by Jennie S. Bev
In Indonesia, clerics and their “political” organization Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) have been making headlines with their so-called “fatwas.” Even though some fatwas make sense, like forbidding smoking, which is bad for one’s health, other fatwas sound trivial.
Their edicts on haram (forbidden) and halal (not forbidden) are often interchangeable, making them sound like a group of lost people who change their minds quite easily. Some of these clerics are also known to be anti-pluralism and anti-multiculturalism.
In short, some members of this group of religious leaders have been creating instability and confusion among laypeople in Indonesia and fear among Indonesian minorities.
Thus, it is preferable to understand the process of interpreting something with valid reasoning and interpreting skills. This way, people can learn to be more mature spiritually and believe in their conscience more. And we all can see that being anti-pluralism and anti-multicultarism is a fallacy.
The interpretations of Islam for political purposes are likely to be singular and rigid aiming at controlling the people (ummah) or constituents, ranging from a certain dress code, to conformity in public behaviors, to uniformity in a moral compass. Such a phenomenon has been creating an ongoing misconception of the Koran as a feudalistic, closed and stillborn text, and Islam as an oppressive religion.
Contrary to popular belief, the Koran is a living text and an ongoing discourse with pluralism as the default state of framework. To refresh our memory, Islam was born and grew in lively trading heterogeneous environments, not in a silent homogenous surrounding. The Prophet Muhammad was a successful businessman who traveled considerably.
Pluralistic cosmopolitanism was the backdrop of the birth and the spreading of Islam worldwide, which is often forgotten. Islam is an adaptable and modern religion and system.
With “pluralism” as the fundamental spirit of the Koran, it is encouraged to interpret (tafsir) with hermeneutics. Cited from Farid Esack, hermeneutics is the science of reflecting how a word or an event in a past time and culture may be understood and became existentially meaningful in our present situation. This method brings together various cultures and time spans for better understanding.
Hermeneutics reveal the etymological and terminological elements because time changes meanings regardless of its original purpose. Spatial and temporal continua, thus, should be considered within a cultural relativity framework.
In general, the Koranic verses can be distinguished into two groups: Universal and particular, and sufficiently clear and requiring further interpretation. The first group refers to the applicability and the second group refers to depth of understanding. The first verse of Koran, “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy” is a universal and clear verse. This verse is the underlying principle of all other verses. However, other verses aren’t that simple to interpret.
According to Abdul Moqsith Ghazali in the Religious Pluralism Argument, two interpretation (tafsir) methods are chronological and thematic. The first method is meticulous elucidation from the beginning to the end, which requires Arabic language mastery to ensure no nuances and meanings are lost or overlooked in translation.
The second method uses systematic categorizations because the Koran was not delivered in a chronological manner. This method is more complex and idealistic.
In interpreting jurisprudence (fiqh), Al-Ahkam Al-Khamzah or the cycle of halal-sunnah-wajib-haram, serves as the underlying principle. Due to its cyclical nature, nothing is absolute when it comes to reward and punishment, according to Prof. Dr. Muhammad Daud Ali in Islamic Law.
A classic example is the notion of kufr or non-believer. The spectrum ranges from a complete non-believer of God, a non-Abrahamic religious believer, a non-Muslim, to a Muslim who doesn’t practice fundamental Islamic teachings. Such colorful interpretations of a non-believer have implications in implementing minority protection, for instance.
Another example of Al-Ahkam Al-Khamzah in action is on women’s dress code and the obligation (wajib) of marriage. The notions of aurat vary from one culture to another, thus what constitutes “polite” and “modest” also differs. An individual will be considered “obligated” to marry after reaching adult age, which differs from one place to another.
Today, Islam as a religion and system of living has been overridden by Islam as a political instrument. Proper interpretations of Koranic verses, laws, and fiqh have been deliberately made unpopular.
It is time for ummah to realize that the Koran is a living text and an ongoing discourse that was historically bred and grown in pluralistic environments.
A movement to return to intelligent interpretations of Islam must be communicated and popularized.
Islam is beautiful. And its beauty lies in the multitude of colors illuminated by the Mercy of Allah, where people and religion coexist peacefully. Whenever in doubt, recite this verse, “Had Allah willed, He could have made you one community. But [He did not] that He may try you by that which He hath given you” (5:48).
The Jakarta Post, August 3, 2010