By Salim Osman
February 21, 2013
A few days before Chinese New Year was observed in Indonesia on Feb. 10, a cleric in Solo, Central Java, issued a fatwa banning Muslims from joining in the celebration.
Kiai Zainal Arifin Adnan claimed that the Chinese festival, known in Indonesia as Imlek, is religious in nature because it contains Buddhist spiritual teachings and is therefore Haram or prohibited for any Muslims to participate.
"The best attitude for a Muslim towards this event is to ignore it," said the cleric, who heads the Solo branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the highest authority on Islam, on Feb. 5.
His fatwa was not endorsed by the national leadership of MUI in Jakarta. Neither was it heeded by the majority of Muslims.
But it stunned many Indonesians who generally thought that the Chinese New Year was cultural, with Chinese of all faiths celebrating and non-Chinese invited to attend the festivities.
The reaction was similar to last December's outrage when the MUI in Jakarta invoked a 1981 fatwa that banned Muslims from greeting their Christian friends with Merry Christmas and from joining in the gathering because of the rituals involved in the celebration.
There are two issues raised by the cleric's fatwa on Chinese New Year in Indonesia.
First: whether Chinese New Year is a cultural or religious festival.
Second: are there too many Fatwas for Muslims in Indonesia?
On the first, Chinese New Year is widely seen as cultural and not religious in many other societies where it is marked. But in Indonesia, the question on whether it is also religious has often arisen.
An Indonesian Chinese community leader, Sofyan Jimmy Yosadi, wrote that Chinese who believe in Confucianism as a religion view Chinese New Year as a sacred day that commemorates the birth of the sage. Hence the elaborate rituals at Chinese temples on the first day of Chinese New Year, he said.
Writing in the North Sulawesi daily Tribun Manado on Feb. 10, he said, "For the Confucians, Imlek is a religious Confucian festival and not merely a cultural celebration of the Chinese."
Sofyan is a member of the Confucian Religious Council. Confucianism is recognized as an institutionalized religion in Indonesia, with an acknowledged prophet and holy scriptures.
But other leaders disagreed. One of them, Andrew Susanto, president of the Chinese-Indonesian Youth Association, said, "Chinese New Year is not a religious celebration and it's especially not a Buddhist celebration."
Marking Chinese New Year is no different from celebrating New Year in other cultures, he told Agence France-Presse.
Masurur Ahmad, a cleric at the Al-Qodir boarding school in Sleman, Central Java, told a website that "participating in Imlek is not against sharia."
With such a diversity of views, Kiai Zainal's fatwa was ignored by Muslims who did not see anything wrong in greeting their Chinese friends and joining in their New Year parties last week.
With the prevailing view that Chinese New Year is cultural, there is no necessity for a fatwa on the festival.
Muslims will not fear their faith will be compromised by joining in the festivities. The so-called edict expressed by Kiai Zainal may just be his own opinion on the festival. It is not a surprise that the national leadership of MUI did not view the issue as serious enough to warrant a ruling.
This brings us to the larger issue of fatwa itself.
By definition, a fatwa is a ruling on a point of Islamic law or dogma issued by an authorized religious scholar, an Ulema, kiai, imam or mufti, based on a question from an individual inquirer. The Fatwas are published in a book for dissemination as a guide to Muslim religious life.
In Indonesia where there is no mufti or a jurist who is an authority on Islam, fatwa remains the province of MUI, an institution set up by the government in 1975 to guide the community and advise the government on Islamic affairs.
Two other Islamic organizations, the Nahdlat ul Ulema and the Muhammadiyah, also issue Fatwas for their members.
The ruling is issued by a panel of scholars trained in Islamic jurisprudence in response to a question. Hence individual clerics may express a religious opinion on an issue but this should not be construed as a fatwa unless endorsed by a panel of authorized scholars.
Of late, there have been a string of edicts handed down by individual clerics that can be considered trivial and even bordering on the ridiculous.
For example, three days before the Imlek fatwa was issued in Solo, a cleric in Samarinda, in the Indonesian part of Borneo, called speed bumps Haram because they were hazardous to road users.
There have been other Fatwas — not from MUI — such as those banning unmarried Muslim women from indulging in hair-straightening or curling treatments, taking a motorcycle taxi or ojek, having pre-wedding photos taken with their fiancés and a prohibition on Shiaism, the second branch of Islamic orthodoxy.
There is a need for some sort of control in the way Fatwas are issued in the country. The Fatwas, though not officially binding, can be a guide but can also lead to confusion because of different interpretations of the same issue.
It can also be counterproductive if Muslims are overwhelmed with a string of Fatwas on issues that are not significant to their religious lives but given out within a short period.
The MUI should exert its authority to be the main centre for religious rulings instead of letting individual preachers who claim to be clerics issue edicts that would only confuse the public.