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The Indonesian Ministry of Religion

A nation state as an actor in the religious field: The Indonesian Ministry of Religion (Kementerian Agama) and the quest for interpretive authority over the Qur’an

Ein Nationalstaat als religiöser Akteur:
Das indonesische Religionsministerium (Kementerian Agama) und die Deutungshoheit über den Koran


funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), March 2016–March 2019



The Indonesian Ministry of Religion is an active participant in the country’s Muslim religious discourse by means of publishing an official translation of the Qur’an and an equally official Qur’anic commentary. These works originated in the 1960s and have since been revised repeatedly in ways that reflect the changing political circumstances. Both the translation and the commentary were produced and revised by large committees of scholars which makes Indonesia the first Muslim country to publish authoritative exegetical works that are no longer discernible as the writings of individual scholars. The Qur’an translation by the Ministry of Religion has an extremely broad reach and dominates the market. The printed copies of the Qur’an that are distributed for free by Saudi Arabia also follow this translation, albeit with slight modifications that reflect dogmatic differences.
This project, by analysing the Qur’an translations and commentaries published by the Indonesian Ministry of Religion, aims at contributing to a better understanding of nation states’ quest for gaining interpretive predominance in the field of Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an. Recent research has increasingly acknowledged the fact that nation states and their institutions do not limit themselves to controlling the budgets, structures and staff of religious institutions, but also aim at directly influencing Islamic religious discourses; it is this influence that the project wants to elucidate.

Based on a case study of an official, collectively produced Qur’an translation, the project wants to shed light on the process through which a Muslim-majority state, despite its self-conception as religiously neutral, actively participates in religious discourse; it furthermore looks closely at the contents that this participation produces. By focussing on works that cannot be ascribed to individual scholars any longer, but must rather be seen as products of institutional collective action, it helps to better understand the changing circumstances under which religious authority is constructed in the context of modern nation states.

At the same time, the project wants to contribute, both with respect to content and methodology, to the study of Muslim Qur’an translations in the 20th and 21st centuries, by using the Indonesian case in order to analyse mechanisms of exegetical decision-making. It seeks to determine at which places these decisions become obvious, why this is the case and what impact they have on the understanding of the text. This, in turn, enables us to find out whether, or where, the Ministry of Religion favours specific interpretations, currents of thought or opinions while marginalising others and to what extent, in contrast, it strove to maintain an ostensibly balanced, harmonising or neutral position.


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