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The Civilizational Origins of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and its Humanitarian Islam Movement
The grave of H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid in Jombang, East Java. The inscription on his tombstone, "Here Rests a Humanist," is written in Indonesian, Arabic, English, and Chinese. (Humanitarian Islam)
The grave of H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid in Jombang, East Java. The inscription on his tombstone, "Here Rests a Humanist," is written in Indonesian, Arabic, English, and Chinese. (Humanitarian Islam)

The Civilizational Origins of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and its Humanitarian Islam Movement

KH Yahya Cholil Staquf & C. Holland Taylor

On Thanksgiving Day, 2015, The New York Times published a lead story titled, “From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State,” by veteran correspondent Joe Cochrane.1 Appearing shortly after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of 130 people, the article opened with the words:

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The scene is horrifyingly familiar. Islamic State soldiers march a line of prisoners to a riverbank, shoot them one by one and dump their bodies over a blood-soaked dock into the water.

But instead of the celebratory music and words of praise expected in a jihadi video, the soundtrack features the former Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, singing a Javanese mystical poem: “Many who memorize the Quran and Hadith love to condemn others as infidels while ignoring their own infidelity to God, their hearts and minds still mired in filth.”2

That powerful scene is one of many in a 90-minute film that amounts to a relentless, religious repudiation of the Islamic State and the opening salvo in a global campaign by the world’s largest Muslim group to challenge its ideology head-on.

The challenge, perhaps surprisingly, comes from Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population but which lies thousands of miles away from the Islamic State’s base in the Middle East.

Responding to the threat posed by ISIS and Islamist extremism in general, spiritual leaders of Indonesia’s 90-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) developed—and began to operationalize—a global strategy to reconcile Islamic teachings with the reality of the modern world, whose context and conditions differ significantly from those in which classical Islamic law emerged.

Integral to this strategy has been the creation and adoption of a series of historic declarations3 by Nahdlatul Ulama and its dynamic 5-million-member young adults movement, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor. These declarations—promulgated at major international events hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama and Ansor—are among the most visible manifestations of a long-term, systematic and institutional effort to recontextualize (i.e., reform)4 obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to religious hatred, supremacy and violence.

These declarations include the 2016 International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL) Nahdlatul Ulama Declaration; 5 the 2016 First Global Unity Forum Declaration; 6 the 2017 Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam; 7 and the 2018 Nusantara Statement 8 and Nusantara Manifesto. 9

In February of 2019, a little more than three years after Joe Cochrane’s article appeared in The New York Times, Nahdlatul Ulama built upon these declarations by issuing an unprecedented ruling explicitly designed to “Transform the Prevailing ‘Muslim Mindset,’ for the Sake of World Peace and to Achieve a Harmonious Communal Life for All Mankind.”

In a major break with Islamic conservatism, this ruling abolished the legal category of kafir (“infidel,” i.e., those who do not adhere to Islam), which has long cast a shadow over the faith’s relationships with other religions. The ruling was adopted at the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars (“2019 Munas”),10 a gathering of some 20,000 NU-affiliated theologians. Held in Banjar, West Java, the 2019 Munas also endorsed the concept of a nation state rather than caliphate and affirmed that all citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs, have equal rights and obligations.

In September of that year, the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board published a book titled Findings of the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars. This 316-page volume included a formal decree11 issued by the Bahtsul Masa’il ad-Diniyyah Maudluiyyah Commission. Bahtsul Masa’il is a division of the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council. Its members are prominent religious scholars whose knowledge and mastery of fiqh (Islamic law) qualifies them to issue authoritative rulings on matters related to Islamic jurisprudence.

According to the Bahtsul Masa’il ad-Diniyyah Maudluiyyah Commission’s formal decree, the modern nation state is theologically legitimate; there is no legal category of infidel (kafir) within a modern nation state, only “fellow citizens”; Muslims must obey the laws of any modern nation state in which they dwell; and Muslims have a religious obligation to foster peace rather than automatically wage war on behalf of their co-religionists, whenever conflict erupts between Muslim and non-Muslim populations anywhere in the world.

Virtually the entire senior leadership of the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council and its Executive Board attended the Bahtsul Masa’il ad-Diniyyah Maudluiyyah Commission, whose resolutions and findings were approved with unanimous consent by the Commission itself, and at a subsequent plenary session of the 2019 Munas, which was attended by thousands of NU religious scholars from throughout Indonesia.

