Lidasan: Liberal Muslim in Indonesia

IN ONE of my recent trips in Jakarta, Indonesia I had a chance to listen to a lecture of a liberal Muslim by the name of Dr. Ulil Abshar Abdalla. I heard a lot about him and his works about Islam and democracy. I was interested to finally meet him and talk to him about so many things about Islam and the Muslims today.

The opportunity to meet him was through the Regional Conference on Peace Education at Schools and Universities: Sharing on the Role of Religious Institutions in Promoting Peace and Tolerance in Indonesia and Asean Countries last December 13-15, 2017 organized by The Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta in collaboration with The Embassy of Germany in Indonesia.

Dr. Abdalla is affiliated to the Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL) or the Liberal Islam Network. JIL is a group of Muslim scholars whose main objective is to discuss and disseminate the concept of Islamic liberalism in Indonesia. One of their goals is to counter the growing influence and activism of militant and Islamic extremism in their country. The "official" description of JIL is "a community which is studying and bringing forth a discourse on Islamic vision that is tolerant, open and supportive for the strengthening of Indonesian democratisation." ( Retrieve last December 17, 2017)

Who is Dr. Ulil Abshar Abdalla?

Dr. Abdalla comes from a family of Muslim scholars particularly affiliated with the Nahdlatul Ulama. Like his father, he also grew up from pesantren (Islamic boarding school) called Mansajul Ulum (Mansajul Ulum Islamic school) in Pati, Central Java. His wife is the daughter of Mustofa Bisri, an Islamic cleric from Pesantren Raudlatut Talibin, Rembang, Central Java.

He graduated with bachelor's degree in Sharia faculty in LIPIA (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Arab - Islamic and Arabic Knowledge Institute) in Jakarta. He was also educated in Sekolah Tinggi Filsafat Driyarkara (Driyarkara School of Philosophy). He once held a position as chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama's Lakpesdam (Lembaga Kajian dan Pengembangan Sumber Daya Manusia - Human Resources Research and Development Centre), as a researcher in ISAI (Institut Studi Arus Informasi), Jakarta, and as Program Director in Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP).

Aside from his strong Islamic education background, he also studied at Boston University for his master’s degree in religion and continued his PhD studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.

Back in 2002, he wrote an article in Kompass entitled, "Menyegarkan Kembali Pemahaman Islam" (Rejuvenating the Islamic Understanding) which angered a group of Islamic clerics from Forum Ulama Umat Islam that issued a death fatwa against him. In March 2011, a letter bomb addressed to him at Komunitas Utan Kayu exploded, injuring a police officer. ( Retrieved last December 17, 2017)

My brief meeting and discussion with him was impressive. He was humble, fluent in Bahasa, Arabic, and English languages. His thoughts about Islam was profound. I see his ability to find commonality with Eastern and Western philosophical thoughts and he is open to different forms of intellectual discussions regarding the different facets of Islam and Muslim identities.

Moreover, listening to his lectures opened my eyes to put importance to understanding ethics in religion and not to have illogical literal interpretations of the Holy Qur’an. He also values pluralism in the sense that for him the idea of truth is relative. Universal truth of the message of religions are open for interpretations.

Like Al Qalam Institute, we advocate and promote the value of studying Islamic religious texts in the Holy Qur’an through hermeneutics. However, our view of hermeneutics focuses on the study of theories of hermeneutics in Islam that leans on a lengthy tradition of tafsir. Tafsir refers to Qur-anic exegesis. Tafsir claims to "clarify" the divine word, which serves to make the text "speak" to current social, moral, legal, doctrinal, and political conditions. Through their (Muslims) interpretive strategies, exegetes have struggled to make the Qur-anic text more accessible to believers, and more applicable to changing environments. ( Retrieve on December 18, 2017)

Sad to say, not all Muslims share the same reaction about Dr. Abdalla. Aside from the threats and letter bomb sent to him, I learned from my Indonesian friends that some Muslims either ignore him or interact with him and criticize him intellectually through social media and public fora and discussions.

I hope one day I can have more time to engage him for intellectual discussions about Islam and the two most challenging Islamic concepts that Muslims deal with today. These two are the concept and application of Takfir and Jihad.

According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Takfir refers to the pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever (kafir) and no longer Muslim. Takfir is used in the modern era for sanctioning violence against leaders of Islamic states who are deemed insufficiently religious. It has become a central ideology of militant groups such as those in Egypt, which reflect the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Ibn Kathir. A takfiri refers to a person/Muslim who accuses another Muslim (or an adherent of another Abrahamic faith) of apostasy.

Takfiri groups are people who do not know Islam or the universal truth and message of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and that is why they do not differentiate between disbelief and belief. We need to also engage them and point out to them that it is wrong to declare anyone as Kafr and say that it is permissible to kill them.

On the issue of Jihad, well we can discuss this matter next time.
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