A Communist Moslem in Indonesia

H.M. Misbach

In 2008, the Indonesian Attorney General banned a book titled, H.M. Misbach: The Story of the Red Haji (Kisah Haji Merah), written by Nor Hiqmah. The Attorney General also conducted raids at several bookstores in Indonesia to ensure that the book was not for sale. As noted by some media, there were two reasons for banning the book. Firstly, the book was alleged to contain the teachings of the Communist ideology that was banned by the government in 1966. Second, on the cover of book, there was a symbol of hammer and sickle, the symbol of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). 

This ban opened up public discourse about Misbach as a forgotten person in Indonesian history. Many historians gave comments to the media about who Haji Misbach was and his role in history. Unfortunately, there was not much information about him. Not even Nor Hiqmah's book, which presents only little information about this character.

I still remember that at the time, Tempo magazine covered a story about Haji Misbach. But it's not a complete coverage about a person who synthesized Islam and communism in Indonesia. Tempo just picked one article comparing Joseph Sneevliet, Mas Marco Kartidikromo, and Haji Misbach. Therefore, to fill in the research gap in this particular episode of the Indonesia history, this paper aims to explain the early history of the 20th century through the biography of Haji Misbah or the Red Hajj. 

I will make a claim that this figure is very important for a simple but strong reason: he was the first person who tried to find the relationship between Islam and Communism, two "ideologies" that can be considered very different in their characteristics and hostile to each other. So far, we only know Soekarno as someone who tried to reconcile the three competing ideologies of Nationalism, Religion, and Communism. In fact, before Sukarno, Misbach had pioneered this effort.

Federspiel (2006) mentions Misbach as one of prominent Indonesian Moslem intellectuals in the 20th century. He says that Misbach regarded the socialist message as vital for Muslims and sided with the communists in their efforts to directly confront the colonial authority. Misbach believed that the themes of egalitarianism and social justice advocated by the Communists are also found in the central teachings of Islam. In a more contemporary light, Assyaukanie (2009) also says the same idea about the parallels between these two different schools of thoughs. In Misbach’s view, Muslims are commanded by God to be compassionate toward one another and, as part of their ultimate religious obligations, to assist the less fortunate in society as a religious duty. 

Besides his historical importance, there are obviously a lot of controversies surrounding Misbach. A noted historian, Anhar Gonggong, accuses Misbach as a communist who infiltrated into the Islamic movement at that time. According to Gonggong, Misbach merely exploited Islam for the Communist propaganda.  

Although there is much controversy about him, I believe that Misbach dedicated his life for something he believed in. He opposed what he called colonial capitalist’s government. He also opposed Pakubuwono X who was considered oppressive people in Surakarta. He asked the peasants to strike as a kind of protest. Even he later died in exile, his struggle was followed by his partner Tjipto.


Among Moslem activists, his name is almost never mentioned because he chose to be a Communist. Whereas Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo was a Western-educated member of the elite intelligentsia and a well-known Pergerakan (national movement for independence) figure who read, spoke, and wrote in Dutch and had Dutch and Indo friends, Haji Mohammad Misbach was a pesantren (Islamic boarding school)-educated muballigh, relatively unknown in the movement, who read not Dutch but Arabic and had no Dutch friends. He expressed his political position through writing articles in Medan Muslimin and Islam Bergerak, the newspapers that were led by himself.  

Misbach was born in about 1876 in Kauman, Surakarta. When he was a child, his name was Achmad. After he got married, he later changed his name to Darmodiprono. He then chose a new name, Haji Muhammad Misbach, after completing his pilgrimage to Mecca. Later on he became first leading figure of the Islamic young group (kaum muda) in Surakarta in the mid-1910s. He was raised in a wealthy batik merchant family. Because his father was a religious official, he grew in the Kasunanan religious neighborhood. He enrolled in a pesantren to study about religion. Besides that, he also studied at school for pribumi (native people) called “Ongko Loro”.

Misbach followed his father’s footsteps as a batik merchant in Kauman. His business was prospering and he managed to open new stores. Misbach was a populist and egalitarian figure who had an admirable and fiery rhetorical skill. People praised his friendliness and his egalitarian attitude. For instance, he never saw and judged someone based on their social status, whether they are priyayi or ordinary people. As a Haji or religious leader, he even dressed like an ordinary Javanese man. Once Marco Kartodikromo ever described about Misbach:

".. Di Pemandangan Misbach tidak ada beda di antara seorang pencuri biasa dengan orang yang dikata berpangkat, begitu juga di antara rebana dan klenengan, di antara bok Haji yang bertutup muka dan perempuan yang mejadi kupu-kupu malam; orang bersorban cara Arab dan berkain kepala cara Jawa. Dan sebab itu dia lebih gemar memaki kain kepala dari pada memakai peci Turki atau bersorban seperti pakaian kebanyakan orang yang disebut "Haji". 

“In Misbach’s view there was no difference between a common thief and a man with high rank; or between the rebana (tambourine for Islamic-style music) and klenengan (informal Javanese gamelan concert); between the bok hadji (wife of a haj) who veils he face, and a woman who becomes a butterfly of the night (prostitute); between those who wear the Arab-style turban and those who wear the Javanese headcloth rather than Turkish petji or the turban fancied by most of those who are styled “Hadji” 

He began actively engaged in the movement by joining the IJB (Indlandsche Journalisten Bond) with Marco Kartodikromo in 1914. In 1915, he published a newspaper Medan Moeslimin, which was first published on January 15, 1915. Islam Bergerak also issued in 1917. Those newspapers became very popular in Surakarta.