At the 2019 Munas, ulama (religious scholars) and their disciples witnessed or directly participated in the creation of new fiqh (Islamic legal rulings) adopted through a process of collective ijtihad, the use of independent reasoning to formulate Islamic law. Known as al-istinbath al-jama‘iy, this process was authorized by the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board and its National Congress during the 15-year tenure of former NU Chairman H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, from 1984–1999.

The religious, socio-cultural and geopolitical implications of these rulings may be glimpsed from the fact that—absent the category of infidel—there is no theological basis for Muslims to foster enmity or perpetrate acts of violence (e.g., jihadi terrorism) against those perceived to be non-Muslim.

As could be expected, these pioneering decrees elicited a negative response from Muslim extremists, who falsely accused Nahdlatul Ulama of seeking to “delete” certain passages of the Qur’an. In reality, NU theologians are moving to recontextualize (i.e., reform) obsolete tenets of Islamic orthodoxy, and bring Islamic teachings into alignment with the modern world of democracy and human rights, by using the very same principles of usul al-fiqh employed to create Islamic law during the Middle Ages.

With Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim nation and Nahdlatul Ulama wielding significant influence within the government of President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), the recontextualization of Islamic teachings has begun to reverberate throughout the Muslim world.

In his opening address to the 2019 Munas, which was attended by President Jokowi, Kyai Haji Said Aqil Siradj, who at the time served as Chairman of the NU Central Board, said:

In the final portion of my speech, Mr. President, I need to emphasize that Nahdlatul Ulama supports the commitment made by the Vatican and al-Azhar University, as expressed in the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on February 4th.

Why does the NU support this document? Our support is based on the concept of fraternity long articulated and embraced by the NU—i.e., the fraternity of Muslims (ukhuwwah islamiyyah); the fraternity of those who dwell within a single nation (ukhuwwah wataniyyah); and the fraternity of all human beings (ukhuwwah insaniyyah, or ukhuwwah basyariyah)—as formally declared by Nahdlatul Ulama at the NU Congress held in 1984, at which Gus Dur (KH. Abdurrahman Wahid) was elected Chairman of the NU for the first time.

In the view of Nahdlatul Ulama, the Document on Human Fraternity is consistent with, and articulates, key elements of the concept of fraternity that Nahdlatul Ulama has embraced and consistently endeavored to implement for over 35 years. Our concept of universal fraternity inspires NU efforts to: 1) end the state of enmity that has historically existed between Muslims and non-Muslims; 2) accept the existence of the nation state as theologically legitimate and reject [all efforts to establish] a caliphate; 3) theologically accept the existence of a nation’s constitution and acknowledge that this does not conflict with Islamic shari‘ah; and 4) resolve conflicts [between Muslims and non-Muslims] and establish a state of world peace.

These fundamental elements of the Nahdlatul Ulama world view are compatible with the Document signed by Pope Francis and the Shaykh of al-Azhar. Whether they have emulated our example—and borrowed from our thoughts—I can’t say. I only know that we were first [in articulating these ideas and have consistently done so] for over 35 years, since the Nahdlatul Ulama Congress held in Situbondo [East Java] in 1984.

How did all this come about? Why has Indonesia emerged as a global leader, prepared to address some of the most challenging and difficult issues of our time? To answer these questions, we must take a journey back through history.

Islam Nusantara (East Indies Islam)

Hymn for Protection in the Dark of Night
by Sunan Kalijogo (circa 15th/16th century)

There is a sacred hymn
whose divine vibrations shield us in the dark of night
(so that we may be) invincible
enveloped by beauty, harmony and well-being
and preserved from all affliction
far from every horrifying threat and disaster.
Evil spirits and Satan instinctively recoil
[from these sacred vibrations].
Sorcerers fear to hurl their black magic (against us)
for this sacred hymn disrupts and diverts every evil plan and maneuver
causing witchcraft to fail and rebound upon its sender.

Thus begins the documentary film, The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara: Inspiration from the Festival of East Indies Saints.12 In his 2015 New York Times article, Joe Cochrane described this film as “the opening salvo in a global campaign by the world’s largest Muslim group to challenge [Islamic State] ideology head-on.”

