Superiority of Islam

The reformist villagers' discussions of the Christian mission or the negative picture of Christians that they support are ultimately underpinned by one fundamental idea: the superiority of Islam to Christianity. Their belief in superiority is clearly expressed in the stories of conversion to Islam. It is one's pursuit of the truth which leads one to Islam rather than the factors outside of oneself. A typical conversion story, presented by a preacher from the city in a pengajian, went as follows:

I was born in a Catholic family and was educated in a Catholic school where I learned about Christianity and how to invite non-Christians into Christianity. As my knowledge deepened, I frequently argued with the priests over several religious issues but they could not respond to my questions properly. They just emphasised belief, evading the key questions of mine. This setback led me to knock at the door of the Protestant Church. There, I also debated with the clergymen but they could not satisfy me, either. Then, I was attracted to kebatinan. The impression that I got in the kebatinan group was better than my previous experiences in the Church, so that I wanted to be a cadre of that group. However, it turned out that the founder of that group had got his inspiration while performing Islamic ritual prayers. This discovery made me hesitate once again and I at last decided to resume my search for the truth. At that time, I was lucky enough to get in touch with people who had similar experiences to me, that is, people who had converted to Islam as a result of a long and painstaking pursuit of the truth. One of those to whom I addressed my problem was a famous Islamic leader who had studied in Cairo but who had once been a priest. Conversations with him at last strengthened my confidence that Islam was the answer that I had sought after for such a long time. I recited sahadat Islam in the office of the Department of Religion and added an Arabic name to my original one.

This sort of conversion story is not found among villagers in Kolojonggo. However, similar stories are heard about two families in which parents and children have different religions. For unknown reasons, Pak Toyo and his wife were Christians while one of their children was a Muslim. According to the reformist villagers, Pak Toyo, as an active Christian, has worked hard to persuade his child to accept Christianity, often with direct pressure or coercion. According to Mbak Sumi, Pak Toyo did not give money to his Muslim son whenever he did so to his other children. She said, 'I know this because I played in that house quite often when I was a child. ... To children, that kind of money matters a lot. Moreover, it was the time of poverty. Even a candy could make one feel the richest among one's friends.' The same tone is also found in the story of Pak Harto's family where two of his four children were Muslims. The anak masjid described Pak Harto as a cruel man devoid of fatherly love. Rumour had it that he objected to paying school fees for his Muslim daughter because she went to the masjid. He was also said to have forbidden his wife to prepare breakfast for his Muslim children during the fasting month, so that the girl had to get up at two in the morning to prepare it by herself.

What the story of conversion to Islam and the stories of Muslim children's hardship under the Christian parents try to convey is the contrast of 'the inner' to 'the outer', 'accident' to 'necessity' and 'strength of will' to 'easy life'. If it is material desire, job or romantic attachment (marriage) which induces one to convert to Christianity and just a short period of time is needed, it is the painstaking pursuit of the truth for longer period of time and the hardship which make conversion to Islam or the maintenance of the Islamic faith possible. To Muslims, this contrast is a proof that Islam is superior to Christianity. It is superior since conversion to Islam is a result of a long quest for the truth rather than of momentary vicissitude of mind and situational compulsion.

The equation between a search for the truth and the superiority of a certain religion cannot be understood without referring to the concept of akal (reason). [12] To the reformist villagers, akal is one of the key concepts with which to approach religion and to determine the rightness or incorrectness of a particular religion. Therefore, using akal in the quest for the truth is the right attitude of someone who accepts or rejects a certain religion. Their religious allegiance to Islam is also explained in terms of akal. They believe in Islam not because it is the only religion that has been available to them but because it 'makes sense' (masuk akal) while others do not. With this conceptual shift, they are described not as submitting themselves to Islam blindly but as choosing Islam among various other possibilities.

