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Secularism as Imagined in the Malay-Indonesian World: Resistance and its Muted Counter Responses in the Discursive and Public Realms
June 3, 2016 by Dr Azhar Ibrahim
“Secularism means the world of time, the world of history, and above all that made by human beings, which can be understood because it is made by human beings.” [Edward W Said]
In Muslim Southeast Asia (namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei) to speak of secularism is invariably connotes to this worldly, un-Islamic, ungodly, or simply aberrant or irreligious for any adherents to embrace it. There is generally a preoccupation on the subject of secularism, not of course in championing it, but an outright dismissal and rejection. The word itself becomes a blanket bad word for all that is against or contrary to Islam, to the Islamic system, to the Islamic tasawur, or to the Islamic polity, as championed by the political and cultural Islamists. There is a tendency to conflate between secularism and the secular state, and often the problems raised based on these two conflating concepts are based on text-book concepts, with some semantic pretensions, without any inkling to link it to the realities on the ground or the region. Moreover it is not uncommon the problems of secularism elsewhere, be it from the Middle East or from the Euro-America, are imagined as having equal parallel and effects in the local contexts.
Secularism is also associated with an absolute negativism, a product of the so-called Western atheism and relativism, or at best, amoral. It is also deemed as a source that would undermine Islam, if not relegating it altogether. Such distinction between the religious (read: Islam) and the secular is of course highly problematic. A point made by Abdullahi an-Naim is relevant here, as it has its parallel in the Malay-Indonesian discourse’s perception on secularism itself:
“The dichotomy between religious and secular discourses is supposed to emanate from differences in their respective frames of reference, methodology, and outcome. It is commonly assumed that since the first derives from the authority of scriptural or other religious sources and the second is premised on the supremacy of human reason and experience, the two types of discourse must also be different in their process and conclusions. Without disputing the existence of some differences between the two types of discourse, it seems clear to me that they overlap and interact so much that it would be misleading to maintain a sharp dichotomy between them… The danger of a strict dichotomy is that it can be manipulated either to exclude some people from the discussion or to give undue weight and authority to the views of others by virtue of their presumed ‘special’ qualification or status in ‘religious affairs.“
In the dominant parlance, secularism as an ideology or way of thinking is hardly distinguished from the secularization process or as part of modernity. No shades of secularity or secularism are tolerated, while conveniently generalizing the French laicism, Atarturk secularism, with those secularisms as found in Europe, America and Asia. Amongst the religious hardliners, the present ruling government and its judicial system is seen as secular one, not authentically Islamic, and therefore warrants to be replaced by an Islamic one.
The propensity of denouncing secularism has come to a point that the denouncers almost pontificate in absolute terms, dismissing the secularists as liberals or simply wayward Muslims whose ideological position must be corrected, or if necessary wedded out. Hence it is no surprise that there is no engaging discourses of “dialoguing” with the so-called secularists, as to begin with, there is hardly any group that openly labelling themselves as secularist. When probed further by asking who are the secularists, it would be challenging for these denouncers to name the so-called secularists opponents. In other words while they feverishly denouncing secularism, they could not name or identify concretely the secularist, based on the very traits and definition which they have given to those purported as secularists.
Sources of Resistance
The source of this resistance, and its consequence-muted reception can be traced to a number of factors. Among others, (a) it emerged from the negative perception on Western model of state and governance; (b) the perception on the Turkish secularism which deemed as the obliteration of Islam, apart from the Arab secularist tendency of Baathist; (c) the propagation of Islamist discourse from Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood, and Maududian Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia; (d) the writings of the famous contemporary fiqh expert of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi; (e) the pervasive reception on the writings of Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas, a highly revered scholar in Malaysia; (e) the disputation of Nurcholish Madjid’s thesis on desekularisasi; and (f) the emergence of political and cultural Islamism that call for the establishment of an Islamic order (Islamic State) where all the present order is targeted as secular and therefore un-Islamic. There are plethora of writings that plainly condemn secularism, often repeating what had been said earlier, but with more stinging vehemence against it, it has becomes a point that many see it as the ultimate predicament of Muslims in the present. To trace the source of how secularism penetrated deep should therefore be one of our discursive concerns.