Hymn for Protection in the Dark of Night was composed by Sunan Kalijogo, one of the Wali Songo, or Nine Saints, who are credited with propagating Islam on the island of Java during the 15th and 16th centuries. To this day, Sunan Kalijogo remains the most influential and beloved of the Wali Songo within Nahdlatul Ulama and Javanese society at large.

The NU logo, designed by KH. Ridwan Abdullah in 1927, prominently displays nine stars and a rope with 99 segments encircling the globe. The image of the earth represents Nahdlatul Ulama’s civilizational mission, and religious mandate, to “consolidate the universe” by manifesting love and compassion for all sentient beings and every aspect of creation (rahmatan li al-‘alamin, Qur’an 21:107).

The rope symbolizes the 99 Beautiful Names of God (al-asma ul-husna) and the overriding imperative to ensure the welfare of humanity by maintaining a vertical tie with God and the horizontal tie of fraternity with one’s fellow human beings. The nine stars symbolize the Wali Songo, whose teachings inspired the founding of Nahdlatul Ulama and serve as a direct chain of transmission to the Prophet Muhammad (saw.) himself. Simultaneously, the nine stars also represent the Prophet and his four righteously guided successors (situated above the globe) and the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (below the globe).

As a traditional ahlussunnah wal jamaah (Sunni Muslim) organization, Nahdlatul Ulama follows Ashar‘i and Maturidi theology; recognizes the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence; and embraces tasawwuf, or Islamic mysticism. While NU’s foundational documents explicitly acknowledge the teachings of Junayd al-Bagdadi (830 – 910), Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111) and Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (1078 – 1166), its followers often study a wide range of Sufi masters—including Ibn ‘Ata Allah al-Iskandari (1259 – 1310), Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (1165 – 1240) and Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273)—whose teachings are deeply influential within the organization. As The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara declares in its opening credits:

It is impossible to count the myriad paths to God,
for they are as numerous as the souls that inhabit His creatures.
~ Shaykh Najm ud-Din Kubra, 1145 – 1221

This view, expressed by a renowned mystic and saint from Khwarezm, in Central Asia, who founded the Kubrawiyah Sufi Brotherhood, lies at the heart of Islam Nusantara, or “East Indies Islam,” and its ancient civilizational world view. As the prominent historian and Islamic scholar Kyai Haji Agus Sanyoto explains in the film The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara:

From the time of Shaykh Maulana Malik Ibrahim, [one of the Wali Songo who] came to Java before Sunan Ampel, the saints recognized a central fact of Indonesian society: namely, that the number of people who practiced Hinduism and Buddhism was relatively small, and consisted mainly of those living in palace environs. As a general rule, people who had little or nothing to do with the royal courts continued to practice the original, ancient religion of the East Indies Archipelago, Kapitayan.

The Dutch mistakenly called this ancient belief system “animism-dynamism.” The Wali Songo understood Kapitayan and developed a system of proselytism based on its structure and format. Why? Because Kapitayan had much in common with Islam, and was regarded as the most ancient Oneness (tauhid) religion present in the East Indies. And why did the Wali Songo think that? Because Kapitayan worshipped the highest God, whom they called Sang Hyang Taya: The Great Void, or Absolute.

Taya means Emptiness, suwung. Yet although the word literally means, “That Which is Not,” it does not imply non-existence. True, ‘That’ does not exist on a physical plane; yet ‘That’ does exist. ‘That’ is empty, yet full. This cannot be explained in purely rational terms, which is why Sang Hyang Taya came to be described with the phrase, "Tankeno kinoyo ngopo: That to which nothing can be done.” The mind cannot grasp ‘That,’ which lies beyond human concepts. Nor can ‘That’ be approached using any of the five senses.

That is why the ancients used the term “suwung” or “awang-uwung”: ‘That’ is… yet is not. ‘That’ is not… yet is.

Those familiar with mysticism, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience,” will immediately recognize in Agus Sanyoto’s narrative a description of the Divine essence reminiscent of that expressed by mystics from all the world’s major religious traditions. When Hinduism and Buddhism arrived during the early centuries of the Common Era, many inhabitants of the East Indies readily embraced these new religions, which they regarded as different paths leading individuals to the direct experience or “consciousness” of a single Transcendent Reality, or Truth, which was already long familiar to them.