The concept of akal is used by the reformist villagers in examining Christian theology. If Christianity 'makes sense', they argue, they will convert to it. Due to this emphasis on akal, one of the most frequently used ways of criticising Christianity takes the form of polemic: they question a certain concept in Christianity and show that it does not 'make sense'. Below is a conversation between a Muslim boy and a Protestant girl in their late teens, showing how the concept of 'akal' is used by Muslims to evaluate Christianity. [13]

As soon as Mas Gino and Mbak Padmi arrived at my place, it started to rain cats and dogs, giving them a chance to stay together in my place. Our conversation began as usual. I asked about their recent activities and we exchanged the gossip about other youth in the hamlet. When I and Mbak Padmi were talking about the Bible Study Group, Mas Gino who had kept silent for a while entered into our conversation. To my surprise, he asked her a question about Christianity: 'What is the relationship among Tuhan (God), Allah and Bapak (Father)? I heard these three terms were frequently used in Christian prayers. Until now, however, I cannot understand what is the exact relationship among Tuhan, Allah and Bapak?' Seeing his face filled with a smile and hearing the tone of his voice, I could easily recognise that he asked this question to tease her. Mbak Padmi hesitated for a while and answered that these three terms designated the same entity. 'Why do you use Tuhan, Allah, Bapak at the same time rather than using each of them individually?' he asked. 'That is just for emphasis and there is no other hidden meanings', she replied. Although the tone of her reply was rather aggressive, Mas Gino continued his questioning. 'Who is Jesus? Is he Tuhan or is he the son of Tuhan?' Mbak Padmi answered reluctantly, 'Jesus is the son of Tuhan as well as Tuhan.' At this point, I thought he would stop questioning, but he did not. Instead, he incorporated Maria into their conversation:

'Who is Maria?'

'Maria is the mother of Jesus.'

'Who made Maria pregnant?'


'Whom did Maria give birth to?


'Is not Tuhan and Jesus the same?'


Hearing her reply, Mas Gino responded in a way which did not seem to be appropriate to his original intention of teasing her: 'Does it 'make sense' that father and son are the same? Does it 'make sense' that Tuhan begot Himself? Definitely not!' He took a brief look at her and continued his interrogation: 'If Tuhan and Jesus had been the same entity, where was Tuhan while he was in this world? Was Tuhan, as Christians say, still in Paradise when He was in this world?' Still, there was no reply from Mbak Padmi. Although her silence made the atmosphere tense, he did not stop questioning: 'I cannot understand, first of all, Tuhan and Jesus are the same, existing in two different places and taking two different forms. In the ordinary course of reasoning (secara akal), is it possible that one can stay in two places in two different forms? Moreover, one of them took the form of a human being. How can Tuhan and a human being have the same form? ' Mbak Padmi did not answer his question nor make any other comment. A long silence was broken down when Mas Gino changed his topic: 'What is the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism?' He seemed to think this question was easy for her to answer. However, his guess was wrong. Mbak Padmi did not seem to have any clear explanation in her mind. After a pause, she answered that the Catholics worshipped (menyembah) Maria and every Catholic Church had the statue of Maria, an object of prayer for the Catholics. After answering, however, it seemed that she realised her reply was somewhat inappropriate. She tried to add another explanation, but she could not. Instead, what she did was to end our conversation by saying that 'I don't know much about it' in a somewhat loud and angry voice. [14]

In this conversation, the concept on which Mas Gino relied to question Christianity was akal. He asked about the identity of God in Christianity and received the answer that the Son of God (Jesus) and Father of God (Tuhan) are the same entity. As the Son of God and Father of God cannot be the same entity and one cannot beget oneself in the ordinary course of reasoning (secara akal), the argument of Christians that Jesus and Tuhan are the same entity, according to Mas Gino, cannot 'make sense'.

This sort of criticism of Christianity cannot be maintained unless one premise is satisfied. Muslims should be able to show that all teachings in the Quran 'make sense'. Two slightly different positions are taken by the reformist villagers: first, everything in the Quran 'makes sense' but the development of akal until now is not high enough for all of it to be understood and this gap is compensated for by revelation (wahyu); and second, not all of its contents can be understood by akal due to its absolute limitation and this is compensated for by revelation. The difference between these two positions may not be a trifling one. However, this germ of potential controversy has not been clearly recognised by the reformist villagers. Instead, they select one of the two positions dependent on the context. For example, when they use the concept, akal, as a step in criticising Christianity, they resort to the first position whereas, when they talk with other Muslims who are sceptical about certain Islamic teachings, the second position may be adopted. [15]

