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Musdah Mulia - The tawhid of human rights

Musdah Mulia

Musdah Mulia is an Indonesian research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. Dr. Mulia is also a lecturer on Islamic Political Thought at the State Islamic University in Jakarta. She has previously been senior Advisor of the Minister of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia from and head of Research Division of The Council of Indonesian Ulema. Since 2007, she has been the Chairperson of the Indonesian Conference on Religion for Peace, an organization that promotes interfaith dialogues, pluralism and democracy for peace.

Musdah has written several books such as Religion-reform-inspired Muslim Women (2005) and Islam and The Inspiration of Gender Equity (2007). Unfortunately English translations of these books are not easily found.

Musdah Mulia is one of those scholars who relentlessly combines activism, politics and academia. She has been Senior Advisor of the Minister of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia and the head of the Research Division of The Council of Indonesian Ulema. She regularly lectures at both Indonesian as well as international universities. Currently much of her attention goes to the Indonesian Conference on Religion for Peace, an independent organization dedicated to advancing and promoting interfaith dialogue, democracy and peace in Indonesia.

Musdah’s direct experience of the social and political discrimination of women in Indonesia have always given her work a strong focus on human rights and gender equality. In 2004, for example, she was the coordinator of the state endorsed Gender Mainstreaming Team. The eventual results of the team’s research weren’t easily accepted, however, as many factions deemed them to liberal. Nevertheless, Musdah’s approach can also count on much support within the Indonesian as well as international circles of Muslim scholars. 

People often forget that Indonesia is the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world even though it’s not an Islamic state.

Indeed. Eighty-five percent of the Indonesian population is Muslim but our founding fathers and mothers didn’t make Islam the state ideology. They realized that there are too many differences in interpretation, so they settled on the Pancasila instead. This Pancasila is a combination of five general principles that could create a common ground: spirituality, humanity, unity of the country, democracy and justice. As such, Islam isn’t the sole base of our governance but the Pancasila incorporates many of its values because when you talk about the first principle of spirituality, you talk about a spirituality that touches on love, compassion and mercy. You talk about a spirituality that goes to the essence of all faiths and religions.

Yet, although the Pancasila offers a lot of room to build a spiritual society, sadly enough this does not seem to suffice for some more radical groups that would like to implement a purely Islamic khalifat.

Sure, Indonesia has its fair share of reactionary groups. Yet we must be aware of the fact that the rise of more radical groups coincides with the advent of democracy. As everybody knows, the Suharto regime was a very repressive regime but once it fell and democracy found its way, it was also used and abused by radical Islamic groups. In the Suharto era they would simply have been repressed but now they are given the public space to spread their views. So yes, many Muslim leaders – and certainly feminist Muslims like me – are faced with the growth of radicalism.

The disadvantaged position of women in the Muslim community comes from the religious interpretation of those who possess the religious authority. It doesn’t stem from religion itself.

We have to keep in mind, however, that the disadvantaged position of women in the Muslim community comes from the religious interpretation of those who possess the religious authority. It doesn’t stem from religion itself. So the solution to the problem, ironically enough, lies in countering them with the ‘democracy’ of our own religion, that is to say, with ijtihad. Because ijtihad is the process of constantly (re)interpreting our religion. Ijtihad means that we search for new ways to properly apply our religion within our contemporary contexts. With proper ijtihad then, we can explain people that the goal of upholding human rights is not only in accordance with the Pancasila but also with the teachings of Islam

Certain Muslim groups indeed consider the idea of Human Rights to be non-Islamic. How do you counter their arguments?

Many Muslims see Human Rights as set of Western values. But they forget that a great scholar like Al Ghazali already in the 12th century said that the Maqasid al Sharia (the intended goals of the law) can be formulated into five basic assets of a human being that should be provided for by religion. In my view, he talks about five human rights and more precisely about the right to life, the right to religious freedom, the right to express your opinion freely, the right to property and the right to reproduction.

Like Al Ghazali, I strongly believe that religion came to us for the betterment of human kind, not for the betterment of God – since God has no defects or problems. It’s not God who ‘needs’ religion. It’s humans who need it.

But if you build your argument on tradition, how come it’s often difficult to convince people of the ‘Islamicness’ of your approach to human rights?

Sadly enough, the religious interpretation being spread and taught in our cities is the conservative interpretation. That is why I try to let people read the Quran and try to help them understand their religious teachings. Only when you take enough time to educate everyone, can they come to understand that there is no contradiction between Islam and human rights values and that there is no contradiction between tawhid and democracy.

How exactly do you connect the spiritual principle of tawhid – which refers to the divine unity and unicity of God – with democracy?

As you know, every Muslim accepts the principle of tawhid. In its essence, tawhid is the unity of God as it is expressed in our creed of faith: there is no God except THE God. A direct result of this tawhid is the fact that no creature can be equal to God and the conviction that no human equals God gives rise to the principle of the equality of humankind. For a king cannot be a god to his people, a husband cannot be a god to his wife, a man cannot be a god to a woman. Because they are not gods, kings and leaders cannot be worshipped by their people like a god; employees should not worship their employer; wives should not worship their husbands, and so on and so forth. In other words, no human is superior to any other. All are fundamentally equal. No one can decree his will to another human being as if he was God.

