Fatwas and Their Controversy: The Case of the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI)

By Sirry, Mun'im | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Fatwas and Their Controversy: The Case of the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI)


Sirry, Mun'im, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


A fatwa is generally understood as an Islamic legal opinion given by an individual mufti (fatwa-giver) or group of muftis or ulama at the request of someone, called mustafti (fatwa seeker). As such, its main purpose is to provide definitive answers to legal questions. This purpose, however, may not always be achieved. Rather than settling an unresolved question, the fatwa may elicit further debate and controversy, as has been the case with some fatwas of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, Council of Indonesian Ulama). Two such fatwas, one against Muslims attending Christmas celebrations and the other on religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism issued during the New Order and post-Suharto eras, respectively, will be discussed here. This article analyses what enabled the debates and controversies over the fatwas. To date, there has not been a systematic study of this question as scholars tend to focus on the political dimension of the MUI fatwas. Muhamad Atho Mudzhar, who has written extensively on the fatwas, argues that they reflect a complex relationship between MUI and the state on the one hand, and between MUI and society on the other. (1) Moch. Nur Ichwan, Piers Gillespie and others look at the fatwas as a means by which MUI maintained its role in a rapidly changing political and religious environment. (2) Other scholars such as John Olle emphasise MUI's realignment with emerging radical Muslim groups in promoting an anti-heresy agenda. Olle connects the MUI fatwa with several attacks on 'heretics' because the attackers 'justified their attack by referring to a fatwa by MUI'. (3)

While most scholars regard the MUI fatwas as a sign of conservatism and an attempt to bring Indonesian Islam closer to orthodoxy as well as often used to justify violence, I would argue that these fatwas have also opened up room for more fruitful and constructive discussion within the Muslim community.

My argument is that the public debates on Islam are products of historical trajectories and illuminate contemporary Islam in Indonesia. Without denying the violence unleashed as a result of the MUI fatwas, I suggest here that the controversial fatwas also served as a catalyst for fruitful and creative public discourse. The fact that the two MUI fatwas were issued in different political settings illustrates the dynamic nature of Islamic discourse. (4) I will describe the emergence of MUI, and then discuss the fatwas in turn by analysing their texts, the circumstances in which they were issued and the controversies and debates they engendered. I then analyse Indonesian reactions to the fatwas within the larger context of MUI's emergence as a major actor in shaping the future of Indonesian Islam. I conclude with a brief reflection on the significance of this study within more recent critical scholarship on the MUI fatwas.

MUI and its fatwas

As in many countries with large Muslim populations, Indonesia has a national body of Muslim scholars, MUI, which was established in 1975 at the initiative of the Suharto government. Its establishment was intended 'to control the public expression of Islam under state (here, Department of Religion) auspices', (5) In 1973, there had been heated debates and protests following the government's tabling of a draft marriage bill (passed in 1974), which some Muslims considered antithetical to Islamic law. There had also been widespread resentment among many Muslim political leaders because of Suharto's earlier decision to restrict the political role of Islam by allowing only three political parties to participate in the next elections. Several Islamic parties and factions were compelled to fuse into one--the state-controlled Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP, United Development Party). As other Islamic political parties and organisations were no longer permitted, the public role of the ulama decreased significantly.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Suharto sought to further neutralise any potential Islamic opposition by developing, as Donald J. …

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Fatwas and Their Controversy: The Case of the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI)
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