Amelia Fauzia, Faith and the State. A History of Islamic Philanthropy in Indonesia. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, xxxii + 346 pp. ISBN: 9789004233973. Price: EUR 112.00 (hardback).

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Author: David Kloos1
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  • 1 KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Open Access

This book investigates the historical development of philanthropic organisations in Indonesia in relation to the Islamic notions of zakat (religious alms), waqf (endowment), and (to a lesser extent) sedekah (voluntary giving, or charity). It focuses on the relationship between organisations and the state, depending on the pivotal question whether, and to what extent, the state should interfere with, or actively administer, Islamic philanthropic practices. According to the author, the relationship shows ‘a blurred demarcation on concepts of state-civil society, a non-uniformity in the approaches of Muslim civil society philanthropic activism towards the state, and a subtle dynamic relationship between faith and the state’ (p. 6). To substantiate this argument, she discusses both general historical trends and specific case studies, building on a wide range of sources, including Islamic legal texts, colonial reports, government sources, documents produced by organisations, newspaper articles, and social media.

The book is divided into an introduction, six chronologically ordered chapters, a conclusion, and 48 pages of appendices. The introduction explains the value of the use of ‘philanthropy’ as a central concept, despite the fact that there is no direct equivalent in the Indonesian language (the adapted term filantropi has been used by academics since the early 2000s). As an analytical term, philanthropy holds as an advantage over the more general ‘charity’ (which does have an Indonesian translation, kedermawanan) that it signifies an underlying ideal—and systematic effort—to transform society, for example by eradicating poverty or by empowering particular social actors. Organised Islamic philanthropy, thus, is necessarily intertwined with fundamental debates about the place of Islam in the public sphere and the evolving relationship between religion and the state. Showing how this works in the context of Indonesia, and over a long period of time, is the major contribution of this book.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the concepts of zakat, waqf, and sedekah and the different ways in which these have been practiced and interpreted throughout Islamic history. After the early years of the Caliphate, in which zakat functioned as an obligatory tax paid to the ruler, the practice (as well as the institution of waqf) became increasingly voluntary in nature. Indonesia fitted this trend. Chapter 2, discussing the formation of pre-modern Islamic kingdoms, argues that, while there are some examples of Islamic rulers enforcing the payment of zakat (the author mentions the case of Aceh), in general it was ‘left to be practiced voluntarily’ (p. 94). No clear evidence is presented, however, either for the enforcement of zakat or for the claim that charity was seen as a ‘private’ matter. In consequence, the chapter is full of phrases such as ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘likely’, ‘presumably’, and ‘must (have been)’, making me wonder whether a less speculative argument could have been achieved by analysing how, besides a sign of faith or ‘piety’, Islamic philanthropic practices interacted with indigenous models of social status and prestige.

From this point onwards, the book concentrates on Java. Chapter 3 deals with the nineteenth century, showing the importance of voluntary donations (mostly money and rice, but also land, in the form of waqf) to Islamic institutions, such as mosques and pesantren (religious boarding schools). These institutions—especially the so-called ‘mosque-funds’ found on Java and Madura—pioneered modern philanthropic practices by spending their assets on a variety of projects, including basic public works (such as, in one case cited, street lighting!) and charity provided to the poor and needy. Although the Dutch colonial government was concerned about the possible abuse by mosque officials and the village-level religious functionaries (penghulu) in service of the colonial state, in general it left considerable space for philanthropic activities. The development of modern Islamic philanthropy really took off, however, with the establishment in 1912 of the Islamic modernist association Muhammadiyah. This is the subject of Chapter 4. Elaborating on earlier initiatives (including those by Sarekat Islam) Muhammadiyah changed the nature of Islamic charity through its large-scale investments in public services (including healthcare and education) and its decision to regard charity, besides education and religious purification, as one the main pillars of its modernizing mission. Interestingly, the amount of zakat collected by Muhammadiyah was ‘relatively insignificant’ (p. 166), at least in relation to its total income. A much larger share came from subsidies provided by the government, reflecting the organisation’s accommodative stance towards the colonial state.

