Gus Dur believed that Islam practiced in Nusantara is a true and authentic manifestation of Islam. Islam in Nusantara even shows the cosmopolitanism of Islamic culture.
Ahmad Najib Burhani
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On 7 February 2023, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) commemorated the centenary of its establishment. The calculation was based on the Hijri calendar. NU was born in 16 Rajab 1344; 7 February was 16 Rajab 1444. As for the Gregorian calendar, NU was established on 31 January 1926. Thus, the centenary of NU as based on the Gregorian calendar will be celebrated again in the next three years.
The NU centenary activities and commemoration were not only implemented by the NU Executive Board (PBNU) and various institutions related to NU, but also by other organizations. Among these are the National Mandate Party (PAN), which in East Java is sometimes referred to as "the party of its son Nahdliyyin" or "Party Akan [for] NU". PAN, which in its history is synonymous with Muhammadiyah, held a "NU 1 Century Symposium" at Sheraton Hotel, Surabaya, East Java, 18 February 2023, attended by PBNU chairperson Yahya Cholil Staquf and a number of kiai (ulemas) from East Java, such as KH Fuad Nurhasan Sidogiri.
In an oral reflection at the event, I explained two great NU achievements in its first century. First, the creation or strengthening of the national Islamic identity, named Islam Nusantara. Second, the reversal of perceptions that were previously held strongly by academics, both national and international, and the government, about NU.
In the past, not many foreign scientists were interested in studying NU. This organization was considered out of date, not modern, and it was believed it would eventually become extinct or die by itself. When an alliance of scientists from Ivy League campuses in the United States, such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and Cornell, launched a program called Cornell's Modern Indonesia Project in 1954, lasting until the 1980s, no-one glanced at NU. The program that was led by George McT Kahin had research on pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and kiai, but not about NU as an organization.
There was a study of religion in Java conducted by Clifford Geertz, who viewed NU as an "old -fashioned santri" and therefore lacking much prospect in development and economic progress. There was a modernist Islamic study conducted by Deliar Noer and also an economic study by Benjamin Higgins. There were also several studies on the military, but there were no special studies on NU. At that time, NU was considered more as a political party, not a mass organization. Even if seen as an organization, the system was considered unruly, without having adopted modern structures and leadership, based more on charisma and blue blood. Therefore, many were convinced that NU had no future.
Islam in Nusantara was considered to be distinctive because it was considered as incomplete Islam or corrupted Islam.
Nowadays, Islam in Nusantara (the archipelago) is considered unique and distinctive compared to Islam in other parts of the world because of its peaceful, moderate character, having a high acceptance of democracy, accepting modernity and plurality, upholding human rights and respecting women. This uniqueness is not a newly recognized thing. The first wave of scientists from the US who came to Indonesia, such as Geertz, also mentioned that. However, unlike now, when we see the uniqueness as something positive, in the past, the uniqueness of Islam Indonesia had a negative meaning. This was mainly if it was compared with normative Islam.
Islam in Nusantara was considered to be distinctive because it was considered as incomplete Islam or corrupted Islam. It was considered smiling Islam because it was not the real Islam or "authentic Islam".
Geertz did not describe the majority of Muslims in Java as santri (students). They were called abangan. He did not entitle his book Javanese Islam, but The Religion of Java, even though the majority were Muslims. Geertz was certainly not alone in this matter. Maria Penders and other academics also did not consider the majority of Indonesian Muslims at that time as Muslims when they saw their Islamic level compared to "High Islam". Penders said the Islamic condition of Muslims in Nusantara was only one level higher (a pro forma). Islam has never replaced Javanese traditions or customs totally.
In their imagination, Islam was only a thin layer and was easily peeled off the building of strong traditional religious beliefs, which consisted of a mixture of animism and Hindu/Buddhist. They believed that religious ideas and practices in Java were not Islamic.
NU changed the paradigm of the 1960s. What used to be called incomplete Islam is actually complete, but with flavor, color or implementation that is different from "high Islam" or normative Islam. What used to be called corrupted Islam is actually a different interpretation and implementation of an Islam equally authentic and valid as Islam practiced in the heartland (Islamic center).
For NU, Islam has entered the Javanese tradition strongly and fully through the Wali Sanga. In Javanese culture, Islam is like curiga or a keris, while Java is its karangka (ward). Islam is the lyrics of a song, while Javanese is the gending (orchestration). That is Islam Nusantara.
Gus Dur was the most important figure in the reversal of this paradigm, including via his article in Tempo magazine in 1983 with the title, "Is it wrong if it becomes native?" With the idea known as "Islam becoming native", on the one hand, Gus Dur rejected the view of foreign scientists who called Islam in Nusantara only a thin layer of religious traditions that have existed in Nusantara. On the other hand, he also rejected the assessment that Islam in Nusantara had no strong bond with "high Islam", especially if it was called corrupted Islam.
Gus Dur believed that Islam practiced in Nusantara is a true and authentic manifestation of Islam. Islam in Nusantara even shows the cosmopolitanism of Islamic culture, which is definitely different between one country and another. Islam in Nusantara is no less authentic than Islam elsewhere. This is the embryo of Islam Nusantara that we know today.
What is the difference between the paradigm of Islam Nusantara of Gus Dur era and the present? In the past, this paradigm was outlier or isolated; not many believed in it or supported it. Whereas now, it has become a kind of "National Islamic Identity", which is even adopted by the government.
AHMAD NAJIB BURHANI, Research professor at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN)