Wednesday, December 05, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 6, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Former religious affairs minister and Islamic scholar Muhammad Quraish Shihab's decision to repeat a year of high school proved to be a defining moment in his life.

Quraish graduated from Tsanawiyah senior high school in Cairo without the necessary grades to get into the School of Ushuluddin (Religious Principles) at Al-Azhar University. But, after days and nights of soul-searching, he decided to return and improve his score. Eventually he was accepted by the prestigious university.

The soft-spoken Quraish earned his bachelor degree, majoring in tafsir (religious interpretation) and hadith (sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), in 1967.

He took his master's degree at the same university, writing his thesis on Al-I'jaz Al-Tasyri'i li Al-Qur'an Al-Karim (the Distinctiveness of the Koran's Regulations) and graduating in 1969.

After serving as deputy rector at the Islamic State Academy (IAIN) Alaudin, South Sulawesi, Quraish undertook doctorate level Koranic studies at the same university in Cairo, graduating summa cum laude in 1982.

"If someone asks me what I would do if I had the chance to roll back time, I would not change a thing," he said during an interview at his home. "I have no regrets."

However, when asked about the tensions between religious minority groups such as Ahmadiyah, al-Qiyadah and Lia Eden, and mainstream Muslims, he bemoaned the fact that people were impelled to take the law into their own hands.

"Any violent action is regrettable and cannot be tolerated," he said when presented with the facts that some Ahmadiyah and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah followers were attacked and some of their houses were burned down or ransacked.

Recently an angry mob rummaged through the building where self-proclaimed prophet Ahmad Moshaddeq, leader of the al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah group -- who are considered apostates by purist Muslims -- baptized his followers in Bogor, West Java.

Some of the people in the mob were wearing white haj caps, attire linked with piety.

Lia Aminuddin was likewise harassed for preaching revelations which she said were delivered to her by the angel Gabriel.

Quraish said anybody who committed violence should be brought to justice.

He stressed it was vital to carefully study emerging religious groups before passing judgment, adding that even fatwa from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) could not be considered legally binding.

Quraish was formerly the head of the MUI.

He recommended Pakem, a regency-level religious freedom watchdog, be empowered. Pakem consists of representatives from the Religious Affairs Ministry, police and intelligence agencies, as well as academics and community and religious figures.

After a thorough study, Pakem would determine the most appropriate path to be pursued. And if a legal path were to be chosen, the court would have the final say, Quraish said.

"Because hastily criminalizing these groups won't always solve the problem," he said, citing the case of Lia, the leader of the Lia Eden group, who was recently released from prison after serving 16 months of her 24-month sentence, but stubbornly vowed to continue preaching.

"We have to be careful because there is always an element of truth within the teachings of such groups," said Quraish who was religious affairs minister in Soeharto's Development Cabinet VII (1998).

He said that even Ahamdiyah was divided into two groups. One recognized Muhammad as the last prophet, the other, Gulam Ahmad.

"And there is always a background and context, most probably the leaders of such groups are sick," he said, citing Ahmad Moshaddeq, the leader of the al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah sect, who finally confessed he had falsely proclaimed himself to be the next prophet after Muhammad.

Asked if al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah should declare itself a new religion aside from Islam and drop its Islamic identity, he said that might be a wise idea.

Quraish said the public generally had a very limited understanding of religion. "This is because the flow of (unchecked) information penetrates into houses through technology," said Quraish, who is married to Fatmawati and has five children.

"It is important for religious leaders and scholars to keep spreading their knowledge of religion to people.

"This includes spreading the word that congratulating Christians on Christmas is acceptable in Islam as long as it does not disturb Muslims' aqidah," he said, adding that Muslims were even allowed to perform their own prayers in church.

Quraish also holds moderate ideas on how Muslim women should dress.

His daughter, TV presenter Najwa Shihab, who is the wife of Hukumonline founder Ibrahim Assegaf, does not wear a headscarf.

"There is an ongoing debate about whether it is compulsory for a woman to cover her body. I am of the opinion that is good for a woman to cover her head, but those women who choose not to wear the headscarf have not violated anything," he said.

He also believes tensions in conflict-torn areas like Poso and Maluku have now seceded, "thanks to the government's Malino peace agreement."

"But I disagree with you, it is not really religious tension because economic, social and political factors have also played a very significant part in fueling the tension," Quraish said.

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