Members of Indonesia’s Council of Ulama (MUI) at the 7th Indonesian Muslim Congress (KUII) held in Pulau Bangka on 26 February 2020. (Photo: Majelis Ulama Indonesia / Facebook)

MUI’s Strong Survival Instincts for a Shariah-Compliant Indonesia

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The key to Indonesia’s Council of Ulama’s longevity even in the post-Suharto period lies in its dominance of the halal certification system, which other major Muslim organisations have not managed to dilute.

Since Suharto’s resignation as president of Indonesia in 1998, the role of Indonesia’s Council of Ulama (MUI) as the key driver of “shariatisation” in the country has strengthened. Shariatisation, as used by this author, broadly refers to MUI’s initiatives and endeavours to formalise shariah in Indonesia’s legal framework and public sphere. MUI’s targets have expanded beyond theology, worship, and public morality to include the economy and “halal lifestyle”.

Today, MUI has positioned itself as the custodian of the shariah economy and a halal lifestyle. It was arguably the first organisation in Indonesia to assume that role. However, MUI remains committed to Indonesia’s religiously neutral and multicultural ideology, Pancasila (the ‘five principles’: democracy, unity, internationalism or humanism, social justice, and belief ‘in one God’).

MUI’s halal audit agency, LPPOM, promotes safety in halal standards on World Food Day, 16 October 2022.

MUI’s continued survival in the post-Suharto period demonstrates its resilience. Established in 1975 by Suharto, MUI has weathered efforts to delegitimise it (due to its link to Suharto) and uneven government support. Importantly, MUI has not lost out to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) or Muhammadiyah in terms of supporters, drawing from among the more conservative elements in Indonesia’s Islamic elite.

Promoting the shariatisation of Indonesia is the key driver of MUI’s influence. MUI explicitly supports the formalisation of shariah, though it falls short of calling for an Islamic state and continues to promote a ‘Pancasila state’ in Indonesia. On its part, MUI argues that a ‘Pancasila state’ does not necessarily prevent the implementation of shariah. It urges Indonesian Muslims to concurrently support Pancasila and shariah.

Many scholars and observers had assumed that MUI’s role in the halal project would cease when the state replaced MUI’s halal certification institution, LPPOM-MUI, with the State Agency of Halal Product Assurance (BPJPH). After 2019, MUI’s role was reduced to declaring its theological viewpoints on halal issues while the lucrative task of issuing halal certificates for food and beverages went under the BPJPH.

However, MUI continues to play a significant role in Indonesia’s halal certification chain. Law 33 of 2014 still mentions MUI as the sole fatwa issuing body in the certification process. Manufacturers and companies that wish to get their products halal-certified must first approach BPJPH to kickstart the process, but the agency does not have any religious authority to issue the relevant fatwa.

For MUI, there are no strong competitors to take away its slice of the halal-certification cake and it can eat it too, as it remains the standard-bearer for issuing halal fatwa.

The BPJPH works with Indonesia’s Halal Auditor Institute (LPH) for the initial halal auditing and investigation. Former members of LPPOM-MUI work in the LPH. This is followed by the BPJPH asking MUI for a theological opinion on the products. Fatwas remain the core of the halal certification process; without these fatwas, BPJPH cannot issue the halal label for any products.

Attempts by Fachrul Razi (Minister of Religious Affairs, 2019-2020) and others to prevent MUI from being the sole authority making halal fatwas took place during the public hearings on the recently passed State Law 11 of 2020 on Job Creation (“Cipta Kerja”). However, these efforts failed. Some activists support having more than one fatwa authority and possibly drawing from mass Islamic organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah but have not been able to change the status quo.

The mushrooming of shariah economics and the halal lifestyle in Indonesia is partly indicative of MUI’s success in promoting these sectors to Indonesians. For instance, the BPJPH reported in November 2021 that there were 31,529 small and medium-sized companies seeking halal certification. This is a nearly threefold jump from just 11,249 companies in 2017. Bank Syariah Indonesia (BSI) had an initial set-up fund of 20.4 trillion rupiah (about US$1.299 billion) but by the first quarter of 2022, its assets totalled 271.29 trillion rupiah (or US$17.78 billion).

Unlike MUI, NU and Muhammadiyah are focused more on non-shariah issues such as the broader philosophical concepts of “Islam Nusantara” (“archipelagic Islam”) for NU and “Islam Berkemajuan” (“progressive Islam”) for Muhammadiyah. It looks like MUI is here to stay, for as long as Indonesian Muslims patronise shariah-compliant services and products. For MUI, there are no strong competitors to take away its slice of the halal-certification cake and it can eat it too, as it remains the standard-bearer for issuing halal fatwa.

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Syafiq Hasyim is a Lecturer of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.