The 14th-century Javanese court poet Mpu Tantular—a nephew of King Rajasanagara of the syncretic Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire—gave voice to this unitary vision in his epic poem Sutasoma, from which Indonesia’s national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, “Oneness Amid Diversity,” is derived. This ancient Javanese kakawin (book of poetry) promotes mutual understanding and tolerance between Buddhists and Hindu followers of Shiva. The phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika appears in chapter 139, verse 5:

Rwāneka dhātu winuwus Buddha Wiswa,
Bhinnêki rakwa ring apan kena parwanosen,
Mangka ng Jinatwa kalawan Śiwatatwa tunggal,
Bhinnêka tunggal ika tan hana dharma mangrwa.

It is said that Buddha and Shiva are two distinct substances (or entities).

They are indeed different, yet it is impossible to regard them as fundamentally different [when one apprehends the underlying Unity of existence].

For the Essence (Truth) of Buddha and the Essence of Shiva is One (tunggal).

[The diverse forms of the universe] are indeed different, yet simultaneously One (bhinneka tunggal ika), For Truth (dharma) is indivisible.

The arrival of Islam did not provoke resistance among the inhabitants of the East Indies Archipelago, because Nusantara civilization was already long accustomed to foreign cultures and religions. When something new arrived from afar, people would study it—adopting what they liked and ignoring the rest. That was the customary way of life in the East Indies.

Given this way of life, Muslim proselytizers could relax and engage in dialogue with the reality of Nusantara society and its unique history. Ultimately, this produced various expressions of Islam that more accurately reflect the actual substance, and essence, of Islam itself, as expressed in both the Qur’an and the Sunnah (i.e., the teachings, deeds, and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), for example:

“And We sent you [Muhammad] for no purpose other than to be a blessing for all creation.” ~ Qur’an, 21:107

“I have been sent only to perfect the moral framework [of humanity].”
~ Hadith, Sahih Muslim

These circumstances help to explain certain differences between Islam Nusantara and the Islamic civilization that emerged in the Arab Middle East and its various offspring, such as Persia, India, Central Asia, and northern Africa, all the way to Morocco and Spain. When Islam first developed in the Hijaz and then spread to nearby areas, military conquest invariably preceded the introduction of Islam itself.

Thus, the Islamization of Middle East civilization and its surrounding regions occurred in the wake of military conquest. As a result, there was a political dimension that greatly influenced the formation of Islamic civilization. For Islam burst forth as a military and political overlord, and it was precisely in the name of Islam that Arab tribes justified their rule. In other words, the seizure of military and political power occurred in the name of Islam.

Actually, from a very early date—i.e., the second generation of Islam in the Middle East—criticism emerged regarding this reality, through the development of what we now know as Sufism. Sufism represents a coherent set of teachings that invite people to grasp the essence of Islam, the essence of religion, and not simply adhere to its outer expressions, including its formal, institutional aspects.

In the East Indies, Islam did not face the enormous political and military challenges that existed in the Middle East. As a result, those who proselytized Islam in the Malay Archipelago could immediately address the very nature and essence of religion itself: that is, spirituality… the immense richness of the inner life…the life of the soul. As it so happened, this was perfectly compatible with the pre-existing Nusantara civilization, which viewed religion as a means to develop human potential in its entirety, not merely in a physical or material sense, but rather, and above all, our spiritual potential.

When Islam arrived it was welcomed by this open-minded view of religion: that it may assume any number of outer forms of expression, but what is vital is how we grasp the essence of religion, and comprehend its fundamental message.

That is why the teachings of the Wali Songo are not concerned merely with Islamic law, and in fact, have very little to do with such legal formalities. What is most conspicuous about the teachings we have inherited from our tradition of East Indies saints is precisely their great wisdom regarding “the development of the soul.”

A Response to the Dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate

The religious and civilizational legacy of these saints inspired the birth of Nahdlatul Ulama, which means “The Awakening of Islamic Scholars.” In January of 1926, genealogical and spiritual heirs of the Wali Songo established NU in response to the confluence of two world-historic events.

The first was the conquest of the most holy cities in Islam—Mecca and Medina—by Abdulaziz ibn Saud and his Wahhabi army, whose ideology resembled that of ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The second event was the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate, by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in 1924. For nearly 600 years, the Ottoman Empire—an Islamic caliphate—had politically dominated much of the Islamic world and shaped its understanding of Islamic orthodoxy. Seemingly overnight, this unifying force vanished, leaving a political, theological and civilizational vacuum in its wake. Nahdlatul Ulama’s founders recognized that this seismic event heralded a profound change within the international order, which would affect the lives of Muslims worldwide.

