By: M. Hilaly Basya
It is disappointing that religious violence took place in Indonesia at the end of the year. The burning and destruction of a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) belonging to a Shiite community in Sampang, Madura, was shocking.
The actors were Muslims who normally live neighborly among their communities. This act of arson is seemingly the peak of conflict that has been brewing for the past couple of years. The damage has terrorized the Shiite community, most of whom have been evacuated from their homes.
The attack is based on hostile feelings harbored by some Muslims in Sampang. They contest the Shiite’s view that three of the al-khulafa al-rasyidun (the guided caliphs) betrayed Ali bin Abi Thalib (the fourth caliph and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad). For most Muslims Abu Bakar, Umar and Usman are regarded as the best and closest friends of the Prophet Muhammad.
From these figures also came many hadiths of the Prophet that were spread among Muslims. Generally speaking, Sunni Muslims believe that it is not possible that these figures deceived Ali in order not to be able to be a caliph. This is one of the points distinguishing Sunni from Shiite Muslims.
However, those who destroyed the Shiite property in Sampang seem to think that they had sacralized the history of al-Khulafa al-Rasyidun. They regard the history as a fundamental part of Islamic doctrine that cannot be interpreted differently. Therefore, whoever has a contrasting version concerning this history should be punished.
The way these people burned and destroyed the pesantren indicates that they regard their actions as obligatory (wajib). It seems that they categorize this Shiite community as an enemy of Islam and therefore they were justified in attacking them. The Shiite community is seen as “the others” who desecrate religious doctrine.
As has been instructed by many modernist scholars, Muslims have to differentiate between the sacred aspects of Islam and profane theology in order to be able to live progressively. The sacred aspects are the fundamental doctrines that cannot be reinterpreted, whereas the profane concepts are allowed to be reinterpreted due to the necessity to respond to new challenges or changing circumstances.
Challenging the sacredness of certain Islamic doctrines is viewed by some as suggestions that Muslims should remove religious status from certain scriptures. In this case, it is necessary for Muslims to dispute the sacred history of al-Khulafa al-Rasyidun. This history is not the fundamental doctrine. It is only an interpretation of historians concerning the fact.
This interpretation could be right or could be wrong. Only God knows the truth behind the history, whereas historians simply attempt to portray the facts as best as they can. It is therefore unwise to punish a community because they have a different interpretation of history.
This intra-religious conflict shows that the government, especially the Ministry of Religious Affairs, has more work to do in order to maintain religious life. The destruction of Shiite and Ahmadiyah properties indicates that intra-religious conflict is worse than inter-religious conflicts.
Both of these conflicts should of course be solved. The majority factor cannot be used as reference to certain potentially misleading interpretations. Nationhood, which Indonesia aspires to reinforce, means that the government should be based on principles of equality and plurality. Every religion or religious interpretation has to be respected and protected. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure the security of all faiths.
Notice: This opinion article was quoted in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 5th January 2012. It is able also to be reached at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: January 11, 2012].
M. Hilaly Basya is a Student of the Doctoral Program at the Department of Religious Studies, the University of Leeds, UK (United Kingdom).