The Vehemence Manifested
This vehemence against secularism manifests in various realms, from religion and politics to culture and literature. This is another line of research that needs to be deliberated before we can Some in area of academic scholarship; some in socio-cultural circles, some obviously in religious discourse, and of course in political articulations. This sheer misperception on secularism is aggravated by the fact that there is hardly any counter deliberation. Those in the “liberal” camp are almost silent since to speak in favour of secularism, they will immediately be labelled as those outside the pale of Islam. Thus secularism in the Islamist, traditionalist and revivalist version dominate the discursive, making it, as one of the Western import concepts that has the greatest currency within the local discourse, and appropriated extensively for the wrong reason.
An interesting facet in Malaysia, for instance, is on the pervasiveness of the dismissal and attack against secularism. Upon prodding further, and when asked who are the secularists in the Malaysian (or even the Indonesian) contexts, it will not be an easy one to be identified. While in North African or West Asian contexts one can named quite easily the secularist camp or figures, that will not be the case in the Malay Indonesian case. In our case, one could hardly point to any secularist regime that prevent or deny religion any public presence or part of policymaking considerations. Obviously the problem of secularism as deliberated and repeated is one that is characterized by an unthinking borrowing or import of ideas elsewhere, assuming that those problems have its parallel in the local contexts. It is not uncommon that secularism, which is somehow linked to liberalism, is seen as a threat to Islam and the wellbeing of Muslims.
Ideologues of anti-secularism
The specter of secularism in Malay discourse began since Syed Muhammad Naguib Al-Attas’ lecture and publication of Islam and Secularism. This dismissal and condemnation of secularism made vis a vis deliberating on the authentic Islamic approach became ever more popular, and later on, repeated continuously by many writers and scholars, especially in the discourse of Islam in Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei context. As there are close cultural and intellectual connections between these Malay-Muslims societies, it is surprising that secularism became the prime target amongst the revivalists, although theoretically speaking al-Attas’ affiliation is more traditionalistic than the revivalist in stance and tenor. Secularism becomes an antithesis to authentic Islam, which is deemed as a holistic system or way of life that can be the antidote of all modern frailties and excesses. It is interesting to note that while al-Attas’ discussion on secularism is an epistemic concern, his ideas have been appropriated by those who have their own political interest for the establishment of an Islamic state; though it is very clear that Al-Attas hardly made any reference for the establishment of an Islamic political entity.
Another fatal attack on secularism was made in Muhammad Kamal Hassan’s doctoral thesis that primarily target at Nurcholish Madjid’s desekularisasi, which had great consequence in not only Malaysian readers shunning to read the liberal writings of Nurcholish, but also led to the general perception that Indonesian Islam discourse as too liberal and misleading in many ways, and therefore has to be avoided. Today there are many writings that are replete with anti-secular stance, repeating throughout what have been made by S M Naguib al-Attas and Muhammad Kamal Hassan. In many sense, criticism against secularism and even the secular state has become an easy way to project one’s Islamic authenticity, where the bashing against secularism (including the West) would easily equate with the supremacy of Islam against all others human fallible creations. In some Malaysian academic circles, this anti-secularism stance has become a mainstream academic repertoire, alongside with the project of Islamisation of knowledge. As it is, in the popular discourse, anti-secularism rhetorics are not uncommon.
The call for greater Islamisation, both in the cultural and socio-political realms, especially in the Malaysian case, manifests the resistance to secularism. It is not surprised when political Islamist harped on the evils of the secular system, this is further entrenched by the anxiety to Islamicise the society (culturally, educationally, economically, or even recreationally), although the advocate of cultural Islamisation may be ambivalent on the subject of creating an Isamic state as championed by the political Islamist. But one common feature is that with such enthusiasm for Islamisation, the discursive site has given very little space for the issues and significance of democracy, human rights and civil liberties to be deliberated.
In sum, the study of on Islamisation in the Malaysian context is yet to be given a critical scrutiny, though some studies on the emergence of revivalist and Islamist circles could point to some useful references. Our understanding on the anti-secularism sentiment in Malaysia, or in the region, cannot be complete unless we probe critically on the euphoria for Islamisation which emerged by the late seventies, and hardly enervates even in the present decade.