Prior to World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, the world was largely dominated by empires, kingdoms and tribal confederations. Unlike the Republic of Indonesia (est. 1945) and the United States of America, these empires and kingdoms generally had official state religions. The full enjoyment of legal privileges by their subjects was usually predicated upon their adopting the state’s religious identity. For example, the Ottoman Empire—and other Islamic caliphates before it—systematically discriminated against non-Muslims by enforcing a wide range of orthodox Islamic tenets that govern the treatment of conquered infidels, or “dhimmi.”

Like Christianity—whose institutionalized teachings and practices have varied widely over the course of its 2,000-year history—Islam is a diverse and complex religion. One element thereof is classical Islamic law, or fiqh, which addresses how a Muslim state should be governed and conduct international affairs. This classical Islamic jurisprudence evolved gradually over the course of centuries, within the context of a bygone “age of empires,” which witnessed over 1,200 years of violent conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, including many jihads and crusades.

In the post-World War II era of nation states, equal citizenship, human rights and religious freedom, some tenets of classical Islamic orthodoxy are no longer relevant to Muslims’ daily lives. Such tenets include norms that encourage enmity towards non-Muslims; require the establishment of a universal Islamic state, or caliphate; and reject laws derived from modern political processes.

For over 1,200 years prior to the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate, the majority of the world’s Muslims lived under political systems that sought to embody the orthodox ideal of a unified Muslim community, led by a pious Muslim ruler who adhered to the basic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy and led his community in a state of permanent warfare with neighboring non-Muslims. These tenets of classical Islamic jurisprudence are still taught by most orthodox Sunni and Shi‘ite institutions as authoritative and correct, and thus continue to shape what may be described as the “prevailing Muslim mindset” worldwide.

One of the few regions of the Muslim world where these orthodox legal teachings were not historically dominant is the Indo-Malayan Archipelago, the territory of modern-day Indonesia, which we call Nusantara.

Prior to the invention of nuclear weapons and the advent of modern technology, which enabled the attacks of 9/11, the United States enjoyed a remarkably high degree of security, protected by the vast expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Similarly, the diverse cultures and civilization of the East Indies long flourished in relative security. Although the Indo-Malayan Archipelago has, for thousands of years, been a major crossroads of international trade, it generally enjoyed the luxury of embracing the best elements, and benignly neglecting the worst, of foreign cultures and civilizations.

That is no longer possible today.

Our relative isolation ended with the onset of the industrial age in the 19th century. Greatly improved transportation and communication in the form of steamships and other innovations cut journey times between the East Indies and the Middle East. For the first time, large numbers of Nusantara Muslims began visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for pilgrimage—many staying for years before returning home with a much more detailed understanding of Islamic orthodoxy, including classical Islamic law.

The return of these pilgrims and legal scholars to the East Indies led to the emergence of a new kind of Islamic scholarship, closer in form and substance to that prevailing within the Ottoman Caliphate.

Previously, from the 15th to the 19th century, the distance between Nusantara and the traditional centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East meant that local Muslim leaders had to find creative, contextually appropriate responses to the actual needs and problems of their followers, with very little reference to classical Islamic law.

In effect, this meant that Nusantara religious scholars—called kyais —were engaged in a process of ijtihad —that is, creating new religious rulings and norms, long after this process had formally ended in the Middle East. For example, Sunan Kalijogo introduced the use of local cultural expressions such as shadow puppet theater, accompanied by an orchestra playing brass gongs, to teach the essential spiritual message of Islam, even though a fundamentalist understanding of Islamic orthodoxy would prohibit such practices.

This tradition of de facto ijtihad made Islam Nusantara more responsive to the changing needs of contemporary reality, and much better prepared to deal with the civilizational shockwaves generated by the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and the transformation of global order from one of empires to one whose fundamental building block is the modern nation state.

The Muslim scholars who founded Nahdlatul Ulama were fully aware of this changing reality. For example, Kyai Zubair Dahlan constantly emphasized to his son—Kyai Maimun Zubair, one of NU’s most respected classical scholars, who was born in 1928 and passed away in 2019—how world civilization was changing. Like Kyai Zubair Dahlan, the founding generation of Nahdlatul Ulama scholars deliberately prepared their disciples—that is, subsequent generations of NU scholars—to face the challenges posed by the remarkable changes that followed in the wake of World War I and World War II.

