Islam and Social Change: The Role of the Ulama in Acehnese Society explore the propagation of the role by Islamic scholars in spreading and cementing the Islamic influence throughout the entire region. Aceh, with a population of about three and a half million and situated on the northern tip of Sumatra island, is the only region in Indonesia nicknamed Serambi Makkah (The Veranda of Makkah; The Gateway to Makkah). This nickname is of considerable importance since it reflects the central role played by Islam in the lives of the people of Aceh. This tradition of Islamic int1uence is believed to have originated in the early centuries of the Islamic era as the religion spread to the archipelago, directly and indirectly, from the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, and India.
Some great ulama of the region e.g., Hamzah al-Fansuri, Shams al-Din al-Sumatrani, Nur al-Din al-Raniri, and Abd al-Rauf al-Sinkili of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have been credited with the propagation of the Islamic religion throughout Aceh and the surrounding region.
For more than two decades the reformist ulama played a significant role in Acehnese society. Over time, the traditional ulama from the pure dayah background were branded as ulama kolot (backward ulama) and their educational institutions came to be ridiculed. The more flamboyant appearance of the reformist ulama kept the dayah ulama in the shadows. The development of the Acehnese community within the Indonesian context required the reformist ulama to play a major role in politics. The coming of the Japanese to Aceh was also facilitated by the ulama. As a result, the Japanese administration in Aceh gave them a limited role in the bureaucracy, which also provoked jealousy from the uleebalangs.
The development of Indonesian politics, and the change of the central government policy towards Aceh, caused a serious problem in regard to the position of the ulama. The dismissal of Daud Beureueh from has a position as the military governor for Aceh, Langkat, and Karo, and the incorporation of Aceh into North Sumatra, resulted in a rebellion led by the reformist ulama. The ulama felt that they had been betrayed and humiliated. In due time, the traditional ulama will also face challenges.
In order to grasp the complexities of the ever-increasing demands of modem society, the traditional ulama are also required to develop themselves in such a way that people are still in need of what they can offer and can benefit from their guidance in many aspects of life. The crucial field is education.
Without necessarily shifting the total emphasis of the traditional curriculum, surely some additions can be made. The ulama should think of opening up the existing rigid model of education, particularly the dayah one. Only through the improvement of education can the ulama contribute to the country and society. The social problems in Aceh, and the participation of the ulama in handling them, strengthen the role of the ulama, not only in the eyes of the rural people but also in the wider arena. The need for some ‘secular’ leaders to have some link With the traditional ulama, the spiritual healing they provide, and the increasing numbers of dayah communities, make them even more prominent.