Enjoining right, forbidding wrong: The MUI and Indonesian Islam

The country’s ulema council seems to have become a power unto itself, beyond Indonesia’s secular Constitution. Is it time to reel it back in?

Enjoining right, forbidding wrong: The MUI and Indonesian Islam AFP PHOTO/FACHRUL REZA/NURPHOTO

Founded in 1975 by Soeharto to support his authoritarian government, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) transformed itself after the start of the reform movement in 1998 into a self-appointed servant of the ummah – the community of Muslims. As part of that endeavor, and in tandem with the growing role of Islam in the public domain, the organization has steadily rid itself of progressive minds, in keeping with what has been described as a “conservative turn” in Indonesian society.

According to Moch Nur Ichwan, an expert on the MUI who teaches at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta: “In the past, the ideological struggle within MUI was between the Islamic traditionalism of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Islamic modernism of Muhammadiyah, with the latter achieving victory (even when NU affiliated ulema presided over the MUI). Presently, traditionalists, modernists, puritans and radicals vie for influence in the council, and it is the reformist and puritanical voices that are victorious,” he writes in “Towards a Puritanical Moderate Islam: The Majelis Ulema Indonesia and the Politics of Religious Orthodoxy,” a chapter in “Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the Conservative Turn.”


The word ulema in Arabic is the plural of alim, referring to a learned person, but al-Alim, or the omniscient, is also one of the 99 names of God in Islam. According to Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh, the secretary of MUI’s influential Fatwa Commission, the concept of ulema is indeed derived from the Koran. Quoting Surah Al-Fatir, Sholeh said in an interview that the most fearful among Allah’s creation are the learned people, or ulema.

Based on this definition, one can argue that the ulema are not merely those who specialize in various aspects of the faith; experts in other fields can also be included, as long as they use their knowledge to instill fear of Allah, Sholeh said. Sociologically, the term ulema is used mainly to describe the body of Muslim scholars trained in one or more of several aspects of the faith, such as jurisprudence (fiqh) or spirituality (tasawwuf ), said Sholeh, who also heads the Indonesian Child Protection Commission (KPAI). The MUI, he said, is a platform for deliberation between ulema (in the narrow understanding of the word), zu’ama (people who play a leading role in government organizations) and Muslim intellectuals, or ulema, in the broader sense. The essence of the MUI is the issuance of fatwas, or religious decrees, but the organization has a lot of other bodies that also play important roles in society, Sholeh said, stressing that the MUI also has a commission focusing on religious harmony, “because Indonesia is a plural society, in terms of racial diversity but also religion.” The current chairman of the MUI, Ma’ruf Amin, is quoted by Ichwan as saying in 2008 that the organization’s main post-New Order goal is to “soften the hard-liners,” while also “hardening the soft-minded.” It appears that in recent years the focus has been on the latter.

Serving the ummah

Scholars and activists have identified the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14), especially the year 2005, as a turning point in the history of the MUI. Yudhoyono paid heed to conservative religious groups and figures in exchange for their support, resulting in a decade of relative social stability marked by sustained and sometimes deadly attacks on religious minorities. As Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, has argued, Yudhoyono practically gave the country’s religious hardliners free rein after opening the 2005 MUI congress and announcing that he intended to “take strict measures against deviant beliefs.”