Misbach organized people in a variety of ways. He organized a strike or public meeting (vergadering) that was used as the medium to express his critical opinions about colonialism and capitalism. Misbach was very anti-capitalist. He would express his opinion in his media to those who believed to be part of capitalism. He kept attack some capitalist supporters, even they were from Islam organization. He also never thought about make a connection with the government of Dutch Indies. The anti-political groups, anti-strikes, strictly were considered to be an adjunct to the mission of justice.  Misbach made a cartoon on Islam Bergerak edition on April 20, 1919. Its content stabbed Dutch capitalists who gave a small wage to their labor. The Resident of Surakarta, Paku Buwono X,  was also criticized due to his support to Dutch capitalist. The typical rhetoric of Misbach appeared in the cartoon as "a voice from the outside world of peasants". The letter said, "Don’t be afraid, don’t worry". This sentence triggered peasant consciousness and courage to strike. 
Then, after he was arrested on May 7, 1919, Misbach eventually was released on October 22 as an important victory of Sarekat Islam (SI), the organization of the natives. In May 1919, Misbach and several other leaders of the movement were arrested for allegedly being responsible for the farmers' strike.

Misbach stated "Don’t be afraid to be punished, to be banished, to be hanged". He explained the difficulty of the Prophet Muhammad to introduce Islam as way of life. He admired Karl Marx and wrote an article about Islam and Communism while he was in exile. Marx was important in the struggle to help the poor and denounce capitalism as the source of the destruction of human values. Religion was corrupted by capitalism so that capitalism must be confronted with historical materialism.

Misbach was very disappointed in Islamic institutions that were not expressly defending to the oppressed. The struggle against capitalism does not make Misbach not uphold the teachings of Islam. For him, the fight against capitalism and its supporters was the struggle against Satan. When the CSI (Central Sarikat Islam) ruptured, he joined the red SI or Indies Communist Union (PKI). Later, he established PKI in Surakarta.

On May 16, 1920, Misbach was re-arrested and imprisoned for two years in Pekalongan. On August 22, 1922, he was out of custody and then returned to his home in Kauman, Surakarta. On March 1923, he emerged as a communist propagandist or SI Red. He began talking about the harmony between communism and Islam. He launched a statement that communism and Islam can work hand in hand because they have the same goal.

However, In July 1924, he was arrested again and quickly exiled by the colonial government to Manokwari on charges of masterminding terror strikes and sabotages in Surakarta. Even in his exile, he still wrote and sent some articles to be published in his media. He finally died in during his exile in Manokwari.

Context and Significance

At the beginning of the 20th century, Surakarta was an arena of conflict between the colonial government and the keraton (the palace). These two forces were influential in the development of social structure and political system in the region. At that time, batik industry emerged as an economic power in the region. The industry continued to grow and became dominant in the national market until the early decades of the 20th century.

This time was also considered as a new phase in the development of Surakarta. This period is called the "modern era" in the language of the ethical politics of the Dutch government and considered as an important marker for the rapid emergence and development of education. This education was later deemed to be a path to modernity. Many schools were opened in Surakarta in this period which made it possible for most of the bumiputera to receive primary and secondary education.

This "new generation" of educated citizens was considered to have a high degree of social mobility although they still remain rooted in the traditional structures. They became a new social and political force and the backbone of the movement in Surakarta. Later they established Sarikat Islam (SI) as a pioneer organization rooted in Surakarta. This organization originated from many local batik entrepreneurs (Rekso Rumekso) and later evolved into SI. In the beginning, SI was an association for mutual help against the ‘bandits’ who made the area of Lawean insecure, presumably because of their habit to steal batik cloth that was put outside for drying in the gardens of batik workshops. The initial leaders of SI were Tjokroaminoto, H. Samanhudi, and Mas Marco Kartodikromo, who were also a "product" of the ethical politics of the Dutch administration.

The SI movement in Surakarta in particular and in other cities in general started to become a threat to the colonial government. Through articles in newspapers as well as protests and demonstrations, SI and its supporters actively advocated the equal rights of Bumiputera. Takashi Shiraishi (1990) describes this strategy of SI as a bumiputera organization dealing with various restrictions of the Dutch East Indian government. He also points out the competition between SI with Chinese trade organizations. Takashi also describes how the emergence of various factions in SI tears the organization apart into several groups.

At that time, the social situation was also rapidly changing. At the end of World War I, the pergerakan movement experienced a profound transformation. New leaders and centers of the movement started to emerge again. Since the late 1918, SI movement joined forces with the labor union as a vanguard organization of the movement. This "age of motion" along the 1917-1920 periods was marked by the opening of the Volksraad or the colonial parliament, the resurrection of Semaoen and SI in Semarang, the rise of Java Dwipa movement, TNKM, the emergence of labor union movement and the rise of PFB and Soerjopranoto. Those events significantly affected the situation of the movement in Surakarta.

The pergerakan movement first appeared as the restoration under the name of Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo. He became a member of Insulinde, a leading pergerakan organization, and later he was appointed to sit in the Volksraad. This historical event coincided with the emergence of Haji Mohammad Misbach as a reformist and revolutionary preacher. The combination of Tjipto –as nationalist- and Misbach –as a preacher- drove Insulinde as a revolutionary political power in Surakarta.

to be continued...

Athens, May 3, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Wah, saya belum pernah menemukan buku yang membahas tentang Haji Merah ini. Mungkin beliau bukan komunis, hanya salah satu .. hmmm. Saya belum menemukan kata yang tepat nih Pak. :D


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