Absence and Relegation of Critical Discourse on Contemporary Islam
A relative absence of critical scholarship on Islam by Indonesian reformist circles in Malaysian Muslim discourse is very telling, indicating the strong grip of revivalist and conservative stance in the Malaysian Islam discourse. While critical Islam discourse emerged in Indonesia the same cannot be said in Malaysia, and even in the case where it exist, it is generally muted and marginalised. The translation of critical works of contemporary Muslim scholars and thinkers which are commonly found in Indonesia neverhas its parallel in Malaysia, especially in the Malay-medium discourse. The works of Fazlur Rahman, Mohamed Arkoun, Bassam Tibi, Abdullahi an-Naim, Jabed al-Jaberi, Muhammad Syahrur, Khaled Abou el-Fadl, Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, Sami Zubaida, Asghar Ali Engineer, Nader Hashemi and few others are hardly known or their ideas discussed in the dominant discourse.
Absence of Critical Social Sciences
Moreover in the relative absence of a critical social science discourse in Malaysia, the discussion on concepts of secularity, secularism, modernity, democracy and the like hardly contribute to shed light on the nature and dynamics of secularism. There are Malaysian social scientist that have probed into this subject, but their position remains within the academic realm, hardly making impact in Muslim public discourse that feverishly denouncing secularism, or those works which are rather apologetic to the Islamists’ position in denouncing secularism.
Instead we find countless repetitions of al-Attas’ attack on secularism to a point that by even dismissing it, one can automatically identify himself or herself as bearing an Islamically authentic position. In this thinking, it is imperative that the Islamic alternative based on the “authentic Islamic” worldview (tasawwur) takes a stand against the debilitating effect of secularism. One such utterance can be quoted here:
“pemikiran sekular boleh dihinggapi oleh mereka yang bergelar Muslim jika konsep dan tasawwur Islam yang betul tidak diterapkan kepada mereka. Ini juga adalah kerana ummat Islam, semenjak zaman penjajahan telah pun terdedah kepada sistem pendidikan dualistik. Kesyumulan Islam seolah-olah tidak diakui dalam pendidikan umum, walaupun kebebasan beragama diakui secara dasarnya.”
Thus it is no surprise that there is a sheer inability to distinguish between the process of secularization in society and secularism as a socio-political outlook. The dichotomic distinction of the religious and secular is not only intellectually problematic but it also generates psychological anxiety, since the secular phenomenon is deemed as necessarily irreligious or could undermine religion itself. To accept or tolerate the secular institution and system, it seems to suggest that he or she does not take Islam holistically. Hence the present system, which is the creation of the secular West, is therefore an antithesis to Islam.
Islamic Political Party against Secular Structures
There are serious ramifications for the persistency of this anti-secularism as uttered in Malay-Indonesian discourse. The imagined specter of secularism in itself a product of an ahistorical and asociological mind inasmuch as it suggest a certain tendency of religious exclusivity at work. This matter is further aggravated when the Islamic political parties or NGOs that are in opposition against the ruling government, easily condemning the present system as secular that must be removed and combated, with an Islamic state or system in its place. With the long dominance of the specter of secularism in Malay-Indonesian religious, socio-cultural and political thought, it means very little interest and space to deliberate on the concepts of democracy, civil rights, freedom and liberty, human rights, citizenship and the like. As dismissal of secularism takes a center-stage, there can be hardly any consistent discourse on those areas mentioned above.
PAS, the Islamic opposition party in Malaysia see their political adversary, UMNO as secular for the fact that the latter opposed to the implemenation of the hudud or sharia law. Similarly in the Indonesian case, the Islamic political parties, especially the hardliners, easily denouncing their political opponents as secular, which therefore irreligious, if not antipathy to the Muslims’ cause. As their main concern is the establishment of an Islamic State, the intellectual and political concern is therefore not directed on engaging and deliberating extensively on democracy, constitutional and civil rights, nor even concern to expouse the primacy of Rukun Negara, the supposedly national ideals of the country. By way of comparison, the debate on the Pancasila state of Indonesia in the early decades of independence saw sober exchanges on the notion of secular state in the Indonesian framework that recognized plurality of the archipelagic nation, as opposed to the idea of the Islamic state, which was advocated by some quarters in Malaysia.