Chapter 5 discusses the development of Islamic philanthropic organisations after independence. A watershed moment was the formation in 1949 of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and its decision, in 1954, to start collecting and distributing zakat. This made the state essentially a competitor of philanthropic organisations. Attempts by the state to collect zakat never became a success, however, even under the New Order regime, which regarded philanthropic practices as a potentially immense but still largely untapped resource for national development. Up until today, state zakat agencies have depended mostly on the (involuntary and thus contested) deduction of a percentage from the salaries of civil servants. At the same time, the New Order obstructed many philanthropic organizations (just like other forms of civil society) from functioning well. Exceptions included a local chapter of Muhammadiyah in Kendal (Central Java), which, on the basis of an innovative reading of Islamic jurisprudence and a strong focus on transparency and accountability, was able to achieve both trust and widespread support for its programs. This chapter also discusses attempts, by both state and non-state actors, to modernize the administration of waqf. One of the interesting points raised is that the official registration of waqf land seemed to increase during times of agrarian reform (like the early 1960s), implying that ‘[m]any landowners donated their estates rather than let them be taken over by the state or by peasants’ (p. 186).

The collapse of the New Order in 1998 created new opportunities for civil society. Chapter 6 argues that, during the reformasi period, public discourse about Islamic charity was dominated by the Islamic revivalist movement. Terminology in this chapter serves to distinguish between ‘Islamists’ (who seek to Islamise the state by claiming that it should be involved in Islamic philanthropy), ‘modernists’ (who believe that philanthropy should be left to civil society), and ‘traditionalists’ (who reject all forms of modern organised philanthropy). Most striking in this chapter is the statement that, since 2008, a ‘war-like situation’ (p. 248) has arisen around the 1999 Law on the Management of Zakat. Central to this conflict are the attempts by Islamists to amend the law in a way that makes the payment of zakat obligatory (and refusal punishable) while, at the same time, diminishing the role of civil society. These conflicting ideas about the involvement of the state tend to conceal the fact that both sides ‘support the idea of the centralization of zakat payment’ (p. 251), and thus an active modification of the way in which most ordinary people deal with their religious obligations. This is an important comment, for in fact, most Indonesian Muslims seem to care little about either state or non-state philanthropic organisations. A 2004 survey (partly attached as an appendix) shows that almost a hundred per cent of Indonesian Muslims engage in religious charity of some sort. By far the largest part of this is given directly to beneficiaries or collected and distributed within local communities.

I have two main points of critique. Firstly, the book tells us very little about motivations, both on the side of those who give and on the side of those who spend their time and energy in developing and managing philanthropic organisations. The book contains no discussion of the religious life of the (urban) middle class, despite the observation that it seems to be the main driving force behind organised philanthropy. Of the voluminous literature that has emerged around this subject in recent years, virtually no mention is made. In this sense, the term ‘faith’ in the title of the book seems to be somewhat misleading. Secondly, I found the dominant use of religious categories (modernist, traditionalist, reformist, revivalist, Islamist, secularist, and so forth) to be obstructing rather than facilitating the main argument about the dynamic relationship between philanthropy and the state. As the cases demonstrate at times, people often tend to be pragmatic and opportunistic, changing their public opinions and strategies, sometimes radically, even when it seems to concern matters of principle (such as the question whether the state should enforce the payment of zakat; see for example the case of KH. Dinin Hafidhuddin (pp. 242–3)). A more forceful argument could have been made, I think, if it was tied to a conceptual and theoretical framework that was both more sophisticated and more flexible.

This study is an important work because it pioneers its subject. It provides a good overview of the enormous variety of charitable practices and organizations that have developed in Indonesia over the course of centuries, and of different attitudes of, and toward, the state. At the same time, the argument seems to me just too general, based on too little in-depth analysis, to leave a long-lasting mark on the debate about the relationship between ‘faith and the state’. I hope that other scholars will be inspired to take up this fascinating subject and move it into more exciting directions.

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