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Islamic World in the Scholars’ Work (A Reflection on Peacock, Hassan, and Woodward’s Account)

By: Moh. Syifa Amin Widigdo


Wednesday, August 29, 2007


To observe the world of Islam would be an exciting, challenging and enduring project due to Islamic world is rich culturally and colorful sociologically. In fact, the study of Islam around the world is not only dealing with a wide range of symbols, beliefs, rituals, and other religious practices but also concerning with the religious values, norms, motives, ethos and world views which influence deeply toward human’s civilization.

However, some scholars try to carry out research digging Islamic phenomena in some regions. Firstly, Riaz Hassan focused his study on the conception of Islam and society in Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. Then, James L. Peacock conducted the survey on Muslim Puritans phenomena in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Lastly, Mark R. Woodward interested in researching normative piety and mysticism in Java, Indonesia. The main questions properly addressed to those studies will be; beside the differences among them, what are, if any, the common issues among them? What are their uniqueness and distinct ideas? How do they show the Islamic concept of the world and the image of Islam? This paper besides aims to elucidate some points answering questions above, it also in turn intends to attach brief critics and comments strengthening some approaches and propositions in those works.

The Common Grounds and the Strengths

In the first place, it appears that the spirit of reformism within religion and society is the shared issue among Hassan, Woodward, and Peacock. It can be grasped from their accounts which show in certain extents some similar evidences, terminologies, and findings. The first scholar, as sociologist, characterizes a certain type of religiosity which holds a strong religious commitment (piety) and practice Islam rigorously as “Scripturalist-Puritanism” or fundamentalist. This style of religiosity is generally represented by Ulama. Similarly, the second researcher, better known as an Indonesianist, notices that people who highly concern with the shari’ah, ritual, and certain modes of behavior are considered as normative piety or normative Islam. They prefer to perform shari’ah manner in order to guide their daily life rather that other moral conducts. Then the third social scientist finds the trend of religious behavior which is more paying an attention towards the idea of salvation, collectivism, legalism, scripturalism, and purification. He employs an appropriate terminology to call this phenomenon, namely religious reformism or Puritanism.

Furthermore, they also indicate an agreement in identifying the opposing criteria of religious behavior. According to Hassan following Ernest Gellner, unlike fundamentalist, which is well represented by Ulama, there are also people who carry out hierarchical ecstatic medianist style in Islam which is introduced by Saints. The predicate for this style of religiosity is syncretism. In consonant with this respect, Woodward also finds some religious practices which are based on the ‘secrete doctrine’. It is a mystical path to gain the truth and salvation which is usually used by Sufi.
In addition, it is certain that each methodological approaches employed by social scientist above demonstrate certain precious insights. The different point of departure and also the diverse aims of the study carry special uniqueness. Below is the description of the strengths and merits that those scholars have made.

Firstly, it is comparative sociological studies of contemporary Muslim societies. By this way, Hassan undertakes a systematic comparative investigation of everyday beliefs of Muslims with special reference to the middle classes in a number of social settings. As a result, he found that Muslim World is undergoing a religious renaissance with the evidence that the number of religious piety is increasing in many countries. Nevertheless, such piety is actually constructed by the influence of global and societal condition. Global condition is mainly characterized by a hegemonic cultural pattern of the West. It renders Muslim communities to reassert their Islamic identity. While social condition refers to the social construction includes dissatisfaction with the slow and often negligible progress made by national government. It also makes people to strengthen their own ideology and in-group feelings.