After deciding during its 2000 National Congress to become a guide and servant of the ummah, and focus on the reform and revival of Islam (islah and tajdid) and enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong (amar ma’ruf nahi munkar), the MUI in 2005 took aim directly at progressive voices with a controversial fatwa that declared pluralism, liberalism and secularism as haram, or forbidden in Islam. That same year, the MUI declared the Ahmadiyah sect deviant and exhorted the national government to ban the spread of its teachings. The Yudhoyono administration did so in 2008, and in the years that followed more than 100 Ahmadiyah mosques were shuttered, while a mob attack in Banten Province in 2011 on followers of the sect left three dead. The MUI’s fatwas are not legally binding, yet they can strongly influence policy and the way law enforcers handle local conflicts. In some cases, even senior police officers believe a fatwa is all they need to take action against groups that communities consider – or are made to believe are – deviant. Indonesia’s National Police chief, Gen. Tito Karnavian, reiterated late last year that the MUI’s fatwas are not law, and the respected former Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud MD has gone on the record saying fatwas are religious opinions, nothing more and nothing less. “Fatwas are good because they guide the ummah,” Mahfud was quoted as saying at a seminar in January. “But do they have to be followed? Of course not.” But regardless of such statements of fact, in a country where the vast majority of the population identifies themselves as Muslim and where unquestioning respect for authority remains a hallmark of large segments of the education system, fatwas issued by the MUI do carry a lot of weight. MUI fatwa Number 57/2014 on lesbianism, gays, sodomy and abuse, which calls for caning and the death penalty for such “offenses,” has been invoked by opponents of the LGBT movement, for instance. The MUI has also been asked to testify at the Constitutional Court in the controversial case filed by the Family Love Alliance to revise Indonesia’s criminal code so that all sexual relationships outside of marriage are outlawed, a move that is supported by the child protection commission.

While it can be argued that the MUI cannot be held responsible for the ways in which other people interpret its decisions, and that the organization does, to a considerable extent, channel concerns on particular topics that are shared by a sizeable section of the population, the MUI has become an important cog in a machine pushing a rigid overall understanding of Islam that does not appear to be shared by the majority of Indonesian Muslims. But that is not the only criticism the organization is facing.

Street politics and the courts

“The ulema have to be venerable, deliver lectures and (spread) religious knowledge,” NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj has said. “How can it be that someone preaches incitement every day? That’s not (worthy of ) ulema.” Siradj, the leader of the world’s largest independent Islamic organization, was talking about the leadership of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and in particular its firebrand founder, Rizieq Shihab. The FPI is one of the organizations that use fatwas issued by the MUI to support its agenda of hard-line Islamic moralism. Much to the dismay of figures like Siradj, Shihab and his fellow firebrands have in recent years managed to dominate the public debate on Islam in Indonesia, due to their outspoken

opinions, growing online presence and ability to mobilize street protesters. The National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), which is not organizationally affiliated with the MUI, is one recent example of the way in which hard-line groups use the body’s fatwas. The GNPF-MUI, led by the popular cleric and MUI Advisory Council deputy secretary Bachtiar Nasir, was instrumental in organizing large street rallies last year calling for the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, over allegedly blasphemous comments he made in late September, and for which he was sentenced to two years in jail on May 9. Using


an edict – called a “religious advisory” and not a fatwa – issued by the MUI on Oct. 11, 2016, the GNPF-MUI, including the FPI, presented itself as the MUI’s voice in the street during a series of rallies that attracted hundreds of thousands of people in Jakarta and other cities and made global headlines. The MUI statement declared Basuki guilty of insulting the Koran, the ulema and the ummah, and recommended he be prosecuted.

Melissa Crouch, an expert on Indonesian legal issues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, has noted that cases of alleged blasphemy are often reported to the police by religious leaders, including those from the MUI. “One of the key pieces of ‘evidence’ that organizations like MUI offer to police is a fatwa that declares a group and its teaching deviant,” she told the Indonesia at Melbourne website last year. “Although the fatwa of MUI are not legally binding, such decisions appear to have significant persuasive value in court.” She added: “For example, MUI issued a fatwa against Lia Eden, the leader of a small sect, and the fatwa was produced in court as evidence that she had blasphemed Islam. The reliance on fatwa by the prosecution as evidence in court is difficult for judges to deny without being perceived as questioning the credibility of the Islamic leaders or organization that issued the fatwa.” Sure enough, prosecutors decided to use the MUI’s Oct. 11 blasphemy edict in their case against Basuki, even though they later opted for a lesser charge of hate speech.

