The Challenger: An Interview with Prof. Dr. Musdah Mulia

Religion is commonly perceived as a strict text to be interpreted and obeyed. Freakily, Musdah Mulia thinks it should not work that way. Thus, she is labeled as a rebel, or even worse as an unbeliever. We talked with her about her perspectives on religion and humanity, and how it could work in harmony without harming each other.

Illustration of Musdah Mulia.

Illustration of Musdah Mulia.

1. How did you get in to human rights activism through Islamic teachings?

The core and foundation of Islam is the concept of tawhîd. It is the basis for Muslim’s devotion to God, and guides every Muslim on how to establish harmonious relationships among human beings. So, in Islam, all human beings are considered equal. All human beings are equally created by God. The only thing that differentiates one individual from another is the quality of devotion and obedience to God (taqwa). And the only one capable of judging the quality of taqwa is God Himself, not humans.

To my believe, the Quran is the ultimate authority. Anything that contradicts it, including in the corpus of hadith and fiqh, cannot be considered as Islamic. Furthermore, I also believe that the Quran is open to multiple interpretations, as a result of human agency in seeking to understand the text. There is no final, authoritative human interpretation of the text. Thus, the history of Quranic exegesis is a story of a constant and continuing endeavor of Muslims seeking to understand the word of God, a wondrous exercise that can result in new meanings and perspectives evolving over time.

As a Muslim woman, I do believe that the essence of Islam is revealed in the humanistic values it embodies. In my opinion, Islamic teachings have compatibility with the principle of human rights. It is also compatible with the principle of democracy. So, for me, theologically, Islam is a blessing. Islam does not differentiate between a male and a female. Its teachings contain universal values that cover all aspects of human life. The endeavor to eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence against human being is still a struggle, this is why I feel the concern, need and urgency to get in to human rights activism.


2.  Growing up in a family where religious values were strictly upheld did not stop you from being progressive. How did you challenge the conservatism in your surroundings?

I lived mostly with my grandparents. My grandfather was a prominent religious leader (ulema) who firmly believed in the rigid and traditional interpretation of Islam. For example, according to my grandfather, women should not become leaders. He also believed that a devout woman is one who dedicates her whole life just to her husband and family. And he even believes that a woman’s voice is considered aurat (private parts).

My grandmother is a firm believer of traditional cultural values. According to her, women, for example, must know how to cook, sew and do her household chores properly. As a girl, I was not allowed to laugh loudly, to walk with my head held up, to eat certain types of fruits because they were considered bad for girls, I was told to drink a lot of jamu (traditional herbal drinks with medicinal values) and to diet in order to avoid becoming obese, I was also forbidden to dress like men. In short, I was given a long list of forbidden behaviors and habits.

And so, as a child, I was sent to a traditional Islamic Boarding School. I was only allowed out of the house for educational purposes. I was also only permitted to go to religious schools, even at the university level. And all that, was in order to have me study Arabic. Because for my grandfather, Arabic is the language of heaven, and consequently, through my studies in the Islamic boarding school, he expected me to obtain a good understanding of Islamic religion.

At university, I began to realize that not everything that my grandparents indoctrinated me with, was true. It was at that point that I started to explore humanistic and progressive interpretations of Islam. I finally realized that there is no single interpretation of any religion including Islam, and that there were, in fact, several. The problem is, although there are various interpretations, people tend to comprehend only one and unfortunately, they claim that one interpretation as the absolute and only truth. Other differing interpretations are always considered wrong and even misguided. Why do people accept only one interpretation as true? This is because many religious leaders tend not wanting these diverse interpretations to be in conflict with each other.

I believe that every core aim of all religion and faith is for the betterment of all human beings, both women and men, to be pious and useful, for them self, the family and the community in general. A number of studies have shown that there are many cases of domestic violence that stems from the misconception of religious interpretations that are discriminative towards women. It is my sincere hope that religious leaders can transform the tendency of masculinized religion’s interpretations, so that women can feel more comfortable and feel that their interest is accommodated within it.


3.  Whatever happen to the counter legal draft[1] of the Indonesian Islamic Legal Code, you once drafted back in 2004?

[1] A document that was formulated by Musdah Mulia and her team, which challenged the state’s family law and narrated a recommendation that prohibits child marriage and allowing interfaith marriage.

In 2004, The Gender Mainstreaming Team in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which I am pointed as the coordinator, proposed The Amendment of the Compilation of the Islamic Law, entitled: of the Counter Legal Draft of the Compilation of Islamic Law (CLD). The CLD embraces the implications of the Qur’anic commitment to equality and freedom in a thoroughgoing and uncompromising way. The CLD was constructed on the premise that the realization of the Qur’anic vision of the family can be achieved only if the values of equality and freedom are reflected in all aspects of the formation and regulation of equal marriage and family.

If we look at the Muslim Family Laws in different countries or communities, we can see how different they are from one another, and how more or less option-giving they are for women. Nowadays, many Muslim Family Laws have been interpreted by diverse actors and formalized as a Sharia law. These Sharia laws are man-made, and definitely not a God given law.

