People wearing face masks as a precaution against the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak attend obligatory Friday prayers at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, on March 20, 2020. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto, AFP)

Fighting Covid-19 in Indonesia: The Nexus of Religion and the State


The positions taken by some Islamic groups on the national policy of social distancing will determine the success – or failure – of the policy.

It was only on 2 March 2020 – a month after Jakarta had evacuated 243 nationals from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak – that President Joko Widodo declared that Indonesia had been hit with Covid-19. The timing of the announcement mirrors various reactions from broad swathes of society, including Islamic groups.

Although many demanded that the government lock down the areas affected by the outbreak – replicating what China, Italy and Malaysia had done to deal with the crisis – the Indonesian government remains doubtful if the move would be effective, given the deleterious impact on the economy. In the end, the government, at various levels, decided that social distancing and self-quarantine would be their policy responses. Schools remain closed and civil servants are now allowed to work from home. The BNPB (Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management) has classified Covid-19 as a national disaster emergency effective from March to May 2020.

However, because of theological reasons, not all Islamic groups are able to understand the threat of Covid-19, and their responses vary. As the dominant segment of the Indonesian population, their response is significant in determining the success or failure of the government’s policy on social distancing.

Most of Indonesia’s Islamic groups support social distancing. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for instance, postponed its Munas (the second largest event of this organization after Muktamar), originally scheduled to be held on 17-19 March 2020 in Central Java. Separately, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued a fatwa allowing Muslims to avoid Friday prayers at the mosque. For those who have been tested positive, they are prohibited from attending congregational prayers. Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organization in the country, has also decided to reschedule its Muktamar from June 2020 to December 2020. Haedar Nasher, the general chairman of Muhammadiyah, is in full agreement with the MUI fatwa because this fatwa is in line with prioritising the public good (maslaha) that Muhammadiyah is concerned with.

Nasaruddin Umar, the Grand Imam of Istiqlal mosque of Jakarta, also announced the closure of the mosque for Friday prayers for two weeks. Quraish Shihab, a prominent Indonesian Muslim scholar, has stated that Muslims are allowed to avoid the Friday prayers in order to protect human life. Shihab’s personal fatwa is actually similar to the position of NU, MUI, Muhammadiyah and other prominent scholars. At this level, they categorized the Covid-19 as a dangerous virus (madarat) and in Islam, avoiding danger should be prioritised to save lives. Protecting the lives of human beings (hifdz al-hayat) is one of five sharia goals (maqasid al-sharia), which also includes the protection of belief, reason, property and lineage.

the government … has been ambiguous in enforcing the national policy on social distancing, In the end, this underscores the weak capacity of the state in managing religious issues on one hand, and human and state security on the other.

On the other hand, there are Islamic groups which have refused to heed the social distancing policy. The Jama’ah Tabligh, a transnational Islamic organization centered in India, had planned to hold a ‘Global ‘Ijtima (congregation)’” with thousands of participants from overseas and Indonesia in Gowa, South Sulawesi on 19 March. Although the South Sulawesi local authorities did not issue the permit for the event, the Jama’ah Tabligh proceeded to hold their gathering because most participants had already arrived and were living in one location. Habib Luthfi bin Yahya from Pekalongan, Central Java, a charismatic sufi guru and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council of Indonesia, also organized the routine event of Islamic sermon at Kanzus Shalawat (the place of Habib Lutfie) involving thousands of participants from various regions of Indonesia on the same day as the Jama’ah Tabligh event. He stated that the coronavirus should not polarise Indonesians and anxiety over the Covid-19 outbreak should not distance believers from God. In Jakarta, there are still many mass Islamic events, such as the celebrations of Maulid Nabi and Isra Mi’raj organized by some groups of the haba’ib (Prophet Muhammad’s blood descendants) of community and Jakarta’s natives.

Apart from the Islamic groups, there are others that have not enforced social distancing measures, such as the Catholic church in Ruteng, Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, the Hindu community and others. However, the mainstream of these non-Islamic groups follow social distancing. This includes the Council of Churches of Indonesia (PGI) and Bishops’ Conference of Indonesia (KWI). Although such religious groups may not represent the mainstream or majority, their communal activities can also create risks for transmitting the virus, especially from asymptomatic carriers.

The lack of understanding and ignorance of the danger of the Covid-19 outbreak characterise some of the Islamic groups in Indonesia. However, this is not only the case among Islamic groups, but all religious groups, including Christians, Hindus and others, in Indonesia. The negative responses of some Islamic groups indicate that a scientific approach to the Covid-19 outbreak has been undermined in some quarters. Truth be told, the government – both central and regional – has been ambiguous in enforcing the national policy on social distancing. In the end, this underscores the weak capacity of the state in managing religious issues on one hand, and human and state security on the other.


Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.