Muslimah Reformis

Musdah Mulia Indonesian Islamic woman scholar who debated radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir (Part II)

IO – Musdah Mulia, one of Indonesia’s most prominent Islamic scholars also happens to be a woman who does not hesitate to speak to very conservative radical clerics. She went to Afghanistan in 2012 and addressed the mullahs there including the Taliban. Meanwhile, in Indonesia she was invited to debate with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in 2007 at the Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN) or the State Institution for Islamic Studies in Surakarta. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is an Indonesian radical Muslim cleric who was listed by the United Nations as a terrorist. In the 2007 debate he reportedly refused to debate  any other NU leader. No, he let it be known, he was only prepared to debate “that audacious NU woman”. Apparently, Musdah Mulia was the only one he considered worth debating.

Musdah does not consider Abu Bakar Ba’asyir to be on the same level as the head of the NU or Nahdlatul Ulama which is the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia with a membership of between 40 and 90 million people, making it also the largest Muslim organization in the world. “He is a literalist. So, he interprets everything in the Quran literally and he also very much supports the patriarchal system. He was prepared to debate a woman as they believe that a woman’s faith is not sacred,” she observed.

It must have been intimidating debating Ba’asyir for they were surrounded by his supporters who were furious and shouting at nearly everything Musdah put forth, but Musdah was not intimidated. She says that Islam in fact, values women very much.

Musdah Mulia receiving the International Woman of the Year Award from the Italian government in 2009 for her courageous struggle for women’s rights. Photo courtesy of Musda Mulia

There is in fact no question that Musdah Mulia is fearless. She has received a mass of international and national wards attesting to this including, the American Woman of Courage Award, the Yap Thian Hien Human Rights Award, the Nabil Award for promoting unity in diversity – to name just a few. So, one asks again what makes Musdah Mulia so fearless? And what influences contributed to creating her tolerant and compassionate interpretation of Islam?

One factor, as already explained in Part I of this article, is her fearless Buginese inheritance filled with strong women. Another may lie in the fact that she herself is the daughter of a man who held some extreme views himself.

Once Musdah’s mother Buaidah Ahmad married her father Mustamin Abdul Fatah and was no longer an unmarried maiden she was entitled to a certain amount of freedom. However, she still had to follow her husband who became a member of the Darul Islam or DI. This was an Islamic group established in 1942 by a group of Muslim militias under the leadership of Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosoewirjo who proclaimed a Darul Islam or Islamic State in West Java on the 7th of August 1949. The DI then began to clash with the Indonesian army.

In 1951 Abdul Kahar Muzakkar joined the Darul Islam with rebels from South Sulawesi. Musdah’s father, was a follower of Abdul Kahar Muzakkar who led DI in South Sulawesi from 1951 until he died in 1965. He led his followers in a guerrilla warfare against the Indonesian government, until he was killed by the army in the jungles of South Sulawesi.

Meanwhile, Musdah’s mother as well as Musdah herself, and her younger sister followed her father. Eventually, they were captured by the Indonesian government and that is when her mother, Musdah and her younger sibling were sent to live in Surabaya. Her father first had to make a pledged to the Indonesian government that he would no longer participate in the Darul Islam. “My father never spoke to me about the Darul Islam or his participation in it. I only knew about it later from my uncle Syamsul Bachri who had also participated in the DI. Perhaps, my father regretted his participation; perhaps, it proved not to be the type of Islam he thought it was – but I am only guessing. He never encouraged his children in that direction, only leaving me his books. These were not just books about Islam but all sorts of books, with some also in Dutch and English. There were even books by Karl Marx. He was an avid reader, an intellectual with a great thirst for knowledge.”

Surprisingly, Musdah’s grandfather on her father’s side was a leader of the Naqshbandiyah order which is one of the main Sunni orders of Sufiism that is strong in Indonesia. Musdah describes it as an order of mysticism. Her mother’s grandfather, Haji Muhamad Nuh was an ulama or cleric of the NU. Meanwhile, her mother, Buaidah Ahmad loved the pesantren tradition. So, Musdah was raised in the Buginese and pesantren traditions but also in those of the Naqshbandiyah order and the Nahdlatul Ulama whereas her father had been a part of the hardline Darul Islam tradition. It made her aware of the diversity in Islam and in a sense she was unconsciously trained to be comfortable dealing with that diversity already from an early age.

One of Musdah Mulia’s earliest memories is how when she was studying at the pesantren the male teachers refused to look at the girl students. They would only look at the boys. Her confidence and self-awareness of women’s position in society began to grow when in high school she joined Fatayat NU which is an NU organization for high school girls. Musdah, eventually became the head of the organization for South Sulawesi. In this position she had the opportunity to travel around South Sulawesi. It was during these travels that she became increasingly aware that without education, a woman’s life was without any real aim or purpose outside raising a family. She likened it to animals who simply live their lives without much thought whereas to Musdah’s way of thinking, Indonesian women are nearly half the nation’s population and not to educate them and allow them to work means that one of the nation’s best assets is not being utilized. It was after joining Fatayat that she began to struggle for women to be regarded with dignity and that they too be given a role in building the community, the nation and the world.

Later, she was appointed the secretary general or head of the Fatayat for all of Indonesia and after that, the deputy secretary general of Muslimat NU. Muslimat NU is the NU organization for women. In these positions she has led Fatayat and Muslimat in trying to empower women through Islam. She has been active in the women’s organizations of NU for over 40 years.

