Zakir Hussain – Straits Times
The world’s largest Muslim organization, with some 40 million followers, marked its 87th anniversary with a musical ensemble and a wayang performance featuring a Javanese saint last week.
The choice of entertainment was intentional.
The general chairman of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Said Aqil Siroj, is concerned that a growing minority in Indonesia sees such shows as un-Islamic.
Taking a stand against the spread of puritan Wahhabi teachings, he told more than 300 followers at the courtyard of NU’s central Jakarta headquarters last Thursday night that art is “the voice of truth that can help guide us to the Almighty.”
“This is more so today, when even religion is misused. Turbans, beards, robes, can be deceptive,” the clean-shaven Said Aqil, who favors batik, added to laughter from the audience.
In recent years, NU has become increasingly outspoken in defending the moderate and accommodative approach to religion for which Indonesia is known.
While NU followers far outnumber radicals, the fear is that hardline influences could spread even among NU members, and heighten tension between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Last year, during Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections, Said Aqil said it was not an issue for Muslims to elect a non-Muslim leader.
And when some clerics frowned on Muslims sending Christmas greetings, he assured NU members that they would be no less Muslim if they did so. Said Aqil studied comparative religion and philosophy at a top Mecca university, but has been called deviant by radicals.
NU members also help security agencies guard churches from terrorist attacks at Christmas.
NU leaders feel they can play a greater role beyond the shores of Indonesia, especially now, when extremist Muslims are defiling cultural sites in places such as Mali. After all, the NU logo features a globe.
“Muslims from Russia and Central Asia approach us and even ask for NU teachers to visit them because they feel our approach to Islam is appropriate: It strives to be harmonious with local culture but also works with the state for the greater good,” NU vice-chairman Slamet Effendy Yusuf told The Straits Times.
NU — Arabic for “awakening of the clerics” — was formed in 1926 by a group of Indonesian Muslim leaders to appeal to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi rulers to spare sacred graves from being leveled and allow pilgrims to keep to their traditional rites.
The founders were also reacting to the push by Indonesia’s other major Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912, for a back-to-basics approach to the faith that downplayed the role of clerics and frowned on long-held practices such as venerating saints and visiting graves.
Since then, NU has grown through its vast network of pesantren, or religious boarding schools, especially in rural areas.
An ongoing challenge is to ensure that the NU version of Islam is suited to a multicultural and multi-religious society.
“We have to see things in context,” Slamet Effendy said.
For example, sculptures and statues are frowned on by many Muslim scholars, who fear they could lead to idolatry, but they remain integral to Java’s Hindu and Buddhist heritage sites. Muslim craftsmen near Borobudur have long been at ease working on such sculptures.
“They don’t worship them, and they are beautiful,” Slamet Effendy said. “God is beautiful and loves beauty after all.”
He said that if religion has deep cultural roots, it will have stronger staying power.
To promote NU’s ideals, Said Aqil hopes to set up the first 10 universities to carry the NU name by 2015, when his term ends. Three are already running — in his hometown of Cirebon, and in Halmahera and Lampung. NU is awaiting approval for five more from the Education Ministry.
Many NU leaders have been active in politics, and the National Awakening Party (PKB) is closely affiliated with the organization, although NU members are found across all parties.
NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid was Indonesia’s fourth president from 1999 to 2001, and his grandfather Hasyim Ashari was an NU founder.
Strong NU links are seen as critical to winning elections in many seats in East Java.
The group has moved to bridge the gap with Muhammadiyah, which shares its disdain for radical leanings.
NU observer Nur Munir, who teaches religion at President University, tells The Straits Times that NU’s grassroots network and the sense of belonging it gives followers have kept it strong.
“But it has also sought to stay relevant, and at a time when more NU members are better educated and travelled, they feel their experience here can make a contribution to world peace.”
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times