Enjoining right, forbidding wrong: The MUI and Indonesian Islam
July-September 2017
By: Bastiaan Scherpen

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. 

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