The tawhid of human rights

Musdah Mulia is one of those scholars who relentlessly combines activism, politics and academia. She has been Senior Advisor of the Minister of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia and Head of the Research Division of The Council of Indonesian Ulama. She regularly lectures at both Indonesian and international universities. Currently, much of her attention goes to the Indonesian Conference on Religion for Peace, an independent organization dedicated to advancing and promoting interfaith dialogue, democracy and peace in Indonesia.

Musdah’s direct experience with the social and political discrimination of women in Indonesia has always given her work a strong focus on human rights and gender equality. In 2004, for example, she was the coordinator of the state endorsed Gender Mainstreaming Team. The eventual results of the team’s research weren’t easily accepted as many factions deemed them too liberal. Nevertheless, Musdah’s approach can also count on much support from Indonesian, as well as international, circles of Muslim scholars.

People often forget that Indonesia is the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world, even though it’s not an Islamic state.

Indeed. Eighty-five per cent of the Indonesian population is Muslim, but our founding fathers and mothers didn’t make Islam the state ideology. They realized that there are too many differences in interpretation, so they settled on the Pancasila instead. This Pancasila is a combination of five general principles that could create a common ground: spirituality, humanity, unity of the country, democracy and justice. As such, Islam isn’t the sole basis of our governance, but the Pancasila incorporates many of its values because when you talk about the principle of spirituality, you talk about a spirituality that touches on love, compassion and mercy. You talk about a spirituality that goes to the essence of all faiths and religions.

Yet, although the Pancasila offers a lot of room to build a spiritual society, sadly enough this does not seem to suffice for some more radical groups that would like to implement a purely Islamic political order.

Sure, Indonesia has its fair share of reactionary groups. Yet, we must be aware of the fact that the rise of more radical groups coincides with the advent of democracy. As everybody knows, the Suharto regime was a very repressive regime, but once it fell and democracy found its way, it was also used and abused by radical Islamic groups. In the Suharto era, they would simply have been repressed, but now they are given the public space to spread their views. So yes, many Muslim leaders – and certainly feminist Muslims like me – are faced with the growth of radicalism.

We have to keep in mind, however, that the expressions of religious radicalism – like disadvantaging women in the Muslim community – come from the religious interpretation of those who possess the religious authority. It doesn’t stem from religion itself. So, the solution to the problem, ironically enough, lies in countering them with the ‘democracy’ of our own religion; that is to say, with ijtihad, the process of constantly (re)interpreting our religion. Ijtihad means that we search for new ways to properly apply our religion within our contemporary contexts. With proper ijtihad then, we can explain to people that the goal of upholding human rights is not only in accordance with the Pancasila but also with the teachings of Islam

How, then, do you counter the arguments of certain Muslim groups that consider the idea of human rights to be non-Islamic?

Many Muslims see human rights as set of Western values. They perceive it as an ideological framework that’s being forced upon them. However, they forget that, in the twelfth century, the great scholar, Al Ghazali, already said that the maqasid al-sharia[1] can be formulated into five basic rights of a human being that should be provided for by religion. In my view, he talks about five human rights and, more precisely, about the right to life, the right to religious freedom, the right to express your opinion freely, the right to property and the right to reproduction.

Like Al Ghazali, I strongly believe that religion came to us for the betterment of human kind, not for the betterment of God. God has no defects or problems. So, it’s not God who ‘needs’ religion. It’s humans who need it.

But if you build your argument on tradition and even refer to Al Ghazali, why then does it often remain difficult to convince people of the ‘Islamicness’ of your approach to human rights?

Sadly enough, the religious interpretation being spread and taught in our cities is the conservative interpretation. That is why I try to let people read the Qur’an and try to help them understand their religious teachings. Only when you take enough time to educate everyone, can they come to understand that there is no contradiction between Islam and human rights values and that there is no contradiction between tawhid and democracy.

In itself, the spiritual principle of tawhid refers to both the unity and the uniqueness of God. So, how exactly do you connect it to democracy?

As you know, every Muslim accepts the principle of tawhid. In its essence, tawhid is the unity of God as it is expressed in our creed of faith: there is no God except THE God. A direct result of this tawhid is the fact that no creature can be equal to God, and the conviction that no human equals God gives rise to the principle of the equality of humankind. For a king cannot be a god to his people, a husband cannot be a god to his wife, a man cannot be a god to a woman, etc. Because no one is a god, no human can be superior to another human. All are fundamentally equal. No one can decree his will to someone else as if he was God.

From this, obviously, follows that all forms of discrimination against women or minorities can be considered as a denial of the principle of tawhid. A true understanding of tawhid seeks the liberation of all human beings from every form of tyranny, dictatorship or despotic structure. A true understanding of tawhid and Islam should bring about a society based on moral, civil and humanitarian values that frees it from any injustice or suppression.