It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who examines the critical decisions made by Nahdlatul Ulama’s leadership over the past century, that these NU leaders made their decisions in light of the demands posed by contemporary reality, in order to promote the welfare of all Indonesians. For example, NU did not demand the establishment of Indonesia as an Islamic state. Rather, our leaders chose to found Indonesia as a multi-religious and pluralistic nation state, imbued with respect for the nation’s enormous cultural, religious and ethnic diversity.

This momentous decision had no precedent in Islamic orthodoxy. It was the result of ijtihad and a profoundly difficult negotiation between Islamic orthodoxy and the emergence of a new world. NU kyais supported the founding of the Republic of Indonesia as a pluralistic nation state after an extensive dialogue with secular scholars, as they grew up together and engaged in nationalist, anti-colonial activism.

Pancasila, the “Five Principles” that lie at the heart of Indonesia’s state ideology, reflect not only the values of Nusantara civilization but also the essence of Islamic shari‘ah:13 belief in the Divinity Who is the Great “One”; a just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; society led by the wisdom that arises from deliberations among and between the people’s representatives; and the realization of social justice for all the people of Indonesia. In this, it is reminiscent of the Medina Charter, which formed the basis of a multi-religious state during the early years of Islam on the Arab Peninsula.

The sudden dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate and emergence of a new international order triggered profound anxiety, confusion and chaos throughout the Islamic world. Many Muslims joined Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami; many, in the Middle East, embraced Pan-Arabism; while others turned to Communism. Even in Indonesia there was profound opposition to the establishment of a multi-religious and pluralistic nation state. From 1949 to 1962, the Government of Indonesia, backed by Nahdlatul Ulama, waged a bitter struggle to defeat an armed insurrection called the Darul Islam, or Islamic State, movement. During the 1950s and 60s, the third largest Communist Party in the world was that of Indonesia. Following a Communist coup attempt in 1965, Nahdlatul Ulama joined Roman Catholics, Protestants and other Indonesian nationalists to defeat those who wanted the Republic of Indonesia to become part of the Communist Bloc.

Unlike many across the Muslim world, NU leaders did not insist upon a return to the obsolete construct of an Islamic caliphate. Instead, they chose to establish Indonesia as a nation state, which they acknowledged as the fundamental building block of a new, rules-based international order that promised to foster harmonious relations between different civilizations and to avoid the great religious conflicts of the past.

Unfortunately, many Muslims—especially in the Middle East—have come to view the nation state as a colonial imposition. Muslim extremists dream of re-establishing a global caliphate. The devastating events of 9/11, the Bali bombings of 2002 and the constant drumbeat of attacks perpetrated by Islamist terrorists worldwide for the past two decades have convinced many Nahdlatul Ulama leaders that Indonesia’s traditionally pluralistic and tolerant understanding and practice of Islam cannot survive if we fail to address obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to religious hatred, supremacy and violence.

Indonesia’s first democratically elected president and former NU Chairman Abdurrahman Wahid foresaw this challenge. President Wahid played a leading role in overthrowing the Suharto regime in 1998 and transforming Indonesia into the world’s 3rd largest democracy. During President Wahid’s brief term in office, he established press freedom, extended civil and political liberties to Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population and other minorities, and restored civilian control of the military. Despite serious challenges posed by Islamist extremists and their opportunistic political allies, President Wahid succeeded in stabilizing Indonesia’s young democracy and preserving the Republic of Indonesia as a multi-religious and pluralistic nation state.

Poised for Global Expansion

This brief history explains why Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama has both the capacity and motivation to launch a systematic recontextualization of Islamic teachings. In May of 2016, Nahdlatul Ulama hosted Islamic scholars from 33 countries and adopted the International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL) Nahdlatul Ulama Declaration, which states:

15. The Nahdlatul Ulama calls upon people of good will of every faith and nation to join in building a global consensus not to politicize Islam, and to marginalize those who would exploit Islam in such a way as to harm others.

16. The Nahdlatul Ulama will strive to consolidate the global ahlusunnah wal jamaah (Sunni Muslim) community, in order to bring about a world in which Islam, and Muslims, are truly beneficent and contribute to the well-being of all humanity.

