Oct 02, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

Modelling syariah in Aceh

Modelling syariah in Aceh

A conference in Banda Aceh reveals divergent opinions about what model of Islamic law Aceh should adopt

Jemma Parsons

  Gathering to pray at Banda Aceh’s Baiturrahman mosque
   Jemma Parsons

Since it began in 2000, the implementation of syariah in Aceh has prompted lively debate. Aceh’s form of syariah is based on a series of regulations known as ‘Qanun’. They provide both the substantive aspects of Islamic law in Aceh as well as for the establishment of Islamic legal institutions such as the syariah courts and the Consultative Ulama Council (MPU). There remains uncertainty, however, as to the direction in which Islamic law should develop in Aceh. There is also a question mark over the official status of the Qanun within Indonesia’s hierarchy of legislative instruments.

The actual content of the Qanun is still being debated. Some insist on a distinctively Acehnese model of syariah, based on the territory's own local customs and history. Others say the Acehnese should look outward in search of an appropriate model to import. A recent conference in Aceh reveals the depth of the divisions, both among the Acehnese themselves, and between the foreign Islamic experts invited to attend.

International input

Banda Aceh’s ‘Hermes Palace’, the hotel that claims to be the only five-star, openly beer-selling hotel in the provincial capital, was the location chosen for the international conference on ‘Syariah and the Challenge of the Global World; The Quest for an Actual and Dynamic form of Syariah Implementation for Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam’. The conference was organised by the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) Ar-Raniry, with sponsorship from the Indonesian government’s post-tsunami Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Body (BRR). An objective of this event was to address some of the uncertainties surrounding the future of Islamic law in Aceh in an open, academic forum. The three-day event drew together an unlikely spectrum of over 300 national and international guests, Muslim and non-Muslim, progressive and conservative, academics, government officials, religious authorities and media representatives.

As diverse as the attendees were the broad-ranging presentations and the views they represented. In a conference hall that divided male and female attendees into two separate camps, a controversial keynote address was delivered by the high-profile, US-based, Sudanese Professor of Law, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. An-Na’im rejected outright the idea of a religious state and claimed that it was the duty of the Acehnese to protect syariah (seen as belonging in the private sphere) from the reach of the state. According to An-Naim, ‘enforcing’ syariah was anathema to the idea of religious freedom and Islam’s guarantee of no compulsion. ‘Is our view of Islam such that we have to keep people in by the threat of the death penalty?’ he questioned provocatively. He stressed Aceh’s responsibility to uphold universal human rights and to appreciate that diversity was affirmed by the Qur’an.

An-Na’im was an interesting choice for keynote speaker given his staunch opposition to state-regulated syariah – the very thing Aceh is applying. Waving a finger at his audience, An-Naim went on to warn Aceh not to attempt to import foreign interpretations of syariah from places such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran or Pakistan. ‘Only Aceh can provide a model of syariah for Aceh’ he stressed.

 ‘Only Aceh can can provide a model of syariah for Aceh.’

An-Na’im’s presentation prompted immediate backlash from another esteemed international guest, Syariah Faculty Professor from Cairo’s distinguished Al-Azhar University, Muhammad Muhammad Abduh Imam. Abduh Imam’s lengthy retort in Arabic, directed at Arabic-fluent An-Na’im, was little understood by the majority of attendees. However, it was clear Abduh Imam was wholly unimpressed with An-Nai’m’s presentation and a translator’s summary subsequently confirmed Abduh Imam’s disdain for An-Na’im’s views. According to Abduh Imam, An-Na’im had no idea what syariah was and had lost sight of the truth of Islam.

None of the participants seemed surprised by the eruption of opposing opinions. Perhaps they had been prepared by an incident that had occurred the previous evening at the opening ceremony for the conference held at the governor of Aceh’s residence.  An-Na’im and Abduh Imam were seated at the same table although it was obvious they had little in common. During the Acehnese dance performance which followed the dinner, more eyes seemed fixed on Abduh Imam and An-Na’im than the dancing. On the left sat Abduh Imam, arms folded, staring into his lap, in apparent protest that there were female dancers on the stage. On the right, An-Na’im was clearly enjoying the entertainment, clapping to the music and smiling. Abduh Imam left abruptly before the end of the performance. The following day, a number of conference organisers privately remarked that they had been disturbed, offended and embarrassed by the incident. 

