Islamic scholars and Indonesia’s public alike mourn the untimely passing of Azyumardi Azra, a leading light in Islamic intellectual discourse at home and abroad.
As soon as news of Professor Azyumardi Azra’s passing on 18 September 2022 broke, hundreds of Indonesians paid tribute to him on their social media platforms. Such is the respect accorded to the man who contributed significantly to Islamic studies. Azra raised the standards of Islamic education in Indonesia and played an instrumental role in developing the Islamic Institute in Jakarta (IAIN) into a fully-fledged university (UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta). Celebrating his achievements must go beyond recognising his academic career: lecturing, supervising students, speaking at academic conferences, and publishing to also include how he carried on debates on Indonesia’s Islamic intellectualism in the public sphere, and his accessibility as a scholar, alongside his peers.
Azra was born and raised in West Sumatra, a region known for promoting modernist Islamic thought that challenges Muslim orthodox and traditionalist orientations. He was trained as a religious teacher before pursuing a degree in Islamic studies at what is now UIN Jakarta. He had a brief stint as a journalist at Panji Masyarakat, an Islamic magazine founded by prominent Indonesian scholar Hamka. Similar to the path taken by his seniors Nurcholish Madjid and Ahmad Syafii Maarif, who later became famous Muslim intellectuals themselves, Azra went to the U.S. for his master’s and doctoral degrees at Columbia University, New York.
Azra’s contributions as an academic are par excellence. His dissertation The Transmission of Islamic Reformism to Indonesia: Network of Middle Eastern and Malay-Indonesian Ulama in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries was first published as a book in 2004 and remains a key reference for scholars examining Southeast Asian Islamic authority. Prior to Azra’s study, other scholars researching ulama tended to privilege and highlight Middle Eastern personalities, marginalising contributions from the other parts of the Islamic world. Azra may not be the sole pioneering researcher to present his work on Southeast Asian Islamic authority to the broader academic community, but he was probably the first to supplement his findings with rich data and evidence rather than mere historical speculation. His thesis demonstrated his mastery of indigenous texts and primary Islamic sources.
In addition, Azra wrote extensively on topics related to Islamic education and moderate Islam. His columns in Indonesian vernacular newspapers were compiled into edited volumes and presented as easily digestible reads for policymakers and scholars. These short and sharp pieces made him an accessible scholar.
This does not mean he neglected his academic duties. In 1994, Azra was instrumental in introducing the first international peer-reviewed academic journal focusing on Islam in Southeast Asia called Studia Islamika. The journal continues to be highly reputable and is cited by international academic indices. In the same vein, Azra became a ‘brand name’ in Islamic studies in Southeast Asia, often being invited to give keynote addresses at major conferences. He was one of the most well-travelled scholars; that there was hardly a single month in which he did not travel overseas.
Beyond his scholarly contributions, Azra was also an efficient administrator and pragmatic thinker. Azra was mindful that the majority of Indonesian Muslims desired Islamic higher education that supports the advancement of Islam and progress. Thus, he concurred that an Islamic higher education institute must not focus solely on Islamic sciences but also on other fields such as the social sciences, humanities, and general science. This was the consideration for developing IAIN into what is now UIN.
A more pressing question is whether the younger generation of Islamic studies scholars can continue Azra’s legacy in articulating critical views for Indonesia’s policymakers and public apart from fulfilling their academic roles.
Lately, Indonesian Islam has suffered from a negative image due to some quarters applying religious idioms to political discourse. In the past, prominent intellectuals like Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, and Syafii Maarif performed their duties in safeguarding Indonesia’s moderate and progressive ideas against the conservatives. Azra belonged to the same circle as those giants in moderate Islam. These intellectuals’ presence in the public sphere affirms that moderate Islamic intellectuals not only remain as the gatekeepers of Indonesian campuses but also of the broader public discourse in Islam.
Azra made his thoughts on moderate Islam clear in his writings and his politically neutral approach allowed him to reach out to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) leaders even though he was from a Muhammadiyah background. NU also tapped Azra’s strong roots in the traditional Islamic sciences based in Indonesia in NU’s promotion of Islam Nusantara (translated as “Archipelagic Islam”), which calls for all religious opinions to be contextualised according to local customs, practices, and needs.
A more pressing question is whether the younger generation of Islamic studies scholars can continue Azra’s legacy in articulating critical views for Indonesia’s policymakers and public apart from fulfilling their academic roles. Can they play the role of a public intellectual like that described by Edward Said in his book, Representations of the Intellectual (1994)? Said unequivocally underlined the role of such intellectuals as having “this terribly important task of representing the collective suffering of your own people, testifying to its travails, reassuring of your people, reasserting its enduring presence, reinforcing its memory…”.
Unfortunately, it seems that the general expectation of most newly minted doctoral and master’s graduates is that they will publish in top-tier international journals, which by their nature are not accessible to policymakers and the critical masses in Indonesia — Said’s “your people”. These new scholars, especially those who are Indonesian and in Islamic studies, must learn that climbing the academic ladder is only a part of being recognised as an intellectual. Giants like Azra and his seniors Nurcholish, Wahid, and Syafii would have likely affirmed this much needed public engagement by those coming after them to correct the negative image of Indonesian Islam and to critically appraise areas of reforms in Islamic studies, for succeeding generations of their Nusantara.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.