In Indonesia, sermons promoting tolerance wanted. By Khairil Azhar

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Every Friday, Muslims, especially men, gather in their local mosques for the noon prayer and a sermon known as the khutba. When attending these prayers in different mosques around Jakarta—the capital of a diverse and largely tolerant country—I sometimes hear preachers deliver sermons expressing hatred for people of other faiths. To support their views, these preachers usually refer to Qur'anic verses, deeply misinterpreting their real meaning.
One of the most frequently cited verses is 2:120, which says: “And the Jews will not be pleased with thee, nor will the Christians, till thou follow their creed.” Using this verse, some preachers argue that Jews and Christian will try to convert Muslims to Judaism or Christianity, which creates suspicion and hostility against the people of these two faiths.
What these preachers fail to look at, though, are the social or historical contexts in which the verses were revealed. Instead, they try to apply a literal meaning to our contemporary situation.
If we take a closer look, this particular verse actually relates to the Prophet Muhammad's decision to shift the direction that Muslims face when they perform prayer, from the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to the Kaaba in Mecca. Some Jewish and Christian individuals mocked this decision. The Prophet Muhammad told Muslims to ignore their response, revealing this verse as consolation. The intent of the verse was neither to endorse segregation nor to develop Muslim prejudice for their non-Muslim neighbours.
It is not easy to ensure that preachers deliver sermons based on careful study and thoughtful interpretation of Islamic teachings. Topics of religious sermons are usually chosen based on their perception of what the audience wants or needs, or around issues that will arouse fervour and enthusiasm. As in many faiths, preachers sometimes feel that they will be more respected if they can ignite fiery passion. Persuading the audience to remain calm or to work through possible solutions in the face of adversity is therefore a less popular choice.
In addition, many preachers do not have access to diverse religious texts and commentaries in Indonesian. This means that they tend to pass down messages from their teachers without critically considering other perspectives.
Contemporary preachers could learn from Buya Hamka (1908-1981), one of the most prominent Indonesian religious scholars and preachers, whose sermons encouraged people to live in simplicity and treat others well. His example shows that incendiary sermons are not necessary to attract audiences: he has touched many listeners with his words.
For instance, in Tafsir al-Azhar, his widely read commentary of the Qur'an, Hamka says: "Islam honours whoever wishes to reach God with their good deeds. Even the ones who convey that they are the faithful, the ones who recite the profession of Muslim faith, should prove it with good deeds…. Whatever religions they embrace or whatever identities they have, everybody will get rewards from God, equivalent to their faith and deeds…”
Hamka’s reading of a wide breadth of literature, as well as Islamic and Western texts, helped him present peaceful messages in his sermons. His sermons were filled with stories that were familiar and close to his audiences’ experiences and therefore touched them deeply, providing them with compelling spiritual guidance without resorting to inflammatory sermons.
In a world where misunderstanding often leads to violence, religious preachers promoting tolerance, dialogue and cooperation between different religious groups are badly needed.
Institutions that traditionally train preachers, like Islamic boarding schools, Islamic universities and mosques, need to be equipped with libraries containing literature in Indonesian that promotes tolerance. Future preachers would then have greater access to resources that could broaden their knowledge of Islam and contribute to improving relations between different religious groups.
In addition, more programmes that train preachers should be created. National Muslim organisations like Nadhatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which promote a mainstream understanding of Islam and have affiliated clergy that excel at articulating Islam’s teachings of tolerance and understanding, can take the lead in this effort.
As a result of such efforts, more sermons promoting peace would be found in more mosques, not only in cities like Jakarta, but across Indonesia.

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* Khairil Azhar is the international programme officer at Lazuardi Global Islamic School in Jakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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