by Kate Hoving
The Reves Faculty Fellows program supports a faculty international research project with no restriction on academic discipline, but it must involve student-faculty collaborations on research, teaching, and learning.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Oludamini Ogunnaike’s 2018 proposal to travel to Jakarta, Indonesia, to conduct research was as articulate and organized as it was innovative. His first application for a Reves Fellowship, it not only met all the requirements, but it also promised to provide a unique opportunity for student-faculty collaboration while bringing a fresh perspective and line of inquiry into a unique spiritual tradition:
“The fellowship would support a four-week study of learning communities of Islamic Philosophy and Sufism in Jakarta, focusing on the lived practice of these communities in addition to contemporary topics of debate in these traditions (mainly epistemology, the theorization of religious pluralism and gender, and critiques of both modern, Western philosophy and Salafism). The project will explore the vibrant, but grossly understudied, formal traditions of Islamic learning that take place outside of Western-style educational institutions, paying particular attention to the lived and communal aspects of these traditions. Students will learn about the methods and challenges of doing cross-cultural philosophy, as well as research and interview methods, theories, and techniques in their investigation of an intellectual and educational tradition different from their own.”
Professor Ogunnaike did not disappoint.
Why Muhammed Baqir
As the focus of his research, Ogunnaike chose Muhammed Baqir, a teacher of Islamic philosophy and a Sufi master, who runs an open learning center called Paramadina in Jakarta. “I met him at a conference on Islamic philosophy and we really hit it off,” explains Ogunnaike. “Most of the people at the conference were either western academics or people from the Middle East or Iran, and we were the only people who weren’t – I’m West African and he’s from Indonesia. We just hit it off with similar personalities and similar interests, and he invited me to come back to Indonesia.”
In 2016, Ogunnaike visited Baqir, attended classes at the Paramadina and was impressed. “He’s unique. He uses examples from contemporary movies and even cracks jokes,” Ogunnaike explains. “And then in the next sentence he can talk about Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts and Kant, and all of this will be to explain Mulla Sadra, a 17th century Islamic philosopher. He’s brilliant. I haven’t met too many people that can move between these different worlds very, very fluidly.”
Baqir also doesn’t fit central casting’s version of a traditional Islamic philosopher. “He looks like an aging rocker, wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts, jeans and Chuck Taylors. But he’s a fully trained mullah. He trained in Iran for 10 years and is extremely knowledgeable, but he’s also extremely accessible. He combines his intense, almost encyclopedic knowledge with this almost goofy persona.”
This combination of brilliance and flexibility in style and approach, sets Baqir apart. “In the Islamic world, there is the traditional system of education — madrassas or Quran schools — and then there are modern schools, which are taught according to western pedagogical paradigms, with conventional classrooms, pupils in chairs, textbooks, etc. Baqir’s classes combine both traditions in a way that I hadn’t seen before. As someone who studies Islamic epistemology and pedagogy, that was really fascinating to me. I wanted to learn more about it. Plus his community is just so nice and loving and welcoming. They really make you feel like you’re a part of the family.”
Baqir is known and respected in Indonesia, and has appeared on a few TV and radio shows, but he is by no means a celebrity or overexposed. Because Baqir hasn’t written much, he’s not become the subject of extensive research. “And yet, whenever I meet a member of Nahdlatul Ulama (a confederation of traditional Muslim scholars and one of the most powerful religious/political organizations in Indonesia), they all know Baqir,” Ogunnaike notes.
“What are you doing this summer?”
For some people that’s almost a rhetorical question, a way to fill empty spaces in conversation. But not for Ogunnaike, who was the freshman advisor for Divya Dureja ’21. She was struck by his genuine interest. “The impression I had gotten from classmates was that a pre-major advisor was just a person you went to for a code to register for classes, but I felt he was truly invested in my academic life.”
Ogunnaike remembers their conversation. “I was asking Divya what she was doing over the summer, because I ask all my advisees how they intend to make use of their summers. Are they working? Are they doing this or that? She answered me, ‘I don’t know.’”
