Getting from Montreal to Makassar is not a picnic. During the thirty-six hours my partner and I spend in transit, we debate whether it is more important to teach public health or philosophy in Indonesia, because this is the reason for our three-week trip to the capital of the Indonesian province of Sulawesi. We both teach at McGill University: my partner is a medical doctor, specializing in public health; I’m a historian of philosophy, working, among other things, on Muslim and Jewish thought. The classes we give at Alauddin State Islamic University—one of fourteen academic institutions in Indonesia that make up the public system of Islamic higher education under the auspices of the ministry of religious affairs—are part of a McGill-based Indonesia Social Equity Project, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Nobody denies the usefulness of teaching medicine and public health, especially in a developing country. But why does CIDA send a philosopher instead of a second doctor or, for that matter, a social worker, an engineer, or an economist? Someone, in other words, whose expertise is of immediate use for improving the living conditions of Indonesians? Most people—in Indonesia and elsewhere—don’t even know that the problems philosophers turn over in their minds exist. Much less do they feel the need to understand or resolve them. Are their lives any less happy for that reason? Many would say that the opposite is the case.
In fact, philosophy can play an important role in the world’s largest Muslim country (of the 240 million inhabitants about 88 percent are Muslim, equaling the number of Muslims in the entire Middle East). Present-day Indonesia, at least as it presents itself to me, is a gigantic intellectual and political laboratory, where Islam is not only trying to come to terms with democracy but also with the country’s long-standing commitments to religious pluralism, modernization, and the construction of a national identity. Coping peacefully with the tensions that this process generates will require a good deal of creative thinking. It is here that the tools of philosophy may prove useful.
About twenty students have registered for my class. All are doing graduate work in the different departments of the Faculty of Islamic Studies: in Islamic exegesis, history, and education, for example, and a few also in usul al-din, the philosophical and theological foundations of religion. Because I don’t speak Bahasa Indonesian, the country’s national language, class discussions take place in Arabic and English. Together we examine the relationship between ethics, politics, and religion: first in Plato and Aristotle and then in medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers who creatively adapted the Greeks’ conceptual framework in order to interpret Islam and Judaism as philosophical religions. Although the texts are old, the questions they raise often turn out to be very much alive f...
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