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MUHAMMADIYAH. The Javanese Islamic reformist movement known as Muhammadiyah has become one of the three or four most important religious, educational, and social movements throughout the islands of Indonesia as well as the most powerful current reformist movement in Muslim Southeast Asia.

By the fourteenth century Sufi Muslim traders began arriving at Indonesian ports, and by the seventeenth century there were Islamic conversions occurring at numerous locations. The Sufis established schools, pesantren, that gave rise to a particular type of Indonesian purist Islam known as santri and dedicated to the Five Pillars: the affirmation of the faith (shahadah), commitment to the five daily prayers, the yearly tithe, the Ramadan fast, the pilgrimage to Mecca. This practice became polarized with a syncretic tradition fusing Islam with animism and elitest Hinduism.

The Dutch entered Java at Bantam in 1596 and eventually triumphed in a competition for colonialization. By the early twentieth century, increasing westernization had brought confusion and resentment that produced nativist reform and nationalist resistance movements. One of the most constructive of these movements was the Muhammadiyah, founded by Javanese santri in 1912.

By the late nineteenth century, modern Islam had called for a reforming return to the Qur’an and the simplification of ceremony. It also called for modernization; toward that end, schools and organizations for women and youths were founded. For Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, reform entailed rejection of syncretism, animism, Hinduism, and Sufism; reforming students founded schools, journals, and organizations that spread these ideas throughout Southeast Asia.

The Muhammadiyah emerged from among the santri of Java as a means of coping with the pressures and alienation of their recent history and recapturing a former sense of meaning. It established hundreds of branches with millions of members, missionary movements, clinics, orphanages, poorhouses, hospitals, books, magazines, newspapers, labor unions, farm cooperatives, factories, and schools. In spite of its position within Islam, it had to compete with numerous syncretic and political movements, including Indonesian nationalism and communism. It remains one of several important ideological and moral streams within a pluralistic society.

The Muhammadiyah was founded on 18 November 1912 in Jogjakarta by Kiyai Hadji Ahmad Dahlan (born Mohammad Darwisj). Dahlan came from a devout Muslim family; his father and maternal grandfather were mosque officials. After education in home, school, and mosque, he went to Mecca. His stay in Mecca lasted for several years and enabled him to study the Qur’an, theology, astronomy, and religious law, including the works of the Egyptian reformist Muhammad `Abduh. Upon his return he changed his name to Ahmad Dahlan and succeeded his father at the mosque. As he traveled throughout Java selling batik, he taught Islam and encouraged the improvement of Muslim communities. (This pattern of travel and trade remains a core of Muhammadiyah and santri life.) During this period he married his mother’s brother’s daughter, Sid Walidah, who remained his lifelong wife despite his marriages to four additional women whom he soon divorced.

By 1912, twelve individuals from among Dahlan’s students and fellow teachers were urging him to form an organization, and thus the Muhammadiyah was begun. Dahlan dedicated the rest of his life to traveling and evangelizing for the mission of reformed and purified Islam in its struggle with syncretic mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, feudalism, and colonialism. Even when he became ill he continued to work, making seventeen trips during his last year and insisting, “If I work as fast as possible, what remains can be brought to perfection by another.” At the age of fifty-nine, he died after delegating the continuance of his work to his friends and his brother-in-law.

Dahlan is described by his biographers in terms of the Javanese virtues of stoicism and tranquility; that is, he was able to engage in an outward struggle while maintaining inner peace. In this steadfast determination he was compared to the mythical hero Arjuna and became a paradigm for Muhammadiyah spirituality and culture.

Dahlan was able to undertake and continue his work throughout tumultuous times because the Dutch did not consider him a violent or revolutionary protester. He remained an official of the court mosque until his death and attempted no radical restructuring of traditional society. Today, the Muhammadiyah’s survival can be partly attributed to its separation from politics.

Dahlan infused the Muhammadiyah with a rationalized form of mission and religious life combined with Islamic traditionalism. This is especially conspicuous in his understanding of the role of women in religion and society. He was dedicated to the educational and organizational emancipation of women, encouraging them in independent teaching and public speaking; but, still suspicious of the sensual aspect of women, he intensified the traditional separation of the sexes in the Muhammadiyah itself and in the structuring of religious and social life. For instance, he fostered the medical education of women so that female physicians could take care of women patients; but he also commanded women to cease wearing jewelry and to cover their heads with scarves. He established a separate women’s auxiliary within the Muhammadiyah, the Aisyiyah, which today remains one of the most dynamic Muslim women’s movements in the world.

By 1930 the Muhammadiyah had established committees covering a wide spectrum of religious and social life: Islamic law, politics, women’s affairs, youth, boy scouts, education, library and archives, celebrations and evangelism, social welfare and health care, economic development, and administration of property. It maintains a record of efficient organization, balanced budgets, and an uncorrupted leadership. Its membership of several million comes from the middle class, whose many activities for the Muhammadiyah are largely voluntary and unpaid. Although some changes have occurred since Indonesian independence (1945)-for example, the rising prominence of the Jakarta branch owing to its links to the national capital-both the basic structure and direction of the Muhammadiyah remain the same.

The Muhammadiyah has provided for almost a century a focused and practical theological vision, a moral system marked by clarity and specificity, and a system of order and meaning for a people whose culture, although rich and aesthetically satisfying, continues to experience rapid and often destructive changes.

[See also Indonesia.]


Alfian. Muhammadiyah: The Political Behavior of a Muslim Modernist Organization under Dutch Colonialism. Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 1989. Ali, A. Mukti. “The Muhammadijah Movement: A Bibliographical Introduction.” Master’s thesis, Montreal, 1957.

Noer, Deliar. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1942. London, 1973.

Peacock, James L. The Muhammadijah Movement in Indonesian Islam: Purifying the Faith. Menlo Park, Calif., 1978.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/muhammadiyah/

  • writerPosted On: August 23, 2014
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