Well, Ogunnaike had an idea; he asked Dureja to accompany him on his Reves Faculty Fellowship research trip. “I was really impressed by her. She was very intelligent. She had international travel experience, so I didn’t feel as if I’d have to babysit her the whole time, and she was taking my Introduction to Islam class, so she would have some of the background necessary.”
“I hadn’t been to Indonesia but I had been to India to visit family,” Dureja interjects.
“I felt she could benefit from it, and she could mix well with the people there and learn a lot. That totally turned out to be the case,” Ogunnaike continues. “When I WhatsApp Baqir and other people we met during our research, they’ll ask, ‘How’s Divya? What’s going on with her?’ Everybody loved her.”
In spite of her travel experience and maturity — or perhaps because of it — she also understood the challenges she might encounter. “I was really nervous,” Dureja acknowledges, “I think mainly because I can understand their point of view. Having an American woman coming and asking all these questions about their religious beliefs might not be comfortable for them. They knew [Professor Ogainnake], but they didn’t know me. But that was not the case at all. Everything he said about how welcoming they were was more than true. People there just wanted to get to know us and make us feel at home.”
A long trip across miles, history and traditions
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, but it also has a long history of religious and ethnic pluralism; it is an archipelago and each island has its own or several ethnicities and different languages. The national motto adopted on independence was Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means unity in diversity. Pre-Hindu and Pre-Buddhist religious traditions still survive on some of the islands, along with Kejawen, (a combination of pre- Buddhist, Hindu, and Javanese religious beliefs), Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism.
Ogunnaike and Dureja started their journey in Bali, in part to recover from the long flight, but also because they could literally follow in the path of history and culture. “One of the things that’s unique about [Baqir’s] group is their view on religious diversity and tolerance of different religions. I wanted us to start in Bali so we could get a sense of the Hindu-Buddhist background, and how that then influenced expressions of Sufism and Islam in Java,” Ogunnaike explains. “When the Islamic Demak Sultanate came to rule most of Java, they took over from the Majapahits, the Hindu rulers of Java who then fled to Bali. A lot of old Javanese culture is still there in Java, but it’s not that prominent. On the other hand, it’s the culture in Bali,” Ogunnaike explains.
They explored Bali for a few days, visiting sacred temples and attending dance performances. Then they went to Jakarta to begin taking classes and conducting interviews but also continued to take some side-trips. Everywhere they went they witnessed the way multiple traditions have survived and co-exist. There were examples of Hindu and Buddhist practices and traditions that survive alongside Islamic traditions. They visited Yogyakarta, which is a major cultural center on the island of Java, and saw Borobudur Temple, which is Buddhist. They also visited Prambanan, which is a Hindu temple, and saw a performance of the Ramayana. But they would always return to the core of their research at Baqir’s community or tariqah [a school or order of Sufism, led by a spiritual leader].
A different kind of classroom experience
“At Paramadina, Professor Ogunnaike and I would attend classes on the Study of the Quran and Islamic philosophy on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and evenings,” Dureja recounts. “When we were not in class, we sought out members of the tariqah for interviews.”
The structure of the classes was a lesson in itself. The Paradamina is located in a strip mall. There are banks and a McDonald’s next to it, so it attracts a wide range of people. Baqir’s educational practice is somewhere in between the official government western style curriculum and the traditional pesantren (what traditional medrasas are called in Indonesia). “It was cool for Divya and even for me to see,” Ogunnaike remarks. “It’s actually very similar to some of the things I’d seen in West Africa.”
Baqir incorporates both approaches in the same classroom. “He literally balances both traditions,” Ogunnaike describes. Half of the classroom is like a prayer area. The people from traditional pesantren education sit on the ground in the prayer area just as they would in a pesantren. The people who may have a more western-style educational background sit at western style desks.
The teaching combines different approaches. “He will use a blackboard and draw pictures and figures and notes like I do here,” says Ogunnaike. “But then he usually comments on a text, so he’ll either have the Quran open or a work of Islamic philosophy or work of Sufism and he’ll read it and translate it and comment on it just as they do in the traditional pesantren system.”
