Prof. Dr. Haji Azyumardi Azra mourns the loss of Indonesia’s Chairman of the Press Council and intellectual juggernaut Prof. Dr. Haji Azyumardi Azra, MA, MPhil, CBE, who passed away on 18 September 2022 in Malaysia. May his soul live in everlasting peace with the Almighty.

We convey our condolences and deepest sympathies to his family and friends in this difficult time. May we celebrate his life by adopting his relentless pursuit of knowledge and carrying forward the stellar work he had achieved in the scholarship of Islam, education and Indonesia.


Prof. Azyumardi Azra was not just an ordinary Islamic scholar in Indonesia, he was also a historian, an educator, a staunch democrat and a champion of pluralism. He was true to his own ideas and ideals even towards the end of his celebrated life.

He was scheduled to attend an international conference on Kosmopolitan Islam in Kuala Lumpur but experienced shortness of breath on the plane before being rushed to Rumah Sakit Serdang, where he eventually passed from myocardial infarction. His is an honourable demise as not everyone is privileged to meet death while on the way to share knowledge in a distant place.

Through his preparation for this sharing, we are privy to a glimpse of what he intended to present. His paper for the conference discussed the changing landscape of global power dynamics, marked by the decline of the United States and the eventual rise of China. To him, this strategic flux confers massive opportunities for Muslim-majority countries to influence global affairs more prominently, taking a more proactive role in promoting solutions to global problems.

He proposed that Indonesia and Malaysia should promote such democratic values and concepts including dialogue, pluralism, institutions and a space for civil society to help solve ongoing conflicts in the world, drawing from their experience and experiments with the democratic system.

This is consistent with his earlier works including Politik Global Tanpa Islam? Dari Timur Tengah hingga Eropa (Global Politics Without Islam? From the Middle East to Europe), a compilation of essays on foreign affairs. Notwithstanding the prevalent perception of a democratic decline in both countries, the consistency of his messages speaks for the steadfast belief he had in democratic system.

But he was not above criticising Muslims and the Muslim world. While Islam is the fastest growing religion globally, he maintained that many Muslims lacked proper family planning, seemingly in reference to popular Islamic belief that more children equal to more fortune. Many of these Muslims live in developing or poor countries where access to quality education is limited, thus preventing these individuals from achieving their full potentials.

This contributes to a vicious circle whereby Muslim countries continue to be dependent on richer countries in the West, as developed Muslim countries invest less in their developing or poor counterparts. This state of dependency carries economic, political and psychological implications, leading people to believe that the West is merely trying to control Muslim countries while suppressing the latter’s potential. This kind of conspiracy theories shapes Muslims’ resentment and hatred towards the West, trapping them in a cognitive bubble that hinders them from moving forward. Prof. Azyumardi championed that for Islamic civilization to develop, Muslims must get rid of their conspirative psychology, narrow-mindedness and excessive romanticism towards glorious Muslim civilization of the past.

Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Dato’ Seri Dr Wan Azizah, H.E. Ambassador Hermono of Indonesia, organizers and participants of the international conference on Kosmopolitan Islam meeting with Prof. Azyumardi Azra’s wife (in brown hijab) hours after his passing. CREDIT: PERSONAL PHOTO/MULIADI (A member of Council for Education, Arts and Sports, Head of the Special Branch of Muhammadiyah Malaysia)

Such an ability to be both optimistic of opportunities that Muslims can contribute to solving global problems while also critical of their missteps is hard to replicate. In this, two important lessons can be garnered: 1) self-criticism and 2) observation of realities on the ground.

In fact, the observation of practical realities is structurally integral in the development of his thoughts and ideas, owing to his socio-historical approach and his need to balance between idealism and pragmatism. It should not be strange, thus, that Prof. Azyumardi championed ideas such as religious pluralism, tolerance and democracy, being sensible to the multicultural realities of the Indonesian society that he deeply comprehended.

Another highlight in Prof. Azyumardi’s works is his argument on Islam Nusantara, which researchers of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) must be familiar with. Islam Nusantara is a non-normative, empirical interpretation of Islam in Indonesia that reflects the sensibilities of local context, emphasising on tolerance and moderation that are essential in the country’s multicultural setting. It is a product of intense and prolonged interaction between universal Islam and Indonesia’s socio-cultural realities, far from the black and white, unidimensional and harsh version of the religion propagated by radical groups everywhere.

It is undeniable that this concept has garnered some oppositions from those who approach the subject from different angles. Those critical of it should remember that it is merely an argument in the sea of constantly changing discourse on Islam, one that is informed by Prof. Azyumardi’s background in historiography and keen observation of the realities on the ground. In the grand scheme of things, however, one should not restrict his intellectual products in a utilitarian sense, only to be adopted when there is a need for an antithesis to radical interpretation of the religion.

His emphasis on the aforementioned concepts (i.e. respect, tolerance and practical realities) highlight a key virtue in his body of works. This virtue is humility, a deceptively simple quality but one that is not widely practiced by people.

Let us consider the following example. Humility is evidently a driver in Prof. Azyumardi’s argument for pluralism. A multicultural nation cannot have political, economic and social stability if a group behaves condescendingly towards the rest, believing itself to be the superior entity while disrespecting the lives of others. Nations inhabited by such groups are bound to suffer from perpetual domestic insecurity, one that prevents them from realising their full potential.

The humility leitmotif is also present in his thoughts on the modernisation of Islamic education. Prof. Azyumardi was an ardent proponent of a continuous pursuit of knowledge, which one paper interpreted as a push for lifelong learning. We need not a reminder that the vital ingredient in learning is none other than humility itself, the quality to admit that one’s knowledge remains limited and the world offers an endless volume of insights. By stressing on this interminable pursuit of knowledge, he advertently also encouraged people to continuously embody the trait of humility in the process.

This is reinforced by his conception on the objectives of Islamic education. While its ultimate objective is to produce devout Muslims who lead a good life, its transient objective pertains to instigating development and change in students’ personality, the society as well as the environment. (Here his pragmatism is in full display again). By emphasising that one’s accumulated knowledge should be beneficial to their surroundings, instead of being stuck in an esoteric realm, he essentially argued that knowledge should be accumulated with the purpose of rendering service to others, not to inflate one’s ego or sense of importance.

Prof. Azyumardi himself embodied this virtue of humility. A quick glance of his biography would inform you that he once vehemently refused M Quraish Shihab’s offer to become deputy rector of Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN) Jakarta, despite his stratospheric qualifications. His reasoning was that he preferred to remain as independent scholar, though he eventually cannot say no to the great scholar himself. Ex-Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin also testified to this in his Instagram tribute to Prof Azyumardi.

Prof. Azyumardi may have passed but his vast wealth of knowledge continues to live on. Widely documented and easily accessible, his knowledge serves as a foundation to developing Indonesia’s subsequent generations of humble intellectuals.    To Him do we belong and to Him shall we return. Al-Fatihah.

Additional reporting by Aunillah Ahmad (Deputy Secretary of the Special Branch of Muhammadiyah Malaysia and Chair of the Malaysian Muhammadiyah Student Association).

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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