Nurcholish Madjid Nurcholish Madjid


It is the Lord of Mercy who taught the Qur’an. He created man and taught him to communicate. (Qur’an 55:1-2.)[1]

The late Professor Dr Nurcholish Madjid (Cak Nur) was one of those rare human beings who practise their faith in all aspects of their lives, implementing their beliefs and principles at considerable personal cost. His legacy to those whose lives he touched and those who will continue to read his vast array of writings is thus rich and powerful. Those who had the good fortune to meet and talk with him or were in the audience when he presented one of his many public talks or lectures, at home or abroad, will have been touched by his warmth, compassion, broad-mindedness and persuasive argumentation. Whether through the written word or the spoken, Cak Nur had the gift of making almost instant contact with his audience and engaging them in his narrative. He was in communication with his audience in the sense of the Arabic word ‘bayan’ which appears in the Qur’anic quotation above (55: 1-2). Bayan conveys the sense of ‘both expressing oneself and understanding what has been expressed by others…’.[2] Thus, Cak Nur was not only a superb communicator — that in itself is most impressive — ­ but he exemplified also the more difficult aspect of communication. He paid attention to the words, concerns and rights of others, Muslims and non-Muslims, and tried to understand their intentions.

In this brief appreciation of Cak Nur’s contribution to education and to Islamic philosophy we will focus on two concepts to which he referred often: faith and knowledge. Each is evident in two spheres of his life which were very important to him: his work as one of Indonesia’s foremost academics and educators and his philosophical propositions about the relationship between sharia and state.


In November 2000, despite a crushing workload and lengthy list of international speaking engagements, Cak Nur accepted an invitation to speak at a conference in Canberra.[3] The visit would also encompass a meeting with Australian business people, journalists and bureaucrats, and a signing ceremony with his counterpart at The Australian National University, to seal a Memorandum of Understanding with University ParamadinaMulya. Cak Nur’s  conference talk was extempore, without notes, wide-ranging and on the theme of the common humanity of all mankind. It was very well received and we return to it below.

It was Cak Nur’s meeting with the non-academic audience, however,  which had an even warmer outcome. Held in an exclusive and somewhat formal venue, it was attended by Australians who had little knowledge of Indonesia other than a realisation that it was in a transition period following the ending of the New Order government and that it had been hit hard by the Asian economic crisis. They believed Indonesia needed help but were somewhat doubtful about how this could be achieved in a context of endemic corruption and inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence. Cak Nur understood his audience immediately and evaluated the most effective way of communicating with them. In his fluent English (a surprise to his audience) and with a charm, urbanity and wit they found hard to resist, he gently explained that Indonesia was in a bad way. He went on to describe that despite the almost overwhelming obstacles, Indonesia rested on a bedrock of individuals who were good, sincere and dedicated to improving conditions for their fellows. Theirs was a simple and practical morality devoted to change towards an improved life for the suffering poor, beginning at grassroots levels. This, he pointed out to his audience, was not considered newsworthy and was rarely if ever reported by the world media. Cak Nur did not lecture his elite audience but his message was clear: recognise this wellspring of morality and good intention that operates in Indonesia and assist it to grow. Business opportunities do exist in Indonesia, he assured his audience, but doing business in Indonesia was an opportunity to act with morality and good intentions- – to show best practice by example. Few of the audience present at that meeting will forget Cak Nur or his message and his quiet charm, reasoned arguments and appeal to their sense of morality left its mark. He had educated his audience and impressed them with his faith in humanity.

The academic audience at ‘Islamic perspectives on the new millennium’ conference was interested in understanding contemporary expressions of Islam in Indonesia, particularly in the context of improving interfaith relations, in Australia as well as in Indonesia. Because Cak Nur’s talk was delivered in his favourite mode – without notes – and because he had no time to write these up later for publication, he agreed to a suggestion[4] that material on the same themes already published in Indonesian be abbreviated and translated into English as a book chapter. Thus ‘Indonesian Muslims Enter a New Age’ based on the introduction to Islam Doktrin dan Peradaban: Sebuah Telaah Kritis tentang Masalah Keimanan, Kemanusiaan dan Kemoderenan [Islam Doctrine and Civilisation: A Critical Examination of Belief, Humanitarianism and Modernity, (Yayasan Wakaf Paramadina, Jakarta 1992)], was published in 2004.[5] The chapter captures several themes which were of ongoing importance to Cak Nur and the following extracts express them in his own words:

  • ‘The Holy Book teaches that all the faithful are brothers….This series of divine commandments about brotherhood is followed by an affirmation of the principle that all mankind are brothers and that the division of mankind into different races and ethnic groups was meant to provide markers of self identification (identity), which must be borne in a broader humanitarian environment with an attitude of absolute mutual respect. It is also stressed that a person’s dignity and worth cannot be measured by external factors such as nationality or language, for dignity and worth consist in a truer philosophy of life, subsisting in man’s deepest self, namely piety – and only Allah knows and can measure piety (Q. 49:10-13). Thus God alone has the right to measure and determine someone’s worth, whereas a man must appraise other men in the spirit of equality.’ (Madjid 2004: 74-5).
  • ‘If it is true that man is essentially good because of his God-given nature, and if it is true that this God-given nature is the basis of his natural disposition and to seek and side with what is right and good (hanif), our view of our fellow man cannot be otherwise, and in principle must be entirely optimistic and positive.’ (Madjid 2004: 77).
  • ‘…Faith alone is indeed enough to make people oriented towards virtue, and to have “good intentions”. Faith, however, does not provide them with the ability to implement their intentions. So it is no guarantee of success. Conversely, knowledge alone may enable people to do something tangible. However, without the guidance of faith their knowledge will bring them greater misfortune than those who lack knowledge’. (Madjid 2004: 81).
  • ‘…it is not sufficient merely to work as well as possible and to achieve success by considering and following God’s laws through the use of knowledge to obtain His blessings as al-Rahman. … We must constantly bring ourselves closer (taqarrub) to Allah and absorb as deeply as possible individual religious value like reciting prayers, surrender to God, patience, sincerity, obedience, and by real trust in Allah while making the greatest social a commitment. Thus our success will be neither purely for our own pleasure nor solely for the present, but also for the welfare of society at large and in preparation for the future’. (Madjid 2004: 85).

These four points: brotherhood and equality of all mankind; the essential goodness of mankind; faith and knowledge as inseparable partners for success in this life and the next; and the use of knowledge for the betterment of all society are principles which Cak Nur applied to a project very close to his heart, the development of Paramadina University. After initial contact from Utomo Dananjaya and Yudi Latif, The Australian National University agreed to open negotiations with Cak Nur as Rektor to develop the basis for a memorandum of Understanding and ongoing cooperation between two universities who each strove to develop the best in their students and staff and to apply knowledge to the problems of modern life. On 21 November 2000, the Memorandum was signed by Cak Nur as Rektor of Paramadina University and Professor Deane Terrell, then Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University.

Issues of funding, the loss of Cak Nur, the immediate demands of other academic responsibilities, the focus on short-term goals have perhaps clouded the vision initially envisaged by the signatories to the Memorandum and the promise of academic and intellectual cooperation has not been as actively applied as it might have been. Perhaps this is the time to again take up Cak Nur’s call for faith and knowledge to lead us to a better future and to engage more vigorously in on-going cooperation between these two insitutions who still each strive for noble purposes.


Nurcholish Madjid made a considerable contribution to the theory of sharia and state in modern Indonesia. It is a contribution drawn from the realities of sharia in Indonesia. It rests on one proposition: historical Islam is primary, not as a source of prescription but as a demonstration that faith and knowledge are not the same, though they are related.  There is a necessary nexus connecting them.  The nexus is found in the idea of context, contextualisation.  Cak Nur explains this as follows. The Qur’an is absolute and inviolate, and the Sunna is an exemplification of the absoluteness of revelation.  Revelation does not regulate every last detail of life, hence the scholarly jurisprudence in the fiqh texts.  The idiom of revelation is in the 7th century Arabic language and culture.  One must, therefore, isolate those principles in Qur’an which directly state social justice prescriptions, specify their 7th century idiom and then specify the contemporary context in which these principles are to be applied.

There are, of course, obvious similarities between Cak Nur’s views and those of Hazairin and earlier scholars, in particular the historical reference (see also below), but at the same time quite substantial differences.  Thus, Cak Nur argues that while the Qur’an is absolute, the Sunna may have a lesser normative value in identifying prescription and this opens the way for Indonesian circumstances to become relevant.  However, the consequences of these, in formulating a system of prescription (ahkam) are not unrestrained.  Any set of prescription identified on a contextual basis must be read with revelation.  Thus is a pure Natural law position, human authority is limited.  Just as important, how is “context” to be established: is it in philosophy, in the sociology of Indonesian Muslim society, in politics, and is the test to be efficacy?  These and other questions remain debateable in today’s Indonesia.

Returning briefly to history, to 7th century Arab idiom, there is the huge assumption that one can identify an idiom of 1400 years ago with reasonable certainty.  This assumes an objectivity for history, a subject bristling with difficulties in historiography.  From the point of view of the discipline of history, criteria for identifying context and whether these can ever be found in “pure” law form is highly debatable.  But should one ever search for purity? Is not some criterion, even a flawed one, better than nothing?  The answer to that depends on (a) the purpose of the inquiry.  In our case here, Cak Nur is not searching for objectivity as such but for a meaning for “social justice,” which can be used in the contemporary world.  (b) Second, the nature of the material; ultimately it derives from revelation.  Again, for modern historiography, God (revelation) cannot be a historical cause.  But that misses the point for Islam where God, is the cause and the methods developed by Muslim scholars over 1400 years as to what cause is and how it is to be worked out are sufficient for that purpose.  In short, the argument has shifted from canons of historiography, to canons of legitimacy, to a revealed system of duties (which are “to God”).

