Thursday, August 16, 2012

Between Ritual and Reality, New Role for Islam

The Jakarta Globe, Ahmad Najib Burhani | August 15, 2012

During this month of Ramadan, people can see both the intensity of religiosity and the performance of piety. A lot of people fast for the whole month, recite the Koran every day and observe the tarawih prayer every night. Television and radio stations, malls and offices broadcast or organize programs with religious content.

However, anytime we witness the intensity of religiosity and performance of piety, we see gaps between piety and social solidarity — between rituals and social reality. Ramadan should be a month for reflection, social solidarity and refraining from worldly pleasure, but many people express their religiosity excessively to the point of disturbing other people.

In the morning, for instance, when the best time for sahur, the predawn meal, is 4 a.m., some Muslims try to wake people with loudspeakers from as early as 2 a.m. In the evening they also recite the Koran using loudspeakers until midnight. There are also stories of people throwing away their food just because they have to stop eating when they hear the call of imsak, the end of sahur. Then, in the morning, scavengers search dumpsters for their breakfast.

It is this discrepancy between religious practices and social phenomena that was the main concern of the late Moeslim Abdurrahman, the Islamic scholar who died last month. His thoughts and activities were discussed at the Abdurrahman Wahid Center at the University of Indonesia last week, and compared with two other prominent Muslim intellectuals, Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid.

As a student of Kang Moeslim, I have long been fascinated by his way of thinking. With his so-called Islam Transformatif, Kang Moeslim tried to transform Islamic doctrines and teachings so they could be used to emancipate and empower the mustad’afin, oppressed or marginalized people.

Different from Nurcholish “Cak Nur” Madjid, who emphasized “Islamic reform” in all his endeavors, Kang Moeslim’s main concern was “social reform” since he believed our real problem was related to social injustice. Also different from Cak Nur and Gus Dur, the subjects of his thoughts and activities were neither members of the urban middle class nor santri and pesantren, but the impoverished and marginalized, such as farmers, lower-class workers, beggars and prostitutes.

Back to the problem of discrepancies between piety and social injustice, the question is how to transform religion and make it useful to alleviate poverty, social subordination and discrimination, instead of creating social problems — as sometimes seen during Ramadan. Beginning in the 1980s, Kang Moeslim proposed three interrelated methods for dealing with this issue: ta’wil (hermeneutics, or text interpretation), the use of critical theories and new social movements.

The idea of using hermeneutics in social transformation is to produce new meanings for religious doctrines so they can be used to help the poor or to otherwise give preferential treatment to those who have been discriminated against and persecuted.

In the context of zakat (alms giving), for instance, the poor and impoverished (faqir and miskin) are among those who have the right to receive zakat. However, in common practice, the definition of faqir and miskin is often limited to those who embrace Islam, excluding non-Muslims. With this understanding, people are reluctant to distribute zakat to the Ahmadis in Transito, West Nusa Tenggara, although they are obviously among the poorest people. Ahmadis are not considered Muslims by many since they have some distinctive beliefs, such as the belief that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is a prophet and the messiah.

With the use of critical theories, the discourse about the poor can deconstructed. In many cases, becoming a prostitute is not an individual choice. It is connected, for instance, with the failure of the government to provide good jobs for its people. Therefore, the sin and blame should not be given only to the prostitute, but should be shared with the government and even the institutions of religion.

Another example: if someone becomes poor, it is not necessarily because of laziness. Some impoverished people spend more than 16 hours a day doing whatever kind of work they can find just to get food for that day. They become poor because of capitalism, globalization and structural hegemony.

Then there are new social movements. This involves, for instance, creating “organic Muslim clerics,” a modified term from Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectual.” The role of an imam or ustadz and ulama should move from just teaching and preaching spirituality into a more emancipating role such as becoming mediators of social transformation.

It is more imperative now than ever to rejuvenate the social struggle promoted by Kang Moeslim. Excessiveness in expressing religiosity and incoherence between religious teachings and social realities are the real problems in contemporary Indonesia. It is through transformative Islam that the discrepancies between theory and practice, between ritual and social solidarity, can be minimized, if not alleviated completely.

Ahmad Najib Burhani is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

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