Husein Muhammad is his name. Kyai Haji is the honorific title given by santri (students) and society to him because of his pronounced religious knowledge and devotion to the humanity. He was born in the village of Arjawinangun, Cirebon, living in the tradition of Pesantren Daarut Tauhid. The salaf (traditional) pesantren inherited from Al-Maghfurlah KH. Abdullah Syathori, his teacher cum grandfather, a distinct kyai (Islamic scholar) who became a hero along with Kyai Amin Sepuh (Babakan, Ciwaringin) and Kyai Abbas (Pesantren Buntet) on the events of 10 November 1945.
Kyai Husein is known as a blessing-bearer for Islam and women. His scholarship genealogy of gender equality is rooted in the tradition of Pesantren dominated by the salaf classical text (kitab kuning). For your information, Kyai Husein exercised his intellectual journey at Pesantren Lirboyo, Kediri, East Java, College of Quranic Sciences (PTIQ), Jakarta, and Al-Azhar University, Egypt. Around the 1990s, Kyai Husein met with Kyai Masdar F Mas’udi and Lies Marcoes Natsir from P3M (the Association for Pesantren and Community Development) who were running Islamic programs and Women’s Reproductive Rights at Pesantren. Since then, Kyai Husein has been actively involved with various studies and humanitarian issues on women and gender; domestic violence – for two periods he seated as a commissioner of the National Commission on Violence Against Women -, the increasing number of divorce rates, child marriage, and other discriminatory behaviors.
Living in the Pesantren tradition familiar with the patriarchal tradition, then encountered with various humanitarian and women issues made Kyai Husein transformed into a kyai that is different from others. Even for some people, he is considered nyeleneh (unorthodox), controversial and ‘liberal’.
Kyai Husein pointed out that there are Islamic thoughts and teachings – which almost become mainstream understanding- which are jumud (rigid) and threaten the existence of mankind, especially women. So, for Kyai Husein, there is no other way except that Islam must be restored to its meaning as a religion of mercy, a religion of affection. The word ‘rahmat’- according to Kyai Husein – contains the meaning of riqqah al-qalb (sensitivity), al-Talathuf (gentleness of the soul) and al-Maghfirah (forgiveness). It is something that brings a sense of beauty, peace, and goodness to the blessed.
Moreover the spirit of ‘rahmat’ for women. For Kyai Husein, it is impossible for the Qur’an and hadith to disregard and/or underestimate the existence of women. Al-Qur’an and hadith, in fact, become the inspiration of affection towards women. Islam glorifies women. So obviously, if there are Islamic thoughts and teachings that seem to underestimate (degrade) women, for example, it is said that women are identical with defamation, their intelligence and religious piety are weak, they are identical with kitchens, wells, mattresses, close to Satan and other stereotypes, they are not the teachings of Islam brought by the Prophet Muhammad.
Fortunately, in addition to social media, Kyai Husein productively wrote many books. His published and phenomenal books are, among others, Fiqh Perempuan: Refleksi Kyai atas Wacana Agama dan Gender (Women’s Fiqh: the Reflection of Kyai on Religious and Gender Discourse, 2001). His other books include Islam Agama Ramah Perempuan: Pembelaan Kyai Pesantren (Islam as a Women-Friendly Religion: the Defense of Kyai Pesantren, 2005), Spiritualitas Kemanusiaan: Perspektif Islam Pesantren (the Spirituality of Humanity: the Perspective of Pesantren Islam, 2005). Ijtihad Kyai Husein: Upaya Membangun Keadilan (the Ijtihad of Kyai Husein: Efforts to Build Justice, 2011), Mengaji Pluralisme kepada Mahaguru Pencerahan (Studying Pluralism to the Master of Enlightenment), Sang Zahid : Mengarungi Sufisme Gus Dur (The Zahid: Wading through Gus Dur’s Sufism), Gus Dur dalam Obrolan Gus Mus (Gus Dur in Gus Mus’ Chat), and many other books.
I was fortunate, to be a santri who once wrote a book with Kyai Husein, our book was titled ‘Mencintai Tuhan, Mencintai Kesetaraan: Inspirasi dari Islam dan Perempuan’ (Loving God, Loving Equality: Inspiration from Islam and Women). In this book, Kyai Husein said that women are human just like men. Women have all the potential that men have: the thinking mind, the sensing instinct and the body that moves in space and time. However, in the reality of social life and nationhood to this day, we have seen in plain view that so many creatures of God of the female sex have not fully gained independence like the one of the opposite sex: men.
In the hands of Kyai Husein Islam becomes women-friendly. How he ‘defends’ women is very impressive, starting from the right of inheritance, marriage guardianship, female imam for prayer, reproductive health, sexuality, female aurat (intimate parts) and others are all discussed and studied contextually. No wonder then, Kyai Husein deserves to be the only internationally-recognized Kyai who earnestly defends women. His name was recorded in ‘The 500 Most Influential Muslims’ (The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, in 2010, 2011-2012) and in 2006 he was also awarded the ‘Heroes to End Modern Slavery’ by the United States Government.
The ideas of Kyai Husein are not mere discourse. While there are still many pesantren communities doubting the leadership of women, he gave chance to his wife Nyai Hj. Lilik Nihayah Fuadi to become a legislator in Cirebon and to found an institute for violent victim accompaniment, WCC Mawar Balqis. Not only that, he is also very supportive when his beloved oldest daughter Hilya wanted to study at al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt for believing that women deserve equal opportunity to study just like men. Kyai Husein also did not hesitate when asked to give taushiyah or marriage advice in Walimatul ‘Ursy, to disseminate the idea of the importance of fair and equal relations and that mutual cooperation can be applied in the family being built by the couple.
We really need persistent and honest kyais like kyai Husein. A Kyai from Pesantren that adheres to the traditions of pesantren and salaf classical texts (kitab kuning) but has a perspective and takes a stance for justice and equality between men and women. Finally, hopefully, Kyai Husein is always endowed with health and blessings of life by Allah.
Mamang M Haerudin (Aa), Pesantren Bersama Al-Insaaniyyah, Karangwareng, Cirebon, June 12, 2017, 20.24 WIB.