Ramadhan and Lessons of Tolerance

There are several customs and rites related to Ramadhan that have long revealed differences among Muslims, as reflected in traditions observed by the nation’s two Islamic organizations: Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. Now the differences have become much more varied and colorful with the growing number of Islamic organizations that have surfaced post-reformasi. 

Differences include, among other things, the starting date of fasting, the number of raka’at (sets) and procedures for the evening tarawih prayers, to name a few.

Interestingly, the differences in Ramadhan rites are no longer a cause for dispute among Muslims here. The differences don’t feel as strong as they were in the past. 

This phenomenon should be the model for exercising tolerance and becoming wiser when addressing differences of religious interpretation. Many Islamic leaders now preach that followers can agree to disagree, that the differences regarding rites in Ramadhan are simply particular details of religion (far’iyyah) and, thus, need not be a reason for dispute.

Attitudes addressing the different practices are also interesting to observe. The leaders of Islamic organizations agree, as long as those differences have a valid argument in the light of valid “epistemology” of fiqh, the various opinions are legitimate and should be respected. 

Take different views, for example, on the confirmation (itsbat) of the start and the end of Ramadhan. The interpretations vary because of different methodologies. NU uses the method of imkan al-ru’yah, the possibility of seeing the new moon (hilal) while Muhammadiyah uses the method of wujud al-hilal (the existence of hilal).

The basis of the NU method is the Prophet’s saying (hadith): “Shumu liru’yatihi fain ghumma ‘alaikum faakmilu al-’iddah tsalatsin” (Fast when you see the new moon, and if it is covered by cloud then complete the month of Sha’ban up to 30 days). Thus it is explicit here that we should see (ru’yah) the new moon of Ramadhan. 

Meanwhile Muhammadiyah’s method is based on the hadith, but also on the Koran Surah 10:5; “It is He who made the sun a shining light and the moon a derived light, and determined for it phases, that you may know the number of years and the account of time (hisab).” 

In essence, the two methods have their arguments. As many agree, the differences do not touch on the fundamentals of religion (usul al-din) and therefore Muslims should be tolerant of differences — which leads us to derive three important lessons related to differences in the practices and rites of Ramadhan. 

First, even though Muslims share the same Koran and the hadith, interpretations could differ, and is indeed abundant in the books of fiqh, both classic and contemporary. There are eight sects recognized by “orthodox” Islam, which all claim to be based on the Koran and hadith. Differences about the start of fasting, for instance, are not new, and Muslims are getting used to them. 

Second, different interpretations are sometimes necessary. Though different religious views are a potential cause of conflict, if managed properly, they are sometimes beneficial for maturing Muslims: that diversity of interpretation is a hard fact of religious life. Diverse interpretations are found within the same verse in the Koran or the same hadith, and even the same word. 

In addition, diversity of opinions also facilitates people with options. The famed caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, once said, “I am happier when the scholars have different opinions, because people have many options.” 

Third, Muslims should also be able to be tolerant regarding the fundamentals of religion — differences which lead to sectarian disputes. Disputes often arise because of differences in sorting which are fundamental aspects and which are simply particular aspects or details of Islam.

In fact, if we trace the epistemological interpretations of each existing school, not to mention the cross-sect differences, they are more closely related to differences in interpretation of narrated history, epistemology of exegesis, and the validation of reported tradition.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, July 11st, 2014

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