Engaging and Grappling with the Secular
Unlike in the Middle East (especially Egypt), there is yet to be any significant debate between Islamism and secularism in Muslim Southeast Asia. Instead we see overt denouncement against secularism, often in emotive tone, yet empty in substance. Mere dismissal and condemnation means the inability to engage deeply and seriously on the process of secularisation that are taking place in society, while persisting myth created that the religious paradigm can insulate man from the excesses of secularism, yet without realising that what constitute today as religious tradition has element of secular dimension in it.
This denouncement against secular and secularism is also contributed by fundamentalist theology. The ills of the modern world are invariably link to secularism. The very potential of religion to be enhanced and expand in a secular setting is hardly recognised, a point made brilliantly in Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (2013). The longer the Muslims take to come into terms to the reality of secularity in the modern life, the more difficult challenges will come ahead. Instead we find a baffling contradiction. While many Muslims reject the division of the profane and the sacred, claiming the integral and holistic Islamic worldview, yet we find the ease to relegate many aspects of the modern world as secular. This is not unlike the claims that the origin of modern knowledge has its origin from the achievement of Muslims in medieval times, yet today Western knowledge should be shunned for all its excesses, unless it is first “Islamised.”
Comparative Insights By way of comparison, between the Malaysian and Indonesian discourse we can see the extent of which the issue of secularism has been the target of criticisms. There are surely objections of secularism in Indonesia, but it is not as extensive and repetitive as in the Malaysian scene. The Islamic discourse terrain in Indonesia is more varied, such that no circle could sway a bigger monopoly in the discourse. Interestingly in the case of Singapore, where the island republic is very much under a secular system, Muslims discourse is still repleted of the objection of the secular and secularism, especially during the height of dakwah revivalism, with certain circles still harbor for the imagined Islamic system, if not an Islamic state altogether.
In the context where there are overt political rivalries amongst political parties for electoral support, it is not uncommon the attack on secularism has been one the staple of the Islamic parties to outdo their other political rivals. In Malaysia for instance, the main Islamic party PAS, for a very long time had dismissed UMNO as the irreligious deviant secular (sekular yang songsang). Recently, PAS’ President Abdul Hadi Awang during his speech at Muktamar PAS (2015), dismissed his ally PKR as pragmatic secular, while DAP as socialist secular.
What is very clear in Malaysia is that the objection and dismissal against secularism is largely in the hands of Islamists and its sympathizers. Actually secularism is a term that is clearly demonized and dismissed, without much thought to it. Of course we are not expecting a kind of defense of secularism – as there is no need to – but the least is to unravel the ideological and sociological ramifications that have beset the minds of many Muslims with their anxieties and preoccupation on insisting the dangers of secularism, while at the same time they remained silent on many others challenging issues.
Such thinking that relates all human and societal predicaments to secularism is indicative of a closed mind unable to see beyond rhetorics and naïve of power manipulations behind the religious symbolism and pontification. In fact the recent anxieties over Islam Liberal have close links with the anti-secularism antics. The propagators of Islam Liberal are seen as having the agenda to spread the idea of secularism amongst Muslims.
In the Indonesian discursive realms we can identify attempts to make sense of the process of secularisation that are taking place in society, while the discussion of secularism or secular state have been taken up by a few scholars and activists, thus minimising the monopoly of the Islamist circles in defining and refuting secularism and its incarnated evils of pluralism, liberalism, relativism and atheism. A more critical and intellectualised religious discourse, especially initiated by those from the santris background, have ensured that the anxieties and rhetorics against secularism do not dominate the discursive domains, as more important issues and problems deserved to be given attention in the Indonesian religious, social and intellectual discourse.
This is not to say that anti-secularism discourse is passive or weak in Indonesia. Indeed in the post-Reformasi era saw the plethora of works on Islam, and the topic of secularism has been taken up by Islamist and Salafist circles that promote the idea of an Islamic State or for the extensive Islamisation of the Indonesian society. Even in the pre-Reformasi era, there were strong objections against the reformist Nurcholish Madjid, seen as promoter of secularism in Indonesia. It is interesting to note that Indonesian student who have studied in ISTAC or the International Islamic University of Malaysia, have become visible characters in Indonesia who projected the anti-secularism discourse, apart from taking the lead in the Islam-Liberal mongering. There are many translated works from Arabic to Indonesian on similar topic that are in circulation today, which can also be found in the Muslim bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore.
