Schuonian perennialism has been present in Islamic thought and education in Indonesia since the publication of a translation of Schuon’s Transcendent Unity of Religions in the 1990s, and has since grown through the impact of the works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Perennialist perspectives have been adopted by some Islamic scholars as a philosophical foundation for the legitimization of religious pluralism and of multiculturalism-based education. They have also been criticized as incompatible with Islamic teachings, and as potentially disrupting the unity of Muslims in Indonesia, despite offering a cursory solution to the issue of violence in the name of religion.
Schuon's "transcendent unity" is behind the emergence of the so-called "Inclusive Theology" that was proposed by "Cak Nur," Nurcholis Majid (1939-2005), and that has been encouraging the spread of religious pluralism in Indonesia. Cak Nur, who did his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1984, has had enormous influence on the development of liberal Islamic thought in Indonesia, and his name was even proposed as a presidential candidate in 2004. His Inclusive Theology asserts that Islam is but one way to approach God, because the way to God is very wide and diverse.(1) Religious discourse can thus be expressed through various forms, for example, in Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, in Taoism as the Tao, and in Buddhism as Dharma, all of which represent the primordial tradition, or al-din al-hanif in Islam. Al-din al-hanif, in Allah’s sight, is actually the attitude of resignation (islam) which is common to all religious believers, particularly followers of the scriptures, both Jewish and Christian.(2) All religions teach monotheism (tawhid) and the attitude of surrender (islam), and differ in their exoteric aspects (sharia), and not their esoteric aspect or batin.(3)
Sukidi, in his Teologi Inklusif Cak Nur (The Inclusive Theology of Cak Nur, 2001) argued that the perspectives of the perennial philosophy are needed to apply Inclusive Theology universally to all religions and authentic religious traditions. The search for the roots of the epistemological construct of the Inclusive Theology will thus not stop at finding ultimate reality, but can go deeper through the mystical experience of unification with God. Only through this trans-historical perspective, Sukidi maintains, can the adherents of an Inclusive Theology achieve an authentic ecumenism, timeless and perenenial, although this can only be in the esoteric (batin): religious harmony can only be achieved in the "Sky divine," not in "Earth's atmosphere."(4)
The Study of Religion
Religious Studies in Indonesia were changed by the opening of the Comparative Religion Department at Institut Agama Islam Negeri (State Institute of Islamic Studies) in Yogyakarta in 1961 under Professor Abdul Mukti Ali, Minister of Religious Affairs 1973-1978. Mukti Ali approached the development of comparative religion from the perspective of the Western study of religions, particularly those developed by Snouck Hurgronje, his followers, and the Leiden tradition. Since then, the study of religion in Indonesia has used the secular-liberal approaches of the historical sciences, psychology and philosophy.
More recently, the perspective of the perennial philosophy has begun to be employed as an "original approach" to comparative religion that does not parse religions vertically into historical entities such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Schuon's approach is claimed as a spiritual trans-historical perspective which is grounded in historical fact, then raised to the level of mystical theological transcendence so that historical fact becomes relative to the spiritual truth which is seen as the core of religion. Such perspectives became increasingly widespread once Seyyed Hossein Nasr's work was introduced into Indonesia, and eventually became quite popular in religious studies.(5)
On the basis that many horizontal conflicts in Indonesia have had religious nuances, multiculturalism-based education has been massively promoted by liberals since the regional autonomy and decentralization of 1999/2000.(6) Schuon's thought has been used to assert, theologically and philosophically, the importance of developing religious studies based on multiculturalism, according to Syamsul Arifin in his inaugural address as professor of sociology of religion in one of the Islamic private universities. Syamsul Arifin argues that the concept of multiculturalism can be used as a framework or epistemology to understand and disseminate the notion of transcendent unity among the various religions. The study of religion based on multiculturalism can, he further argues, erode conflict and violence, and foster a non-violent culture with the values, knowledge, feelings, and willingness to cooperate on the basis of transcendent unity.(7)
As well as influencing Islamic thought and education in Indonesia, perennialism has also been heavily criticised by some Islamic scholars. Adian Husaini, former Chairman of the Islamic Da'wah Council of Indonesia (DDII), has argued that perennialism is against Islamic teaching, as the sharia is not just "exoteric" but rather one of the most fundamental aspects of Islam. One of the primary missions of the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) was to give guidance on how to worship Allah. To achieve true esotericism, one must perform proper religious procedures in accordance with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is Allah that is worshipped and nothing else, neither gods nor otherwise.
Anis Malik Thoha of the Institute for Study of Islamic Thought and Civilization (INSISTS) in Jakarta, who currently teaches at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), has argued that the perennialist conception of esoteric truth is over-simplistic. Perennialism is an interpretation, not a revelation, and is contrary to religious principles in general, and to Islam in particular. Religious concepts such as Sanatana Dharma and al-din al-hanif have been terribly distorted to fit the ideas of the Traditionalists. Perennialism is therefore more of a problem than a solution to the issue of religious diversity.(8)
- Nurcholis Majid in George B. Grose and Benjamin J. Hubbard, Tiga Agama Satu Tuhan (Jakarta: Mizan, 1998), p. xix.
- Sukidi, Teologi Inklusif Cak Nur (Jakarta: Kompas, 2001), p. 22-23.
- Azhari Akmal Tarigan, Islam Mazhab HMI; Tafsir Tema Besar Nilai Dasar Perjuangan (NDP) (Jakarta: Kultura, 2007), p. 48.
- Sukidi, Teologi Inklusif, p. 19-20.
- Ahmad Norma Permata, Metodologi Studi Agama (Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 2000), p. 32-33.
- Choirul Mahfud, Pendidikan Multikultural (Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 2008), p. 7.
- Syamsul Arifin, Silang Sengkarut Agama di Ranah Sosial (Malang: UMM Press, ND), p. 47.
- Journal of Islamic Thought Islamia-Republika, 23 April 2011.