Baqir mainly teaches in bahasa, the Indonesian lingua franca, according to Ogunnaike. But when Ogunnaike and Dureja were in class, he would teach in both English and Bahasa. “He’d be reading something in Arabic, translate it into bahasa, and then translate it into English. He was doing trilingual teaching the whole time we were there,” Ogunnaike marvels. “That was very generous of him and of the people in the class, too. The educated elite in the class are fairly fluent in English, but most of the people are from the pesantren, and their knowledge of English is limited. They were all very patient because it slowed down his teaching.”
A true research partnership
Both Dureja and Ogunnaike conducted the research and interviews together. They started with the same standard questions for everyone:
- What is Sufism?
- What is Islamic philosophy?
- What is tradition and what is modernity?
- How would you explain "the transcendent unity of religions"?
“The main thing was to start with where they came from and what their educational background was, and then that would usually transition into how they had gotten to this point in their lives spiritually and how they had found the teaching center. From there we would get to the questions about what they had learned about Sufism,” Ogunnaike explains.
To their surprise, they found that their subjects very open to sharing all kinds of personal stories. “I knew some of these people before, but an interview is a totally different setting,” Ogunnaike notes. “I feel I got to understand not only them, but also the broader Indonesian and religious landscape a lot better seeing the different phases and stages that they went through and moved through until they found what they feel is their home now with Baqir. People went through different journeys… people who were born Muslim, converted to Christianity, came back. They were searching for something.”
Both Ogunnaike and Dureja found the most impressive outcome from Baqir’s teaching was the community that it created. “This was actually something that Divya added to our research questions,” Ogunnaike says. “I would ask them these questions about Islamic philosophy and Sufism, doctrine and practice and knowledge and all these things. And Divya would always come in with, ‘What’s the importance of community to your spiritual life?’ The community they have created that stands out the most. They eat together. They check in on each other. They hang out with each other and take care of each other.”
They also respect the differences within their community. They come from different ethnic groups and different parts of Indonesia and have very different personalities and different socio-economic backgrounds, Dureja explains. “One of the members is a manager of one of the biggest banks in Indonesia. You also have members who are very poor, but they respect each other. They hang out together. They joke with each other, talk to each other.”
Dureja learned that the strength of the community and the reason the members feel such a pull to be there is not about complacency or comfort or safety. “People told me that they came to classes and keep coming back because Baqir made arguments and asked questions that they had never asked themselves before. It was not what they had been taught by their local imam or Sunday school teacher, but they found it intellectually compelling. They kept coming back even when they disagreed with the teaching, because it satisfied their intellectual curiosity. That showed up in a lot of interviews that we did.”
Since returning, in addition to doing transcriptions, Ogunnaike and Dureja have both continued extensive background reading on contemporary Sufism in Indonesia. Dureja has written an excellent essay on the trip and what she learned. Their plan is to submit their co-authored article to a scholarly journal later this year.
Dureja will continue her studies in pre-med and religion. “I was very sure coming into college that I wanted to be a religious studies major, and felt that even more so now after the classes I’ve taken and the trip last summer.” She is determined to combine both disciplines. “I don’t know yet what branch of medicine I’ll pursue, but it’s good to be spiritually connected. Learning about different people’s traditions and faith gives you a lesson in empathy. I like that, and I think it will help me as a doctor.”
Ogunnaike has invited Baqir to William & Mary to participate in a COLL 300 program in fall 2019. But he is aware that as compelling as Baqir is personally and spiritually, the community, the school and the teaching are not just reflections of one person. Baqir teaches about 85% of the classes but he has assistants and is mindful of the need to train scholars to continue the teaching. “It’s not really about him,” Duraje notes. “People stay for his teaching, because it makes sense, which is what is really important.”
Ogunnaike says Baqir explains his role this way, as a lesson in logic, which is a preparatory subject in Islamic philosophy, with a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion. Baqir teaches the major premise: All men are mortal. The minor premise is: Baqir is a man. The conclusion is: Baqir is mortal. Baqir then explains there’s a middle term which both the major premise and the minor premise share and that disappears in the conclusion. In the example, that middle term is man. The teacher’s goal — Baqir’s goal — is to be that middle term — to connect the student to the truth and disappear.