One of the subtlest but very much pervasive areas of discrimination against women in the Muslim world today is the inequality that occurs within the context of the family. Throughout Muslim countries, Muslim women are speaking out about such discriminations and are fighting for a reform of family laws to promote justice and equality within the family.

One of the effort to reform the family law was endeavored in the form of a Counter Legal Draft (the CLD), an ijtihad (effort) to that seeks to offer a just and democratic marital law, based on Islamic teachings that upholds humanitarian values. The purpose was to establish a marriage filled with love and affection (mawaddah wa rahmah), and encourage upright behavior of the husband and wife (mu’asharah bil ma`ruf), and mutual respect and understanding. This was in order to induce completion among each other to obtain happiness in family life. To me, the CLD is also an effort to seek solution for a number of contemporary social problems faced by Indonesian women. The CLD also strives to eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence within a marriage.  

Formulated as an alternative knowledge based on research and in-depth analysis, the CLD is still a working document, and it has its share of objection. Until nowadays, the CLD is still being discussed among scholars and students, particularly in Islamic Schools. Some Islamic Universities even establish a CLD curriculum as a major subject in their Islamic Law Faculties. Also, many Muslim scholars are still using the CLD as a reference to the Indonesian Islamic jurisprudence book. Since 2005, there have been 29 dissertations, 41 theses, and 53 articles which contain discussions on the CLD. And although it is popular in the academic sphere, the CLD rarely received any response from the society at large. But, despite its weak support from the public, I still believe that the CLD will continually live on.

All in all, the idea of the CLD aims to empower women and protect women as a human being, as explained in the Al-Qur'an and Sunnah. The CLD is still a relevant document, especially for the women Indonesia, I do believe that with the CLD, the Indonesian Muslim community will be able to promote Islamic teachings that are humanist and women friendly.


4.  Many misuse political agenda through religion as a vehicle. Do you think that this is the case for the 4th November 2016 demonstration? What are your views?

Rising religious intolerance like the 4th November 2016 demo, was a threat to Indonesia’s widely respected tradition of pluralism, freedom of faiths and interreligious harmony. The demonstration projected a threat not only to the countries’ religious minorities but to all Indonesians who value democracy, peace and human rights.

Indonesian Muslim community epitomizes a case of exceptional uniqueness. In spite of being designated as the world’s largest Muslim community, Indonesia is not an Islamic State. Such condition came up because the founding fathers and mothers of this republic -the majority of whom were Muslims - did not choose Islam as the foundation of the state. Instead, they chose Pancasila as the state’ philosophical foundation and at the same time as the guideline in establishing the state’s political power. Pancasila comprises narratives that ensures protection for all citizens, of whatever religion or belief, including those currently adhering to other religions or beliefs outside the six officially-recognized faiths. The first sila: Belief in the one and only God means that every Indonesian citizen, no matter belonging to any religious denomination or faith, should respect each other’s belief for the sake of the harmony and peace of all human beings.  So, this principle contains the precepts of religious tolerance and freedom to all people.

The problem is, not everyone accepts the pluralistic spirit of the constitutions, and there are extremist groups (of one form or another) that have been enforcing their vision of a non-plural state. In different ways, many of these extremist groups have contributed in the elevated climate of religious intolerance, for instance: through intellectual sphere, theological, and political discourse, that resulted in violence and intimidation. 

In my long experience of working in the issue of peace and religious freedom, I came to the conclusion that the trigger in the increasing religious intolerance are as follows: 1) The spread of extremist ideology, through educations, preaching and the dissemination of biased literature, DVDs, and digital contents. 2) Implementations of discriminatory laws and regulations, 3) Weak law enforcement towards victims in need of protection and justice, 4) And last but not least, is the unwillingness of the majority of Indonesians to speak out against intolerance. There is a worrying state of “silent majority” (a passive intolerance) in Indonesia, those who do not approve of the rising intolerance but do nothing to challenge it. 

My recommendation to respond to our country’s state of increased intolerance is, firstly, the importance to redirect religion’s position by putting more emphasis on multi-cultural principles and teaching of universal values, not by teaching the ritual aspects that are legal-formal in nature. And, to leave behind those dogmatic religious teachings that are full of myths and horror stories on doomsday. Because, religious teachings should encourage to do good deeds, to care for each other, and should urge us to build a human civilization that is peaceful and harmonious.

Secondly, it is very important to urge religious leaders to promote humanistic, inclusive, and progressive religious interpretations. So that, there will no longer be any interpretations that are discriminative against women and other minority groups. We have to promote religious interpretations that are in line with principles of democracy and human rights. Interpretation of religion should be accommodative towards humanistic values. Religious leaders should return to their prophetic task, which is to push for transformation of society in order to attain a civilized society.

