Opinion

Caliphate and sharia law

This newspaper ran an article by Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, a spokesperson of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), about sharia and the caliphate (April 23), as a reaction to an article written by Bramanto that appeared several days before. Such a discourse is very healthy. We can have different views and the readiness to appreciate other views -- although probably we do not agree at all -- and an exchange of views will be very helpful not just to promote Islam as a tolerant religion but also to enrich people's horizons.

With this strong spirit to enrich our horizons, I am interested in joining the debate on the issues of sharia and the caliphate.

HTI offers two central discourses: the establishment of a caliphate and the application of sharia law. Both seem to be inseparable; without a caliphate, the sharia application will never be totally accomplished. Therefore, both are complementary to each other. These grand themes in fact constitute the global discourse applied by most Hizbut Tahrir movements in the world and have become the main idea that links their global ideological ground and commonality.

To the HTI, the caliphate constitutes a basic Islamic political institution that will unite all Muslims in the world regardless of their ethnicity, language or culture into a single community called the ummah, which is headed by a caliph. In this view, a caliph merely serves as a God's representative on earth whose duties are to obey God's commands and realize His rules.

Consequently, it denies modern secular political thoughts such as democracy and nationalism. Democracy is seen to be contrary to God's sole sovereignty. Moreover, inconsistencies and double standards in the realization of democracy have strengthened Islamists' criticism of it. Similarly, nationalism, as a logical consequence of the emergence of nation-states, is rejected because it is a Western invention contrary to the concept of ummah.

However, if we closely examine politics in Islam, it is obvious that there is no such strict concept of political Islam like a caliphate. It is a historical creation rather than a normative concept. The power transformation from the Prophet to the subsequent four caliphs took place in different ways.

Abu Bakar became the first caliph through a public pledge of allegiance by the majority of Muslims.

Umar, the second caliph, was elected by a team comprising seven members. While Usman and Ali, the third and the fourth caliphs, reigned after being preceded by political chaos. In this period, a caliph was strictly appointed through a familial lineage. Following this pattern, there is no fixed political system in Islam. It was during the Muslim empires that the concept of caliphate took its firmest definition, formulated through the writings and work of Muslim scholars and jurists who served for the caliph.

As for sharia, with the open era and democratization in Indonesia after reformasi, several Muslim political parties and organizations wish to retrieve the seven lost sharia words -- the obligation to implement sharia for Muslims -- once incorporated in the Constitution but later deleted.

Although this effort has never been successful in the national context due to lack of a national consensus and disagreement among Muslims themselves, it works on provincial and regional levels.

Some local governments have successfully imposed sharia law in regional ordinances and bylaws. Despite its blurry and weak conception, sharia does apply in certain provinces and regencies, like Cianjur, Tasikmalaya and Garut in West Java and in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi. Each sharia ordinance has addressed different legal issues in different regions, and thus reflects the disparity and partiality of the sharia legal conception.

This has become a major critique, that the sharia application lacks fundamental conception and articulation and thus is ineffective. This reflects more the vested interests and ambitions of politicians rather than idealism. Political parties and Islamic organizations that support this issue are a minority.

Islam in Indonesia is not monolithic, but pluralistic. It consists of diverse Islamic organizations, political affiliations, languages and ethnic-cultural identities. The majority of Muslims represented by the two largest Muslim organizations in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which decline the idea of an Islamic state, remain moderate. This suggests that the majority of Muslims remain obedient to "Indonesia's diversity in unity" and are attempting to develop Islam in this pluralistic manner. Both sharia and the caliphate thus appear to be less than popular to the Muslim majority.

The writer is a lecturer at Mataram State Institute for Islamic Studies and a Fulbright scholar who is pursuing his PhD in religion at Emory University, Atlanta. He can be reached at sier1975@yahoo.com

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