The convention (Muktamar) of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) which will be held from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Donohudan, Surakarta is a focal point for the future of progressive Islam in Indonesia. The very fact that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and the NU is the biggest Islamic organization in the country, leads to the assumption that progressive Islam, which is the main characteristic of Indonesian Islam, would be at stake, if the views of progressive Islam are rejected during the convention. How could it be?
The NU convention and nonconventional Islam
The Jakarta Post
Opinion and Editorial - November 24, 2004
The convention (Muktamar) of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) which will be held from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Donohudan, Surakarta is a focal point for the future of progressive Islam in Indonesia. The very fact that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and the NU is the biggest Islamic organization in the country, leads to the assumption that progressive Islam, which is the main characteristic of Indonesian Islam, would be at stake, if the views of progressive Islam are rejected during the convention.
Within the NU, the idea of progressive Islam is held by several young intellectuals. For instance, Liberal Islam is upheld by Ulil Abshar Abdalla and Moqsith Ghazali through the Liberal Islam Network (JIL). Other elements of progressive Islam are included, but not limited to, Islam Emansipatopry (P3M), Islam Leftist (LKiS), Islam Indigenous (Khamami Zada), Islam International (Nadirsyah Hosen), Post-Traditional Islam (ISIS) and Islam Post Religion (Rumadi).
It can be safely stated that their views represent a new wave of emerging young intellectual Muslims during the last 10 years within NU. Despite their different approaches, they share a similar view that Islam should be reinterpreted in a moderate, contextual and progressive way.
However, all the discourses are not without hindrance. The idea of progressive Islam has been criticized by several conservative ulema. These ulema are of the opinion that discourse on progressive Islam is not only based on Western secular views but is also against the fundamental concept of NU's teachings in terms of its theology and legal interpretation.
By contrast, the conservative group interprets Islamic teachings in a textual and traditional way. They use the sources, opinions and methodology that have been issued by the ulema for centuries. They do not consider the fact that such views are unsuited to the current situation.
How will the upcoming convention be deemed a definitive moment? Thus far, the public have paid more attention to the struggle between the incumbent NU chairman Hasyim Muzadi and Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, former Indonesian president and former NU chairman, as a continuation of recent conflict between them during the presidential race.
Little attention has been drawn to the real challenge faced by the largest Muslim organization of whether to adopt a progressive line or to accommodate conservative views. The struggle between these two camps is more important than the personal conflict between Hasyim and Gus Dur. The failure of the progressive group to take a role in the NU would seriously damage the future of Islam in Indonesia.
In this sense, the most important issue which must be addressed during the Muktamar is the renewal of Islamic legal methodology, which it is argued should constitute a fresh and highly promising theoretical construct and represent a new holistic and contextual approach to legal language and legal interpretation.
The NU will need to reduce their dependence on the old methodology, which is a product of the sociological structure of classical and medieval Muslim societies. In other words, they need to develop new interpretations of original sources while studying the interpretations of the past, both to learn from their insights and to understand them as products of their historical environment.
Above all, the course of progressive Islam basically is dependent on Syuriah (the advisory council within NU). This is the real powerful structure of NU. It consists of the most prominent ulema. During several decades, particularly during the tenure of Gus Dur and of Hasyim Muzadi, this board had been trespassed by Tanfidziyah (the executive body). The proponents of progressive Islam suggest that restructuring the relationship between Syuriah and Tanfidziyah should strengthen the role of Syuriah. This is particularly important since Hasyim Muzadi allegedly used the NU for his own political interests during the 2004 presidential election. He was the running mate of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri in the election.
The appointment of Masdar F. Mas'udi as an acting executive chairperson of NU during the non-active tenure of Hasyim was to empower Syuriah. It is akin to the structure of the hierarchy of the pesantren (Islamic boarding school), in which the real leader is the kyai pengasuh pesantren (the owner of a pesantren), and Tanfidziyah is on par with lurah pondok (head of a pesantren) which are mostly taken from the most senior santri, rather than making an effort to 'modernize' the organization. Interestingly, the appointment indicates that the current Syuriah accepted the idea of progressive Islam since Masdar is widely known as one of the progressive Muslim thinkers.
During Musyawarah Besar (conference) of NU members in Ciwaringin, Cirebon, several young intellectuals of NU also decided to bring back the power to Syuriah. The intention, surely, is a means to bar Hasyim Muzadi or any politically leaning person from holding a key position in the executive board. It is also suggested that the upcoming election for the Tanfidziyah will be in the hands of the elected Syuriah. If the suggestion is accepted, NU will be able to stay away from political temptation as long as the Syuriah is able to ensure this. Does it suffice?
However, the young intellectuals are unaware of an immediate obstacle if the Syuriah holds back its power. In part, there is no guarantee that a progressive ulema such as K.H. Sahal Mahfudz will be reelected.
In the community of NU, every nodding of an ulema's head is very important, especially toward any new Islamic discourses, no matter how strange. So, whoever is elected as chairperson of the Syuriah board is the main person who will lead the organization and determine the future stream of Islam in regard to modernity and the wave of globalization.
So, the emerging voice of restlessness of young NU and their efforts to modernize Islam would not be smooth. It depends on whom the elected Syuriah will be. The young NU requires support of kyai who have a liberal vision of Islam.
Throughout Indonesian history, Islam emerged with a unique eclecticism differing from that of Arab lands. In recent years, however, political Islam has been on the march, with violent consequences for the world's most populous Muslim country. Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, Nehdlatul Ulama (NU), now prepares for a crucial meeting regarding the interpretation of shariah, Islamic law. Conservative scholars argue that progressive Islam, prevalent in Indonesia, is based on Western secularism and counters NU teachings. Younger progressives, however, argue that strict traditional interpretations are not relevant to modern times, and thus the laws should be adapted accordingly. According to The Jakarta Post, the outcome of this convention will determine "the future stream of Islam in regard to modernity and the wave of globalization." – YaleGlobal