Peaceful Faces of Islam
Religion should free people.
TEN years ago, in the village of Meunasah Mancang, West Aceh, Umi Hanisah was expelled by locals from the Islamic boarding school, or pesantren, that she had built. She was reviled because she had admitted a pregnant girl. All Hanisah wanted to do was to protect a child who had been raped by her own father. Forced out by locals, the female ulema was forced to move to the next village along with her 35 students. There the ustazah (female Islamic teacher) rebuilt her pesantren in a wooden building with a thatched roof lent to her by a former student.
This kind of persecution did not rattle Hanisah. Abuse, disturbances and eviction are no strangers to her since she became a preacher. She was one of the first women in Aceh to establish and lead a pesantren. In the new school, she continued to provide a place of protection for survivors of violence, especially women and children who were victims of rape, something which at that time was not provided by the regional government there.
Irwan Masduqi in Yogyakarta had a similar experience. As well as being the head of the Assalafiyah Mlangi pesantren in Sleman, he also teaches tolerance to villagers living nearby. His method of conveying the message of harmony despite differences has been the subject of mockery and his school was nearly burned down. But that did not make Irwan give up. Now his pesantren is often a venue for interreligious dialogue.
Far from the hustle and bustle, people like Hanisah and Irwan can be found all around Indonesia. They need to be given a stage and a chance to speak out so we can all learn from them. For example, in Purworejo, Central Java, there is Ratna Ulfatul Fuadiyah. As well as preaching, she helps participants in her Islamic study group in Borokulon village to escape the clutches of loan sharks. Her method is simple: she initiated a savings club with money from donations.
We should follow the example of people like this. These village preachers do not only teach religion, but also take real measures that help people. Religion is taught as a way to change the world and make it a better place, not to cause divisions and trigger arguments.
There is nothing new in an initiative to turn religion into a force for change. Throughout his life, President Abdurrahman Wahid frequently introduced his concept of the theology of freedom in Islam in Indonesia, something he had absorbed from the methods used by Catholic pastors in Latin America. Gus Dur was convinced that Islam brought the values of equality, justice, tolerance and discussion. Only if these values were realized in full could Islam bring freedom and progress to the whole world.
Unfortunately, not every preacher has this awareness. Many ustad (male Islamic teacher) and ustazah in this nation still teach a normative form of Islam, and even criticize other faiths and religions. Instead of making the faithful wiser, they cause divisions. People who are taken in by this type of radical preacher tend to become intolerant, racist, and more likely to carry out acts of violence.
In the future, village ustad and ustazah such as Hanisah, Irwan and Ratna must move up to the next level and embrace a wider community. They should become expert at preaching in digital arenas, especially through social media. In this Internet era, this kind of appearance would be very useful. Research carried out by the Wahid Foundation in 2017 found that most young people prefer to study religion from social media, not by listening to sermons of knowledgeable Islamic scholars.
As well as improving the presentation, method and language used, these modern teachers need to study the substance of the notion of Islam as a blessing for the whole world. For example, studies of Islamic laws, or fikih, that are humanitarian should be encouraged. The intellectual discussion over Islam must be opened up and spread widely so the understanding of the faithful is not dominated by old interpretations.
This endeavor is important because public spaces are increasingly providing a place for religion only to be presented in a commercial way. In those arenas, the substance of theology and interpretations of ustad given a stage by the mass media are never examined carefully. This means they can readily be taken advantage of by hardline groups who want to spread the idea of violence in the name of religion. Therefore, moderate religious scholars can no longer simply preach in their own communities.
These village preachers who are the subject of the main report this week should be seen as examples of how to build a tolerant society. With sermons at the grass roots that offer real solutions, slowly but surely, they will make Indonesia better.