In the short moment of waiting for Magrib (sunset) prayer to begin in the mosque on the day that fear was haunting the people along the west coast of Sumatra because of successive earthquakes and tremors, one participant commented, “Many people in Aceh and Padang have challenged God and are very sinful. This, therefore, is another lesson to make them swear off…”
He then referred to the preaching delivered by a cleric who admitted the historical religiousness in both places but condemned the current situation as worsening and very regrettable.
Thus, in my anger at hearing such a remark, I said loudly, “In Jakarta, more people are sinful and yet remain unpunished. Why?”
He just said “Yes” and stopped talking. Bitterly, I stepped to the prayer’s leader spot in the mosque and led the Magrib prayer, while in my mind, imagining slapping the ignorant religious preacher on the wrist.
This Friday then, we will hear the same unenlightened preaching repeated in many mosques, as this ignorance has become a protracted disease among religious leaders to whom religious authority has been socially granted.
With their unsympathetic interpretations of religious texts, the victims of a disaster are usually said to have got what they deserved.
And this is a saddening fact if we look at what history conveys.
In 2009, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Mentawai Islands and some parts of Sumatra’s west coast, one of the most popular messages on Facebook was the coincidence of the numerical order of certain verses in the Koran telling about God’s admonition over the sinful with the date on which the disaster occurred. These coincidences were also pointed out in the mosques and other religious places.
If we trace the source of the message, we could conclude that it was from someone who understood the Koran but was ignorant on the scientific understanding of its verses.
And certainly they lacked empathy, a quality all leaders should possess.
In 1755, we can read that in Lisbon, Portugal, when a quake and tsunami destroyed the city, people from different religious backgrounds were in conflict over which religion was the true religion.
The religious clerics with their own congregations were telling one another off until the disaster silenced them all and their hostile religious pretexts were washed away by the sea.
So, natural disaster is natural disaster, not more or less. The disaster in Lisbon did not choose a victim based on his religion.
In the contemporary Indonesian Muslim context, the scientific illiteracy among many of the religious preachers is actually very comprehensible. Traditional Islamic education, dominated by religious text-based subjects, is susceptible to lead imprudent people into false, speculative reasoning.
In Islamic schools, even in many traditional ones, there is actually a subject like Mantiq, a subject about logics rooted in the classical Aristotelian reasoning tradition taught in Islamic schools. Yet, the teaching is used more to support conventional beliefs rather than to enliven scientific minds.
Indeed, on many occasions, the logic is used improperly to defend certain religious standpoints and to attack more diverse ones.
On the other hand, given that ignorant “unscientific” preaching is also delivered by religious leaders with secular educational backgrounds, we can identify a phenomenon of improper interpretation of religious arguments.
Instead of looking at their ethical messages, for example, certain passages in the Koran (such as Koran 30:41-45) can be arbitrarily used to blame others. Also, they are often overconfident in their sense of being “more” knowledgeable, which consequently leads to their becoming less rational.
In his research about religious leaders, who are traditionally called ulema with their given social class and religious roles in India and Pakistan, Muhammad Qasim Zaman (2002) positively designated them as “the custodians of change”. Ulema, more in an ideal form, have been adaptive to change and have tried to coexist in the modern era.
Yet, critically, besides their role of being the guardians of faith, we can come to a conclusion that the word “custodians of change” can also be understood to mean “the brokers of a desirable change”.
First of all, let us look at the fact that religious leaders actually create and maintain their existence in society through different institutions. A madrasa or Islamic traditional school is an example of how a tradition is preserved while at the same time serving as an economic resource.
In contemporary Indonesia, the institutionalization of loyal congregations at certain mosques or via televised religious programs might be taken in another way to effectively create and maintain their existence.
It is in their efforts to exist, furthermore, that many religious leaders — intentionally or unintentionally — find themselves faced with a dilemma. Many of them, for example, negate the need of learning secular sciences, or accept them with relentless suspicion, since they can threaten their traditional existence.
Indeed, we can see among today’s Indonesian Muslims, and Muslims from other countries, the movements and endeavors to Islamize the secular sciences with the main assertion that those sciences were developed in the “un-Islamic West” and are, therefore, in need of such adjustment.
So, in the days to come, we will still see the phenomenon of blaming the victims of natural disasters based on religious pretexts. If there is to be hope, it will be that the religious leaders themselves wish to change, with or without a cause.
The writer is an educator in Jakarta and a researcher at the Paramadina Foundation.