7 March 1981 the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the semi-official national council of Indonesian Muslim scholars or MUI, issued a fatwa on Christmas celebrations. Muslims should avoid participation in such festivities. Some even concluded that it is haram or forbidden to express Merry Christmas. One reason for the fatwa was that Muslim pupils at Christian schools joined the school choir and sung Christmas songs. The head of the MUI, Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik ibn Abdul Karim Amrullah) was dismissed by the Minister of Religion (because he did not obey the inter-religious harmony of Pancasila). However, the fatwa was never withdrawn. Near yearly the President of the Indonesian Republic is one of those who light a candle in a giant tree during the Christmas celebration in the great Senayan stadion of Jakarta. Yearly the fatwa is repeated, debated, nuanced, abused for many purposes.
This year the MUI has taken the subject of 'religious non-Islamic attributes'. (Fatwa no 56, 2016 Tentang hukum menggunakan atribut keagamaan non-muslim). Attribut is not a common Indonesian word, but has apparently the meaning of 'gadgets, incidental elements'. Their hukum or legal status is: haram. So, Muslims are not allowed to propagate, use, sell, produce, transport, give to other people 'religious attributes'. No examples are given in the fatwa. Prof. Jan Sihar Aritonang of the (Protestant) Theological School of Jakarta wrote a letter of protest against the fatwa and gave as examples: Christmas trees, dress like Santa Claus, bells, candles, the charriot of Santa Claus.
It reminded me of the four hours I had to stay last year on a trip to Singapore, mid December, where I saw to my surprise that there was a great Christmas tree on the crowded international airport of Dubai. Also our own nice bronze statues for the Christmas group, Joseph and Mary, the three kings, shephards: are made in Burkina Faso by a group of Muslim artists.
Prof. Jan Aritonang wrote an open letter protesting against the wordings of the Fatwa. In not more than 8 pages the word kafir was used 13 times, denouncing Christians as unbelievers. In the recommendations there is some lip service as to the need that Muslims 'respect the creed and conviction of all religions. This respect includes freedom for non-Muslims to perform their religious duties, without including that there should be mutual acknowledgment of theological doctrines.' But in the arguments there is a quite general qualification about kafir or unbeliever. But the special status of Christians as people who are close to Muslims in a belief in God as creator and sustainer of the world is not mentioned at all. Also the status of Jesus as a prominent prophet is not mentioned in the fatwa. It has now been 35 years since the first Fatwa of Christmas and apparently the debate continues. Happy Christmas to all of you!