As many other Muslims in Indonesia, I was born and raised in a Muslim family. My father, who died in January 2011 at the age of 85, was a rural modin (a religious official in a village), a modest imam (a prayer leader), and a poor farmer in a small and isolated village in the highland of Central Java. He was the first man who introduced Islam in the village and taught basic Islamic teachings to the villagers, which I later continued upon my return from an Islamic boarding school (pesantren). My father was no zealot. In fact, my father befriended a foreign Catholic elementary school teacher, named Sumanto, who lived with him — and his family — for years in my parents’ modest house during his time of service as a teacher in the village.
Throughout the years, my father told me, both shared many things — food, jokes, stories, culture and sciences while still respecting each other’s faith and tradition. When Muslims celebrated Idul Fitri, Sumanto gave my father a present — usually a sarung, peci or other clothes — and wished him a happy holiday. And when Christmas came, my father always gave Sumanto a small gift and wished him a Merry Christmas.
Perhaps due to their close friendship, and as a sign of respect, my father later named his youngest son, me, Sumanto. “I wish you someday will become a good person like him,” my father once told me before God took his soul.
Having had a strong spirit of religious tolerance, my father has indeed influenced my journey in life. Upon finishing my studies at Islamic schools in Central Java, I have befriended many non-Muslims, from Chinese Buddhists and Javanese Hindus to Protestants, Catholics, and Mennonites, hoping to learn from many different cultures and religions. As my father taught me, it is impossible to comprehend the depth and beauty of Islam without understanding the spiritual essence of other faiths.
My father was certainly not alone. And neither was Sumanto.
There are millions of Muslims in the archipelago who have been living peacefully side by side with people of other faiths for centuries. There are also millions of Christians in the countryside who live tolerantly with Muslims. From time to time, Christians have shared joys and blessings with fellow Muslims during the Idul Fitri holidays, and vice versa, Muslims have shared happiness with Christians during Christmas. In Maluku, for instance, there is a peaceful local tradition and social institution called “pela-gandong,” in which Christians and Muslims are tied in the spirit of brotherhoods (basudara). It was established long before European colonizers came to these Spice Islands in the sixteenth century and continues until today.
It is imperative to note that for most Indonesian Muslims and Christians, Idul Fitri and Christmas have become a “shared culture” and a symbol of togetherness and tolerance, not simply an expression of religious belief. It is thus not surprising if both religious groups have shown deference and gratitude. Such a peaceful and tolerant interreligious tradition was deeply rooted in the ancient local wisdom of bhinneka tunggal ika (“oneness amid diversity”), which has served for centuries to reconcile and unite — linguistically, culturally and religiously — diverse populations.
Still, such a philosophy, which later became an official motto of Indonesia, had influenced many great and wise ancestors of the country from Walisongo (the “Nine Saints” — the early preachers of Islam in Java) who taught respect for Javanese Hindus and Buddhists (like Sunan Kudus who forbade Muslims to eat beef, out of respect for Hindu beliefs), to the 16th-century Muslim founders of the second Islamic Mataram dynasty who, as Mustofa Bisri and Holland Taylor have aptly noted in Strategic Review magazine, had deliberately established “freedom of conscience for all Javanese, a full two centuries before the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Bill of Rights that separated church and state” in the United States.
More importantly, the character of bhinneka tunggal ika had inspired and informed Indonesia’s founding fathers to create an open-inclusive state ideology of Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution, the primary foundation of this nation-state, which reach beyond ethno-religious boundaries.
Against this backdrop, the recent rigid fatwa issued by conservative factions of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) — which explains that Muslims should refrain from saying Merry Christmas to Christians — strongly contradicts the common traditional practices and beliefs of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and other believers, as well as the spirit of the nation’s ideology and constitution.
The recent fatwa was actually based on the 1981 fatwa of MUI, issued under the leadership of Buya Hamka and signed by Syukri Ghazali, chairman of MUI’s Fatwa Commission at the time. That fatwa was rooted in the work of the 13th-century reformist scholar Ibn Taimiyah (d. 1328), who, in his “Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim,” denounces as “haram” to practice of Muslims wishing Christians a Merry Christmas because this was considered to be a form of tacit endorsement of the Christian faith.
But in present-day Indonesia, because it is in contradiction with popular beliefs and practices, the MUI fatwa has been met with outrage, from both non-MUI religious elites and ordinary people. On Facebook and Twitter, for instance, instead of respect, Muslims have ridiculed MUI, which they dub a “troublemaker,” “provocateur,” and supporter of religious bigotry.
More significantly, such a seemingly intolerant and narrow-minded fatwa has also opposed the fundamental teaching of the Koran as rahmatan lil ‘alamin — a “blessing and a source of love and compassion for all humanity” — and the tolerant practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who befriended and built contacts with many Christians, including the famous Negus of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), as discussed by early biographers of the prophet such as Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham, Baladhuri, and Tabari. As a result, some spiritual and moral values of Eastern Christianity (e.g. Syrian Orthodox beliefs), which had entered the Middle East since the time of St. Paul, have influenced and shaped some foundations of Islamic teachings.
When the Prophet Muhammad said, “I felt the Holy Spirit ( nafs al-rahman ) from Yemen,” he was referring to Jesus. The Koran also mentions (Sura Al-Ma’ida (5), verse 82, for instance) the community of Christian priests, which it depicts as “learned, humble, and not arrogant.” Respected Muslim scholar Mahmoud Ayoub — among many others — in his many books has discussed Christian aspects of Islam and the peaceful coexistence between early Muslims and Christians.
In the spirit of tolerance and peace taught by Islam, the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad, my father and our collective Indonesian forebears, I wish all Christians, wherever you live on this planet, a very Merry Christmas.
Source: Jakarta Globe