Clash or synthesis of civilisations? By Ali Noer Zaman

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According to Samuel Huntington, wars between civilisations are arising because of differences in the foundation of history, language, culture, tradition and religion among nations of the world that eventually shape the particular worldview of a certain group toward another. Globalisation has made the world smaller, allowing people to meet more often and increasing awareness of differences, as well as similarities, that separate would-be enemies from allies.

However, Huntington`s prediction of a clash of civilisations is rather difficult to apply in Indonesia, which has long been a meeting place for the world`s great civilisations. The first foreign influence to infiltrate the region was Indian culture, which spread Hinduism and Buddhism. It was followed by other civilisations, namely the Chinese, the Muslim and, eventually, the Christian West, brought by colonial countries such as the Netherlands.

Interestingly, these great civilisations have converged with each other peacefully, generating a synthesised culture that is uniquely Indonesian. Ensuing wars were mostly rooted in political and economic issues.

The ability of Indonesian culture to absorb various world civilisations, in the words of Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist studying religions in Java in the 1950s, derives from the existence of the animistic tradition among local communities, allowing a synthesis of elements of animism, Hinduism-Buddhism, Christianity, as well as Islam. This flexible nature has been able to tame the radical nature of foreign culture. According to Geertz, Islam in Java, Indonesia is a dynamic, adaptable, receptive and pragmatic religion that moves slowly.

Examples of the receptivity of Indonesian culture can be seen in traditional puppet plays, which for the most part are taken from India`s epic poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata, that have been repackaged and enriched with Islamic teachings by the wali songo (the nine religious leaders) who spread Islam in the archipelago in the sixteenth century. By blending the two, we find interesting stories that go beyond the struggle between good and evil which characterised the Indian original. Moral messages on issues such as the relations between the individual and God become apparent, particularly in the story of Bima Suci (The Sacred Bima), which reflects the influence of Islamic teachings on tawhid (union) or, in Javanese, manunggaling kawula gusti (the unity of the individual and the Creator).

In bridging the differences between tawhid, the supremacy of one God as the essence of Islam, and the polytheism of Indian Hinduism, the gods in Indian culture are reinterpreted as the various different names of the one God, or as spirits that are no different than angels or ancestor spirits who are placed under the absolute supremacy of God. Arab prophets have also been linked to the Hindu Gods through mythological genealogy by considering both groups as descendants of Syis (or Seth), the third son of Adam and Eve. In Java`s mystical culture, the gods are often considered saints. Therefore, in order to further strengthen the position of the one God in Islam, these mystical beings are considered to have lived in a place where mortals could communicate with them and, in fact, ask them for help.

In the modern era, the synthesising receptivity of Indonesian culture can be observed in the case of Muhammadiyah, a socio-religious organisation established in 1912 by KH Ahmad Dahlan in Yogyakarta, which is the very embodiment of the amalgamation of Islamic and Western cultural values. Muhammadiyah tries to synthesise for today`s world the teachings of the Qur`an and the Prophet Muhammad`s Hadith - a collection of his sayings combined with accounts of his daily practice or Sunna - which constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims after the Qur`an.

The Muhammadiyah movement is largely inspired by the missionary movement of Protestant Christianity, establishing schools with Western-style education, teaching general sciences and languages including Dutch, English and Arabic, and founding hospitals and other social institutions. Muhammadiyah is also known for its emphasis on rationality, and on its anti-tradition and anti-personality-cult stance, unlike what has dominated more traditional religious organisations. In addition, Muhammadiyah shares the Protestant work ethic of Western Europe and the United States. It is the main driver of the economy and of employee-owned cooperatives in North Java, particularly in the batik (Javanese traditional painting) industry.

The world`s civilisations have the potential to generate a creative synthesis of cultures such as exists in Indonesia. It is with such an attitude that we should look to the future of human relations.

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* Ali Noer Zaman is a Jakarta-based writer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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