Kyai Muhammad Ahmad Sahal Mahfudz died at the age of 77. He had been the Rais Aam, or supreme leader, of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, since 1999, and chair of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) since 2000.
Kyai Sahal was both an ulema and scholar, specializing in the study of fiqh, or Islamic legal philosophy, whose works included texts in Arabic. His Thariqatul-Hushul, a work that discussed the fiqh in the textbooks of pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding schools), gained praise from Middle Eastern scholars.
Today, not many of our ulema scholars could write with the same quality and range of genres seen in Kyai Sahal’s work. He could also write academic papers in Indonesian, a rarity among the kyai (clerics), especially those who do not live in urban areas.
His most important legacy regards the “social fiqh” — the application of Islamic legal philosophy not only for Islamic law but also social ethics. It was his contribution to this field that led to him being awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in 2003.
Muslims generally regard fiqh as legal jurisprudence. But in the hands of Kyai Sahal, Islamic law adopted flexibility and became a basis for ethics, rather than being institutionalized into positive law.
In the development of Islamic legal discourse, Kyai Sahal wrote that the basic characteristics of social fiqh included the contextual interpretation of the fiqh texts, the verification of the basic principles of fiqh and its branches — the presentation of fiqh as social ethics and the introduction of philosophical methodology, particularly in cultural and social issues.
These methodological principles of social fiqh were a breakthrough in the approach of Islamic legal philosophy. In some cases they even modernized the religious style of the NU, long perceived as the realm of traditionalists who found it difficult to adapt to modern times.
Kyai Sahal’s impact was a breakthrough because the schools of fiqh earlier followed by the NU often hesitated in the face of progress. There were many unresolved issues in the kitab kuning (yellow book) textbooks of the pesantren run by the NU, which were written centuries ago. And Kyai Sahal strongly rejected the attitude of mauquf (silence), which was the approach adopted by many clerics simply because the problems faced were not addressed in the classical books.
Social fiqh strongly rejects the sacralization of the yellow books — the legacy of Kyai Sahal reminds us that fiqh is the product of the struggle of thinking or ijtihadiy; because, while it was certainly effective in the old days, the fiqh might not be applicable to modern times.
If the fiqh in question is no longer relevant, how should it be revised? Among others methods, it can be done through taqlid (following existing schools) methodologically, not textually, and seeking the answers in the light of the purpose of law: upholding religion, life, property, reason and heritage (maqashid al-shari’ah).
An interesting example is Kyai Sahal’s opinion on Indonesia’s famed birth control program. During the introduction of the family planning program named Keluarga Berencana (Family Planning, KB) in the early years of former president Soeharto, there was much resistance from the kyai; maybe several the NU clerics still resist it today. They referred to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which encourage Muslims to reproduce as many children as possible because, on the Day of Resurrection, the Prophet would be proud of the number of Muslim people. Family planning aimed to prevent so many children being brought up in the widespread poverty of the time, and KB was considered a form of murder and thus prohibited by the Koran.
But according to social fiqh, KB is a matter of social welfare. Kyai Sahal’s interpretation is quite interesting: the Prophet would be more proud of the quality of his people than their quantity. The issue of KB is not just a matter of religion and theology, but is also connected to public interest (al-mashlahah al-’amma), which is a fundamental matter in the paradigm of social fiqh. Social fiqh rejects sacralization of Islamic law, as it engages deliberation, and is a product of its time.
Sahal’s legacy was adopted at the NU national conference in Lampung in 1992, which emphasized the NU’s adoption of contextual rather than the textual fiqh. This social fiqh perspective needs to be continued, especially amid clerics in the NU who are less critical of their classical books.
*) this piece was first published in The Jakarta Post, Jan 29, 2014