The past decade has witnessed a profound revival of Nahdlatul Ulama and its dedication to the spiritual values and civilizational mission that inspired its founding in 1926. This may be seen not only from the ISOMIL and subsequent declarations, but also from the systematic implementation of a concrete strategy to propagate what NU describes as “Humanitarian Islam.” Humanitarian Islam is a global movement that seeks to restore rahmah (universal love and compassion) to its rightful place as the primary message of Islam, by addressing obsolete and problematic elements14 within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny, while positioning these efforts within a much broader initiative to reject any and all forms of tyranny, and foster the emergence of a global civilization endowed with noble character.

As Mohammed Abu el-Fadl—deputy editor of Egypt’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, al-Ahram — wrote after visiting Indonesia in 2015: “Nahdlatul Ulama has consistently nurtured the values of Islam Nusantara for nearly a century, and is now poised to export its collective wisdom and experience throughout the world, for the benefit of humanity.”15

In a separate article titled “Political Horizons for Indonesian Islam,” Abu el-Fadl observed that “the profoundly spiritual and tolerant worldview embodied in the term Islam Nusantara has begun to expand beyond its local framework to a global environment. Many lines of communication have been initiated between Nahdlatul Ulama and various Western governments. [Spiritual leaders within] Nahdlatul Ulama have begun to establish working relationships and operational nodes in many countries, operating under the organizational name, ‘Home of Divine Grace (Bayt ar-Rahmah).’ Each operational node propagates the model of tolerance embraced by Nahdlatul Ulama—such as peaceful coexistence with others and respect for individuals’ right to privacy, including freedom of thought and conscience—and seeks to accomplish this by leveraging the profound humane and spiritual values that underlie and animate all religions.”16

At its 34th Congress held in Lampung, Sumatra in December of 2021, Nahdlatul Ulama embraced this global agenda, as encapsulated in the phrase “Mengayomi Jagad Membangun Peradaban” (“Nourishing All of Creation and Building a Shared Civilization”). In a speech delivered in Lampung upon his election as Chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board, one of the authors of this essay outlined “two primary agendas he will pursue as Chairman of the 90-million-member organization: “The first is to develop self-sufficiency and autonomy for all Indonesian citizens, and the second is to heighten Nahdlatul Ulama’s role in the struggle to foster world peace.”

Regarding efforts to promote world peace, Nahdlatul Ulama has already proven successful in conducting a number of initiatives that are increasingly acknowledged, and valued, by key elements of the global community.

What needs to be done now is to accelerate our international engagement and develop synergy with initiatives conducted by the Indonesian government. For if we examine the international landscape and current geopolitical dynamics, it is clear that no single nation is better positioned to contribute to world peace than the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia.17

The film, The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara, which documents Nahdlatul Ulama’s spiritual revival, concludes with the final stanzas of Sunan Kalijogo’s Hymn for Protection in the Darkness of Night. In a segment that directly challenges Islamic State ideology, the hymn’s Javanese lyrics are sung against a backdrop of ISIS destroying the shrine of Shaykh Ahmad ar-Rifa’i, founder of the Rifa’iyah Sufi brotherhood, in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2014:

May this fire be extinguished by a cool stream of water
May brigands and rapists not come our way
All evil shall vanish through the power of these divine vibrations
May every dire threat immediately rebound upon its sender
All illness and disease exorcised by the power of this sacred hymn.18

The final segment of the film is titled “The exalted values of East Indies civilization became the firm and upright foundation of the Indonesian nation state.” It features the Governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, addressing the 2014 Festival of Nusantara Saints:

It’s uncomfortable for us, as Muslims, when we’re accused of being violent. [Fanatical] bomb experts. We, personally, are incapable of such behavior. That’s why I have such high hopes for the vision and movement launched today in Demak, with this event held from early morning till late at night. I hope that the Festival of Nusantara Saints will inspire us to adopt a new approach capable of resolving these problems, and that in the field of international diplomacy we may offer the world [a new kind of Islam]. What kind of Islam? Well, like what you see here in Indonesia.

