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

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 deliberation between 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.”

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