‘Interpreting the Qur’an: Ahok’s blunder’

By Lies Marcoes

On 4 November, Jakarta saw one of the largest protests in Indonesian history, as an estimated 100,000 Muslims took to the streets to demand that Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) be tried over allegations of blasphemy. The source of the controversy relates to Ahok quoting a passage of the Qur’an in a campaign speech in the Thousand Islands, which was then uploaded to the internet. But looking deeper, the controversy also provides lessons about the way Muslims read and interpret the Qur’an in Indonesia.

In the Islamic tradition there are two ways to interpret the Qur’an: the textual approach and the contextual approach. Textualists attempt to read the Qur’anic text literally, accepting its revelations at face value. Contextualists, however, provide more room for flexibility in interpretation, in accordance with developments of the time. The conflict between these two approaches has lasted for almost as long as the science of Islamic interpretation, which was born in the eight century, soon after the death of Muhammad.

The textual approach becomes a problem when it is used as a guideline for life. For women, Qur’anic verses on polygamy, the division of inheritance, leadership, an interfaith marriage are unfair if read textually. Consequently, experts in Qur’anic interpretation, not necessarily feminists, discuss the text using a contextual approach. Usually they will attempt to determine the goal or meaning of the law contained in the Qur’anic verse. For example, a particular verse might attempt to describe methods for the implementation of justice, contain prohibitions on hurting women, or abandoning orphans or other marginalised groups. Using a contextual approach will give rise to a different interpretation than a purely textual reading of the text.

Take the issue of polygamy, for example. With a contextual interpretation, the meaning of verses on polygamy is not to recommend or suggest polygamy, rather the verses seek to restrict or prohibit it, because the underlying aim of the verse is justice for women and orphans. Muhammad Abduh, for example, the modernist scholar from Al Azhar University in Cairo, favoured a contextual approach to keep up with the pace of change in Egypt, and believed that polygamy should be prohibited.

In Indonesia, both these approaches are often used, in formal and informal settings. Many families that rely on the Qur’an for family law take a contextual approach. When dividing inheritance, for example, many families will give equal portions to the male and female children, although a literal reading of the Qur’an says that women should get half as much as men. Contextual interpretation is used because most recognise that male children are no longer expected to be “protector of their extended family”, even though the relevant verse explains that this is a burden that male children must bear. Textualists rationalise the greater portion given to male children by saying “males get two portions, the gross amount, while women get one, the nett amount”.

Families use a variety of methods to get around a textual interpretation of this passage. Commonly, families will divide assets and inheritance according to a textual interpretation, but then the males will “grant” the extra amount to their female siblings so that all have an equal amount. Last century, the sultan of Banjarmasin, Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, used a contextual approach to divide his assets equally among his male and female children. Former Minister of Religion Munawir Sjadzali recommended the same approach, referring to the important role played by women in the family economy. Nevertheless, mainstream interpretations of Islamic family law continue to take a textual approach. “It says two portions to men, so they should get two portions” is the common understanding.

In relation to political leadership, one of the main reference points is verse 51 of the fifth chapter in the Qur’an, Al Ma’idah. In Indonesia, this verse is commonly understood to read “O you who believe, do not take Jews and Christians your leaders (auliya), they are but leaders to one another. And if any among you takes them as your leader, then surely that person is one of them. Allah does not guide such wrongdoers (zalim).” There is some debate about the translation of the word “leaders”. In many places around the world, the Arabic word auliya is translated as friends, allies, protectors or guardians, although in Indonesia, this passage is universally understood to refer to leaders.

Textualists interpret this verse as a prohibition on taking non-Muslims as leaders. In a textual reading of this passage, if Muslims were to do so, it would mean that they were essentially abandoning their faith, and becoming one of “them” (a Christian or Jew). It’s no wonder that Muslims take it so seriously.

But for some Muslims, this verse should be read contextually. The first step is to try to determine the intended goal of the verse. The verse makes a point of mentioning that wrongdoers are not provided with guidance. Does it prohibit Muslims from selecting leaders from other religions, or does it prohibit choosing wrongdoers as leaders?

Feminist interpreters of the Qur’an would undoubtedly suggest the second option. In doing so, contextual interpretation would provide room for women to become leaders, as long as they are not wrongdoers. Using this approach, the verse that says “men are leaders for women”, which has long been used by textualists to reject female leadership, can be reinterpreted.

Returning to Ahok’s controversial speech in the Thousand Islands, debate centres on the fragment where Ahok says “you have been lied to using Al Ma’idah verse 51”. Many believe that the source of the problem is that when the video was uploaded to the internet, the word “using” was removed by the person who transcribed Ahok’s remarks, so that Ahok appears to say “you have been lied to by Al Ma’idah verse 51”. There is obviously a stark difference between the two meanings. In the first case, where the word “using” is still present, the one doing the lying is the person interpreting the Qur’an to suggest that Muslims should not take non-Muslims as their leaders. When the word “using” is omitted, however, Ahok appears to suggest that the verse itself is a lie, which, in fact, he did not do. (Many Islamic scholars would of course argue that a text can never speak by itself, so accusations of lying can only ever be levelled at those interpreting the text.)

But even if the word “using” is present, textualist Islamic scholars would still no doubt take offence, refusing to accept that they can be labelled liars. In fact, because they take a textual approach, they feel that their interpretations of the Qur’an are the most accurate and authentic.

Even contextualists, including feminists such as myself, do not say that people who prefer a strict textual interpretations are liars, rather that they have failed to pay attention to the core meaning of the verse, which is to reject leaders who are wrongdoers.

If I am right, then a different question arises: can Ahok be considered a “wrongdoer”, for his leadership of Jakarta? Now this is a much more interesting debate. As a Muslim feminist I would say that he could be considered a wrongdoer, when his eviction policies ignore the rights of marginalised and poor Indonesians, including women, children, orphans, the elderly and people with disability. Wallahu’alam bishawab – Allah knows best.


Lies Marcoes is a women’s rights activist, writer and researcher and the director of Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation. Lies holds a master’s in anthropology from the University of Amsterdam. She lives in Bogor.

This article was originally published on Indonesia at Melbourne, a blog that presents analysis, research and commentary on contemporary Indonesia from academics and postgraduate students affiliated with the University of Melbourne. It aims to stimulate debate and provide a forum for exchange of information and opinion on current events in Indonesia. You can read the original article here.

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