The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara concludes with hundreds of senior NU leaders gathered in prayer in an open-air wooden pavilion in Demak, as the final verses of the Hymn are heard on the soundtrack:

Within the Perfect Man, every element of the body and soul functions in complete harmony
orbited by dancing celestial nymphs
guarded by angels and all of God’s Messengers
My light is the Prophet Muhammad
My vision, the Messengers of God
Safeguarded by Adam’s shari‘ah
[our innate human ability to know and serve God]
Spiritually perfected, all prophets and saints have become One within myself.19

1 Joe Cochrane, “From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State,” The New York Times, November 26, 2015.
2 Directed by C. Holland Taylor and Kyai Jadul Maula, Rahmat Islam Nusantara (The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara: Inspiration from the Festival of Javanese Saints). Winston-Salem, North Carolina: LibForAll Foundation/International Institute of Qur’anic Studies, 2015.  The scene described in The New York Times may be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqDj794wZNw.
3 The complete text of these declarations may be found on the website of Bayt ar-Rahmah li ad-Da‘wa al-Islamiyah Rahmatan li al-‘Alamin, a North Carolina-based 501(c)(3) organization that helps coordinate the expansion of Nahdlatul Ulama operations worldwide. See: https://baytarrahmah.org/key-texts/.
4 Staquf, Yahya Cholil, “The Recontextualization of Fiqh (Islamic Law) and Transformation of the Prevailing ‘Muslim Mindset,’ for the Sake of World Peace and to Achieve a Harmonious Communal Life for all Mankind,” published in Findings of the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars, Jakarta: Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board, 2019. Available at: https://www.baytarrahmah.org/media/2019/The-Recontextualization-of-Fiqh_03-01-2019.pdf.
5 Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board, International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL) Nahdlatul Ulama Declaration, promulgated on May 10, 2016 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
6 Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, Global Unity Forum Declaration, promulgated on May 12, 2016 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
7 Gerakan Pemuda Ansor and Bayt ar-Rahmah, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam, promulgated on May 22, 2017 in Jombang, East Java, Indonesia.
8 Gerakan Pemuda Ansor and Bayt ar-Rahmah, Nusantara Statement, promulgated on October 25, 2018 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
9 Gerakan Pemuda Ansor and Bayt ar-Rahmah, Nusantara Manifesto, promulgated on October 25, 2018 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
10 Bayt ar-Rahmah, political communiqué titled, “World First: Nahdlatul Ulama Abolishes the Legal Category of ‘Infidel’ within Islamic Law,” October 16, 2019.
11 Bahtsul Masa’il ad-Diniyyah Maudluiyyah Commission, “Decree on the Nation, Citizenship and State Law,” published in Findings of the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars, Jakarta: Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board, 2019. Available at: https://www.baytarrahmah.org/media/2019/2019-Munas_Findings-of-Bahtsul-Masa’il-Maudluiyyah.pdf.
12 This opening scene and the film’s trailer may be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLEi5ED_-Xw
13 See Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, ed., The Illusion of an Islamic State (Ilusi Negara Islam), Jakarta, Indonesia: LibForAll Foundation, Wahid Institute and Maarif Institute, 2009/2011, p. 35: “The primary reason we must oppose hardline movements is to restore honor and respect to Islam, which the extremists have desecrated, while at the same time preserving Pancasila and the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Victory in the struggle against extremists will restore the majesty of Islamic teachings as rahmatan lil-âlamîn—a blessing for all creation—and this represents a vital key to building a peaceful world.

“We have conducted and published this study in order to raise awareness among all components of Indonesian society, particularly the elite and mass media, concerning the dangers of extremist ideology and doctrine with which Middle Eastern transnational movements are flooding our nation, and which have sprouted like mushrooms in the rainy season over the past decade, during our democratic era. This work is also intended as a call to defend and preserve Pancasila, which reflects the essence of shari‘a and transforms Islam into a true blessing for all creation.”

14 Lohlker, Rüdiger, “Theology Matters: the case of jihadi Islam,” Strategic Review, Volume 6, Number 3, July – September 2016. The article is available at: https://www.baytarrahmah.org/media/2016/Strategic-Review_Theology-matters-The-case-of-jihadi-Islam_Jul-Sep-2016_highlighted.pdf.
15 Mohammed Abu el-Fadl, “Indonesian Islam,” al-Ahram, June 11, 2015.
16 Mohammed Abu el-Fadl, “Political Horizons for Indonesian Islam,” al-Arab, June 15, 2015.
17 Bayt ar-Rahmah, political communiqué titled, “Humanitarian Islam Co-founder Elected Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama,” December 24, 2021.
18 This segment of the film may be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IB-02QWzXgk.
19 The authors wish to express their appreciation to Dr. Timothy Samuel Shah, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, for his valuable advice and assistance in the drafting of this essay.