This is a considerable shift and to justify it Cak Nur proposed the following. First, a-historicism is a fatal flaw in the argument. Second, he rejected the modern Western position that revelation cannot be a cause in historical explanation. It denies the Qur’an and, especially, the Sunna on which sharia ultimately depends. It follows, therefore, that while tradition and dogma are not the same, they can  be discussed together, without violence to either, through the idea of  sense of history. We should be careful here to say that a sense of history in this very general use does not necessarily mean historicism.  It should not be used  to mean that there is an inevitable process governed by its own law and, thus, immune to the intervention of human choice.  On the other hand, it should also be pointed out that some extreme Muslim apologists do mean this in Indonesia and elsewhere.  Having made claim what sense of history is not, we can now see better what it has come to mean in the thought of Cak Nur.

(i) Historical explanation: to understand and interpret the past is also to understand the present.  This is the essence of historical explanation because it is always done for motive or purpose.  Perhaps the essential core is the question – why do we try to provide an explanation, or more than one, for past events which are known to have happened in place and time?  The answer is that explanation in this sense is crucial for sharia, that is, “sharia”                                                                                                                              as an historical artefact – because it has immediate practical consequences now, in the contemporary Muslim world. There  is a huge mass of material.  The problem is to restrain motive and clarify intention, so as to do no violence to history, but at the same time to advance a case or demonstrate practical consequence. Cak Nur’s first question is why do people put forward the idea of the Islamic state, what is the purpose of the proposition?

His answer in two parts.  First, his historical explanation is that the Islamic State idea is essentially an apologia, and a reaction to Western ideas of state which have proved successful. He notes versions which have failed (fascism, communism) but his position is that the European State is successful as System (though he did not use that term).  The secular, pluralists, democratic (whatever the adjective) state did deliver social and economic benefits in the absence of religion.  In contrast, Muslim states or those who called themselves “Islamic” had failed to deliver.  The response, as apology, was to call for “Islamic”, a system which can (a) catch up, (b) restore pride and (c) preserve culture.  These are still contemporary arguments but Cak Nur’s observation is quite simple; a recourse to an  Islam which is apologetic or desperate just does not work, it does not deliver.  What, then, is the answer for the umma?  It is, in his own words, a proper sense of pride in Islam and, following from this, an openness to knowledge.  Even in non-religious sources, openness is the key because it is both within the tradition of Muslim thought and can be demonstrated as viable from modern history.

Cak Nur’s  explanation of modern history (that is, immediate post-war) of Islam is inferiority which is not necessary and also inhibits both the ability to innovate  and  create.  He further elaborates, with specific reference to the Islamic state idea, that “fiqh-ism”, that is, the undue emphasis on past scholarship, distorts any possibility of understanding the notions of Islam and state.  Historically, he is prepared to admit that  fiqh was fundamental to pre-modern Muslim politics but that this is no longer the case.  Moreover, to equate fiqh with sharia, and he accuses the modernists of doing this, unnecessarily restricts the meaning of sharia                                                                                                                             by confining it to a very narrow sphere.  Fiqh itself must be reformed for modern conditions.

In short, Indonesian Islam must be accepted for what it is and in the forms in which it manifests itself.  The proviso is, of course, that deviation in dogma is not permitted.  “Indigenization” of Islam is an historically known process and must be accepted as such.

(ii) Philosophy of History: some years ago MB Hooker described a preliminary outline of Cak Nur’s philosophy of history for Indonesian Islam.[6]  It seemed  then, and still does now, that Cak Nur provided a coherent method founded in philosophy of history.  The argument then put forward needs further explanation, not least because the language which Cak Nur uses is readily understood by a non-Muslim (secular) audience.  He has truly crossed an important boundary in making possible a mutual comprehension.  He was, of course, perfectly aware that he was attempting such an exercise, his language and references show this.  He never fell into the trap of simulation – reliving the past as though he were there – a     feature of the “sharia as sufficient” school.  The past may be in the present but it cannot be recreated as such.  To suppose it can is to deny history itself and Cak Nur comes down strongly in favour of what he calls “readiness for change in a positive and constructive way” citing both classical sources and contemporary Western scholarship.  Definitions for the past have no mechanical application just because they exist and this includes fiqh and ijtihad.  Past thought has to be judged objectively.  This is his philosophy of history which has to be  read with emphasis on the difficulties which his views raise.  It is not criticism for criticism’s sake; instead it is an acknowledgement of the complexity and sophistication of his thinking.

