Humanist Fatwa or Violent Fatwa?
oleh Zuhairi Misrawi

Fatwa should involve all elements of society. In the tradition of bahtsul masa’il (problem research used to be held in pesantren) that discusses about current matters (masa’il waqi’iyyah) performed by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) for instance, the ulema were aware of their incompetence in the contemporary issues, therefore they asked the opinion of the experts (expert in medical field, etc) in formulating a fatwa. Hence, they can comprehend the object of fatwa well and accurately.

In the end of the 1990s, Israel attacked Lebanon and murdered a number of Muslims. This event provoked strong responses from the Egyptian population. A huge demonstration was organized at University of Al-Azhar to condemn the Israeli aggression. At the same time, several people registered themselves as volunteers for the battlefield (mujahid fi sabilillah).

Within that hostile climate, Imam al-Akbar Sheik al-Azhar, Sayyed Tantawi issued a fatwa (religious edict), “Performing Jihad in Lebanon is not necessary, since working hard to support your own family and educate your children well is part of Jihad which nowadays must be a priority.”

He spoke about this fatwa in a mosque in Cairo, district 7. I used to perform my Friday prayer in that mosque, and listen to his peaceful and comforting sermons. This progressive fatwa is not the only fatwa that has been issued by Sheik Tantawi. Other progressive fatwas he issued include: the enforcement of Islamic law in a secular country is not necessary, for example it is not an obligatory to wear a headscarf in France; bank interest is halal (allowed); acceptation of the Jewish figures in al-Azhar, refusing to condemn certain thinking as heretic etc. In the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, a Muslim thinker who was forced to migrate to Leiden, the Netherlands, Sayyed Tantawi asked Nasr Hamid to return to Egypt and assured him al-Azhar would accept him.

I observed Sheik Tantawi to be an important, post-Muhammad Abduh, Muslim scholar, especially in the Indonesian context. Recently, hot debates arouse out of one of MUI’s fatwas (Indonesian Council of Ulema), the fatwa declared Ahmadiyyah, pluralism, secularism, and liberalism as heretical ideologies. Fierce reactions from NU (Indonesian’s largest Muslim mass organization), Aliansi Masyarakat Madani (Alliance of Civil Society) and prominent figures such as Gus Dur, Todung Mulya Lubis, Azyumardi Azra, Adnan Buyung Nasution would never have emerged if MUI would have taken Sheik Tantawi as an example in issuing edicts.

There are at least three important reasons why Sheik Tantawi should be followed by the Indonesian ulema: first of all, fatwas should consider the context of plurality. Respecting plurality with a textual perspective can be problematic, since some verses in the sacred text explicitly ignore and deny plurality (QS. 2: 120, 9:36), while other verses command people to keep the plurality balanced (QS. 2:62, 3:113). Therefore, reading the sacred text requires a contextual methodology, particularly when pluralism is concerned. Sheik Tantawi’s acceptation of Jewish intellectuals in al-Azhar was not merely based on textual injunctions, but rather on the fact that in the present-day context it is impossible to avoid. Other implicit reasoning (al-maskut ‘anhu) behind his verdict incorporated one of the essential steps towards a constructive solution for the Palestinian Israeli conflict, namely engaging in a dialog with Jewish religious figures. Since the heated conflict in the Middle East is also due to religious infiltration in political matters. Hence, pluralism in order to make plurality the power of creating peace, uniting aspect and care for diversity is necessary.

Secondly, fatwas must be based on profound reasoning, and not on self-interest or blind hate. Law deduction should emphasize a thorough analysis as can be seen in the work of Averroes, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtashid. This work of the Andalusian philosopher stressed the importance of profound reasoning, when dealing with rituals (‘ibadah mahdhah) or social relations (mu’amalah ijtimaiyyah). He discussed difference of opinions wisely, therefore we do not find any words based on self-interest or hate in this book.

The use of reason in the time of issuing fatwas is necessary in understanding the text and the context of problem. Therefore, fatwa is not about dividing the world in a good and bad part, but it should prioritize the urgency of education, enlightenment, and empowerment of society. Ulema, after all, are the successor of the Prophet. Therefore, prophetic messages on good news (tabsyir) and warnings (indzar) should be considered hand in hand.

Thirdly, fatwas should bring benefits to humans. Fatwa should involve all elements of society. In the tradition of bahtsul masa’il (problem research used to be held in pesantren) that discusses about current matters (masa’il waqi’iyyah) performed by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) for instance, the ulema were aware of their incompetence in the contemporary issues, therefore they asked the opinion of the experts (expert in medical field, etc) in formulating a fatwa. Hence, they can comprehend the object of fatwa well and accurately. Fatwa cannot be issued without a profound understanding of the matter concerned, particularly when it needs academic reference, which is unknown in the Islamic tradition.

Sheik Tantawi, for instance, consulted banking experts to study to what extend bank interest provides both benefits to the client and to the bank. Should bank interest be included in usury? During his time as the head of the Fatwa Council of Egypt until he was being Sheik al-Akbar al-Azhar, he has always insisted to issue the fatwa that bank interest is allowed (halal), partly based on the consultation with banking experts.
Initially, many people opposed the fatwa by Sheik Tantawi since it contradicted the views of other ulema. Currently, the Muslim world is aware of the importance of moderate, humanist and progressive fatwa to keep the compatibility between religion and time and space (shalihun likulli zaman wa makan). Furthermore, since radicalism and fundamentalism in Muslim world are increasing, humanist fatwas offer an alternative to build civilization that honor both God and His creatures.

However, nowadays many are leaving the violent-based fatwas. For instance, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon etc are now concerned on the rise of “hardliners” which are not building civilization, but destroying it. Using the terms of Khaled Abou el-Fadl in Speaking in God’s Name, they who issue the violent-based fatwa are actually speaking “in the name of God”. Yet, God teaches human to uphold justice, peace and virtue on the earth.

Therefore, interpreting the words of God in a social context is necessary in order to understand the essence of God’s messages in the light of humanity, plurality and benefit. In Indonesia, we need ulema like Sheik Sayyed Tantawi who have the past, present and future view. Fatwa are one of the entrances to a humanitarian civilization. Therefore, it should not be contaminated by self-interest and blind hate that will eventually eliminate the spirit of Islam.
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