Who Are the Genuine Muslim Moderates?
by James M. Dorsey
If you think Islamic scholars discussing the religious legitimacy of the United Nations and the nation-state will put you to sleep, think again.
A call by Nahdlatul Ulama, or the Revival of Islamic Scholars, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society movement, to anchor the nation-state, as opposed to a caliphate, and the United Nations in Islamic law is at the forefront of the ideological fight against extremism and jihadism as advocated by groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The call, launched on Tuesday at a mass rally in the Indonesian city of Surabaya commemorating the Indonesian group’s centennial and a gathering a day earlier of Islamic scholars from across the globe, lays down a gauntlet for the Muslim world’s autocratic and authoritarian leaders.
Anchoring the United Nations and its charter in religious law would legally oblige non-democratic regimes to respect human rights.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo seemingly endorsed the call by speaking at the rally immediately after senior Nahdlatul Ulama leaders read it in Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia at the gathering.
The call constitutes the latest move in a sustained Nahdlatul Ulama effort to spark reform of Islamic jurisprudence and inspire other faiths to take a critical look at their potentially problematic tenants as a way of countering extremism and religiously motivated violence.
Yahya Cholil Staquf, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama’s executive council, framed the group’s proposition in questions about the need for jurisprudential reform that he posed at the scholars’ conference.
An open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the late leader of the Islamic State, written after he declared a caliphate in 2014 with himself as caliph, signed by 126 prominent Islamic scholars, including participants in this week’s event, insists that “there is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah (Muslim community).”
The letter was typical of Muslim leaders, parroted by their Western counterparts, who, for more than two decades since 9/11, have insisted that Islam and Islamic jurisprudence need no reform.
Instead, they assert that jihadis misrepresent and misconstrue the faith.
This is not the case, and encourages autocratic regimes and movements. Moreover, casting jihadists as deviants rather than products of problematic tenants of jurisprudence that justify violence stymies criticism of the justification of autocracy as a necessary means to combat violence and promote moderate Islam.
As a result, the Nahdlatul Ulama challenge goes to the core of a battle for the soul of Islam that involves a competition for religious soft power and leadership in the Muslim world, as well as who will define what constitutes moderate Islam.
The ideological rivalry pits Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam, which calls for religious reform and unambiguously endorses pluralism, against an autocratic definition of moderate Islam that rejects religious and political reform but supports a formalistic, ceremonial form of inter-faith dialogue and the loosening of social restrictions long advocated by orthodox Islam.
Among the letter’s signatories were proponents of autocratic forms of moderate Islam.
They included Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam; Egypt’s former grand mufti, Ali Goma, who religiously endorsed the killing in 2013 of some 800 Muslim Brotherhood protesters by security forces; several members of Egypt’s state-controlled Fatwa Council; and scholars at Al Azhar, Cairo’s citadel of Islamic learning. Also among the signatories were Abdullah Bin Bayyah, the head of the fatwa council of the United Arab Emirates, and one of its other members, popular American Muslim preacher Hamza Yusuf, men who do the Gulf state’s religious bidding.
The strength of the Nahdlatul Ulama challenge was evident in the fact that some of the world’s foremost opponents of the Indonesian group’s reformism felt the need to be represented at this week’s conference in one way or another, even if some backed out of the conference after initially suggesting that they would attend.
Bin Bayyah and Goma chose not to attend. Allam used his video remarks to express opposition to Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for replacing the caliphate with the notion of the nation-state and endorsing the United Nations.
Muhammad Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vehicle for propagating his autocratic version of moderate Islam, chose to ignore Nahdlatul Ulama’s proposition. Al-Issa made his remarks on video after cancelling his attendance.
Nahdlatul Ulama threw down its gauntlet by asserting that Muslims need to choose between maintaining the obligation to create a caliphate or reforming Islamic jurisprudence so that it would “embrace a new vision and develop a new discourse regarding Islamic jurisprudence, which will prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse peoples, cultures, and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order,” according to the declaration.
With one-third of Indonesia’s 270 million inhabitants identifying themselves as Nahdlatul Ulama and a religious authority of its own, the group is likely to formally announce its reform of relevant Islamic jurisprudence, potentially supported by various non-Indonesian scholars, mosques, and other Muslim associations, irrespective of opposition to its moves.
While the group’s legal move would not be binding in a Muslim world where legal authority is decentralized, it lays down a marker that other Muslim legal authorities will ultimately be unable to ignore in their bid to be recognized as proponents of a genuinely moderate Islam.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.