2.3 Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)

I would like here to give a brief description of NU as a socio-religious organisation through which most kiai in Jombang are organised. NU stands for Nahdlatul Ulama (lit. the awakening of the ‘ulama). This Islamic organisation was established in 1926 by the kiai of the pesantren, and was led nationally at that time by Kiai Hasyim Asy‘ari from Jombang. The NU national leadership has since been held by kiai from Jombang on several occasions. As the relationship between the kiai and their society has always been extremely close, the society's affiliation with NU is taken for granted. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of Jombang's population are members of or affiliated with NU. Only a few are members of other Islamic organisations, such as Muhammadiyah.

NU was a socio-religious organisation when it was formed in 1926. Its aim was to develop and maintain the Islamic orthodoxy held by most Indonesian ‘ulama. The orthodoxy was the ahl al-sunna wa'l-jama‘a [8]. Muslims who follow this orthodoxy are called sunni. The sunni, as mentioned by the hadith, are those who practise what was practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The ahl al-sunna wa'l-jama‘a is hence a sect within Islam which, according to NU's kiai, bases its understanding on the four madhhab (schools of law)[9]. In their Islamic practices, the followers of the ahl al-sunna wa'l-jama‘a continually refer to Syafi‘i, Hanafi, Maliki or Hambali (the founders of the madhhab). However, the religious practices of NU are mostly derived from Syafi‘i. The practices I mention here are related to those things subsumed under the domain of fiqh (lit. Islamic juresprudence). In the domain of theology, NU refers for its practice and beliefs to Abu'l-Hasan Al-Ash‘ari and Abu Manshur Al-Maturidi. In addition, NU refers to the basics or guidelines laid down by Abu'l-Qasim Al-Junaid in its practice of sufism (Dhofier, 1990:149).

Although the aim of NU was to develop the existing orthodoxy, its formation was also related to the development of modern Islam in Indonesia. Islam in Indonesia which had been exposed to Dutch colonialism for a long time was affected by the development of Islam in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the 20th century. The emergence of the Wahhabis movement inspired some Muslims in Indonesia to form a similar movement to lift Muslims out of their backwardness. As the Wahhabis movement was based on the purification of Islam, its influence on Indonesian Islam was marked by the emergence of an Islamic reformation movement. One of the movements which became involved in the Islamic reformation was Muhammadiyah, a religious movement whose objective was to revive the spirit of Islam by returning to the Qur'an and the hadith in all its practices and thoughts of Islam.

Muhammadiyah was established in 1912 and seemed to have a similar concern to Wahhabis thought in regard to Muslim stagnation. They considered that Muslims were preoccupied with such things as superstition and conducting heretical practices. Such presumptions were regarded as sources contributing to stagnation. In the view of Muhammadiyah, however, Islam was essentially dynamic, and that was why it should always be stimulated in order to provoke development. The efforts of this movement confronted or even undermined the existing religious orthodoxy, which was more accommodating to the local practice of Islam. The basic principle underlying this orthodoxy was to nurture the existing understandings and practices which had for a long time been performed by Muslims, unless they were un-Islamic. The emergence of Muhammadiyah was hence considered as a menace to the religious authority of the ‘ulama, the guardians of the orthodoxy. The formation of NU was, among other things, a response to the purification efforts set in motion by Muhammadiyah. Thus, while Muhammadiyah encouraged independent reasoning (ijtihad)[10] as one of the steps in developing Islamic thoughts, NU's kiai persisted in their reference to the four madhhab, whose authority on Islam was reinforced and remoulded. This led to inevitable conflict between Muslims affiliated with NU and those affiliated with Muhammadiyah. Such conflict was endemic, especially in Java, during the 1950s and the 1960s[11].

Since NU was an embodiment of the ‘ulama's response toward the purification efforts set in motion by Muhammadiyah, it was in essence a socio-religious organisation in which the ‘ulama played an important role. In its organisational structure, NU has two institutions, the suriyah (similar to a legislative body) and the tanfidhiyah (the executive). The ‘ulama constitute the suriyah which controls the organisation. On the other hand, the tanfidhiyah, which is responsible for the policy launched by the suriyah, can be composed of non-‘ulama. In other words, the function of the leadership of the tanfidhiyah is to implement what is formulated by the ‘ulama of the suriyah. It should be noted, however, that although NU gives a chance for the non-‘ulama to become members of the tanfidhiyah, in most cases the chairman of the tanfidhiyah is always a younger ‘ulama, especially at the national level. Since NU is an Islamic organisation concerned with preserving the existing orthodoxy, most of its members and supporters come from rural areas.