Menue phone
all research fellows

Prof. Robert Hefner, PhD

Senior Research Fellow

(present June - July 2018)

Areas of interest

  • Democracy and democratisation across cultures
  • Anthropological study of religion
  • Islam and modernity
  • Religious and social movements

Research project: Muslim modernity and ethical plurality: a history of Muhammadiyah and ethico-legal reform in Indonesia, 1920s to today

Although it is today the largest Muslim-majority country in the world and the largest Muslim democracy, Indonesia’s Islamization took place gradually from the 13th century onward. It was, finally, only in the early 20th century that mass-based movements for the state-implementation of shari‘a law came to play an important role in Indonesian politics, although, even then, the movements were vigorously challenged by Indonesian activists of a broadly socialist and secular nationalist persuasion, as well as by activists and educators associated with the Muhammadiyah, a Muslim reform organisation of a broadly “modernist” persuasion. With some 25 million members today, the Muhammadiyah is the world’s largest modernist Muslim organisation. Although some in its more politically oriented wings at times joined with the state shari‘a movement, a major current in the Muhammadiyah was instead committed to the promotion of the idea that the realisation of Islamic shari‘a should not properly involve state enforcement of the fixed and finished rules (Ind., ahkam) identified by medieval jurists (fuqaha) but the identification of the “higher aims of the shari‘a” (maqasid al-shari‘a). Although, from the 1920s on, political events would sometimes push this maqasid- and maslahah-based understanding of Islamic ethics and laws to the margins, the idea survived over the next eighty years and served as a major ethical basis for the growing Indonesian Muslim support for democracy, constitutionalism, and human rights that came to feature so prominently in Indonesian Muslim political thought and activism from the 1980s to today. In this project, I propose to provide a history of Islamic ethico-legal reform in Indonesia from the early twentieth century to today. In addition to writing the history, I propose to locate the Indonesian example in a comparative Islamic ethico-legal framework, in an effort to explain the moral and sociological “conditions of the possibility” of this remarkable movement for Islamic ethical reform in Indonesia and other Muslim-majority settings. What makes the Indonesian example of such comparative importance is that the shift in ethical and legal thought built on the work of the 14th century Islamic jurist al-Shatibi – and, more remarkably, anticipated the legal and ethical reforms proposed by such distinguished late twentieth and early twenty-first century Muslim public intellectuals as Tariq Ramadan (2009) and Muhammad Khalid Masud (2006), as well as prominent Muslim feminists like Kecia Ali (2006, 2010) and Fatima Mernissi (1991).


​2009 - 2016

Director, Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA), Boston University, Boston (USA)

​1998 - 2002

Director, “Southeast Asian Pluralisms”, Ford Foundation, Jakarta (Indonesia)

1992 - 2000

Director, Program on Civil Society and Civic Culture, Institute for the Study of Economic Culture, Boston University

​1989 - present

Professor of Anthropology, Boston University

Director, Program on Islam and Civil Society, Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, Boston University

​1986 - 2009

Associate Director, Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, Boston University


PhD in Anthropology, University of Michigan, Michigan (USA)

Relevant Publications

  • Hefner, Robert. Shari‘a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.
  • Hefner, Robert and Zainal Abidin Bagir. “Christianity and Religious Freedom in Indonesia since 1998,” in Christianity and Freedom: Contemporary Perspectives. Edited by Allen Hertzke and Timothy Samuel Shah, 191–221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Muslims and Democracy,” in Handbook of Southeast Asian Democratization. Edited by William Case, 170–185. New York, London: Routledge, 2015.
  • Hefner, Robert, John Hutchinson, Sara Mels, and Christiane Timmerman. Religions in Movement: The Local and the Global in Contemporary Faith Traditions. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Indonesia in the Global Scheme of Islamic Things: The Virtuous Circle of Education, Associations, and Constitutional Democracy,” in Islam in Indonesia: Contrasting Images and Interpretations. Edited by Kees van Dijk, 49–62. Leiden: ICAS Press, 2013.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Rethinking Islam and Democracy,” in Rethinking Religion and World Affairs. Edited by Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan, and Monica Duffy Toft, 85–103. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Hefner, Robert. “The Rise of Shari‘a: Implications for Democracy and Human Rights.” Special Issue of the Review of Faith and International Affairs, 10/4 (2012): 1–69.
  • Hefner, Robert. Shari‘a Politics: Law and Society in the Modern Muslim World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Where Have all the Abangan Gone? Religionization and the Decline of Non-Standard Islam in Indonesia,” in Religious Change in Modern Southeast Asia. Edited by Rémy Madinier and Michel Picard, 71–91. London, New York: Routledge, 2011.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Human Rights and Democracy in Islam: The Indonesian Case in Global Perspective,” in Religion and the Global Politics of Human Rights. Edited by Thomas Banchoff and Robert Wuthnow, 39–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Religious Resurgence in Contemporary Asia: Southeast Asian Perspectives on Capitalism, the State, and the New Piety.” Journal of Asian Studies, 69/4 (2010): 1031–47.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Muslim Schools, Social Movements, and Democratization in Indonesia,” in Citizenship, Identity, and Education in Muslim Communities: Essays on Attachment and Obligation. Edited by Michael S. Merry and Jeffrey Ayala Milligan, 125–45. New York: Palgrave, 2010.
  • Hefner, Robert. “South-East Asia from 1910,” in The Islamic World in the Age of Western Dominance (=The New Cambrdige History of Islam, vol. 5). Edited by Francis Robinson, 591–622. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Public Islam and the Problem of Democratization.” Sociology of Religion, 62/4 (2010): 491–514.
  • Hefner, Robert. Muslims and Modernity: Culture and Society since 1800. New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Hefner, Robert. Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Religion and Modernity Worldwide,” in Encyclopedia of the Sociology of Religion. Edited by Peter Clark,152–71. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Hefner, Robert. Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Islam Matters: Culture and Progress in the Muslim World,” in Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change. Edited by Lawrence Harrison and Jerome Kagan, 261–78. New York, London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Hefner, Robert. “State, Society, and Secularity in Contemporary Indonesia,” in Religion and Religiosity in the Philippines and Indonesia: Essays on State, Society, and Public Creeds. Edited by Theodore Friend, 39–51. Washington D.C.: School of Advanced International Studies and Brookings Institution Press, 2006.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Shariah Formalism or Democratic Communitarianism? The Islamic Resurgence and Political Theory,” in Democracy and Communitarianism in Asia. Edited by Chua Beng-Huat, 122–47. London, New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Hindu Reform in an Islamizing Java: Pluralism and Peril,” in Hinduism in Modern Indonesia: A Minority Religion Between Local, National, and Global Interests. Edited by Martin Ramstedt, 93–108. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2003.
  • Hefner, Robert. “Civic Pluralism Denied? The New Media and Jihadi Violence in Indonesia,” in New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Edited by Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, 158–79. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Hefner, Robert. The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.
  • Hefner, Robert. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.