Fri, 03 Jan 2003

'Death fatwa': Death of religious tolerance?

Azyumardi Azra, Professor of History Rector, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta

Reason and intellectualism, for sure, cannot be condemned to death, by a religious ruling (fatwa), conveniently called "death fatwa". Even though the verdict is based on certain religious understanding and justification, the death fatwa in many respects is counterproductive to solving differences of opinions and interpretations among Muslims, let alone to put the last nail to the coffin of reason and intellectualism.

The death fatwa, issued by persons or bodies without authority regarding the methodology of Islamic law (usul al-fiqh), is not only invalid, but is contrary to the Islamic teachings of the freedom of thought and belief. This freedom is repeatedly emphasized in the Koran (Al-Baqarah:256; Yunus:99; Hud:28; Al- Gashiya:21-22; An-Nahl:25).

No doubt freedom of expression is a basic human right. A speech, writing, work of art, or any other human expression cannot by any means persuade a deviation from Islamic values or a perpetration of what is prohibited.

By the same token, in any expression of thoughts or feelings by words, drawing, music, performance or otherwise, a Muslim should observe the values and ethics of Islam. Therefore, should any writing or statement contains controversy, the best way to respond to it is not by issuing a death fatwa, but rather by proposing counter argument.

This is the best way to maintain the human rights of expression and wisdom. Exchange of arguments is essential for a healthy and constructive dialog, which must be conducted within methodological and ethical guidelines on all sides involving in a disputation.

Recent reports revealed that a religious ruling (fatwa) was issued by the Indonesian People's Ulema Forum (Forum Ulama Ummat Indonesia). Led by Athian Ali Dai in Bandung, West Java, FUUI declared that Ulil Abshar Abdalla of Islamic Liberal Network (JIL) has blasphemed Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and, therefore, is liable to that capital punishment.

However FUUI denied the reports: Athian said the FUUI did not issue a fatwa, but only said, among a number of things, that anybody who insults Islam and the Prophet Muhammad is liable to such punishment.

Nevertheless the reports have not only created furor; damage has also been done on the image of Islam in this country. Furthermore, for many the view that anyone deserves to die for airing a certain opinion has undoubtedly added evidence of increased intolerance and radicalism among Indonesian Muslims.

Although certain circles of Indonesian Muslims, like the group of Ali Dai, have for sometime resented the Islamic Liberal Network for their "liberal views" on Islam, it was Ulil's article in Kompas on Nov. 18, that triggered the view on the capital punishment.

His article appeals for the "rejuvenation" of the understanding of Islamic doctrines through certain ways. First, there should be a critical examination of the understanding of Islam as whole.

For Muslim to achieve progress, there should be a substantive, contextual, and non-literal interpretation of Islam. Second, a correct understanding and interpretation of Islam should distinguish between the original Islamic teachings and those originated from Arab culture and tradition. Third, Muslims must not view themselves as separated and exclusive community vis-a- vis other (non-Muslim) communities. Fourth, Muslims should establish social structures that separate religion and politics.

All of these issues are not new in the history of intellectual discourse of Islam in Indonesia in particular. Most of the issues outlined in a rather brief way by Ulil Abshar have been put forward by such prominent scholars as Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, Munawir Sjadzali and others in the last three decades at least.

Nurcholish in the early 1970s appealed for "secularization" of Muslim society and separation of Islam and politics (Islam yes, Islamic party no); Abdurrahman urged for "pribumisasi" (indigenization) of Islam; and Munawir appealed for "reactualization" of Islam especially through reforms of Islamic law by proposing equal distribution of inheritance among sons and daughters of deceased parents. But none of these Muslim thinkers have been condemned by a death fatwa.

So why did Ulil's writing spark bitterness and anger among those involved in the FUUI? I believe this is for two main reasons. First, the tone of writing is full of strong language and anger reflecting that the writing as an obsession rather than a reasonable proposal.

Second, certain details of Ulil's arguments were considered inappropriate, if not blasphemous. These include his argument that such practices as the use of jilbab (headscarf), amputation of parts of body and stoning to death are Arab social practices rather than Islamic teachings. Or, that the life of the Prophet Muhammad should be examined in a critical manner, so that Muslims would not view him as a mythical figure. As a result, the writing as a whole was considered by the FUUI as a blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.

The differences in the religious opinions (ijtihad) and religious rulings are not new among the ulema; in fact the exixtence of various schools of legal thoughts in Islamic jusrisprudence since early history of Islam is a living proof of differing opinion among the ulema. Therefore what is needed among Muslims is tolerance and respect for each other's opinion.

However, to avoid confusion among the Muslim masses, an independent ulema or an unauthoritative Muslim group is not encouraged to issue a fatwa. Therefore, it is a "convention" among Indonesian Muslims, that the fatwas are valid only if they are issued by an "official" fatwa body, either belongs to any recognized Muslim organization or to government, in this case MORA.

In conclusion, any ulema or Muslim group or organization should take a very careful consideration before issuing any fatwa. As `Ala al-Din al-Kharufah, a leading fiqh scholar at Muhammad Ibn Sa`ud University of Medina and at International Islamic University at Kuala Lumpur maintains, the fatwa should be for the benefit of Islam and Muslims as whole, and not create further confusion and conflicts among Muslims.

Not least important, he states, a fatwa should present a good image of Islam and Muslims (di`ayah tayyibah li al-Islam wa al- Muslimin), that Islam is a religion of tolerance, magnanimity, and breadth.