The untimely death of Indonesian intellectual Dr Azyumardi Azra early this month has stunned the nation’s education sector. Very few scholars have had such a profound and lasting influence on Islamic education in Indonesia.
Azyumardi Azra was born in Padang, one of the largest cities on the island of Sumatra. He studied at Columbia University in New York, picking up his Phd in 1992 with a thesis looking at the reform of Islam in Indonesia in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Returning to Indonesia to begin work at Jakarta’s Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic Institute, working to reinvigorate the university’s influential journal Studia Islamika. The publication became an international touchstone in the field and a ground-breaking publication in many ways, published eventually in Indonesian, English and Arabic.
On every occasion I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Azra there would be a couple of copies of the latest editions pressed into my hands.
While the success of the journal was a landmark, Dr Azra’s crowning achievement is the reform and rebirth of Indonesia’s State Islamic Institutes. The sector had limited itself to the study of Islam in a specific religious sense, but were slowly but surely transformed into tertiary institutions that took a wider view, running courses in science, social sciences and humanities.
It’s a model that now widely adopted across Indonesia, where a “moderate” view of Islam is still a philosophical baseline for many scholars.
Dr Azra spent considerable time overseas, teaching and speaking at conferences and seminars, often discussing the combination of Islam and democracy, and arguing for the model used by Indonesia to be adopted elsewhere in the Muslim world.
He was also widely known for his commitment to promoting religious tolerance, supporting Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila, and publicly criticising extremist Muslims for their violence, and the radical teachings used at some Pesantran in Indonesia. As the rector of Syarif Hidayatullah University in Jakarta, he encouraged non-Muslim students to enrol, and supported an in-depth curriculum focused on civics, democracy and human rights.
But it is perhaps his role as a public intellectual he will be most missed; a man with boundless energy and determination who was willing to engage with the west and western media over the future of Indonesia, and the future of Islam itself.
Dr Azra died during a trip to Malaysia to deliver a seminar paper, which speaks about Indonesia’s future as a world leader with a true global influence, with a developed and free education sector, a strong civil society, and a politically stable central government. That talk was published by Indonesian newspaper Kompas Daily earlier this month entitled “Awakening of Civilization, Strengthening Optimism of Southeast Asian Muslims” In many ways that title sums up the remarkable life of Dr Azyumardi Azra.
- Asia Media Centre