April 19, 2016
The Problem with Medieval Clerics

The problem with many religious clerics is that they are stuck in medieval thinking.

by Chadijah Siregar
Issues // Politics and Society
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When I turned 40 last year, one of my resolutions was to be more active in our Islamic Studies group.

Although we've been living in the United States for almost nine years, I rarely showed up at the Indonesian events in my effort to evade gossips, which seems to be a collateral risk that comes with being involved too much in a community. But now I think I had been prejudiced against my own people. Indonesian or not, people will always gossip.

The organizers of the Indonesian Muslim Community here occasionally invite people from our home country to give a sermon. A few months ago it was a celebrity like Peggy Melati Sukma, and then a while back a member of the Indonesian Ulema Council.

Don't ask me where they got the money to fund it. I really don't know. Did our donations really suffice to fund these people's travels and fees? A friend said such event would be in coordination with the American Chapter of the Association of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals.

But as a new face in the group who doesn't even wear a headscarf, I might as well be a member of the Shudra caste, on the fringe of the community. I haven't carved a path wide enough to wriggle my way into the group, so I feel like I'd better shy away from such detailed financial questions for now.



Nevertheless, these speakers, who had flown thousands of miles away for a sermon, interested me. What would they say? Would it be something special?

I imagined, it would be like someone from Ethiopia invited me to talk about, say, running a household. What would I say that would be relevant to the people who had spent thousands of dollars just so that they could listen to my two cents? Can I talk about gardening, when they don't even have running water?

I've been disappointed so far. I have heard nothing new whatsoever at these events. Nothing special. It’s not like there’s a shortage of issues they can cover. There was the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, or the rise of ISIS, but the member of the Indonesian Ulema Council last year talked about Islamic attitude to adopt when running an event ("Don't be too loud and racy!") and, of course, the best practices at praying and eating ("Chant this prayer and that prayer!" – "Don't eat pork!").

Last month's ulema was the one who shocked me the most so far. He started his sermon by stating that he was sent to an Islamic boarding school in Aceh by the time he turned seven. In his disgust with the reign of English language, he became an illegal immigrant for several years in Sudan and Egypt to learn Arabic.

He was so proud of that experience, presenting it as one of his utmost sacrifices to be a pious person, while I couldn't help thinking: How could these people put you on such a high pedestal, when you've broken the law to get to where you are? Is it really the example you want to show off to your umma?
 
And, again, he talked about the best practices for praying. "The problem with Muslims nowadays is that they don't understand Arabic!"

He made us chant some prayers repeatedly until he thought we'd pronounced them correctly. And I thought: don’t ISIS and Taliban people speak Arabic too? You mean, they're not a problem despite their fluency of the language?

My jaws dropped lower and lower as he kept on stating things in exclamation marks like, “Those infidels whom some of us have picked as leaders will go to hell anyway, even though they've built mosques everywhere!"

Well, how about corrupt, murderous Muslim leaders? Will they go to heaven eventually after a short trip to hell to burn their sins?

Hey, if we all will eventually go to heaven just because we're Muslims, why don't we all just commit sins? Embezzle a billion or two dollars so that we can live in a mansion, swim in our private pool, enjoy the breezy wind at the cabanas, while covering ourselves from head-to-toe?

All these wild ideas and commentaries ran amok in my head. It occurred to me that one of the problems in Islam is clerics like this who is stuck in the medieval age, unwilling to see perspectives beyond the literal thinking and the way of life of several centuries past; and unconcerned with today's philosophical and spiritual challenges, despite new discoveries offering something different to our lives everyday.

If clerics have to talk about praying, why don't they discuss it in a new light? For example, if because of the Higgs boson discovery in 2012 some people would be able to determine the tachyionic particles in the near future, making traveling faster than the speed of light no longer a mere dream, what about the calculation of prayer times based on the circulation of sun as observed on Earth?

Would they become obsolete? They would, wouldn't they? So then how would you determine the five obligatory prayers when you travel to another galaxy? How would you define "obligatory prayers" even? Heck, how would you even determine prayer times, or define what an obligatory prayer is, when you travel to the moon, which has been done and is definitely in our horizon?

I imagined that some clerics' reply to such questions would be, "Then stay on Earth! Don't travel to the moon, let alone to another galaxy!"

I hope I'm wrong. I hope it's just my imagination going too wild. I hope.
 
Chadijah Siregar used to write telenovelas, and now she lives in one. She's married to a cross of Sheldon Cooper and Peter Griffin with a hint of Sting, resulting in a super cute daughter. She's pursuing a (non-existent) writing career by being a couch potato. Also, she's a sweet woman.