In your work, you have a strong focus on the empowerment of women. I suppose, then, that the principle of tawhid is the driving force behind it as well.

Indeed. Women have to realize that they are full human beings with basic rights. They think they are the ‘second’ human being, created from Adam. It makes them feel as if they aren’t ‘complete’ human beings, but the Qur’an doesn’t say that Eve is created out of Adam’s rib. That idea comes from the Bible. Yet, when our religious leaders speak – both male and female – they mention that rib. Women should learn that in the Qur’an we come from the same essence, that both male and female are called to stewardship of creation. In the eyes of God, both men and women have the same obligation to build a civil society and to work towards peace with ourselves, others and the whole of creation.

Sadly enough, however, we don’t find such ideas in our current socio-political system. Many of the current articles in Indonesian common law marginalize and discriminate women. This inequality has deep roots within the patriarchal culture of our country and has pervaded our juridical system. It influences the decision-making processes of our prosecutors and judges.

So, how do you confront these deeply embedded imbalances as a woman?

To breach the social and political patriarchy, we need a cultural reconstruction, which should rest on three pillars. First of all, we need to have more education, in schools certainly but also in family life. Because it’s above all in family life that people should raise their kids with a critical and open mind. Second, we need to change laws and regulations and we need to get rid of the subordination of women in family law. And third, we need a reinterpretation of religion so that it becomes compatible with humanity and human rights.

And let me be clear that these things aren’t only necessary in Muslim communities. Christian and Hindu women face similar problems. We are all in the same boat. We all need a humanistic reinterpretation of our religions.

Do your efforts of reinterpretation bring you into much conflict with other scholars?

Some conservatives actually agree that the things I propose are truthful and just, but that our society isn’t ready for them yet. Other women aren’t educated like I am, they say. Even my husband doesn’t like that I provoke people with humanistic progressive interpretations of Islam. (Musdah laughs.) But when people tell me: “Musdah, you’re so ambitious”, I readily answer: “I’m not ambitious. It’s simply my right.”

And even ambition is your right, I would say. The Islamic tradition knows a lot of powerful women. The stories surrounding the wives of the Prophet, such as Khadijah and Aisha, portray this all too well.

That’s another good example of how we neglect many noble things in our religion. Nowadays, they depict Khadija as a rich widow and Aisha as a pretty wife of Muhammad, while both of them were strong women who commanded men – Khadija in her business and Aisha as the leader of an army. People easily forget what such brave women have accomplished. Much historical context got lost in our teaching of Islam. And we often don’t know how to place everything within our present context and time.

Just look at the way we deal with the Qur’an. The verses in the Qur’an can actually be divided in two types: universal verses that speak of basic values to all human life and specific verses for specific contexts. Thus, when interpreting the latter they can only be understood in light of the former, i.e. the call for compassion and justice. For example, when you speak of marriage, you have to place it within bigger moral values like love and fidelity. But many scholars and preachers give too much attention to the implementation of certain contextual verses and don’t place them in the context of the universal verses. This often makes their judgements and interpretations very strict, exclusive and very female unfriendly.

In the end, it’s quite simple: the Qur’an comes from God, the interpretation comes from men. I’m not an infidel when I say this. And I can’t stress it enough: we need to realize that the interpretation of religious truths always exists within a certain context. That is why education is so important. Education makes it possible to get rid of the dangerous and misleading forms of religion that bring about injustice and discrimination. Certainly in the case of women, they are on the back foot, socio-economically speaking. So, women have to become self-confident through knowledge.

All in all, that’s an ongoing struggle, not just in Indonesia but, in fact, all over the world.

You know, to be a Muslim is to be a khalifah,[2] a moral agent. That means that everyone is responsible for continuing the Prophetic task. The Prophetic task of human kind didn’t end with Muhammad. It’s the duty of every Muslim to continue al-amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf wa ‘n-nahy ‘an al-munkar. Literally, this means ‘enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong’. I conceive it as ‘efforts of transformation’. We have to transform ourselves, our families and societies. That’s not easy. But we have to do this prophetic task in our own capacity, as a teacher, a husband, a wife, a scholar, a brother, a sister, a politician or whatever your status and situation might be. And, like I often say, our mission will only end on judgment day. (Musdah laughs.)


[1] The Maqasid al Sharia are the ‘intentions of the Sharia’. That is to say, they are the underlying purpose behind the Islamic laws.

[2] The concept of khalifah is, of course, related to the concept of the caliphs, the successors of the Prophet and leaders of Muslim caliphates. Yet, as a spiritual term, khalifah implies the ‘stewardship’ of every human being. It, thus, refers to the manner in which everyone is called by God to take care of creation and humanity. To retain the distinction between the socio-political and spiritual use of the word, different transliterations, i.e. ‘caliph’ and ‘khalifah’, respectively, were used.

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