Secondly, axiomatic structuralism is an inspiring approach toward religious studies. This analysis might be a critique toward Geertz and Durkheim since the first concerns with the social basis of individual behavior and symbolic communication while the second emphasizes on the relationship between system of social relations and those of religious belief and action. Axiomatic structuralism, in fact, pays much attention to the power of an axiomatic organized system of knowledge instead of social basis or social relation thereby social organization, political constellation, and some others can change.
Luckily, Woodward succeeds employing this theory to observe Islam in Java in excellent way. He perceives religion as an axiomatic organized system of knowledge by which social condition could be transformed. To Woodward, it is simply because axiomatic structures are located in cognitive rather than social sphere. Therefore, it was proven that religious concepts are able to form the basis for social structure and political organization in Java. Indeed, the intellectual and mystical systems of classical Islam have transformed Javanese culture to certain hybrid tradition which is still Islamic.
Thirdly, combining cultural and psychological analysis to explore deeply Islamic tradition in many countries is incredibly fabulous work. It is James L. Peacock who carries out the great research on Islam by harnessing both cultural and psychological approaches. By cultural analysis, it is possible to conduct an interpretative understanding of explicit doctrines, philosophies of life, and also the actor’s essential structure of meaning including values, symbols, and world view. In turn, it will disclose the construction of layers of subjective meaning which illuminate the event. The result of applying this analysis to the study is that Muslim reformism as a cultural category in the lives of Southeast Asian can be grasped. Nevertheless, cultural analysis is still incapable of uncovering the unconsciousness layers of the individuals. Consequently, psychological analysis is needed to unfold the linkage behavioral patterns and conceptions, which are not recognized by subject. In the light of Muslim attitude observation, it makes the study be able to detect behavioral correlates of reformism that are not necessarily recognized by the reformist them selves.

The world view

The World view is a conception of the world rather that behavioral inclinations. It can be seen from Hassan’s Faithlines that question about how to be ideal Muslim as individual or social is very important. The idea of Muslim piety refers to the notion of how to be a good Muslim as a person and the concept of Muslim ummah indicates a great endeavor of Muslims as a community to form high civilized society. In turn, it will influence the image of Islam in public domains.
It seems that Muslim people tend to formulate a distinctive notion in the respect of relation among individual, society, religion, and state. In personal level, Muslims strives to reach a high degree of religious commitment. In the level of society, the community of believers holds primordial loyalties and at the same time they live among other communities respectfully and peacefully. Nevertheless, in conjunction with connection between religion and state there are two main configurations. Firstly, people who assert that religion and state are separated because they have different space. It is differentiated social formation. Secondly is the belief that religion and state are integrated. This category is undifferentiated social formation. Above all, Hassan points out that in order to promote constructive social-cultural, political, moral, and religious role for religion, it may be prudent to keep faithlines separate from the state and thereby prevent them from becoming faultlines of the political terrain.
In addition, according to Woodward, the world view of Islam in Java is a coalition between mystical path and pious religiosity. In the case of modern mystics, the inner (batin and isi) domains of religiosity play a dominant role in the construction of personal world views and inform social behavior, while in that of the reformist Muslims which hold pious religiosity emphasis on the outward (lahir and wadah) that orients behavior. Nevertheless, Javanese religion and society are Islamic because aspects of Muslim doctrine have taken the place of those of Hinduism and Buddhism as the axioms of Javanese culture. Furthermore, Sufi concepts of sainthood, the mystical path and the perfection of man are employed in the formulation of an imperial cult. Therefore it can be said that Islam has penetrated so quickly and so deeply into the fabric of Javanese culture because it was embraced by the royal courts as the basis for a theocratic state.
Meanwhile, Peacock notes that Muslims conception of the world is certainly dominated by the vision of Muslim reformists. It is collectivist than private although their goal is salvation of the soul and rather stricter in purging of ritual, scheduling of time, and streamlining of work. It is due to their tendency for contributions to the wider society, religion, and ethnic group rather than personal and domestic happiness and intimate association with friends. In comparison to Protestant, collectivism and legalism as opposed to individualism and dramatizing the Christ are among the features that distinguish the South Asian Muslim reformist psychology from that of the Protestant ethic.