Most importantly, the repeated denouncement against secularism – though valid on some points – have tremendous consequences. Psychologically it induced a narcissistic sense of the superiority of the Islamic thought. Intellectually, it circumscribed the interest to discover and learn from other competing and alternative discourse. With the preoccupation on “battling’” secularism, other pertinent concepts or problems could not find much currency or simply relegated. As such human and civil rights, democracy and public accountability, citizenship and political literacy cannot be deliberated in the real sense of the term. This is the very consequence of the overt concerns on the so-called secularism. Thus it is no surprise that discursive realms amongst Muslims – especially in Malaysia and to some extent Singapore – could not go beyond this anxieties over secularism.
To date there is no extensive critiques on this preoccupation, both in the Malaysian and Indonesian scenes. I hope future studies could provide vital insights into Muslims’ perceptions on the present order – often read as secular – vis a vis the religious Islamic order which they imagined and insisted as legitimate and relevant for their present and future. Most importantly, the timidity to scrutinize the very idea of secularism as commonly perceived, at both elite and public level, would mean that important concepts and ideas are considered outside the realm of discourse for Muslims to engage, grapple and contest. A critical and confident progressive Muslim discourse in scrutinizing and engaging the Islamists’ anti-secularism rhetoric is therefore imperative. To remain silent and ambivalent about this issue will be naïve; if not tragic.
It is therefore not too far-fetched to say that anti-secularism sentiments are disruptive to a healthy development of democracy, human rights and civil liberties. It is not simply Muslims’ responses against the effects of modernity – deemed as secular – but an exclusivists’ response that insist on their supposedly authentic Islamic model, be it in the realms of politics, culture, education, social and economy. Loaded and justified with religious sanctions, often made in absolute terms, there will be hardly any space for other paradigms or models to be appropriated. In such a situation only the Islamists position stands. The very attack on the imagined secularism eventually will have deep consequences on democracy, human and legal rights, civil liberties, plurality and the like.
This must not be allowed to happen.
Dr Azhar Ibrahim is a Lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS).
 Abdullahi An-Naim, “The Dichotomy between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,” p. 412
 This is unlike in the case of Egypt where the Islamists as opponents of secularism have been in fierce battle of contestations and ‘dialogue’ with their secularists adversaries, or those whom they deemed as secularists. See, Fauzi M Najjar, “The debate on Islam and secularism in Egypt” Arab Studies Quarterly, 18,2, Spring 1996, pp. 1-19.
 Abd Karim Ali & Mohd Roslan Mohd Nor, “Agenda Sekularisasi di Sebalik Pemikiran Anti-Hadis dan Islam Liberal: Suatu Kupasan Epistemologikal” in Azmil bin Zainal Abidin, Islam Liberal: Isu dan Cabaran. (Seloangor: Persatuan Ulama’ Malaysia, 2009)
 Syed Muhammad Naguib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism. ( Kuala Lumpur: ABIM, 1978 )
 Nurcholish Madjid, “Sekularisasi Ditinjau Kembali” Islam Kemodernan Dan Keindonesiaan. (Jakarta: Mizan Media Utama, 1987)
 Haslinda Binti Hasan, Sekularisme : sejarah kelahiran dan kesannya terhadap peradaban Islam dengan penumpuan terhadap serangan pemikiran. Thesis M.A.–Fakulti Sastera & Sains Sosial, Universiti Malaya, 2000 ; Mohd Abd Basir Bin Alias Pemikran politik sekular di Malaysia : suatu kajian terhadap respon pemikiran Islam semasa. Thesis (Sarjana Usuluddin)–Jabatan Akidah dan Pemikiran Islam, Bahagian Pengajian Usuluddin, Akademi Pengajian Islam, Universiti Malaya, 2000 ; Abdul Basir Alias, Ancaman Nasionalis Sekular Ekstrim di Malaysia. (Bangi: As-Syabab Media, 2002)
 Dari kesedaran menuju kebangkitan: Islam vs sekularisme. Penyusun, Nizamuddin Isemaail As-Sudani, Majmaa Abu Nour, Syria. (Kuala Lumpur : Maktabah Nizam, 2012)
 Though in some Indonesian circles such topics have gained much attention. The publication of Mohmmaed Arkoun’s works may attest this. Read Mohamed Arkoun’s Islam Agama Sekuler: Penelurusan Sekularisme dalam Agama-agama di Dunia. ( Yogjakarta: Belukar, 2003 ).