Whatever positions are taken by the reformist villagers, the way the concept, akal, is used is somewhat different from the way the English term, reason, is used since its application is based more on analogy than on empirical verifiability or falsifiability. In order to judge whether certain facts or ideas in Islamic teachings 'make sense', for example whether the teaching that Prophet Muhammad journeyed at the speed of light in Miraj 'makes sense' or not, the reformist leaders do not need to show a direct proof that this actually happened in the 7th century or it can happen now. Instead, what they use is a parallel example; the modern technological development makes it possible for human beings to journey as fast as sound, which was not imaginable at the time of the Prophet. This is then used as an example to show that people will be able to fly at the speed of light in the future, implying that the journey of the Prophet at the speed of light does 'make sense'. As the way to explain Miraj shows, the analogy to which the reformist leaders resort is also heavily dependent on an historical approach. They take several examples which had remained puzzles but which could later be explained with the development of science and use these to show that Islamic teachings 'make sense'. One of the most frequently used examples is the prohibition from eating pork, as a villager put it:

By the Prophet, pork was categorised as forbidden. At that time, human beings did not understand why pork should be prohibited. Only the development of modern science showed that pork, compared to other meats, contained certain parasites endangering our health. This is the secret of Allah (rahasia Allah). ... This example teaches us that the commands of Allah which do not seem to 'make sense' in the present time is not because these cannot 'make sense'. With the development of human akal, the Islamic teachings which have been regarded as incomprehensible will 'make sense' in the future.

Seen from the positivist philosophy, the conclusions that the reformist leaders draw from the above examples might not be easily accepted since these cannot be negated. When a certain teaching can be shown to 'make sense', for example if modern science shows that pork is more dangerous than other meats, this is used as a basis from which to argue that this Islamic teaching 'makes sense'. Although a certain statement is not yet fully clarified, however, this cannot be taken as proof that this statement does not 'make sense', since it is thought to be due to the limited development of akal. In this respect, no Islamic teaching is falsifiable. On the other hand, the reformist leaders have the last means of rationalising all Islamic teachings which do not seem to 'make sense': the Omnipotence of Allah. As one villager put it, 'Allah created everything in this universe, so why cannot Allah, the creator of human akal, do or command something which does not seem to 'make sense' ?' Seen from this framework, any proposal that Islamic teachings do not 'make sense' can not be accepted. The statement that Allah can do anything gives a rationale that everything can 'make sense' while this statement itself cannot be negated in any case. In this respect, the specific way the term akal is used by the reformist villagers allows them to believe that all Islamic teachings 'make sense'.

According to the framework which the reformist villagers adopt to criticise Christianity, all ideas and phenomena in human society including religion can be divided into three classes: those which 'make sense' such as the prohibition on eating pork; those which cannot be explained by the present state of akal such as the process of Creation [16] ; and those which do not 'make sense' such as many beliefs in Christian theology. The Christian concepts which are considered not to 'make sense' by the reformist villagers include: the concept of Trinity; Original Sin and its inheritance; the Redemption of sin by Jesus Christ; several self-contradictory verses in the Bible on the nature of God; and other contradictory statements in the Bible. They attack these problems resorting to an analogy based on akal: as 1+1+1 should be 3 rather than 1, so God, the son of God and Holy Spirit cannot be one; as the child cannot be responsible for the crime of his or her father, so no sin can be inherited from Adam by later generations; if Jesus Christ is God, He cannot ask of Himself the Redemption of sin; many passages in the Old Testament ascribe to God the human qualities of anger, shame, regret and so on and these are contradictory to the attribute of God transcending humanity; and while one passage in the Bible teaches that it was handed down only for the Jews, in another, the Bible was said to be revealed for all human beings.

These examples are used by the reformist villagers as proofs that theological themes in Christianity and the contents of the Bible do not 'make sense'. This enables them to argue that the Bible is not revelation from God. If it is from God, there should be no contradictions or inconsistencies in its contents which can easily be discerned by human akal. This argument eventually leads to the thesis that Christianity is a man-made religion which has totally deviated from the teaching of God and that Islam is superior to Christianity.