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Review: Clashing interpretations

Review: Clashing interpretations
Published: Apr 28, 2012


Muhammad Iqbal

Hisanori Kato has managed to gather a unique compilation of articles that covers the issue of ijtihad from two diametrically opposing views: those held by liberal and fundamentalist Muslims in Indonesia. Simply speaking, ijtihad is the use of human reasoning in interpreting Islamic teachings. In his own words, Kato put this volume together to show the different ways Muslims interpret Islamic teachings, and just how diverse the umat, or congregation, is.

The book begins with an introduction to its central theme: a conflict between liberal Muslims and their fundamentalist counterparts. This is a conflict that arose among Indonesian Muslims and Muslims around the world, due to differences over interpretations of Islam. On the surface it would be easy to attribute this solely to the actions of human agents in their usage or interpretation of ijtihad, which Kato describes as human reasoning. However, Kato argues, and rightly so, that there is more to it than that. His introductory chapter draws from sociology, employing Ernst Gellner’s explanation of social change to argue his case. Kato puts forth the idea that social context is extremely crucial in shaping one’s interpretation and therefore one’s expression, of religion. Thus, the social context of the society in which a religion is located is important in shaping the form and scale of that influence. It is because of this, Kato argues, that in order to fully understand the role religion plays in a particular country, great attention must be given to the factors that make it unique.

Another key and important message of the book is to bring deeper understanding of the often used but perhaps little understood terms, fundamentalism and liberalism. For Kato, fundamentalist Muslims are those who strictly adhere to original scriptures, and are less flexible towards new and recent interpretations of the faith. Some readers might, however, disagree that Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is ‘merely a fundamentalist’, especially given his conviction under terrorism charges. In defining a liberal Muslim, Kato has taken his cue from Montgomery Watt as those who appreciate ‘much of the Western outlook and felt that the implicit criticisms of Islam were partly justified, but who at the same time thought themselves as Muslims and wanted to live their lives as Muslims’.

The edited book includes contributions from those defined as liberal Muslims as well as fundamentalist Muslims. Among those Kato labels to be liberal, are notable people such as Lutfhi Assyaukanie, one of the founders of Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL). There is also a contribution from Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s 4th president, and a former leader of NU, which became quite progressive in its orientation and outlook during his tenure. You also have a representative of Muhammadiyah in Zakiyuddin Baidhawy, amongst a few other names. On the other side, among those Kato has described as fundamentalists, the most notable name is that of Abubakar Ba’asyir, one of the founders of Jemaah Islamiyah, a group that have become infamous due to its involvement in terrorist acts over the past decade, which have claimed hundreds of lives. Other contributors classified as fundamentalist include Eka Jaya, a member of Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front); Qothrun Nadaa, a member of Hizbut Tahrir; as well as Ismail Yusanto, one of the leaders of Hizbut Tahrir. The articles from these contributors manage to exemplify the result of ijtihad.

Take for example the chapter by Lily Munir, a leading female activist in Indonesia. Munir examines the role of women in Islam and argues that the historical situation in Arabia before the revelation of Islam became highly influential in the discrimination against women in Quranic Islam. She argues that the parameters of justice for women in the modern day world, in Indonesia or elsewhere, are different than that found in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century. Therefore, she argues, one’s understanding of religion must be refreshed in order to meet the challenges of contemporary society. Here, not only did Munir use her human reasoning, in other words, her ijtihad, but she was also able to take into consideration her current context. What this essentially means is that she was able to take into account the reality of the modern day in interpreting Islamic teachings.

Another example of this is the chapter by Zakiyuddin Baidhawy on the different ways in which jihad has been understood through the ages. Baidhawy looks at the meaning of jihad as interpreted by classical jurists, who saw it as war bound by certain conditions. Then he looked at the works of Ibn Taymiyah, who saw jihad as rebellion against tyranny. Then there were the Sufis, who described jihad as a moral struggle. Finally there was the modernist, who saw jihad as a platform to bring about social and political change. The differences between these interpretation show that contextualisation is highly important.

On the fundamentalist side, the chapter titled ‘Ethnic Identity, Nationalism and Islam’ by Eka Jaya, a member of FPI who was himself involved in a violent attack against a cafe that was open during Ramadhan, initially seems to do the same thing. He states that it is not only his religion – Islam – but also his ethnic background – Betawi – that drove him to participate in actions that he believes will rid Indonesian society of social ills. To a degree, one can say that the author has been able to contextualise his ijtihad in that he was able to take into account other factors within his reasoning, such as his Betawi background. However, his contextualisation is perhaps rather shallow when compared to those employed by Munir and Baidhawy, and does not really add any extra complexity to his rationale.

In fact, this lack of contextualisation is perhaps an overriding theme amongst the fundamentalist writers. While their contributions to this book, much like their liberal counterparts, also shows ijtihad (in that they used human reasoning in engaging with the themes of their respective chapters), there is a distinct lack of historical or local context. This is the case in other chapters including Cecep Firdaus’ musings on how Islam is life’s solution and in M. Ismail Yusanto’s chapter entitled ‘Caliphate, Sharia and the future of Umat’.

This differing approach to ijtihad is perhaps most apparent in the topic of women in Islam, as this book has three chapters on this issue. The first has already been discussed above, while the second is from another liberal writer, Siti Musdah Mulia. She takes a similar stance to Munir, except that she specifically applies it to the issue of polygamy and the hijab. A third chapter, written by Qothrun Nadaa, someone who would be catagorised as a fundamentalist under Kato’s understanding of the word, takes a very different approach. Unlike the previous two writers, Nadaa does not contextualise her work, in that her musings on the position of women in Islam are sourced directly from scripture.

Whether Kato purposely designed his book to show this difference between the two ‘sides’, or if it was simply a by-product when he compiled it, is unclear. This book provides a comparative glimpse into how liberal and fundamentalist Muslims differ in their approaches towards interpreting their religion. Those who are interested in these two groups should pick up this book.

Hisanori Kato (ed.), The Clash of Ijtihad – Fundamentalist versus Liberal Muslims: The Development of Islamic Thinking in Contemporary Indonesia. Delhi: ISPCK, 2011.

Muhammad Iqbal ( is a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC), Monash University. He has taught subjects covering topics such as political Islam and Islam in Indonesia. His Masters dissertation looked at the historical development of Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-Jun 2012

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