Local responses

As the conference progressed, other outbursts and protests emerged with increasing frequency. Most memorable for its intensity was Abduh Imam’s protest at the views expressed by renowned Muslim feminist and Indonesian Ministry of Religion official, Dr Siti Musdah Mulia. Mulia had been flown in from Jakarta to present at the forum. She spoke with grace, patience and wisdom. Her suggestion that khalwat (a man and woman unrelated by blood or marriage being alone and in close proximity) might not be the most important thing to focus on when thinking about how to implement syariah in Aceh was met with shouts to the contrary from the male side of the audience.

Unruffled, Mulia continued to explain that women were consistently the first target of recent regional efforts to implement syariah-inspired legislation throughout Indonesia. ‘Why is controlling women’s freedom and dress always the first place to start whenever a region in Indonesia begins to implement syariah in Indonesia? Surely issues such as health and education for the underprivileged would be a more useful place to start? Isn’t that more Islamic?’ According to Mulia, the reason women are targeted is that they are a symbol of power that men feel the need to control in order to secure their own position of authority.

Dr Khoiruddin Nasution from the State Islamic University (UIN) in Yogyakarta, delivered a paper arguing against polygamy. He challenged the men in the audience to explain why it was the case that, if polygamy was really all about helping vulnerable women, almost all second, third and fourth wives were so much younger and better looking than the previous one? Nasution’s question was met with a wave of raucous laughter. However, the fact that an Indonesian, Muslim man was able to stand confidently in front of the several hundred-strong, predominantly Acehnese audience and question  the contemporary validity of practicing polygamy, is a reminder of the high level of tolerance for diversity of opinion prevalent not only in Indonesian Islam, but in Aceh specifically. Needless to say, no one dared formally respond to Nasution’s question.

Many raised their hands to either offer heartfelt support or criticism for Mulia’s feminist perspective on syariah. However, all paled in comparison to the vociferous verbal attack launched by Abduh Imam who told Mulia she had no idea what Islam was. He went on to criticise the entire forum, claiming it had become a forum to confuse (men-syubhat-kan) Islam – a direct insult to the IAIN organisers.

…she looked directly at Abduh Imam and said ‘Islam here is not like it is in your country. Islam here is diverse.’

In response, a female Indonesian participant stood up to address Abduh Imam’s comments. After praising Mulia’s presentation, she looked directly at Abduh Imam and said ‘Islam here is not like it is in your country. Islam here is diverse.’ Her comment seemed to sum-up the theme of the entire conference. Rather than resolve any of the lingering legal uncertainties surrounding the implementation of syariah in Aceh, which had been the aim of the meeting, the conference had invested a majority of time in listening to and debating the many divergent opinions about syariah and Islam in Aceh. Moreover, the fact that the Acehnese organisers had invited such a diverse group of participants, from literal and conservative-minded Muslims to contextualists and modernists, from the Islamic world, from western countries and from throughout Indonesia, indicates not just tolerance, but a clear willingness to value input from a broad range of streams (aliran) of Islam. The event also demonstrated a clear understanding that there is not just one way – that no one person or institution has a monopoly on the interpretation of syariah for Aceh. This would suggest that the path to syariah-formulation will be a consultative one.

The overall experience of the conference and the stark contrast of the Egyptian professor’s views with those of the comparatively pluralist and tolerant Acehnese drew into perspective the type of Islam that characterises both Aceh and Indonesia. During one of the conference luncheons in the hotel foyer, a conference organiser must have noticed my dismay at seeing the two lunch buffets on opposite sides of the room – one for men and one for women. ‘Don’t worry’, he smiled, ‘this is just a formality to please some of the international guests. In Aceh we don’t normally bother with this kind of thing. Our history and custom is different to other places – our women were warriors!’     ii

Jemma Parsons (j.parsons4@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au) is currently completing a Masters of Public and International Law at the University of Melbourne and works in the Melbourne Law School’s Asian Law Centre. Her current research interests include Islamic education in Indonesia and Islamic law and development.

Inside Indonesia 91: Jan-Mar 2008

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