlier mentioned.


The disparity between theory and practice has long existed and will continue as history unfolds. Sometimes the gaps are yawning, at others, they are narrow. When communist and “people”, they talked theoretically of defending the interest of the common asses; yet in practice this idea protected the interest of apparatchiks. The lesson from communism is clear; we have to be careful when formulating an Islamic ideological system; else we crumble as communism did.

Historically, Islam system have been essentially about the interest of the common people and all their problems, couched in term ‘maslahah ammah’, or “public welfare”. This should be grand objective of all government undertaking. The concept is encapsulated in a fiqih adage: ‘The action/policy of a leader over the people he leads should depend wholly on their needs/wellbeing (thassarof al-imam ala al-raiyyah marbuthum bi al-maslahah).

Acting for the public interest is also summed upu in another maxim: “Avoiding harm or loss must take precendence over seeking benefits (dar’u al-mafasid muqoddam ‘ala jalbi al-mashalih). The same wisdom was applied by Dr. Amien Rais to persuade this author to accept the precidential candidacy some year ago. At the time, Mr. Rais was convinced that the nation could not yet accept a women president (Megawati), whom he believed would lead the country into a civil war.


Arrangements for public welfare, safety and integrity have long been the foundations for Islamic movements in Indonesia. The best example of this is the removal of the Jakarta Charter from Constitution in 1945. Leaders of major Islamic movements agreed to remove the charter on 18 August of that year, so that our nation –so heterogeneous in its origins- could unite within the one Republic of Indonesia. The position held by Ki Bagus Hadikusumo and K.H.A. Kahar Mudzakir from Muhammadiyah, Abi Kusno Cokrosuroyoso from Sarekat Islam, A. Rahman Baswedan from the Partai Arab-Indonesia (PAI), A. Subarjo from Masyumi, H. Agus Salim and Wahid Hasyim from Nahdlatul Ulama’ (NU), clearly showed Indonesian unity at its best. That the fiqh ulamas did not speak against the removal of the charter indicated that unity in the ummah, or the Islamic community, was highly regarded at the time.

Thus, the notion that Islam is based on formalism alone was rejected. The infusion of several local cultures into the Islamic mainstream also indicates the strong role of tradition in the development of Islam here. An example of this beautiful interaction is the Seudati dance beautifully written about by James Siegel, in The Rope of God, which ixeds traditional Acehnese culture with Sufism. The traditional Islamic song Lir-ilir by Sunan Ampel is also an example of such a mixture.

Another example is the form of santri (student) culture in the Tabot tradition of West Sumatera and Bengkulu. Here Shia religious expressions have become a local custom in the face of the mainstream Islamic Sunni culture. The translation of “budaya adat” (custom) into religious expressions showed the magnitude of the cultural dynamics that took place at this formative time.


Another challenge for Muslims these is written in the Koran: “Verily in messenger of Allah you have a good example, for he looked unto Allah and to the Last Day, and remembered Allah much” (laqad kana lakum fi rasullilalahi uswatun hasanatun li man kana yaju Allahu wa al-yauma al-khaira wa dzakara Allaha katsira, al-Ahzab [33]: 21). This general statement remainds Muslims of their many duties as the followers of God’s messenger.

This idea should encourage Islamic movements to participate in the development of nations, rather than to put formal religious teachings first, because development has greater public unity. If Islam could exist as an example, but without being structurally included in the fabric of the state, then it would be a huge source of inspiration for political Islamic movements in this country.

That basic notion, echoed in other religions, inspired the bird of religions, inspired the birth of religious-based political parties in other countries such as the Christian Democratic Unon (CDU) in Germany. It lies in the belief that religion should have a clear purpose in everyday life, rather than a formal, structural role. This belief has also governed the behavior of Islamic movements in this country for many years.


The growth of Islam everywhere has shown the connection between two ideas; the role of the individual and the society. These two aspects must be properly comprehended if one wishes to understand more about Islam. If such an understanding is reached, then we will see several possibilities for further development in the religion. Certainly, there are those who object to this split, who say that Islam is already perfect and needs no further development. The truth in such a claim, however, must be thoroughly examined.

