In Other Words

Indonesia’s Moderate Islamists

Wajah Baru Relasi Suami Isteri (The New Face of Husband-Wife Relations) By the Forum Kajian Kitab Kuning (Study Forum for Yellow Books) 209 pages, Yogyakarta: LKiS, 2001 (in Bahasa Indonesia) Extremist Islamic scholars — and the madrasas (religious schools) where they teach — dramatically captured headlines in the West in the last year and eclipsed ...

Wajah Baru Relasi Suami Isteri
(The New Face of Husband-Wife Relations)

By the Forum Kajian Kitab Kuning (Study Forum for Yellow Books) 209 pages, Yogyakarta: LKiS, 2001 (in Bahasa Indonesia)

Extremist Islamic scholars — and the madrasas (religious schools) where they teach — dramatically captured headlines in the West in the last year and eclipsed more moderate scholars. In Indonesia, however, moderate Muslims have ceded neither political nor academic ground to the country’s more conservative practitioners.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, with some 200 million believers. And despite a long struggle between liberal and literalist Islamic forces, the moderates remain a force to be reckoned with. Unlike other Muslim-dominated countries such as Iran, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, Indonesia boasts an engaged group of moderate Muslim academics and thinkers with senior positions in leading Islamic institutions. The country’s liberals are not effete, Western-educated secularists. Most of them emerged from rural pesantrans (religious schools), are fluent in Arabic, and are trained in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). They are well equipped to debate substantive religious issues and do not retreat from confrontation. As one such scholar, Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a leader of the moderate association Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), declares, "We come from within the tradition. We can challenge the conservatives head-on."

Through associations such as NU — which has more than 30 million members — and schools like the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN) system, these scholars are influencing a new generation with their modernist thinking, tolerance of other faiths, and sensitivity to gender rights. "In exploring these values, we are drawn to the spirit of criticism and questioning that is a hallmark of centuries of Islamic discourse," Abshar-Abdalla said.

A recent example of such discourse is Wajah Baru Relasi Suami Isteri (The New Face of Husband-Wife Relations) — a reexamination of Uqud al-Lujayyan (Couple’s Contract), a respected work of Koranic interpretation called kitab kuning. "The kitabs cover different opinions of Islamist jurists and ulamas on certain matters," explains Goenawan Mohamad, an important liberal voice and former editor of the leading Indonesian newsweekly magazine, Tempo. "In other words, there is an implied recognition of the possibility of different interpretations of a particular fiqh rule. In short, they do not deny the legacy of history; they do not have an obsession with ‘purity.’"

Also known as "yellow books," these religious texts evince the lively Javanese intellectual tradition. Composed by Javanese Muslim scholar Sheikh Nawawi in 1876, Couple’s Contract has been a regular part of the pesantrans’ curriculum across Indonesia.

For many progressive Muslims, however, Couple’s Contract, with its restrictive views on the rights of married women, represents an exercise in misogyny. Modern-day critics argue that Nawawi’s extended stay in Mecca had too much of an influence on him. "Sheikh Nawawi’s book is very Arabic in culture," said Nasaruddin Umar, an outspoken advocate of gender equality and professor at the Jakarta-based IAIN. "This needs to be addressed along with the discrimination of women in the original. One must never forget that the ultimate goal of the sharia [Islamic law] is always justice and peace." Umar’s criticism mirrors the resistance of many in the pesantrans to teachings of the Arabic Wahabi sect.

After four years of meticulous work, the Study Forum for Yellow Books, a group of Muslim writers led by Sinta Nuriah Wahid — wife of former President Abdurrahman Wahid and a highly respected religious scholar in her own right — launched The New Face of Husband-Wife Relations in late 2001. President Wahid, a former chairman of NU, played a key role in the rise of moderate Islamists. During former President Suharto’s regime, organizations such as NU steered clear of politics and instead concentrated on establishing schools and colleges across the republic and on balancing Western Enlightenment ideas with traditional Islamic precepts. After Suharto’s fall from power, NU and the Muhammadiyah (another large moderate Islamic association), with their mass membership and network of schools, have provided a vital bulwark against extremist groups such as Laskar Jihad.

The Study Forum’s reappraisal of the kitab tackled gender bias in a manner that many Western-educated liberals would find unusual. Instead of dismissing the original as the work of an outdated bigot, the authors adopted traditional Koranic exegesis to their own ends. Clearly, the group is confident that women’s rights can and do exist in the Koran and that democracy, science, technology, and above all, human rights can be reconciled with Islam. With this belief uppermost, the study group managed (in a neat and dazzling reversal of roles) to undermine the credibility and authority of the original by using conventional methodology.

The book is divided into five sections, which outline a husband’s duty to his wife, a wife’s duties to her husband, the importance of prayer at home for women, the prohibition on looking at the opposite sex, and proper behavior for women. In the section that discusses a wife’s obligations to her husband, Nawawi allows, and at times even encourages, a man to beat his wife if she is disobedient. He lists 11 transgressions that would warrant this kind of punishment, which include leaving the marital home without permission and revealing herself to a man who is not a close relative.

The Study Forum’s reassessment is diligent and painstaking. Each hadith (sayings attributed to Mohammed) cited in the original is scrutinized and verified according to long-established, rigorous rules of authentication. Similarly, the authors are extremely alert to Nawawi’s personal prejudices, attacking his arguments in favor of wife beating by demonstrating that the Koran never condones such scandalous behavior. In like fashion, the Study Forum asserts that women possess the right to sue for divorce, citing hadiths to support this proposition. However, the authors are equally firm in stating that divorce — whether initiated by a husband or a wife — should be only a last resort.

Indonesian scholars have praised the Study Forum’s work, calling the authors courageous for publishing a book that was sure to stir controversy. And Mustofa Bistri, a well-known Muslim preacher, said the book was a civil way of expressing disagreement with the views of a great ulama.

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, liberal thinkers are generally embattled and isolated, and moderate religious institutions such as Egypt’s Al Azhar University have lost credibility because of their close association with repressive governments. Not so with Indonesia’s Islamic associations, whose leaders think strategically and are able to use the local media — and books like The New Face of Husband-Wife Relations — to their advantage.

Unfortunately, Indonesia’s liberal Islamic forces have failed to attract attention outside the republic. Like The New Face of Husband-Wife Relations, the entire discourse and virtually all publications are in Bahasa Indonesia — making them inaccessible to Arabic, Urdu, and English speakers. And tragically, the country’s syncretic Islamic practices (often incorporating preexisting Hindu and Buddhist traditions) have made Muslims elsewhere in the region wary of Indonesian thinkers.

Despite the current limited reach of these liberal Islamists, it is not far-fetched to believe that Indonesia’s experiment with a modernized Islam will affect the rest of the region. Western strategists may be frightened by the vision of a radicalized Islamic ummah (community) stretching from Aceh in the northwest to Irian Jaya in the east, straddling sensitive shipping lanes and controlling vital natural resources. But Indonesia’s flourishing moderate Muslim schools and associations should put them at ease.

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