Yahya Cholil Staquf: Responding to a Fundamental Crisis Within Islam Itself

July 13, 2020

In an article published recently in Public Discourse, Yahya Cholil Staquf—distinguished Muslim scholar and General Secretary of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organization—urges his fellow Muslims to strive to end systematic persecution of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority world.

Staquf begins the article by reflecting on the work and testimony of Stephen Rasche, so powerfully documented in Rasche’s book, The Disappearing People, which recounts the “calamitous fate of Iraq’s Christians.” Staquf then observes:

From sub-Saharan Africa to South and Southeast Asia, religious minorities often experience severe discrimination and violence inflicted by those who embrace a supremacist, ultraconservative interpretation of Islam that has been widely propagated in recent decades by Middle East states, including long-time US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Staquf continues:

The horrendous violence that has engulfed so much of the Islamic world threatens not only those who dwell in Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Pakistan, but also those of us who live in seemingly tranquil societies far away. If we wish to end this primordial cycle of hatred, tyranny, and violence—which also periodically erupts, to tragic effect, on the streets of Jakarta, Mumbai, London, Paris, and New York—we must ask a number of questions that require difficult and honest answers.

Returning to the experiences of religious minorities in Iraq and neighboring Syria, he asks, “Why did the killers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who stormed across the Nineveh plains in 2014, display such remarkable savagery toward Yazidis and Christians?” Staquf’s response to this question is direct and unequivocal: 

Any informed and intellectually honest inquiry into this question will produce an unambiguous and profoundly disturbing answer: the doctrine, goals, and strategy of these extremists can be readily traced to specific tenets of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice, including those portions of fiqh (classical Islamic law, also known as shari‘ah) that enjoin Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity toward non-Muslims, and require the establishment of a universal Islamic state, or caliphate.

To prevent the further spread of violent Islamist extremism, Muslims and non-Muslims must work together, drawing on the peaceful aspects of Islamic teaching to encourage respect for religious pluralism and the fundamental dignity of every human being, regardless of creed.

Staquf does not remain focused only on highlighting the problem, however. As the General Secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, he turns to what the NU understands as a necessary element of the solution: dismantling the theology at the core of Islamist violence. Staquf writes:  

The spiritual leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama is working to ensure that the world’s largest Muslim organization plays its part in this tremendous undertaking, by dismantling and replacing the theology that underlies and animates Islamist violence. In 2019, the NU Central Board published fiqh rulings based on a gathering of nearly 20,000 Muslim religious scholars from across Indonesia’s vast archipelago (“2019 Munas”) that endorsed the concept of a nation-state rather than caliphate, recognized all citizens, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion, as having equal rights and obligations, decreed that Muslims must obey the laws of any modern nation-state in which they dwell, and affirmed that Muslims have a religious obligation to foster peace rather than automatically wage war on behalf of their co-religionists, whenever conflict erupts between Muslim and non-Muslim populations anywhere in the world.

A central feature of these 2019 Munas rulings is the abolition of the legal category of infidel (kāfir) within Islamic law (fiqh), so that non-Muslims may enjoy full equality as fellow citizens in their own right, rather than rely on protection at the sufferance of a Muslim ruler.

Read the full article: “Responding to a Fundamental Crisis Within Islam Itself

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