Musdah Mulia

The human face of Islam

As a Muslim woman, I believe that the essence of Islam is revealed in the humanistic values it embodies. In my opinion Islamic teaching is compatible with the principle of human rights. It is also compatible with the principle of democracy. For me, theologically, Islam is a blessing for every human being. There is no difference between male and female. Its teachings contain universal values that cover all aspects of human life.


The core and foundation of Islam is the concept of tawhîd. It is the basis for Muslim devotion to God, and guides every Muslim on how to establish harmonious relationships among human beings. In this way, in Islam, all human beings are considered equal. All humans are equally created by God. The only thing that differentiates one individual from another is the quality of devotion and obedience to God (taqwa). And the only one capable of judging the quality of taqwa is God Himself, not humans.

All the teachings of Islam bring to the fore the equality of human beings regardless of their gender, colour, skin, geographical location, and social status. This is provided in the Qur’an (see al-Hujurat, 49:13): O humankind, actually We have created you from a man and a woman and have made you nations and tribes, so that you know each other. Verily the noblest person among you on Allah’s side is the person who is the most religiously devout to Allah among you. Verily, Allah is the Omniscient. This tells us that ,the differences among humankind relating to gender, skin colour, etc., are not intended as a basis for oppressing one another, or for discriminating between one another, or being hostile towards one another. The main goal of the creating of humankind is to build mutual understanding among human beings.

I do believe that Islam is a religion which places women and men as human beings who are essentially equal. In their essence as human beings, men and women have no difference. In The Holy Qur’an there is no evaluative distinction between the creation of man or woman. Some verses in The Qur’an, among others al-Nisa’, 4:1 and al-Hujurat, 49:13 describe the way human beings develop from the same origin. In all my activities, I always used Islamic teachings as a tool for women’s empowerment.

During my work in this women’s empowerment effort, I have come to the conclusion that women and religion have never been best friends.  The problem is that generally the principle of justice and equality in Islam has not been implemented in Muslim communities. It is interesting to observe that many Muslim societies still regard women as the second human being.

A woman’s rights of inheritance are only half those of a man; a women cannot be a marriage guardian for her children, even when she is the single parent of her children; women cannot be witnesses in a marriage ceremony; the number of goats offered for the ritual akikah of a daughter is half of that provided for a son; in relating to social activity, two woman witnesses have the same weight as one male witness, and mahar (dowry which is given for a bride) is always construed as the payment of the women’s body. And it is important to note that, with regard to women, the implementation of Islamic law in Muslim countries signifies throwing women back to the domestic confines of home, returning to the principles of woman’s domestication; reestablishing women’s subordination.

Identity and authority

Basically, I am a feminist. That is my foremost identity. But I am also a Muslim woman, and so I have no problems calling myself a Muslim feminist. I am very proud of my Muslim identity. I don’t see any contradiction in being Muslim and feminist at the same time, because I have been brought up with an understanding of Islam that is just. And God that is absolutely just, including in matters related to women and gender relations.

I believe that the core aim of all religion and faith is the betterment of all human beings, both women and men, so as to be pious and useful, for themselves, the family and the community in general. A number of studies have shown that there are many cases of domestic violence that stem from religious interpretations that are discriminatory towards women. It is my sincere hope that religious leaders can transform religion’s masculine face so that women feel more comfortable and feel that their interest is accommodated within it.

For me, as a Muslim, the Qur’an is the ultimate authority. Anything that contradicts it, including in the corpus of hadith and fiqh, cannot be considered to be Islamic. Furthermore, I also believe that the Qur’an is open to multiple interpretations, as a result of human agency in seeking to understand the text. There is no final, authoritative human interpretation of the text. Thus, the history of Qur’anic exegesis is a story of a constant, and continuing, endeavour of Muslims seeking to understand the word of God, a wondrous exercise that can result in new meanings and perspectives evolving over time.

Thus, every understanding of the Qur’an by us mortals is really simply an effort to understand it, rather than being the absolute understanding, which God alone knows. To claim that a certain understanding of the Qur’an, even if it be that of the most well-known ulema, represents the absolute, final understanding is simply fallacious. It is tantamount to the sin of shirk or associating partners with God, because only God knows absolutely what God intends to say and mean.

The struggle for justice

Right now, I am active in a number of social and religious organizations including a number of women’s organizations in Indonesia. I also pursue a career in government institutions as a researcher and lecturer in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This job does not prevent me from being active in various women’s organizations such as Fatayat NU and Muslimat NU, two Islamic Women’s Organizations that belong to Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organization in Indonesia. I was also an official on the Central Board of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (2000-2005), and was involved in establishing The Institute for Religion and Gender Studies (LKAJ) and, together with a number of religious leaders, an interfaith institute called the ICRP (Indonesia Conference on Religion and Peace).

It is from the latter-mentioned institution, ICRP, that I and other women religious leaders have jointly identified ourselves as women of faith. And our role is directed more towards the effort to develop an awareness of morality and of humane responsibility for all. We have built the awareness of morality on the basis of religious texts that have been reinterpreted and reformed, and also on fiqh traditions [traditions concerning Islamic jurisprudence made up of the rulings of Islamic jurists for directing the lives of Muslims and expounding the methodology by which Islamic law is derived from primary and secondary sources] whose context has been subjected to a review. Given this, it is proper to attach to us the title of ulema (Muslim scholars or intellectuals), which has so far been monopolized by or reserved only for men.

In this context, what I have done is no longer within the framework of demanding one’s rights? Going beyond that I have demonstrated what can be carried out by women with the rights they have, which, according to me, have been inherently given by Islam.

Among other things, I engage myself in three problem areas: the problem of women being insufficiently represented in the public domain; the fact that the commitments of political parties are not yet gender-sensitive, and the obstacles generated from bias-patriarchy cultural values and unfriendly religious  interpretation.

In this regard, very often what I do invites controversy and puts an end to taboos surrounding the relationship between Islam and women, such as my ideas on the right of women to interpret Islamic teachings, a woman’s right to become an ulema (religious leader), and the right of women to correct public religious statements.

As a Muslim woman and as a human being, I must do whatever I can do and give whatever contribution I can make. All my efforts here are directed at establishing Islamic teachings that are compatible with democracy and human rights; at campaigning for Islamic teachings that are women-friendly and, last but not least, at giving birth to a civilization which respects humanity. With the contributions that I can make, however small, at some point time in the future I will never repent having lived in this mortal world.

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