The 50-mile route from Sura-baya airport to this East Java city was lined with tens of thousands of banners wishing peace and success to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organization, as participants gathered in August for its latest five-year congress.
There were banners bearing greetings from Indonesia’s president and vice president, from the national political parties, the provincial governor, and governors throughout the country. Officials of the towns and villages through which those arriving for the congress passed also expressed warm wishes. Not to be outdone, banks and investment houses displayed greetings, as did Honda and Toyota and media, telephone, milk, cigarette, and sundry other companies. Since NU, founded in 1926, has some 50 million members, politicians and corporations wanted their goodwill and support to be well publicized. And there were reciprocal greetings from Muhammadiyah, the world’s second-largest Muslim organization (with some 40 million members), which was holding its own congress in Mukassar at the same time.
NU’s gathering was a great, sprawling, colorful, four-day business reminiscent of a state fair. There were thousands of delegates, and tens of thousands of visitors and observers, though only a handful from abroad. The official delegates often appeared drained and strained since there were major and acrimonious disputes over election procedures for the new leadership, and the last sessions of the day did not begin until 11 p.m. But ordinary NU members were happy and friendly. I was asked over 100 times to be part of group photos. There was plenty of music from a large soundstage and scattered local bands, as well as an exhibition of NU-related art, myriad food stalls, commercial booths, foot massage stations, and endless vendors offering T-shirts, Islamic fashion, hats, rocks, toys, jewelry, buttons, CDs, bedsheets, and more. My prize: a combination cigarette lighter and bottle opener embossed with the NU logo.
The stalls also included serious items. Some advertised NU’s many magazines, its expansive and growing charitable and social work, its 22 universities, thousands of schools, and millions of students. There were wonderful book exhibits and sales, from children’s books on Islam to dense theological and philosophical works, including the epistemology and axiology of Islamic jurisprudence. I was particularly struck by a reprint of the 1922 work Menolak Wahhabi (Wahhabism Rejected), by Muhammad Faqih Maskumambang, one of NU’s founders. NU has been struggling against Wahhabism, the repressive Islam of Saudi Arabia, for a century, trying to counteract its inroads into Indonesia, including by articulating and promoting an Islam at home in a plural society.
This fit the congress’s theme of “Islam Nusantara,” or “Islam of the Archipelago,” the traditional Islam of the islands, since Indonesia—with over 15,000 islands, half of them inhabited (and one of which, Run, the British gave the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan)—is the world’s largest archipelago. Islam Nusantara emphasizes that, unlike desert lands, Indonesia is a country and people of islands, coasts, travel, trade, and ports, whose towns have always incorporated people very different in language, race, and creed, and which has cultivated openness to others—and so has Islamic beliefs and cultures compatible with diversity.
But Islam Nusantara is not meant to be merely a specimen of interest to sociologists of religion, a serendipitous local phenomenon conditioned by the accidents of geography. I was invited to one of the preparatory meetings to talk with NU scholars about the theological roots of Islam Nusantara. One of the main themes was how Muslims had related to existing cultures and religions when Islam was introduced—and how they should relate to them.
NU scholars, and many others in Indonesia, are developing serious theological works seeking to understand, clarify, and expound this adaptable Islam for wider application in the Muslim world. One major goal is to counter extremism both abroad and in Indonesia—ISIS, of course, but also movements that have been active locally, such as the Islamic Defender’s Front, Laskar Jihad, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. NU’s Islamic College in Jakarta runs a graduate program devoted to Islam Nusantara.