The judges in the case nevertheless found the governor guilty of blasphemy, and MUI’s deputy chairman, Zainut Tauhid Sa’adi, later told local media that the verdict proved the legitimacy of the edict.

Ulema elsewhere

The MUI was not unique in the Islamic world at the time of its establishment, but the way it functions today does appear to be somewhat extraordinary. “Malaysia has a governing body that is at least as intolerant and even closer to Salafism (than MUI): Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, or Jakim, but the country does not have large mass organizations such as Indonesia, only a political party based on Islam, PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia),” Martin van Bruinessen, emeritus professor of the comparative study of contemporary Muslim societies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said in an e-mail. Egypt, which according to van Bruinessen is usually seen as the paragon in this respect, has two main institutions dealing with religious authority, both under the control of the government: Dar al-Ifta and Al-Azhar. The Ottoman Empire had the institution of the Shaykh al-Islam to test and legitimize government policy. “Most Muslim countries have something that looks like the civil service of the Shaykh al-Islam and the Dar al-Ifta,” van Bruinessen said. “The difference between MUI and these other institutions is the collective and more or less representative character of the MUI – in its original design – and the growing independence of the MUI vis-à-vis the government since 1998.”

‘Moderates must stand up’

Many of the MUI’s fatwas have come under fire not only from human rights activists but also from progressive Muslim leaders, and some have openly questioned why certain people are given senior positions within the MUI.

The MUI’s deputy secretary general, Tengku Zulkarnain, for instance, has been criticized for reportedly referring to ethnic Dayak people as infidels and telling the audience of a popular television show that under Islamic law, Basuki should be put to death, crucified, expelled from Indonesia or have a hand and foot cut off for blasphemy. Mustofa Bisri, better known as Gus Mus, the former NU spiritual leader and a widely respected figure of religious authority in progressive circles, has said that not everybody at the MUI really deserves to be called a Muslim scholar. “(The status of ) MUI has long been unclear – political party, nongovernmental organization or government institution – but then again they’re funded by the state,” Bisri told CNN Indonesia last November, as the controversy over Basuki’s alleged blasphemy was gathering pace. “Clerks and typists are called ulema and start issuing fatwas, and the funny thing is that many within the Islamic ummah obey them,” Bisri said.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, in an interview published in the January 23 English-language edition of Tempo magazine, called for greater control of Islamic leaders. When asked by Tempo about Bisri’s criticism of the MUI, the minister refused to take a firm stand, confirming the widely held perception that the semiofficial advisory council outranks the government in matters of Islamic religious authority. “We regard the MUI as the government’s partner in efforts to improve the quality of religiosity in Indonesia, especially the Muslim congregation, and to build harmony,” Saifuddin said. “I respect Gus Mus. He is a teacher and my mentor. Perhaps he sees it from the viewpoint of a fatwa, which may differ from his own personal viewpoint. But the MUI’s role is positive in promoting moderate Islam, although much still needs to be reformed.” When asked about the way the MUI selects its members, the minister laughed and replied: “It’s best to ask MUI about it. I don’t want to be evaluating other people’s household.”

Bisri himself, in an interview with Tempo published a week earlier, compared Indonesians’ freedom after democratization with that of a bird being let out of its cage: flying all over the place in exhilaration and knocking things over. And he warned against the idea that democracy means there are no boundaries. “The moderates must stand up,” he said. “They should not remain quiet.” The root problem with the MUI, Bisri said, is its system of recruitment. “Who can endorse someone to become an executive?” he asked, adding that the organization’s status vis-à-vis the government remains unclear. “But when I say that, people will be upset. The fact is that the public already considers the MUI as Islam’s representative in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Google lists MUI as just a nongovernmental organization.” He added: “If it wants to stand up as a fatwa institution, there must be a regulation on who can enter and join MUI. But they don’t look at the background of a candidate, which school he attended, whether he understands the Koran or not and whether they understand the (difference) between tafsir (Koranic exegesis) and hadith (the traditions and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad).”

