Nahdlatul Ulama , Indonesia A Muslim Model of Religious Tolerance and Moderation

Author: Fida Ur Rahman, lecturer at the University College of Zhob, BUITEMS, Baluchistan, Pakistan.


Being one of the most populous countries of the Muslim world, Indonesia is home to religious and cultural diversity. Although Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country consisting of 87.17% Muslims, it is constitutionally not an Islamic state. Apart from the six officially recognized religions, there are more than 245 religious and cultural denominations that make the Indonesian society colorful and diversified despite the common phenomenon of sectarian violence. The credit goes to the inclusive policies of the Indonesian state which ensure a vibrant and peaceful attitude towards other religions and cultures.

Religious organizations are very common in Muslim societies. They primarily aim at propagating specific ideologies and interpretations of Islam. Similar to other countries, many Muslim organizations contribute to the prosperity, welfare and peace of the Indonesian society through educational and charitable services. Nahdlatul Ulama is a prime example of these organizations. It was established on January 31st, 1926 as a response to the growing trends of Salafism in Indonesia. Having more than 90 million members, NU is the largest organization in the Muslim world. It has an effective and wide range of influence due to its engagement in socio-economic, educational and political spheres. NU established hospitals and similar other entities of humanitarian aid that serve the poor, thus contributing to poverty alleviation initiatives. It also has the largest chain of boarding schools comprising 6830 schools and 44 universities. The boarding schools namely Pasentren, have an entire local education system that is deeply embedded in Javanese traditions. This system ensures a high quality education and training with a deep understanding of the Arabic literature and other Islamic sciences. The scheme of studies is composed of a modern and secular curriculum that produces well-rounded, well-informed and erudite young scholars. The graduates are neither literalist like Salafists nor solely and exclusively inclined to spirituality like Sufis. It is a blend of spiritualism and rationalism that is considered as a middle path.

NU does not believe in gender segregation. It has actively engaged girls and women in its cause of religious moderation and tolerance. Fatayat Nahdlatul Ulama is the female wing of NU. This dynamic female wing is devoted to striving for ensuring women’s rights, and it has been creating very positive and productive impacts on the lives of Indonesian women.

As mentioned earlier, NU was established as a reaction against the Salafist and modernist thoughts like Wahabism and another Indonesia-based Muslim organization called Muhammadiyah. The founding fathers and most of the workers of Muhammadiyah were graduated from the educational institutions of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. Muhammadiyah believes in what they call ‘Pure Islam’. They try to rid Indonesian Islam of the local socio-cultural norms and traditions. NU reacted to Muhammadiyah’s purge of tradition in an effective and peaceful way, by presenting a more accommodating and inclusive alternative grounded in the Islamic traditions. Although both have radical ideological differences, NU maintained a working relationship with Muhammadiyah and established the Supreme Islamic Council of Indonesia, a discussion forum that represents an opportunity to jointly work in religious and political sphere.

NU has a rich political history full of ups and downs , which shows its commitment to and dedication for democracy and democratic ideals. As a supporter of plurality, NU has always distanced itself from the exclusivist and separatist tendencies and conflict-ridden political approaches. It advocates for and supports Pancasila, which means democracy as a founding principle of the Republic of Indonesia. Islamists organizations like Hizb Ut-Tahrir are banned in Indonesia because of their exclusivist ideology of ‘Islamic Caliphate’ that is considered a threat to the Indonesian religious and cultural diversity.

NU is an advocate of ‘Islam Nusantara’ which means a “distinctive brand of Islam that has undergone interaction, contextualization, indigenization, interpretation and venularization in line with the socio-cultural conditions in Indonesia. These conditions promote compassion, moderation, anti-radicalization, inclusiveness and tolerance.” Due to its moderate and tolerant religious approach, NU is considered as an antidote to the conservative and militant movements of the Middle East and other parts of world like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabab, Boko Haram etc. NU has established a Prevention Center where Arabic speaking students and Indonesian theologians are trained for combating the Jehadist rhetoric. Terms like ‘Kafir’ are widespread in this rhetoric, and the center calls for their abolishment as they negatively affect the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Religious exclusivism is one of the consequences of Saudi Arabia’s global export of Salafism, also known as Wahabism. Salafism is usually defined as a “puritanical and intolerant movement founded in the 18th century in Saudi Arabia that focuses on the literal interpretation of the Qur’an and seeks to eradicate ‘deviant’ regional traditions”. Salafism was exported to Indonesia through the graduates of Saudi-based universities, Salafist literature and charitable activities. The erudite and educated young scholars affiliated with NU have been successfully engaged in countering the Saudi proselytization through the true understanding of Islam that teaches inclusiveness, tolerance and moderation. The Saudi proselytization created an atmosphere of hatred and harassment against Christians. It also established anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadiyya leagues. It was also reported that those involved in the Bali bombings in 2002 were all inspired by the Salafist thought and were actually students of a Salafist school in Indonesia.

Aside from some individual incidents of religious discriminations, the overall atmosphere in Indonesia is peaceful. NU and its female and students’ wings are an example to follow for the Muslim world when it comes to ensuring religious freedom, tolerance, moderation and inclusiveness. This conveys a lesson that indigenous socio-cultural norms coupled with an erudite religious understanding should not be disregarded and declared ‘deviant’ just because of the Arabization project.

Democracy and human rights are the founding principles of any civilized human society. NU is an example for the Islamists to learn that a prosperous, vibrant and pious society can also be established without the exclusivist ideology of Islamism. Religiously conscious and morally awaken Muslims can be groomed in a natural setting without imposing the ideology of Islamism and Salafism. Moreover, the success of NU played an effective role in preserving religious and cultural plurality and local wisdom. Borrowing exclusivist and intolerant ideologies at the expense of indigenous socio-cultural values leads to social disintegration and chaos. It eventually shrinks space for religious freedom and peaceful co-existence.

The aim of religion and culture is to unite human beings without compromising their uniqueness and diversity. As per the Divine Scheme and Creation Plan, every human being is free to express and practice a certain religious ideology without hurting fellow human beings. NU is a beacon of inspiration for other Muslim organizations when it comes to religious freedom, tolerance and moderation. Muslims organizations need to learn the art of inclusiveness, tolerance, moderation and anti-radicalism from the NU experiences and approaches.

Many religious organizations are working in Muslim-majority countries without necessarily paying attention to the fact that every society has its own cultural norms, traditions and identities. Not taking this reality into account could create hate, extremism and polarization within any society.

 To conclude, Nahdlatul Ulama is an excellent alternative for other organizations in Muslim-majority countries that champion plurality, democracy and religious freedom.