An interview with James Rush about Hamka’s Great Story: A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia
Just published, Hamka’s Great Story by James R. Rush explores the life and work of of an influential Indonesian thought leader, his vision for his emerging nation, and his lasting influence on Muslim religious culture. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies.
By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal.
Hamka’s Great Story focuses on a single individual. What drew you to Hamka? And what’s the big picture? I am first and foremost a historian of Indonesia. I went to Hamka to understand Indonesia better. By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal. But because Hamka was such a widely read and influential thought leader, I felt that seeing Indonesia through his eyes could also help us understand the large and important Muslim Indonesian subculture from which he spoke and to which he spoke. This became my second goal. I believe that this is immensely valuable for those of us who are interested not only in modern Indonesia, but also in national identities everywhere, and how religious ideas and identities are enmeshed within them.
If Benedict Anderson was right that nations like Indonesia are imagined communities, we should be asking: What sort of community, exactly, is being imagined for Indonesia? And by whom? To Hamka and other members of his generation (including seminal figures such as Sukarno) fell the remarkable opportunity of “imagining” the nation of Indonesia in the very moments of its historic formation as the Dutch East Indies gave way tumultuously to the Republic of Indonesia. Hamka’s Great Story is exactly this: Indonesia imagined as a modern Muslim nation.
Who was Hamka? Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, 1908–1981) was a prodigious writer with a popular touch. He wrote beautifully in the Dutch colony’s lingua franca, Malay, which was also adopted in the 1920s as the aspirational national language for Indonesia and called Indonesian. Hamka’s early magazines, books, and novels found readers throughout the far-flung nation-to-be. What gave them their traction, aside from Hamka’s easy style and good stories, was their message. We are living in an age of profound and destabilizing change, he said. We can embrace this change hopefully if we embrace Islam as our guide. Islam can shape our new society and provide its values. Indonesia, our dreamed-of nation, can cohere around it. This positive message touched the zeitgeist. Hamka embellished it prolifically throughout his lifetime, which eventually stretched from the colonial era well into the life of the Republic.
What sort of Islam did Hamka propagate? Like the vast majority of Indonesians, Hamka was a Sunni Muslim. But as a self-described modernist, he declined to identify with the traditional schools of law, or madhhab (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i), and claimed “the Madhhab Salaf, being the school of the Prophet and his companions and of the ulamas who follow his footsteps.” In this, he followed Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida and other reformers based in Egypt, whose ideas he streamed into Indonesia. Like them, he rejected many traditional Muslim practices as superstitions and sought to reconcile Islam with the modern sciences and political advances of the West. Our country, he told his readers, can be both thoroughly modern and thoroughly Muslim. He envisioned a literate, prosperous, democratic Indonesia in which the values of Islam permeated the society at large and provided the basis for ethnic and religious tolerance. In his imagined Indonesia, monogamous marriages would replace polygamous ones, strong nuclear families would supersede shambling extended ones, and rationality and knowledge would overcome myth and ignorance.
Was Hamka an original thinker? Hamka was a brilliant synthesizer of facts, ideas, and arguments that he gleaned from the works of others, most significantly (as he often remarked) from modern Egyptian writers and intellectuals whose work he read in Arabic. Even the plot of his most famous novel was borrowed. Yet, in transposing all of this to Indonesia, he created something new. We can say that the master narrative that underlay his entire body of writing—what I call his Great Story—is both original and unique in its depth and complexity. Its ubiquity in the public sphere in the form of his multitudes of books, pamphlets, newspaper columns, novels, interviews, and, eventually, radio and television programs and audio cassettes made his Great Story a foundational frame of reference for generations of Indonesian Muslims.
Was Hamka’s vision for Indonesia contested? Very much so. Indeed, it was part of a huge public argument about what sort of society and nation Indonesia should become. His ideas comported with the views of the modernist mass organization Muhammadiyah, of which he was a leading figure and popular theologian. But they stood in contention with the more conservative views of Indonesia’s other mass Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Moreover, Indonesia’s much smaller community of Christians found Hamka’s assertive propagation of Islam overbearing and, at times, threatening. And its communists, who surged intermittently during his lifetime, belittled Islam and religion altogether. Hamka played a key and sometimes controversial role in this contest over the fate of the nation, which came to a bloody head in the 1960s in a bitter culture war that ended in the massacre of the country’s communists and rule by the army. As all of this played out, he spent more than two years as a political prisoner and, subsequently under the new military government, served ambivalently as head of Indonesia’s first national council of Muslim religious scholars.
Hamka died in 1981. Do his ideas matter today? Some of Hamka’s books remain popular today and his thirty-volumes of commentary on the Qur’an are still widely read. More significantly, however, Hamka’s modernist formulation of Islam for Indonesia underlies much of the discourse about Islam in Indonesia today, even though his role in shaping this discourse has been obscured by the passage of time. As Indonesia struggles with the surge of angry and exclusionist Islamic movements that have found so much traction elsewhere—and, to a degree, in Indonesia, too—his complex, inclusive, and hopeful vision, still so prevalent, makes it harder for the ideas of extremists to take root and grow.
Hamka’s Great Story, as well as Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910, The Last Tree: Reclaiming the Environment in Tropical Asia, and numerous biographical essays about contemporary Asian activists, humanitarians, and public intellectuals in the Ramon Magsaysay Awards book series and website.is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. He is the author of