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

Founded in 1975 by Soeharto to support his authoritarian government, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) transformed itself after the start of the reform movement in 1998 into a self-appointed servant of the ummah – the community of Muslims. As part of that endeavor, and in tandem with the growing role of Islam in the public domain, the organization has steadily rid itself of progressive minds, in keeping with what has been described as a “conservative turn” in Indonesian society.

According to Moch Nur Ichwan, an expert on the MUI who teaches at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta: “In the past, the ideological struggle within MUI was between the Islamic traditionalism of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Islamic modernism of Muhammadiyah, with the latter achieving victory (even when NU-affiliated ulema presided over the MUI). Presently, traditionalists, modernists, puritans and radicals vie for influence in the council, and it is the reformist and puritanical voices that are victorious,” he writes in “Towards a Puritanical Moderate Islam: The Majelis Ulema Indonesia and the Politics of Religious Orthodoxy,” a chapter in “Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the Conservative Turn.”

The word ulema in Arabic is the plural of alim, referring to a learned person, but al-Alim, or the omniscient, is also one of the 99 names of God in Islam. According to Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh, the secretary of MUI’s influential Fatwa Commission, the concept of ulema is indeed derived from the Koran. Quoting Surah Al-Fatir, Sholeh said in an interview that the most fearful among Allah’s creation are the learned people, or ulema.

Based on this definition, one can argue that the ulema are not merely those who specialize in various aspects of the faith; experts in other fields can also be included, as long as they use their knowledge to instill fear of Allah, Sholeh said. Sociologically, the term ulema is used mainly to describe the body of Muslim scholars trained in one or more of several aspects of the faith, such as jurisprudence (fiqh) or spirituality (tasawwuf), said Sholeh, who also heads the Indonesian Child Protection Commission (KPAI). The MUI, he said, is a platform for deliberation between ulema (in the narrow understanding of the word), zu’ama (people who play a leading role in government organizations) and Muslim intellectuals, or ulema, in the broader sense. The essence of the MUI is the issuance of fatwas, or religious decrees, but the organization has a lot of other bodies that also play important roles in society, Sholeh said, stressing that the MUI also has a commission focusing on religious harmony, “because Indonesia is a plural society, in terms of racial diversity but also religion.” The current chairman of the MUI, Ma’ruf Amin, is quoted by Ichwan as saying in 2008 that the organization’s main post-New Order goal is to “soften the hard-liners,” while also “hardening the soft-minded.” It appears that in recent years the focus has been on the latter.

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