Nurturing the Salafi Manhaj: A Study of Salafi Pesantrens in Contemporary Indonesia
Our Islam, the Islam of Nusantara
In 1980, Saudi Arabia started an all-expenses-paid university in Jakarta. The Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), housed in a modern building sheathed in blue reflective glass, has produced tens of thousands of graduates trained in a strict, puritanical Salafi Islam in stark contrast to the relaxed, pluralist local Islam practiced by many Indonesians.1 Salafi Islam claims to restore the orthodox practices of the early days of the Muslim religion. Classes at LIPIA are taught in Arabic. Men and women are segregated; men are encouraged to grow beards and adopt Salafi dress with ankle-length linen pants and sandals, and women must be completely veiled. Jeans, music, and television are prohibited. The curriculum emphasizes learning the Arabic language and the study of Islam.
Now Saudi Arabia intends to dramatically expand the university, from 3,500 graduates to ten thousand graduates a year. It will sponsor a brand-new campus in Jakarta as well as branches in Medan, Surabaya, and Makassar.
In May, the departing Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Mustapha al-Mubarak, told me that the new Jakarta campus should open next year. He was speaking to a small group of reporters invited to his lavish farewell dinner. “It was my dream to cut the ribbon, but I won’t be here for it,” he said, surrounded by men in flowing Arab dress. Mubarak claimed that the expanded university would help in the fight against ISIS since the Saudi version of Islam demands obedience to the ruler rather than revolutionary jihad. “The justifications used by ISIS are based on false teaching,” he said. “We need to protect our children and the best way is to teach pure Islam.” Guests were offered a buffet with lamb kebabs and roast beef in one section of the banquet hall, and dozens of desserts in another. As the ambassador spoke of the importance of spreading true Salafi Islam through education, local journalists lined up to collect their usual “envelopes”—containing rupiah notes worth about $20—from an employee.
Fights over competing versions of Islam have a long history in overwhelmingly Sunni Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and the Saudi-funded university now has a major part in the contemporary battle. How Indonesia responds to the planned Saudi expansion of LIPIA will be a crucial test for the government, since the Islam taught there rejects pluralism and democracy, as shown by Din Wahid, whose fascinating recent thesis, Nurturing the Salafi Manhaj: A Study of Salafi Pesantrens in Contemporary Indonesia, explores the Salafi networks in Indonesia. The…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.