JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s top Islamic body meets at the weekend for what looks set to be a hot theological debate on a range of issues including whether Muslims should be allowed to smoke, abstain from voting or even do yoga.
Officially secular, Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, accounting for roughly 85 percent of the country’s 226 million people. Most follow a moderate form of Islam, although there is vocal radical fringe.
About 700 people, including Muslim clerics and theological experts, are due in West Sumatra for the National Edict Commission meeting, which has the power to issue fatwas.
“There will be debate before we reach conclusions. We need to listen to the pros and cons and it’s likely to be a hot debate,” said Ma’ruf Amin, a chairman of the Ulema Council, known as MUI.
The MUI has carved a key role for itself in Indonesia and its pronouncements on everything from Islamic banking to halal food can have a big influence on Southeast Asia’s top economy.
The fatwas are not legally binding but place pressure on Muslims to adhere to them and can influence government policy.
A call from some ulema, or religious councils, for a ban on smoking will be discussed at the meeting in Padang Panjang, around 870 km (540 miles) north west of the capital Jakarta.
The motion has also ready met opposition from councils in parts of east and central Java, where the tobacco industry is a key part of the economy.
Indonesia is the world’s No. 5 tobacco market and at around $1 (73 pence) a pack, cigarettes are among the cheapest in the world.
Some cities in Indonesia, including Jakarta, have banned smoking in public places, but the rules are widely flouted.
The Ulema Council was established in 1975 under the influence of former autocratic president Suharto, backing his policy of trying to restrict families to having just two children despite opposition from some Muslims.
It has since reinvented itself in the post-Suharto era, with some members pushing a more radical agenda, including pressing the government to restrict some Muslim sects or liberal groups.
The weekend meeting will also debate whether Muslims should avoid yoga because of the view it uses Hindu prayers that could erode Muslims’ faith.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi intervened last year to say that Muslims could carry on doing yoga minus chanting after its National Fatwa Council had issued a ban.
The Sumatra meeting will also debate whether abstaining from voting is “haram,” or not allowed. Indonesia holds legislative and presidential elections in April and July, respectively.
Abdurrahman Wahid, a former president and leader of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, has advised his supporters not to vote amid dissatisfaction with politics.
Underage marriage will also be debated after an Islamic cleric last year incited uproar when he married a 12-year old girl with her parents consent.
Under Indonesian law, men can marry at 19 and women at 16, although under some Islamic laws there is no age limit.
Editing by Ed Davies and David Fox