Musdah Mulia, Indonesia’s foremost Islamic woman scholar and the influences on her thinking (Part III)

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Musdah Mulia together with her husband Prof Dr Ahmad Thaib Raya who lectures at UIN Jakarta in the field of interpretations of the Hadiths. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

IO – Siti Musdah Mulia is the most well-known Muslim woman scholar in Indonesia. She has written the Compendium of Islamic Law which is now used at Harvard Law School’s program in Islamic Law. She has been the deputy secretary general of Muslimat which is the women’s organization under Nadlatul Ulama or NU that is not only the large Muslim organization in Indonesia but in the world. She is also the recipient of numerous international awards including, the American Women of Courage Award, the Yap Thian Hien Human Rights Award, the Nabil Award for promoting unity in diversity and many more.

In trying to understand what has helped to create and shape a woman like Musdah Mulia, parts I and II of this article have addressed her personal and cultural background. Part III of this series, will attempt to describe some of the thinkers and scholars who have influenced her in her world weltanschaung and her interpretation of Islam.

Musdah Mulia (centre) seated together with various religious leaders in Sarajevo in 2013. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

Musdah Mulia’s concept of Islam is essentially a set of guidelines provided by God for mankind to find peace. She notes that the Quran is quite clear as to why man was created. It says that mankind was placed as God’s viceroy on earth; meaning that mankind has a duty to manage life on earth in such a manner that the world becomes a better place for the next generation. Musdah says, “The next generation should not experience disasters because of our actions.”

Musdah Mulia was brought up in the Buginese tradition as a Muslim. Her father was a member of the hardline Darul Islam group that wanted to create an Islamic state in Indonesia where Sharia Law would be applicable. Her mother however, was more tolerant in her religious views and loved the pesantren or Islamic community life created in religious boarding schools. Meanwhile, her grandfathers interpreted their beliefs quite differently to her father. On her mother’s side her grandfather was an NU cleric. In its Islamic practice the NU is very tolerant of local traditions. Her paternal grandfather on the other hand, was a leader of the Naqshbandiyah order which is a Sunni order of Sufism.

Musdah acknowledges that although she loves the Sufi path and the life of discipline, and can spend hours finding inner peace through a form of meditation when she visits her village in South Sulawesi, nevertheless she is not a member of any Sufi order. “I was brought up in a diversity of Islamic traditions, since I was little.” she says. “Some of the people around me were strict in their interpretations while others were less so. My conclusion was that God created a diversity of people, and each person is given the duty to do good in their own way.”

In 2001, Musdah Mulia (centre back row) was the only woman invited to attend the ASEAN Islamic Leadership Conference in Kuala Lumpur. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

Musdah Mulia’s interpretation of Islam is a very tolerant, compassionate and rational one although she is also attracted to some aspects of Sufism. She is very compassionate towards minorities and even looks at Islam from a feminist perspective. She believes that interreligious marriages should be allowed and that Muslim women do not have to wear hijabs, although she wears one herself. She also believes that LGBT people should be treated with compassion and that their human rights should be protected. Who are the thinkers and scholars that have influenced her the most? She mentions four people.

Prof Dr Harun Nasution was the rector of the Universitas Islam Negri or State Islamic University abbreviated to UIN (at the time it was still known as the Institut Agama Islam Negri or IAIN) Syarif Hidayatullah and the Universitas Negeri Jakarta. The North Sumatran was born in Pematangsiantar in 1919 and was an Islamic philosopher and scholar who graduated from the Moderne Islamietische Kweekschool in 1937 and later continued his studies at the University of Al-Azhar in 1940 and then at the American University of Cairo in 1952. In 1968, he obtained his doctorate from McGill University in Canada. He was not only a pioneer for Islamic higher education but also one of the initiators advocating Islamic reform in Indonesia, which is why after his death in 2010 the auditorium at the UIN Syarif Hidayatullah was named after him.

Prof Dr Harun Nasution, the former rector of IAIN Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta influenced Musdah Mulia’s way of interpreting Islam. Photo credit: Perpustakaan Nasional Republic Indonesia – Khastara collection

Harun Nasution promoted his teachings through the Faculty of Theology at UIN Syarif Hidayatullah. He extended the aspects of Islam that needed to be studied to include history, civilization, philosophy, mysticism, theology, law, institutions and politics. He taught that interpretations of Islam are born in certain societies at certain periods of time in accordance with the conditions of that society then. The teachings and interpretations of one society during a certain period may not suit another, or even suit that society itself at a different time. He developed a rational approach in education with an understanding of Islam and culture that was moderate. During Harun Nasution’s time regular discussions were held for the lecturers which after an 8-year hiatus have been revived, as they play an important role in theology and reform and keep theology alive.

In 1982 he became director of post-graduate studies at IAIN Syarif Hidayatullah. It was as a post graduate student that Musdah Mulia came to know him and says that the most important thing that she learned from him was not just to approach an understanding of Islam through religious texts but also by looking at them in the social and political context of the times. “For if we do not, we may lose their essential moral religious message,” explains Musdah. “The Quran was sent to mankind to make us more humane and to create a universal humanism and we must never lose sight of that essential purpose.”