Revelation is prior: this means the Qur’an.  This position is obvious from within Islam and has to be accepted as the foundation premise by non-Muslims, including Western scholarship.  Whether or not the latter believe in God is beside the point.  This premise, as a matter of historical and contemporary fact is the position from which all discussion then flows.

The Sunna, however, though divinely inspired, may have normativevalue independent of direct revelation particularly so far as prescription is concerned.  This is a much more difficult position to defend.  A strict Sunni response is to reject the idea.  However, there is historical evidence from within.  Muslim scholarship to show a range of debate concerned with establishing method to validate actual prescription.  For Cak Nur the debate is not merely historical, it is a contemporary debate because the question –  how do we  locate the binding force of prescription? – is the crucial question.  The answer or answers to that question will be directly influenced by the purpose for which the question is asked.  His own general purpose is to arrive at a “social justice” (below).

The status of Fiqh texts: for Cak Nur they have no necessary prior status.  They are written by men and, therefore, in the context of time and place.  The criterion on which they must be judged is suitability or usefulness.  By definition, the criterion allows for variation and this is their characteristic (for example, the schools of law).  In short they carry no necessary authority.  The argument is attractive and can also be shown to be historically sustainable.  For example, the Kompilasi Hukum Islam is, in fact a selective re-writing of some fiqh texts for a limited purpose, thus demonstrating that the criterion of use for a time and place passes the test of efficacy.

However, the argument tends to disguise or obscure a more fundamental point which Cak Nur really addressed only indirectly.  This is the issue of authority to state prescription in the Indonesian context.  A substantial majority of ‘ulama’ hold that the texts (kitab kuning) are authority and justify this on historical grounds, that is,  that 1400 years of text and commentary, written under strict discipline, have provided a distillation of the Divine imperative for practical purposes.  “Modernists” of course reject this version.  However, there is no mechanism for resolving the different positions.  Cak Nur’s answers are the following:

  • Prescription and Morality: Cak Nur holds that these cannot be separated and indeed must be a whole for purposes of social justice.  This is a pure natural law position, within the constraints imposed by revelation.  The issue for both sharia                                                                                                                             in its widest sense and classic Western forms is the nature of “constraint”. How and by whom is it identified, that is,  what is the nature of human authority (reason) in God’s design for humanity?  Cak Nur’s answer is that prescription is only knowable by reference to its context and is, therefore, always relative.  Divine will is knowable though (God-given) reason and is absolute.  However, specifying the true principles necessary for correct reasoning is another matter.  The purpose of social justice is, thus, not a sufficient answer although as a motive it is most appealing. A  related issue is the proper identification of prescription. For Cak Nur this is again a matter of context – respectively the Arab idiom and contemporary imperatives.  As to the former it is not, by virtue of that idiom alone, decisive.  The alternative is to use a “more evolved” ijthad.  What this means and how it is to work is yet to be fully explained and remains one of Cak Nur’s major challenges to contemporary scholarship.
  • “Context” – This is a key idea in Cak Nur’s philosophical thinking  but it seems to be used in a number of different senses.  At the risk of over simplifying, contemporary Muslim culture in Indonesia is one reference.  The political manifestations of Islam are another.  There is also a variety of philosophies form the Middle East (from Abduh to the present including Syed Qutb, Hasan al-Banna and Yusuf al-Qaradawi) which provide other versions. This again is one of Cak Nur’s legacies which modern scholar’s have to work through.

Cak Nur’s philosophy of history and context are a real advance in philosophy for sharia.  He has provided a multi-layered foundation, which  is internally consistent, and on which a new mazhab might be constructed.  His proposed relativity of fiqh has already been successfully demonstrated as practical (the Kompilasi Hukum Islam is a good example of the “localisation” of fiqh).  When linked with his concept of social justice, in which  faith and knowledge are combined, the morality of Islam may yet result in a distinctive sharia  method for Indonesia.

MB Hooker and Virginia Hooker


[1] M.A. S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A New Translation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.

[2] Haleem 2004:353, note b.

[3] Entitled ‘Islamic perspectives on the new millennium’, coordinated by  Amin Saikal and Virginia Hooker, November 2000.

[4] The suggestion was from Dr Yudi Latif, to whom we were most grateful.

[5] See Islamic Perspectives on the New Millennium, pp.74-90,  edited by Virginia Hooker and Amin Saikal, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2004.

[6] M.B Hooker, Indonesian Islam: Social Change through Contemporary Fatawa, Allen & Unwin and University of Hawaii Press, Sydney/Honolulu, 2003, pp.38ff.


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