With Christmas approaching, Indonesia’s Islamic authority has issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from wearing “non-Muslim religious attributes”. Members of the Islam Defenders Front have followed up by conducting raids in search of Christmas attire – such as Santa hats.
The fatwa has precedent in the 1981 prohibition on festive Christian celebrations, but this time it goes much further.
First, it has decreed that greeting Christians on Christmas is forbidden in Islam, backing up the claim with a long list of scriptural arguments. In 1981, Muslims were merely barred from attending Christian rituals, while the greeting of “Merry Christmas” was expressly permitted.
Second, the fatwa has a much broader definition of its target – “non-Muslim religious attributes”. Misunderstandings may arise if this includes the Santa suit.
The Santa outfit has become a tradition over the last century. It became popular only after Coca-Cola used the figure of Santa Claus in red and white suit in one of its advertisements. It has, therefore, much more to do with marketing than religion.
The red-and-white Santa outfit is thus a Westernised, or more precisely Americanised, portrayal of Saint Nicholas. We could even see it as a commercialisation of the sacred that undermines the symbol’s core meaning of charity and altruism. In short, the Santa outfit is not a religious attribute but a capitalist one.
Third, and most importantly, it is difficult to make sense of the reasoning behind the fatwa. The 1981 prohibition was plausible, as it only dealt with ritual participation, and imam responsible at the time backed his argument by pointing out that the Christians, conversely, cannot participate in the Muslim five daily prayers, for example.
The current fatwa, on the other hand, has no grounds other than a literal adherence to the popular but vague hadith that “whoever imitates any people, s/he is one among them”. From this derives the reasoning that celebrating Christmas, including in greetings or by wearing Christian symbols, is tantamount to confirming a Christian spirituality.
That reasoning doesn’t hold up when you consider that many Indonesians greet Christians at Christmas or wear Santa outfits only for social purposes, having no intention of claiming the faith as their religion. Besides, if applied consistently to all issues, the literal reading of the hadith would forbid a whole slew of features worn or adopted by Indonesian Muslims yet adopted from other religions or cultures.
Imams, priests and rabbis all wear robes. Prayer beads are used in Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. And let’s not forget our national symbol, the Garuda bird – the mount of the Hindu god Vishnu. By adopting the Garuda as our national symbol, are Indonesian Muslims promoting Hinduism?
So, why did Islamic authorities arrive at this ban? The instructive part of the December 14 fatwa is that all the sources cited to back the arguments came from the 12th century and afterwards.
In contrast, there is no explicit statement in the Koran or the hadiths which might back the ban. Instead, what are cited are medieval scholars’ interpretations of the Koran and hadith. Further, a story from the earliest biography of Prophet Muhammad tells of how the Prophet allowed Christians of Najran to conduct their rituals in the Nabawi mosque of Medinah. This story was assessed as valid in the Rulings of Ahkam Ahl al Dhimmah by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah which, ironically, was among the cited in this month’s fatwa.
It was the scholars who lived from that era onward who enhanced the arguments that set a boundary between a Muslim identity and any symbol perceived as relating to non-Muslim traditions – this doctrine is known in Salafi discourse as al-wala’ walbara’ (loyalty and disavowal).
Islamic authorities in today’s Indonesia are increasingly promoting the idea of an “enemy within”, against which an exclusive Muslim identity must be enforced. In these conditions the alwala’ wal-bara’ doctrine will find momentum.
Regardless of being the majority, if the Muslim masses “feel threatened”, Indonesian Muslim popular discourse will remain the same – preoccupied by trivial issues such as wearing Santa hats, greeting non-Muslims on their holidays, opening daytime restaurants during Ramadhan and reciting the Koran to a Javanese melody.
Published : December 21, 2016
By : Azis Anwar Fachrudin The Jakarta Post Asia News Network