Indonesia is the largest Muslim populated country in the world, but its Islam has frequently been considered peripheral and superficial by outsiders, including some scholars. It is true that geographically Indonesia located is far away from Mecca and Medina, the center of Islam, and the Islamization of the Indonesian regions started much later than that of the Middle East. In fact, Indonesian Muslims continuously learn Islam from Islamic scholars of the Middle East, but at the same time they also contextualize what they have learned to the Indonesian situation. It is normal that Islamic beliefs and practices interact with local culture. There is truly no such thing on earth as a pure Islam as long as it is followed by human beings who live in a specific social and cultural context. In this sense, Islam in Indonesia should be considered equal to that of others.
As a big and very diverse country, Indonesian Muslims come from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures which influence their respective religious practices. The variety of the Indonesian Muslim cultural backgrounds enriches Indonesian Islam itself, but at the same time, it can also become the source of conflict and disintegration. One of the ways to manage the diversity peacefully is to practice democracy. While the Muslims in other countries still have a “hot” debate on whether Islam is compatible with democracy, Indonesian Muslims have already decided to practice it, at least since the fall of the Soeharto administration in 1998. Indonesia is the third largest country practicing democracy in the world, and one of a very few democratic Muslim populated countries today. Consequently, Indonesian society becomes a relatively open where various religions and cultures, including different schools of Islam along the line from radical to liberal, are found in Indonesia.
In addition, Indonesian Muslims do not only study Islam in the Middle East, but also in India, Pakistan and even in Western countries. They study abroad, and come back home, bringing new ideas and at the same time making them relevant to the Indonesian context. Besides studying abroad, Indonesian Muslims have developed their own Islamic institutions of learning. The earliest form of the institution is called Pesantren (Islamic Boarding Schools). Thousands of Pesantren are found in Indonesia, located in almost every province of the country. There are also thousands of Islamic schools called Madrasah around the country, from elementary to secondary levels. Since 1950s, Indonesia has also developed its Islamic higher education institutions. Today, there are 56 public Islamic higher institutions funded by the state, while there are hundreds of similar institutions supported by private foundations.
Since its early developments, the academic study of Islam in the Indonesian Islamic higher institutions has tried to combine the traditional model of the Middle East, especially that of al-Azhar, and the modern model of the Western scholarship. The textual and normative approach of the Middle East is enriched by the empirical and socio-historical analysis of the West, and vise-versa. The academic and critical discourses on Islam found its heyday during the reign of Soeharto, especially in the 1970s to the 1990s. Soeharto’s political policy was to prevent Islam from practical politics, while Islam as a cultural movement was tolerated. This situation eventually opened the door for Muslim intellectuals to pay more attention to Islamic discourses, especially in terms of how Islamic teachings should face the challenges of modernity.
The Annual International Conference on Islamic Studies (AICIS) is actually one of the “fruits” of the development of Islamic studies during the Soeharto period. It is not surprising, therefore, that the embryo of the AICIS was a meeting of Islamic scholars in Semarang, 2001. It was the year when Indonesia just started the new era called “the reformation era”, after having some troubles of transition from the authoritarian regime to the democratic one. The early promoters of the AICIS were the Forum of Directors of Postgraduate Programs of the State Islamic Higher Institutions. What they had in mind was to have a conference similar to the Middle Eastern Studies Association Conference, American Academy of Religion and the like.
In the beginning, the conference was simply attended by the Indonesian researchers from the state Islamic higher institutions, especially from the graduate programs. Later on, it is expanded becoming larger in terms of the number of the attendants and institution involved where scholars from various universities and countries also come to present their papers. It is also intentionally decided that the venue of the AICIS is always different, moving from one city to another in Indonesia. It is not only to attract scholars to come but also to introduce the rich variety of Indonesian regions and cultures. Through the AICIS, it is expected that the new developments of research in Islamic higher institutions can be shared, discussed and disseminated. It is also a forum for scholars to develop network and cooperation, not only at the national level, but also at the international one. Finally, the AICIS is a forum where the Indonesian scholars can participate in the international academic discourses which in turn introduce them to the international audience and environment.