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Islam is Not a Mere Doctrine

Once, as I was explaining the long historical process of the codification of the Koran, many were surprised because they only knew the final product, the Mushaf al-Qur’an, or the compiled written pages of the Koran. They were not aware that punctuation marks, the division into 30 juzz, or parts, and even the illustrations on the sides of the written pages did not yet exist in the time of Prophet iMuhammad SAW.

When I was explaining the differences in the marking the end of a verse , another series of difference in opinion arose among scholars. Some accused me of making up things, and some even labelled me as a stupid professor or deviant Kiai. I was thus forced to attach the original texts of the various classical books of interpretation to show them that the debates have actually been going on for thousands of years. The history of these debates and the development of Islamic thinking, from the time of the Prophet, his friends, and the caliphates up until the present, is very interesting to trace back.

At another opportunity, I reviewed the history of the world’s religions, and pointed out that before Islam came, Christianity also had a long history of differences, including conflicts during the election of a new Pope. All religions, whether it is Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity have their fascinating history that needed to be studied so that we can understand their internal dynamism.

Even the different expressions of religiosity, through arts, be they paintings, dances or even food, are important elements for us to understand world civilizations. Islam is part of the world civilizations and therefore studying about the world is important to gain an understanding of Islam.

Besides the importance of understanding religions from the perspectives of history, we may also be awed when looking at religions from a social perspective. Take the example of the different head covering, for men or women in each of the religions. They range from turbans in the Arab world, to the different fez of Turkey and Egypt and the Indonesian kopiah, Or look at how the festivities ending the Ramadan Muslim fasting month in Indonesia are identical with exodus to the regions, rice cakes and the tradition of seeking forgiveness that is different that in the Arab peninsula.

Look at the anger among some groups when I showed the social phenomena of a number of Arab queens and leading female figures who do not don the Hijab, or the photo of a number of sheiks shaking hands with women. These angry people accused me of spreading a deviant understanding of Islam while what I was actually doing was to show how Islam is practiced differently in the various social orders of communities.

I am not discussing religious texts but social reality. It is not a matter of right or wrong, but how, even in Arab lands, there are very dynamic social phenomena that are interesting to study.

To understand religion in the perspective of politics is also very interesting. Such as how we should critically read the hadiths that were told after the conflict in the era of the caliphs Uthman, Ali and Muawiya. Isn’t it true that for politicians, from a long time ago and up to the present, there is no more effective way to campaign for something but by seeking justification in sacred verses and hadiths. Up until today, there continue to be people debating the validity or veracity of the statement allegedly made by the Prophet: “if you see Muawiya on my mimbar, kill him!” Once again, the politization of religions has taken place since a long time ago and this is what we need to understand, we need to look at the Sunni-Shiite conflict from a political perspective .

There is therefore, so many dynamic perspectives that can be used in understanding religious texts, be they in pesantrens, madrasas or Islamic universities. The ways we study Islam are many.

This is different to the pattern of teaching at Halaqah study circles or at Majlis Ta’lims where Islam is being taught as a doctrine. Islam there is understood as paradise and hell, sunnah or bi’dah, right or wrong, reward or sin, Muslim or infidel, valid or invalid, halal or haram.

Beyond that, there are no discussion from the perspective of history, culture, social studies or politics. It is thus that many or our brothers and sisters are surprised when they are faced with different perspectives presented by kiais, intellectuals or cultural experts. They then are not only surprised but also become angry and then starts to insult others, They not only lack knowledge but are also do not trying to maintain civility.

An Islam that is only understood as a doctrine will feel lacking from the point of view of various science disciplines. An Islam that is only taught as aa mere doctrine will feel cruel in their judgement of others.

Take the example of the debate concerning whether the world is round or flat. Those understanding Islam as a doctrine, will quickly point to the translation of Koranic verses that say the world is flat. Those subscribing to an islam in the perspective of science, will first consult with scientists and it is the information obtained from these scientists that will bring a fresh perspective in understanding Koranic verses related to this matter.

On the matter of of sacred water that purifies, those from the Islam as a doctrine camp will say that as the volume of the water is at least “two kullah” it is deemed pure enough to cleanse oneself for prayer. Under Fiqh doctrine, this water is indeed considered acceptable but if seen medically or clinically, would this “two kullah” of water contain bacteria or germs? It is here that we need new perspectives on clean and acceptable water for consumption. Water that is acceptable under Fiqh but is also medically or clinically clean and acceptable.

Hopefully we can all continue to learn and not stop at a mere doctrine level, but also continue to enrich our study of Islam through the rich variety and dynamism of scientific perspectives. The new generations of modern Santris are those who can study both Koranic and Kauniyah verses at the same time. We are waiting for the appearance of experts who master various Islamic sciences as well as general sciences so that our horizon can continue to expand, Insya Allah!

by Nadirsyah Hosen, Rais Syuriah PCI Nahdlatul Ulama Australia-New Zealand and Senior Lecturer at the Monash Law School

Bahasa Indonesia version of this article has been published in NU Online as a part of Wahid Foundation's Media Syndication Program.