No dissenting opinion

According to Sholeh, the secretary of the MUI’s fatwa commission, the selection of functionaries for the MUI’s various bodies is done through internal consultation. “The national conference is the highest forum where we evaluate, set our course and

determine our institutional agenda for the years ahead, but also the renewal of leadership (every five years),” Sholeh said. “It’s an internal mechanism, but of course there are requirements; if you want to be a member of the fatwa commission, you have to have a religious studies background. But because the MUI is a platform for ulema, zu’ama and Muslim intellectuals, the representation of mass organizations, leaders of higher education, pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) are also taken into account. We pay attention to that. But competence is an absolute requirement.”

Sholeh also said that requests for fatwas can come from all corners: individuals, the government, ministries and nongovernmental organizations, but also from MUI functionaries themselves. This is a continuous process because halal certification, which is based on fatwas, comes with an expiry date and other fatwas are not always permanent, depending on what kind of issue they address. “In Islamic law, there are two categories: thawabit and mutaghayyirat,” Sholeh said. “There are laws that are permanent – that won’t change from the beginning of time until the end – and there are those that can change when circumstances change.” For example, the MUI previously allowed a meningitis vaccine for hajj travelers for which porcine substances were used during the production process, because at that time there was no alternative. As soon as a nonporcine meningitis vaccine became available, the previous decision was declared invalid. The fatwa commission forms its opinion based on the Koran and the hadith, with the help of fiqh, and is not merely reactive. The council can decide that a fatwa is needed on a current issue, and it can even take a position on matters that it believes will become important in the future, such as the use of stem cells or cloning. “Our principle is that we don’t recognize dissenting opinions,” said Sholeh, stressing it is only the strength of the religious argument that matters. “We don’t vote. If we are not all in agreement, we don’t make a decision.” On difficult subjects, the discussion will be continued until there is agreement, he explained, adding that “we use the same method (of analysis), so in the end we find a way.”

AFP PHOTO/BAY ISMOYOAt right: Mustofa Bisri, better known as Gus Mus, the former NU spiritual leader. AFP PHOTO/BAY ISMOYO


Decision-making by consensus may be one of the root causes for the homogenization of MUI functionaries that has been observed in recent years. Hiring liberal mavericks is out of the question in this situation because it would make issuing fatwas much more difficult, if not impossible. In the long term, only like-minded functionaries will remain.

Van Bruinessen says liberal Muslim leaders are already few and far between within the ranks of the MUI. “Both NU and Muhammadiyah can be found in MUI, but those are mostly people from the conservative wings,” he said. “And it looks like those people systematically take a more conservative and more sectarian position within MUI than they do within their own organizations.” The professor mentioned MUI chairman Amin and longtime Muhammadiyah leader Din Syamsuddin as prominent examples. Syamsuddin was secretary general of the MUI at the beginning of the reform era, and in that capacity was “aggressively anti-Christian and anti-minority,” van Bruinessen said, while he became considerably more tolerant and even a proponent of interreligious discourse during his decade (2005-15) at the helm of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest mass religious organization. “The man who currently represents the conservative trend within the MUI, Ma’ruf Amin, is an NU ulema and former friend of Gus Dur (the late president Abdurrahman Wahid), who used to take very flexible positions. But as head of the fatwa commission, he looked like a hard-liner … and was responsible for the notorious fatwas of 2005. Yet last year, he was elected as the highest ulema within NU.”

Progressive-minded leaders within NU are clearly fed up with the status quo within the MUI, despite the fact that a person they should consider as one of their own is now in charge. Imam Aziz, one of the chairmen of NU’s executive board, in the immediate aftermath of the issuance of the edict against Basuki, said the body urgently needed to be reformed. “The MUI’s internal regulations have to be explained and made available to the people, so there is no confusion,” he was quoted as saying. Liberal NU sources have said they backed Amin’s election after Mustofa Bisri refused to take the position because of an internal rift in the organization, meaning they had to find an alternative. They believed Amin could be controlled, but that appears not to be the case.