The conviction that no human equals God gives rise to the principle of the equality of humankind.

From this obviously follows that all forms of discrimination against women or minorities can be considered as a denial of the principle of tawhid. Quite the opposite, a true understanding of tawhid seeks the liberation of all human beings from every form of tyranny, dictatorship or despotic structure. A true understanding of tawhid and Islam should bring about a society based on moral, civil and humanitarian values that frees it from any injustice or suppression.

In your work you have a strong focus on the empowerment of women. I suppose then, that the principle tawhid is the driving force behind it.

Indeed. Women have to realize that they are full human beings with basis rights. They think they are the ‘second’ human being, created from Adam. It makes them feel as if they aren’t ‘complete’ human beings, but the Qur’an doesn’t say that Eve is created out if Adam’s rib. That idea comes from the Bible. Yet when our religious leaders speak (both male and female), they mention that rib. Women should learn that in the Qur’an we come from the same essence, that both male and female are called to stewardship of creation. In the eyes of God both men and women have the same obligation to build a civil society and to work towards peace with ourselves, others and the whole of creation.

Sadly enough however, many of the current articles in the Indonesian common law marginalize and discriminate women. This inequality has deep roots within the patriarchal culture of our country which has pervaded our juridical system and the decision making processes of our prosecutors and judges. 

So how do you confront these deeply embedded imbalances?

To breach the social and political patriarchy we need cultural reconstruction. And to achieve that reconstruction we need three things. First of all more education. In schools certainly but also in family life. Because it’s above all in family life that people should raise their kids with a critical and open mind. Second we need to change laws and regulations such as the subordination of women in family law. And third we need a reinterpretation of religion so that it becomes compatible with humanity and human rights.

And let me be clear that these things aren’t only necessary in Muslim communities. Christian and Hindu women face similar problems. We are all in the same boat. We all need a humanistic reinterpretation of our religions. 

Do your efforts of reinterpretation bring you into much conflict with other scholars?

Some conservatives actually agree that the things I propose are truthful and just, but that our society isn’t ready for it yet. Other women aren’t educated like I am, they say. Even my husband doesn’t like it that I provoke people with humanistic progressive interpretations of Islam. (laughs) But when people tell me: “Musdah, you’re so ambitious.” I readily answer: “I’m not ambitious. It’s simply my right.”

And even ambition is your right, I would say. The Islamic tradition knows a lot of powerful women like Khadijah or Aisha who portray this all too well.

That’s a good example of how we neglect many noble things in our religion. Nowadays they depict Khadija as a rich widow and Aisha as a pretty wife of Muhammad. They easily forget what these brave women have done. We lost a lot of historical context in our teaching of Islam. And we often don’t know how to place everything within our present context and time.

In the end it’s quite simple: the Qur’an comes from God, the interpretation comes from men.

Look at the way we deal with the Qur’an. The verses in the Qur’an can actually be divided in two types: ‘universal’ verses that speak of basic values to all human life and specific verses for specific contexts. So when interpreting the latter they can only be understood in light of the former, i.e. the call for compassion and justice. So when you speak of marriage, for example, you have to place it within bigger moral values. But many scholars and preachers give too much attention to the implementation of certain contextual verses and don’t place them in the context of the universal verses. That often makes their judgements and interpretations very strict, exclusive and very female unfriendly.

In the end it’s quite simple: the Qur’an comes from God, the interpretation comes from men. I’m not an infidel when I say this. And I can’t stress it enough: we need to realize that the interpretation of religious truths always exists within a certain context. That is why education is so important. Education makes it possible to get rid of the dangerous and misleading forms of religion that bring about injustice and discrimination. Certainly in the case of women. Socio-economically speaking they’re on the back-foot. So women have to become self-confident through knowledge.

All in all, that’s an ongoing struggle not just in Indonesia but in fact all over the world.

You know, to be a Muslim is to be a khalifah fil ardh, a moral agent. That means that you’re responsible to continue the prophetic task. The prophetic task of human kind didn’t end with Muhammad. It’s your duty as a Muslim to continue ‘al-amr bi 'l-maʿruf wa 'n-nahy ʿan al-munkar’. Literally this means ‘enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong’. I conceive it as ‘efforts of transformation’. We have to transform ourselves, our families and societies. It also comprises the efforts of ‘humanizing’ the people, that is to say to make them ‘human’. That’s not easy. But we have to do this prophetic task in our own capacity, as a teacher, a husband, a wife, a scholar, a brother, a sister, a politician or whatever your status and situation might be. And, as I often say, our mission will only end on judgment day. (laughs)

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i learnt


i learnt something..pancasila…which, from reading are the 5 pillars of Islam within a new concept of philosophy…..fantastic interview highlighting the plight for women of all faiths. Metanoia…..appears to be showing women that they can change their lives within the coordinates of their faith, which all aspire to respect that difference, as each strives for that life change. Thank you as always...

You are very brave and I wish


You are very brave and I wish you all the best and much strength in your work! It is so difficult and dangerous. But it is so important what you are doing! There are so many more like you ( men and women) and I really hope that their voices will be heard more often!




Thanks for this nice article.

Al Quran Online Learning

Thanks for this nice article. Keep it up. :)

MashAllah!! Excellent

Omer Riaz

MashAllah!! Excellent Article. .Very well Written. Thanks for sharing :)