A look at Muhammadiyah from West Kalimantan

By Bianca Rajan

“Becoming international starts in your head, you have to open your mind to an outside world. Learn different ways of life, and different religions.” These were the words spoken to me at an internationalization seminar for a well-known Islamic organization in Indonesia called Muhammadiyah. The conference room was packed with eager teachers and professors. They came from every educational level: universities, high schools, and kindergartens alike; all present to develop a young Muslim population to become more engaged in class, proficient in English, and cognizant of a broader world.

I came to Indonesia with the notion that I would be teaching at a firm and conservative Islamic high school — possibly even resistant or skeptical to certain strains of outside influence — but my co-teachers quickly transformed my view and heightened my awareness of the subtle complexities and historical intricacies that affect the way Islam is implemented in each city. The high school I teach at, SMA Muhammadiyah I, is not run by the government, but is a private religious, social, and educational institution. I have been welcomed into Muhammadiyah with the utmost enthusiasm and kindness, and this has caused me to seek out a broader understanding of the organization, so here’s a quick look at what I’ve found.


#selfie Muhammadiyah students

Muhammadiyah is the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, with 29 million members, not to be confused with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest “traditionalist” organization. A product of mainstream Sunni Islam, Muhammadiyah organization rejects many of the views that are brought to mind by ‘sharia’ Islamic law, Sufi Brotherhoods, and others that “may not address the needs of modern day society.”[i].

Muhammadiyah’s ideology stems from a reformist movement: “it seeks to heighten people’s sense of moral responsibility, and to purify the faith of what it regards as outdated traditions or corruptions of true Islam.”[ii]. Both Muhammdiyah and NU are leaders in the realm of education in Indonesia, and Muhammadiyah in particular has “instituted schools after the Western model in which secular subjects are taught in addition to religious ones. These schools educate Muslim children to be adaptable to the ways of life in the modern urban world”[iii].


10th Grade class project

I teach at a Muslim school, with a prayer to open every class period. My students are taught to have a deep sense of spirituality and full devotion to Islam. At the same time, SMA Muhammadiyah I welcomes me as a teacher with foreign thought, from a secular community. Religious pluralism is alive and growing in West Kalimantan, and the foreign teacher is truly getting the education.

About the author: Bianca Rajan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. Originally from Maui, Hawai”i she graduated from Washington and Jefferson College with a degree in International Studies and Art. 

[i]   “Muhammadiyah.” Muhammadiyah. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://www.philtar.ac.uk/encyclopedia/indon/muham.html>.


[iii] “Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah Not in ‘all-out’ War.” The Jakarta Post. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. <http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2001/01/08/nahdlatul-ulama-muhammadiyah-not-039allout039-war.html>

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