The Politics of the Fatwa: Modern Islamic Legal Authority and Rise of the Indonesian Council of Ulama

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Friday, March 6th, 2020

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Fatwas from Islamic organizations are prominent elements of public debates in democratic Indonesia, as well as the broader Muslim world. Yet scholars lack a clear theoretical explanation for the power of fatwas in politics. This paper draws on original archival material to explicate the legal authority of the fatwas from the Indonesian Council of Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI), which over the past twenty years has become one of the country’s most influential actors. The paper distinguishes three periods in the growth and transformation of MUI’s authority; starting with charismatic authority and state corporatism, MUI later gained formal regulatory authority, and now uses agenda setting, lobbying, mass mobilization, and the threat of violence. By examining how the power of MUI’s fatwas increased as the organization accrued more forms of authority, this periodization demonstrates that explaining the political power of the fatwa requires understanding the modern organizational authority of Islamic actors. In the modern age, Islamic legal authority reflects the dominant logic of political authority in society.

Jeremy Menchik is Assistant Professor in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and faculty affiliate in Political Science. His first book, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 2016) was the co-winner of the 2017 International Studies Association award for the best book on religion and international relations.


Jeremy Menchik
Assistant Professor, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University

Faisal Kamal
PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto

Jacques Bertrand
Professor and Associate Chair (Graduate) of Political Science, Director of the Collaborative Master’s Program in Contemporary East and Southeast Asian Studies and Director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies

Main Sponsor

Asian Institute


Centre for Southeast Asian Studies


Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Toronto

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