Nurcholish Madjid and Gus Dur at a book discussion in 1998. Photo credit: CakNunDotCom, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The second scholar who very much influenced Musdah Mulia, was Nurcholish Madjid, an Indonesian Islamic intellectual and academician who was born in 1939 in Jombang, East Java, who served as rector of Paramadina University. Musdah Mulia also came into contact with him during her post-graduate studies at UIN Syarif Hidayatullah. Later, she worked with him at Paramadina University and also in interfaith dialogues. “What I learnt from Nurcholish Madjid was the importance of diversity and pluralism in religion. He, himself had not always been of that view. In the beginning he held a far less tolerant view of Islam and it was only after he studied under the renown Pakistani American scholar, Fazlur Rahman while completing his PhD at the University of Chicago that his views began to change.”

Fazlur Rahman who died in 1988 was a Muslim scholar and philosopher who was a modernist and a reformer, especially as regards educational reform and the revival of independent reasoning in Islamic theology. Nurcholish was known for the phrase, “Islam Yes. Islamic Party NO”. This was to allow Muslims to feel free to vote for religious or non-religious parties during elections. Nurcholish died in 2005.

Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana also inspired Musdah Mulia. Photo credit: copyright with Yayasan Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana

The third scholar who influenced Musda Mulia was Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana who was a good friend of Harun Nasution. Takdir was a philosopher, sociologist, linguist, novelist and academician who contributed greatly to the creation of an Indonesian national language and culture. He also wrote on using values for creating better societies and more complete human beings. In his lectures at the UIN post-graduate studies program he brought his philosophical and sociological perspective to the study of Islam.

Musdah Mulia recollects how Takdir used to joke during his lectures but only she would laugh and he commented on the lack of humour in the class. Musdah says that it was probably a consequence of the pesantren upbringing of most of the students, where laughter was not encouraged. She remembers writing a long analysis of his philosophical novel Grotta Azzurra.

Amongst the scholars who have influenced Musdah most in her approach and thinking she mentions one woman, Annemarie Schimmel, a German Islamic scholar.

Picture of Annemarie Schimmel in the Bonngasse in Bonn. Photo credit: © Axel Kirch / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Annemarie Schimmel was a Harvard professor who was an Orientalist specializing in Sufism. She was born in 1922 in Erfurt, Germany. At the University of Berlin she studied Jalaludin Rumi, later becoming a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Marburg with a doctorate in the history of religions. After that Schimmel taught history of religion at Ankara University for five years, being the first woman to do so there; then set up a program in Indo Muslim studies at Harvard where she was a professor for over 25 years. She spoke more than seven languages and wrote over 50 books and hundreds of articles on Islamic literature, mysticism and culture. Noted Sufi leaders acknowledged her as one of the foremost experts on Sufism. She received numerous international awards for her work but became controversial when she defended Muslims against Salman Rushdie in an interview. Later she defended her position in a speech entitled ‘A Good Word is Like a Good Tree’ when she received the Annual Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Musdah first came across Schimmel’s works during her postgraduate studies, and explained that Schimmel was an expert in mysticism in Islam, through Sufiism. She studied the great Sufi teachers in Islam such as Ibn Arabi who was a 12th/13th century Andalusian Muslim poet, mystic and philosopher. Musdah says that what attracted her to Schimmel’s writings is that in her book ‘My soul is a woman : the feminine in Islam’ she explored the equality between men and women in Islam looking at such things as the Quran, and the feminine language of the mystical tradition. Musdah says, “God is neither feminine nor masculine but has both qualities. Based on Sufi works, Schimmel proposed the view that in religion God identifies himself more through feminine rather than masculine qualities via such traits as love, compassion, peace and mercy – and I found that very interesting and attractive. This is what drew me very much to her writings.”

Musdah Mulia at Mount Abu in India with leaders of the Brahma Kumaris in 2015. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

The final influence on her world view and interpretation of Islam says Musdah are the many conversations that she has had both with Islamic leaders and people from all over the world, as well as with non-Muslims. Since 1998 she has visited over 44 countries. “It is the interfaith dialogues I have had, that have shaped me,” she declares. “For example in Palestine I discovered that the Palestinians are people of many faiths and that they are not struggling to establish an Islamic state but one that embraces all its religions. There are Palestinian Jews and Christians who do not agree with Israel’s policies in Palestine and also struggle for an independent Palestinian state. On the other hand, there are Arabs who prefer to live in Israel where there is not constant conflict for in Palestine the different factions do not seem able to act as of one accord.”

Musdah Mulia now heads the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace or ICRP which is a branch of the World Conference on Religion and Peace or WCRP. Gus Dur as Indonesia’s 4th president was affectionately known, used to head the ICRP. Musdah Mulia was already close to him since the time she was secretary general of Fatayat. She became active in the ICRP in 1999 and took over its leadership in 2005. It was however, when she worked in the foreign affairs section of the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs that she visited most of the 44 countries. She says that the most important issue facing millennials today is ensuring that tolerance is an important part of their worldview. Musdah confirms, “The situation today does really draw millennials towards tolerance. The government does not promote tolerance when it is not clear in its policies and firm in implementing the law with regard to instances of intolerance.”

Musdah Mulia’s Mulia Raya Foundation trains and educates millennials on tolerance. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

So, she is very active in training and educating millennials in the values of Islamic reform. For this, she established the Mulia Raya Foundation in 2015 to reach out to millennials both online through social media, as well as offline through meetings and training, “At the end of the day peace is mankind’s most beautiful dream and war benefits no one,” she says passionately. “Unfortunately, too many millennials do not yet understand this.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I: https://observerid.com/musdah-mulia-indonesian-woman-muslim-scholar-spoke-to-the-taliban-part-i/

Part II: https://observerid.com/musdah-mulia-indonesian-islamic-woman-scholar-who-debated-radical-cleric-abu-bakar-baasyir-part-ii/