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

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.”


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.”

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