Halal funding

Another issue that has sparked complaints over the years is the lack of budgetary transparency within the MUI. The organization receives state funding but is not an official government body, and as such cannot be forced to undergo audits by the Supreme Audit Agency. In recent years, pressure has been building on the government to audit the MUI. The organization also receives significant income as part of its role in halal certification. According to one unverified claim, that MUI rakes in up to Rp 96 trillion ($7.2 billion) per year from its halal certification activities, which is crucial to any food and beverage company’s success on the Indonesian market. That figure may seem high, and Amin has described the number as “crazy talk.” He did, however, confirm that the organization receives Rp 4 billion ($300,000) per year from the government.

Lawmakers have for years been arguing that the Indonesia government should be the beneficiary of halal certification funds, but with little success. In a recent development in this ongoing struggle, the government set up its own Halal Product Guarantee Agency

(BPJPH), but that body’s role remains limited. “The role of the MUI is (still) very big because fatwas come from the MUI,” Nur Syam, secretary general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said last November. “The government (through the BPJPH) only facilitates the registration and the issuance of the (halal) certificates. That’s all.”

State corporatism

Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization, argued in an op-ed article published in Kompas newspaper in February that the MUI should be seen as an example of state corporatism. Drawing on the work of American political scientist Philippe Schmitter, Hendardi sees the MUI as a nonstate organization that nonetheless influences all of society because its activities are seen as matters of state. Strictly speaking, MUI fatwas only apply to Muslims who choose to accept them, said the activist, but through state recognition – and even formal legalization in some cases – MUI decisions are seen as binding for all Muslims, and even non-Muslims in cases such as Basuki, although Hendardi did not specifically mention the former governor.

Through Law Number 21/2008 on Shariah Banking or Law Number 33/2014 on Halal Products, for instance, the organization is given strategic influence befitting a state body. In short, the MUI is allowed to play an important role in the formalization of Islam in Indonesia, while it cannot be subjected to the checks and balances that apply to actual state bodies, such as transparent leadership selection and financial accountability. Hendardi said he recognizes that the MUI, as a religious body, has the freedom to express itself, and that it cannot be held responsible for the way elements in society form a “superstructure that upholds MUI fatwas.” But he said he believes the government is to blame when, as part of policy making, it takes into consideration any MUI product that runs counter to the basic principles upon which the secular Indonesian state was founded.

  Not too late

Van Bruinessen said that with the Basuki blasphemy edict, which some have alleged was issued at the request of Yudhoyono, the MUI has allowed itself to be dragged into a political battle. By doing so, he said, it has gone much further than NU and Muhammadiyah, which largely steered clear of the large antiBasuki rallies in Jakarta and did not denounce leadership by non-Muslims. “The big difference (with the New Order) is that the MUI is now an extension of the street activists who use violence to implement MUI fatwas,” says van Bruinessen. “Some of the people speaking on behalf of the MUI seem to have no idea about the formal status of their organization within Indonesia’s judiciary system, and they think the police’s job is to implement the MUI’s fatwas.”

According to van Bruinessen, the debate about the role of Islam in public life in Indonesia is barely discursive: “It is being fought in the street, which seriously undermines the rule of law.” He added: “The MUI … is caught in a process of self-radicalization and has become an important political player, which is coupled with great financial and political interests and the involvement of other political players. I agree with Gus Mus that the MUI needs to be placed under the supervision of the government and that the criteria for recruitment and membership need to be clear and transparent. The MUI shouldn’t ally itself with a specific political faction but should stand above all parties. This process is not irreversible,” he said, “but the reluctance of the government to take a clear stand doesn’t make things easier. It’s a bit like the problem we have in Europe and the US with xenophobic populists.”

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