Thirdly is interfaith cooperation. This step is fundamental to provide that theological push, even if each religion has differences in norms and doctrines, but all have an empirical level that embraces the same reality, that is, the reality of a humanity that cuts across religion, ethnicity, and race. There are many forms of cooperation and dialogue that can be carried out by interfaith communities.  It is important to note that a useful dialogue can serve as a vehicle to transform a community to become a more just and humanist society.


5. Other than being an activist, you are also involved in the academic arena. How do you juggle both roles to achieve your objective in prospering human rights?

The holy book, the Al-Qur’an gives me firm guidelines that all humans, irrespective of their sex, gender, race, skin, language, and even religion are created to promote a very important vision of their creation as khalifah fil ardh (a courteous agent). As a courteous agent, all human beings are expected to be able to organize and manage their life on earth in the best way possible for the betterment of human beings.

To me, my duty as a Muslim scholar and an activist is by advocating efforts of positive transformation and humanization. Efforts of transformation includes transforming my own self, my family, and my community. It also comprises the efforts of ‘humanizing’ the people, that is to say to make them more ‘human’. Of course, this is really complicated. But I am committed to do whatever I can do and give whatever contribution I can make in order to prosper human rights. I do all of these efforts in the hope that I can contribute to the elimination all forms of discrimination and exploitations, for the betterment of all human being, for the birth of a better civilization which respects humanity.

And, in juggling between being an activist and a scholar, I set scales of priorities. Because, doing two things simultaneously is quite impossible (for me), and therefore I set my priorities by letting out my ego and selfishness, that tends to constrain any individual.


6. You have produced a lot of written work that challenges the conservative mindset on gender equality, women’s rights, and sexual & reproductive health and rights. What have been the most significant reach you achieve from producing those narratives?

As a Muslim woman and as a human being, I must do whatever I can do and give whatever contribution I can make. My written work has given me the space and access to reach people with my alternative version of Islamic teachings that are compatible with democracy and human rights; also by campaigning Islamic teachings that are friendly to women; and last but not least, through my narratives, I am hoping that it will induce the birth of a civilization which respects humanity. With however small contributions that I have given from producing those narratives, I hope it reaches people so that there will be a point in the future where I will cultivate the feeling of no repentance to have lived in this mortal world.


7. Is there hope for a feminist Indonesia?

For me, I am a feminist. That is my foremost identity. But I am also a Muslim woman, and so I have no problem in calling myself a Muslim feminist. I am very proud of my Muslim and Feminist identity. I don’t see any contradiction in being a Muslim and a feminist at the same time, because I have been brought up with an understanding of Islam that is just. And a God that is absolutely just, including in matters related to women and gender relations.

I believe that the core aim of all religion and faith is for the betterment of all human beings, both women and men, to be useful, for them self, the family and the community in general. As previously mentioned, I will repeat that a number of studies have shown that there are many cases of domestic violence that stems from the misconception of religious interpretations that are discriminative towards women. It is my sincere hope that in a country like Indonesia, religious leaders can transform the tendency of masculinized religion’s interpretations, so that women can feel more comfortable and feel that their interest is accommodated within it.

If religious leaders are able to reflect and reform their patriarchal perspectives, I am convinced that there is still hope for a feminist Indonesia.


8. In a national state of diminishing respect of pluralism, what will be your tip to young Indonesians (male, female, transgender) out there?

It is very important to underline that pluralism is the willingness to recognize differences and accept diversity as a natural force in life to subsequently be committed to build solidarity and cooperation for the sake of peace and harmony. Pluralism must be built upon a principle of love, caring, equality and the recognition of human dignity. Pluralism urges for the fulfillment of human rights, including women rights.

Pluralism is a process of actively seeking an understanding across lines of difference. To sum it up, pluralism does not mean that one has to shed one’s own religious identity and disclaim one’s own commitment to the religion embraced, and it also doesn’t mean a syncretism to which one mixes teachings of different religions. The core of pluralism is the strong commitment to build a synergic relationship with each other in order to ensure peace and harmony.

It is important to note that Indonesia epitomizes a case of exceptional uniqueness. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. It is home to more than two hundred million Muslims, which is approximately 80% of the total population of Indonesia. Despite the fact that the majority of Indonesians are Muslims, Indonesia is not an Islamic state. Indonesia’s state ideology is not Islam, but is based on Pancasila. It consists of five principles, namely: Belief in God; Just and civilized humanism; Unity of Indonesia; People’s power; and social justice. For me, these five principles are very compatible with the universal values of human rights. And also, it is very conducive for building a culture of coexistence and peace among the community.

The choice of Pancasila as the country’s foundation, have put into account the importance of maintaining pluralistic and democratic value in shared life as a nation in Indonesia.

The thing worth underlining here is that Indonesian (youngsters, leaders, etc.) must hold inclusive, moderate and tolerant disposition. They must project the belief and importance of maintaining a harmonious togetherness as a nation, as well as the significance of upholding a human dignity, also an esteem regardless differences of faiths; and lastly, the importance of respecting human basic rights, which includes religious freedom for all civilians including the minority and vulnerable groups.