The Role of Ulama (Islamic Scholars) in Dealing with Bioethical Issues in Indonesia

- - H. Ahmad Ludjito
State Institute of Islamic Studies "Walisongo"
Jl Wasmasari Utara No.1, Sulanji Graha, Ngaliyan,
Semarang 50181, INDONESIA

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 166.

As a consequence of applying Pancasila (the Five Principles) as the state philosophical foundation and ideology, the first of which reads "Belief in One God the Almighty", religions have become a spiritual foundation of Indonesian national development. Religions are decreed developed by the People's Consultative Assembly, the highest legislative body in Indonesia, including the five existing religions: Islam (the majority), Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The concrete legal institution of their participation in national development is found in the Department (Ministry) of Religious Affairs, one of the cabinet ministries, where five Directorate Generals representing five religions are the core of the organization. The functions of that Department are among others: to protect, to serve, to guide and to help religious people in fulfilling their religious duties. And as liaison bodies between religious adherent and the government, five national religious councils have been established: "Majlis Ulama Indonesia" (Indonesian Ulama Council for Muslims), "Catholic Churches Council", "Protestant Churches Council", "Hindu Dharma Council", and "Indonesian Buddhist Council".

The main roles of all councils is firstly to represent each faith in discussing and solving all common problems facing national development and globalization, especially those potentially dangerous to enhancing national unity. Secondly it is to be a liaison or to bridge between the interests of adherent of each faith and the government's policies in coping with social and national issues. Thirdly, to act as spiritual adviser to the government, in applying religious principles in various activities of nation's life. It is in this third role and function, this report is particularly focused, and especially considered from an Islamic point of view.

The first popular issue to be overcome by Ulama Council was "birth control" or "family planning" programs, since this is directly connected with Islamic theology: interfering God's authority in creating human being. Reaction soon come from those who were fanatic in following the doctrines of Islam, believing that man has no right to interrupt God's authority. The advice (fatwa) of Ulama Council, after giving arguments that doing birth control or family planning is only part of human endeavour to prevent or to postpone human conception, before God's decree to do so,

Nowadays, it is a common view that ulama and other religious Muslim leaders are always involved in the programs. And indeed the success of this family planning program is partly due to the active participation of Ulama with one note: "abortion" except urgently needed for the sake of the mother's life, is "strictly forbidden".

The second issue was on food, especially meat, mutton, poultry and the likes produced in mass by factories. The problem arose from the method of slaughtering the animals (cows, chickens and goats/sheep), which is Islam must be based on "the sacred phrase" by reading "bismillah ar rahman ar rahim" (in the name of Allah, the benevolent, the merciful) and then slaughtered with a knife, not with a machine and it should be done by a Muslim. After doing some investigation and discussion, the Ulama Council came to a conclusion that the products have been done in accordance with Islamic creed, therefore doubt in consuming them was of no reason. The same problem was on consuming rabbit and frog, not in the method but mainly in the substance. Legal base found in the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad's traditions had given strength to Ulama Council to give advice: rabbit is "halal" (legal) to be consumed, while on the frog, there are two contradicting views; "haram" (forbidden/not legal) to consume, and the second is "halal". Meanwhile, breeding frogs to sell is legal, and even recommended for the betterment of economy. So eating it depends entirely on individual choice, food which is full of nutritious substance.

In the field of medical issues, there were two questions raised by the Muslims. i.e. "cornea and heart transplantation", because of two reasons: they come from the dead body which probably used to follow non Islam faith. Based on the argument that maintaining the security and prosperity of the living body is much more urgent than treating the dead body, whether Muslim or otherwise, those transplantations are approved by the Ulama.

The very current measure taken by the Ulama Council is "issuing halal certificate" to certain food production, indicating that the food is free from the haram stuff, such as pork. This thing is done based on a bitter experience some years ago, when a rumour spread widely, that a certain dried milk and instant noodle were mixed with stuff of pork, resulting in serious purchase drop up to almost 50%. Only after a demonstration of drinking that milk by Ulama on television show, indicating that the rumour was not true, the consumers resumed to consume. Anticipating the "hot current international issue" (human cloning), the Ulama Council is also planning to discuss the matter in a short time.

In Indonesia, with Muslim citizens as majority, and with Pancasila (the Five Principles) as the state foundation and ideology, religion, especially Islam, has a specific role in the process of national decision making, covering various aspects of life, including bioethical matters. The role is held by Majlis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Ulama Council) at the capital city as well as at the provinces, representing the Muslim society in the country, by issuing "fatwa" (advice/recomendation) upon a certain thing/question directly connected with Islamic creed.

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