Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab is one of the few Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia to ever occupy a government position. He was foreign affairs minister (1999-2001) and coordinating minister for people’s welfare (2004-2005).
In the Western world, he is known as a spokesperson for Islam. Alwi was the first expert on Islam to be appointed to the Board of Trustees, Center for the Study of World Religions, an institution affiliated with the Harvard Divinity School in the US.
Understandably, when violence in the name of Islam occurs in this country, Alwi becomes enraged. Islam, according to him, is imbued with love and the Koran is a scripture that teaches tolerance.
Varying religious views should not provoke believers. Such differences, he maintained, should serve as a means of enriching their thoughts instead of triggering hostility, and a way of embarking on mutual assistance and virtuous conduct.
Alwi, who was born in Rappang, South Sulawesi, on Aug. 19, 1946, said that the emergence of Islamic groups branding others as unbelievers had opposed the basic spirit of Islam. The author of Islam Inklusif (Inclusive Islam, 1997), he deplores the Sunni-Shia conflict.
According to him, the beliefs of Shiites have no fundamental difference from that of Sunnis. Alwi said that frequent Sunni-Shia conflict in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq are due to reasons related to power and politics coupled with blind fanaticism. “It’s not due to ideological differences,” stressed Alwi, who earned his master’s degree from Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt.
Holding the same degree from Temple University, USA (1992), Alwi obtained his doctorates from Ain Shams University, Egypt (1990), and Temple University (1995). He spent his youth in Makassar (South Sulawesi), Malang (East Java) and Cairo, with his first degree in philosophical belief from the State Islamic Institute of Ujung Pandang (now Makassar).
Alwi also regretted the violence against Ahmadis and some churches. He said the Ahmadis and churches should be respected and that violence should be avoided. As noted by Alwi, the groups labeling others as unbelievers and heretics in Indonesia are actually small in number but they have funds and can influence the media to spread their ideas, such as literal and rigid Islamic doctrines through radio broadcasts.
“If this is left unchecked, there may be bloodshed in Indonesia,” the former minister of foreign affairs under president Abdurrahman Wahid warned.
Proposing a solution to this problem, Alwi emphasized the importance of propagating Islam imbued with solace, peace and compassion in society.
Through the Bina Bangsa Foundation, he is preparing a book highlighting the views of leading Islamic figures in Indonesia regarding current topical issues. “Through this book, people can refer to the thoughts of noted Islamic scholars like KH Said Agil Siradj, Quraish Shihab, Qomarudin Hidayat, Syafii Maarif, Azyumardi Azra and others with moderate Islamic views.”
Alwi is also preparing a revision of his book Islam Inklusif, once a bestseller. In the upcoming new edition he will include his lectures, which invite Muslims to disseminate Islamic ideas that are suffused with rahmatan lil alamin (compassion for other communities).
His experience as foreign minister led him to the establishment of a consulting institution called the Indonesia Mid-East Consultancy. He was also named government affairs committee chairman of the Fetzer Institute, a US agency promoting “love and forgiveness in the world”. As a Board of Trustees member of Hardford Seminary, Connecticut, USA, Alwi visits the US three times a year to attend regular meetings. He is also global vice president of Sun Moon University, Korea, which necessitates him to visit that country every three-four months. In Indonesia’s academic world, Alwi is a member of the Board of Trustees, University of Indonesia, headed by KH Said Agil Siradj.
The one-time chairman of the National Awakening Party (2002-2005), Alwi has also written various articles and books to spread hospitable Islam, including Membendung Arus (Muhammadiyah Movement and Its Controversy with Christian Mission, 1998), Islam Sufistik (Sufistic Islam, 2001), Akar Tasawuf di Indonesia (The Root of Sufism in Indonesia, 2009) and Examining Islam in the West (2011).
Some time ago, along with several Islamic figures such as Haidar Bagir (president director of Mizan Group), Qomarudin Hidayat (rector of Jakarta State Islamic University), and Jimly Assidiqi (former Constitution Court chairman), he was involved in Gerakan Islam Cinta, a movement aimed at reviving the main aspects of Islamic teachings: love and compassion.
“We have the moral responsibility to enlighten those who are ignorant [of the aspects of love and compassion in Islam]. With the narrow understanding of Islam (as a mere religion of law) lately, I’m truly motivated to have greater participation,” he said at the declaration of the movement in Jakarta, as quoted from Mizan’s website.