Musdah Mulia together with NU leaders and Islamic leaders from Pakistan, Somalia and Egypt at a Muslim scholars conference in Brussels in 2014. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

Musdah Mulia later headed the Team for Gender Mainstreaming at the Ministry of Religious Affairs after President Abdurrahman Wahid issued Presidential Instruction number 9 of 2000 regarding the Mainstreaming of Women in National Development. Under this regulation all ministries were advised to institutionalize gender mainstreaming. In order to create a plan at the Ministry to develop its gender perspective one of the things that Musdah had to do was to review the Indonesian marriage law.

In Indonesia, in matters pertaining to family law which covers basically marriage and inheritance, non-Muslim or those in mixed marriages are subordinate to the civil courts whereas Muslims are subordinate to the religious courts. The civil courts are governed by national laws created by the Indonesian parliament such as Marriage Act number 1 of 1974. Meanwhile, the religious courts apply the Kompilasi Hukum Islam or Compilation of Islamic Law from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Musdah Mulia found that in mainstreaming gender properly she would be obliged to revise the Compilation of Islamic Law which in Indonesia covers marriage, inheritance and wakaf or specifically Islamic charitable/ non-profit acts.

Consequently, Musdah Mulia created a counter legal draft of the Compilation of Islamic Law that had been produced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. She conducted two years of research, studying the views and opinions of Muslim religious judges both in Indonesia and abroad. This counter legal draft of the Compilation of Islamic Law is until today used by lecturers and universities all over Indonesia who teach Islamic law in a progressive fashion. It is also used by the Harvard Law School program in Islamic law. In Indonesia however, it is not implemented by the Indonesian government as the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs was too afraid to do so after her new draft compilation of Islamic law was attacked by various conservative and radical factions. “The MUI (or Majelis Ulama Indonesia which translates as the Indonesian Muslim Clerics Council) is dominated by conservative Wahabists who asked that the draft compilation be shelved and the Minister for Religious Affairs was too afraid to do otherwise. Nevertheless,” she says, “as a work of research it cannot be made to simply disappear.”

Also, the Supreme Court of Indonesia has followed it in some matters such as altering the legal age for marriage from 16 to 19 years of age. This has been recognized in Supreme Court rulings and implemented by the government.

In 2019 Musdah wrote a book entitled the Ensiklopedi Muslimah Reformis or the Encyclopedia of Reform-minded Muslim Women which contains the main ideas for a reinterpretation and implementation of Islamic teachings. She wrote the book because she feels that education is the most important developmental field in Indonesia that needs to be addressed. She writes that education in Indonesia needs to be based on gender equality, multiculturalism and a transformative religious education in order for the government to be able to provide the quality education stipulated in Education Law number 20 of 2003.

There is a scene in Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s book Defeat and Victory where a group of Japanese men discuss the changes the Americans will bring to Japan after winning the Second World War. One of them who works with the government comments,” General MacArthur says that women need to be free and should have the same political rights as men so they can influence the government.”

One Japanese man responds, “Why on Earth would he want to free Japanese women? Japanese women are just fine as they are… Why should General MacArthur be insisting on their liberation?”

The Japanese civil servant provides the answer, “…Women make up more than half of Japan’s population. If the position of Japanese women changes, along with their attitudes and the way they think, then Japanese society and culture will also be radically changed.”

Musdah Mulia is right in addressing her book towards women for in Indonesia women make up 49, 42 % of the population (according to the 2020 population census) or nearly half the population and when you educate women and change their way of thinking as well as their attitudes, you change Indonesian society and culture.

As Indonesia is a nation that consists of over 300 tribal and ethnic groups with their different cultures and traditions, education in Indonesia needs to be multicultural if Indonesia is to survive as a nation. This is in fact enshrined in the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or Unity in Diversity. Finally, the foundational philosophy of the Indonesian state is the Pancasila or the five pillars of the state. The first pillar is a belief in God. The quality of religious education that is provided is therefore of the utmost importance in building good citizens and a just, prosperous and happy society.

Musdah writes that a reform-minded Muslim woman is not one who is frozen in the symbols of Islam or its legal-formal aspects but rather one who through her struggle and work is engaged in a humanism that aids and blesses not only all mankind but every creature in God’s universe. When asked to provide the essence of Islam as expressed in the Quran, Musdah Mulia explains, “Islam is essentially a set of guidelines provided by God for mankind to find peace. Peace within oneself and with one’s fellow human beings as well as with every living creature in the world, and with the environment.”

Muslim reform-minded millennials with Musdah Mulia’s book, The Encyclopedia of Reform-minded Muslim Women at a training session in 2021. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

She writes in her book that the word muslimah derives from the word salam which means peace. So, a good Muslim woman will always be actively engaged in weaving a web of peace around her in accordance with the biddings of the Quran and the Sunnah or traditions and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. She is engaged in a jihad for peace and understanding.

Her book which is an extremely tolerant, compassionate and rational guide for the reform-minded Muslim woman discusses such topics as education to nurture humane citizens, the importance of family planning and women’s reproductive health, democracy, human rights including those of women and children, gender equality, creating a woman friendly political climate, family and marriage, the disadvantages of polygamy, opposing terrorism and radicalism as well as violence, freedom of religion, a jihad to build peace and finally a humanist and feminist interpretation of religion and a transformative evangelism. It is in fact a book that should appeal to every Indonesian woman – whether she is Muslim or not. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part I of the article:

Musdah Mulia, an Indonesian Muslim woman scholar who spoke to the Taliban (Part I)