The Self-Image

It is apparently clear that the image of Muslims society is colored by binary oppositions which is made by scholars themes regarding the existing phenomena. Montgomery Watt which is quoted by Riaz Hassan categorize Muslims into two types of self-image, namely; fundamentalist and liberal. The first maintains intact the belief that Islam is a complete, sufficient, and final religion whereas the second tries to correct that conviction in some respects. Another categorization made by Hassan is the differentiation between High Islam and Folk Islam which resemble to the scripturalist-puritan and pluralistic-flexible in their religious orientation.
Similarly, the distinction between normative piety and syncretism which arisen by Woodward. The piety usually follows Ulama who taught the shari’ah as the guidance of way of daily life and the syncretism seemingly ascribes to those Saints (Sufis) who introduce thariqah as the way of mystical life. Each recognized the importance and legitimacy of the other, the Sufis being concerned with the inward (batin) personal aspects of religious life and the ulama with the outward (zahir) forms of religion and social order.
Likewise two scholars above, Peacock also records such binary opposition as the image of Islam in certain countries. It is reformist (or progressive) and conservative category. The reformist style of religiosity is considered as young, being urbanized, and educated. Their goal in this worldly life is to practice Islam well to gain salvation in the day after and also to reform the belief of non-reformist. In contrast, the conservative one is usually recognized as old, rural, and poorly educated and their aim in this life is to preserve the harmony of the self, society, and the cosmic order.


To conclude, in spite of various point of departure of studying Islam, the three scholars share similar issues when citing the socio-cultural category of Muslim societies, namely Puritanism. Hassan labels this type as Fundamentalist (following Watt’s notion of self image of Islam) while Woodward calls it normative piety and Peacock explicitly names this category as Muslim Puritan. This term refers to certain religious behavior and culture ranging from religious purification, psychology of rationalization, purging of rituals to hold firmly al-Qur’an, al-Hadiths, and Islamic Shari’ah generally.
Each of them, however, harness advance theoretical frameworks to explore more about Islam. Hassan strives to compare sociologically the condition of Islam and its conjunction with society in many countries. Woodward utilizes an axiomatic approach to prove that Islam influences deeply to the social and political organization in Javanese culture. Peacock certainly insists psychological analysis, in addition to cultural perspective, to disclose unconsciousness layers of individuals thereby the process of rationalization can be achieved.

Moreover, they also conceptualize certain type of Muslim ideas and images. In fact, Muslim world in Hassan’s account endeavors to be an ideal Muslim either in individual level or community ones. To Woodward, the predicate of Muslim is not only belonged to those who practice a piety normatively but also attributed to who hold modern mysticism or syncretism. All of them are Islamic in Javanese society. For Peacock, the world of Muslim reformists is fuelled by the idea of salvation, a sense of community, and a sense of strictness toward rule and time scheduling. Those notions subsequently derive the portrait of Islamic world. Indeed, Islam seems to be more colored by binary opposition ranging from fundamentalist-liberal (Hassan), normative piety-mystical orientation (Woodward), to purists-syncretists (Peacock).
Therefore, here I note some methodical obstacles in which criticism could be addressed. By such criticism, hopefully, the method or the result of the study will be more appropriate, accurate and comprehensive. Firstly, it is questionable why Hassan does not include the lower and the high class besides the middle class as respondent in his sociological research. By picking merely the middle class up as the sample of the survey, it is obviously difficult to gain “thick description” of Muslim perception toward religion and society. Hence, it is plausible to embrace all social categories thereby we will reach more comprehensive perspectives and wider understandings of Muslim societies. Secondly, Woodward’s axiomatic structuralism rather abandons the phenomenon of why the idea and the movement of Puritanism could penetrate and infiltrate to the ’mysticism world’ which was hold by the royal and its people, and even subsequently live hand in hand with them. It is interesting to see through Foucaultian lens, especially the notion of power, how an economic power, which is associated to the groups of normative piety, operate over political power linked to the Sultanate. Thirdly, cultural and psychological offered by Peacock appears failed to unfold global hegemony as a determinant factor in forming such puritan style of religiosity. If the global politic consideration taken, the finding of the survey might be more, complete and perfect. Wallahu  a`lam.


Hassan, Riaz, Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society, Karachi. Pakistan: Oxford Pakistan Paperbacks, 2003.

Woodward, Mark. R., Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Peacock, James L., Muslim Puritans: Reformist Psychology in Southeast Asian Islam, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1978.

Ibrahim, Anwar The Asian Renaissance, Kuala Lumpur: Times Books International, 1996.

Pals, Daniel L., Seven Theories of Religion, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Connolly, Peter (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion, London and New York: Cassel, 1999.

Paden, William E., Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Geertz, Clifford, The Religion of Java, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.


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