The Koran never clearly divides these two aspects, the individual and the social. In the Koran, the rules for individual, the khittah, also gevern the society. Everything, therefore, depends on the interpretation. For example, one Koranic verse read: “And (God) made you int the nations and tribes, that you may know one another” (wa ja’alnakum syu’uban wa qabaila li ta’arrafu, al-Hujurat [493]. This verse clearly refers to the whole of mankind, and expresses the unwritten desaire for a brotherhood of man.

Another important verse in the Koran says: “Many (other) women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then take only (one) or (the captives) that your right hand can prossess.” (fankihu ma thaba lakum min an-nisai matsna, wa tsulasa wa ruba’, wa in khiftum an la ta’dilu fa wahidah, an-Nisa’ [4]: 3). This verse was written in a time of war, when many women were widowed and was advice, not an imperative. It was also issued to individuals, not to a society as whole.


One’s ability to distinguish between the individual and the society has a very important role in Islam. One principal adage, often referred to in the NU, was: “Keep the good from the past, and use only the better things of the newa era. (al-muhfadzah ‘ala al-qadimi al-shalih wa al-akhdu bi al-jadid al-ashlahI).”

Sometimes, religious duties have both individual and collective aspect s that many Muslims are often unware of, such as fasting, which originally was solely the preserve of the individual. Allah told the Prophet: “Observing the fasting month is prescribed for those before you” (kutiba ‘alaikum asy-shiyam kama kutiba ‘ala-lladzina min qablikum, al-Baqarah [21]: 183). At first it was menant for individuals, as a choice, yet ultimately it was applied to all Muslims in the Islamic fasting month of Ramadhan.

The adge: “Finding knowledge from the cradle to the grave (uthlub al-ilma min al-mahdi ila al-lahdiI) raises a question. Learning is indeed a noble thing to do, but is it the duty of a Muslim individual or the society? If this is taken as a collective obligation, whwn what about those who do not, or are not able, to go to school? Are they the guilty ones?

Muslims do not necessarily agree about any “obligation” in the religion for them to go to school. But then, without this agreement, do not people have a right to get education? Is this a universal obligation or a local one? Then there is expression: “Loving your country is a part (a sign) of faith (hubbu al-wathan min al-iman). Does this mean one must join the military and fight fortheir country? Surely, we need a thoughtful, rational explanation that is gained from written sources (dalil naqli).

Sometimes, a statement that has no certain meaning is rationally interpreted by Muslims. The Prophet once told his followers: “Finding knowledge in the land of China (uthlub al-ilma walau bish-shin)”. This statement could either be inspired literally –go to China- or generally; to be about importance of seeking out knowledge in distant land, like China, a far-away place at the time. Other scholars, menwhile added another interpretation-that is was also perfectly reasonable-even a duty –to study the secular science, because non Muslim live in China during the Prophet time.

There are thousands of Koranic verse and the Prophet’s Hadith that can potentially create theological disagreements. Nevertheless, it is clear discourse has always been highly regarded in Islam. What is more often expressly forbidden is not differences in opinion but turning these differences into sources of violence or social divisions. The Koran says: “And hold fast, all be not divided among yourself” (Wa’tashimu bi habli Allah jami’an wala tafarradu, Ali Imran [31]: 103).

Differences in opinion are important, but for the Koran, division and conflict will only lead to disaster.

Therefore, the different ways Indonesia’s many Islamic movements respond to new democratic and social changes, as documented in this book, should be seen as part of a natural and healthily process. A democratic process allows Muslim communities to search for and perfect a system of governance that best fits their religion’s core teachings and ideals. Ideal norms may come out this democratic process. But only a system widely supported by the popular majority, which truly delivers better welfare to Muslim citizens should be accepted.

(Artikel ini diambil sepenuhnya dari Abdurrahman Wahid. 2011.  Sekadar Mendahului: Bunga Rampai Kata Pengantar . Bandung: Nuansa)