 A. Halim Ali, “Secularization: An Inevitable Path for Social Change in Muslim Society” Jurnal Antropologi dan Sosiologi. No. 20, 1993, pp. 91-107
 “Cabaran Sekularisasi dan Globalisasi Barat kepada Harakah Islamiyah Nusantara: Perspektif Singapura,” Risalah, Bil.4, July-Sept 2001.
 Bassam Tibi, Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change. Trans. Clare Krojzl. ( Boulder: Westview Press, 1990)
 Ainon Muhammad. “Sekularisme Pentadbiran Negara Dijalankan Terkeluar dari Hukum Agama,” Dewan Masyarakat, Jil. XXIII, Bil, II.
 Interestingly too that UMNO also hardly pays attention on the deliberation of the significance of Rukun Negara, as the ruling elite and the state is driven primarily on securing and legitimizing New Economic Policy and later the Islamisation drive.
 In which the Malay-speaking discourse in Singapore and Brunei falls within the Malaysian orbit.
 PERGAS. “Cabaran Sekularisasi dan Globalisasi Barat kepada Harakah Islamiyah Nusantara: Perspektif Singapura,” Risalah, Bil.4, July-Sept 2001 ;
 Zairi Khir Johari, “The demonization of secularism,” The Malaysian Insider, 17 June 2015
 Abd Karim Ali & Mohd Roslan Mohd Nor, “Agenda Sekularisasi di Sebalik Pemikiran Anti-Hadis dan Islam Liberal: Suatu Kupasan Epistenologikal oleh. Azmil bin Zainal Abidin” Islam Liberal: Isu dan Cabaran. (Selangor: Persatuan Ulama’ Malaysia, 2009)
 Luthfi Assyaukanie Islam and the Secular State in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009)
 See for example, Laode Ida, “Wacana dan Aksi Desekralisasi Politik dan Tradisi ke Arah Sekularisasi” NU Muda: Kaum Progresif dan Sekularisme Baru. (Jakarta: Penerbit Erlangga, 2004) ; Yasmadi, “Sekularisasi” Modernisasi Pesantren: Kritik Norcholish Madjid Terhadap Pendidikan Islam Tradisional (Ciputat: Quantum Teaches, 2005); Ahmad Gaus AF, “Sekularisasi” Api Islam Nurcholish Madjid: Jalan Hidup Seorang Visioner (Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas, 2010)
 H. M Rasjidi. Koreksi terhadap Drs. Nurcholis Madjid tentang sekularisasi (Jakarta : Bulan Bintang, 1977).; A.M. Saefuddin et al. Desekularisasi pemikiran : landasan Islamisasi; pengantar, Jujun S. Suriasumantri. (Bandung : Mizan, 1987) ; Faisal Ismail, Membongkar Kerancuan: Pemikiran Nurcholish Madjid Seputar Isu Sekularisasi dalam Islam. (Jakarta: Lasswell, 2010)
 In many cases they were students of Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas or Muhammad Kamal Hassan at ISTAC/IIUM
 See Adian Husaini, Mengapa Barat menjadi Sekular-Liberal? ( Ponorogo: CIOS & ISID, 2007) ; M Syukri Ismail, Kritik Terhadap Sekularisme ( Pandangan Yusuf Qardhawi) ( Ponorogo: CIOS & ISID, 2007) ; Hamid Fahmy Zarkasyi, Adnin Armas, Adian Husaini, Tantangan sekularisasi & liberalisasi di dunia Islam. (Jakarta : Khairul Bayan, 2004)
 Muhammad Syakir Syarif, Bahaya Sekularisme. (Solo: At-Tibyan, n.d.)