President Gus Dur
Indonesia, Islam, and Reformasi

Mark R. Woodward
Department of Religious Studies
Arizona State University

There are three things one can never know, what the course of a marriage will be,
when you will die and what Gus Dur will do next. -- Amein Rais

President or Kalifah -- It's all the same. -- a student at Pesantren Tebuireng(1)

This was an act of God! It's beautiful! -- a GOLKAR delegate to the MPR(2)

On the twentieth of October, 1999, Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur as he is popularly known, was elected as Indonesia's fourth president. It was a day of monumental importance and marked a major shift in the stream of Indonesian history. Wahid is the first Indonesian president to come to office through a democratic process. In this sense, his election looks toward the future. October 20th will also be remembered as the first day in more than three centuries on which an ulama (Muslim scholar) swore an oath to serve as leader of a Javanese state.(3)Ulama have been present at such ceremonies on many previous occasions. They have administered the oath to three presidents and countless kings and sultans. But Gus Dur is the first to have sworn such an oath since Sultan Agung of Mataram ravaged the costal states of east and north Java in the early years of the seventeenth century.

Indonesia and Islam

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation. Indonesian and Javanese are two of the worlds most commonly spoken Islamic languages. Indonesian cultures are rooted in a rich and complex melding of Islamic and earlier Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous traditions. There is fundamental distinction, especially in Java, between what can be termed the Islamicized Javanese culture of the traditional nobility and the Javanized Islam of the ulama. The "ideal type" of the first variant is the Javanese kraton (palace). The ideal type of the second is the pesantren (Islamic theological academy).(4)

Islamicized Javanese culture has dominated political life since the seventeenth century. During the colonial period the Dutch ruled through the native nobility who were the bearers of this culture. They were the first Indonesians to receive modern Western educations. As a result, they have played a disproportionate role in the political life of modern Indonesia. Most of the traditional ulama considered European culture and learning to be haram (forbidden by Islamic law). They sought refuge from colonial rule in rural areas of east and central Java, and in Mecca.(5) The rejection of modern learning left the ulama ill prepared to assume leadership positions in post-Independence Indonesia.

In the precolonial and early colonial period, there was a creative, dynamic tension between Islamicized Javanese culture and Javanized Islam--and between the kraton and the pesantren. The complex interrelationship between the two poles of Javanese culture is apparent in court literature, which translated and built on themes drawn from Arabic texts, and in state ceremonies, most of which commemorate universally recognized Muslim holy days. The Dutch were extremely suspicious of the ulama. They feared and hated Islam, considering it (correctly) to be among the major sources of resistance and insurrection. Contact between the palace and the pesantren was discouraged. Positions in the native civil service were given almost exclusively to sons of the Javanist nobility.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Islamicized Java became increasingly Javanist, to the point that many of the nobility were unaware of the Muslim roots of their own traditions and increasingly understood Islam as a "foreign" religion. The emergence of "modernist" or "reformist" Islams in urban areas also contributed to this process. While traditional Islam recognizes and accommodates local cultural traditions, the modernist or Islamist theologies that emerged throughout the Muslim world in the colonial period explicitly rejected the local and advocated the establishment of a narrow understanding of Islamic law as the religious foundation of modern Muslim societies.(6) Muhammadiyah and other Indonesian modernist Islamic movements are based on theological tradition. Modernists tend to define Islam--the core meaning of which is submission to God--in narrow behavioral terms, and to denounce their opponents as kafir (unbelievers) who will burn in hell. Gus Dur and other traditional ulama remain close to the teachings of the great eleventh-century Persian ulama and mystic al-Ghazzali, who is known for his tolerant and inclusive definition of Islam. Ghazzali valued the Islam of the unlearned masses and taught that all who accepted the broad outlines of the faith must be considered and treated as Muslims.(7) Ghazzali and other traditional ulama also adhered to the doctrine of tawaddu--that humans are ultimately nothing, that God is everything, and that no matter how learned a man may be, he should humble himself before others who necessarily possess knowledge that he does not share.(8) The result is that the traditional ulama are far more willing to negotiate and compromise than are their modernist counterparts. President Wahid's grandfather, Hasyim Ashari, was the most revered of the traditional ulama of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was one of the founders of Nahdlatul Ulama, the religious/political/ social organization founded to promote the interests of the traditional ulama and their followers. When he returned from Mecca, in the late nineteenth century, Hasyim Ashari founded Pesantren Tebuireng in Jombang in eastern Java. His purpose was to bring traditional Muslim learning and the modes of piety associated with it to the unlearned rural population. Wahid extends both this spirit of tolerance and the teaching method associated with it to modern urban Indonesians, and has actively sought the cooperation of non-Muslims in developing and advancing a political agenda rooted in Western notions of democracy.

While traditional ulama are far closer to modern understandings of pluralism and tolerance than modernists, the modernists were first to endorse and advocate modern Western learning as a solution to the political and economic problems of the Muslim community. In Indonesia, the traditional ulama did not accept Western learning as hallal (allowable) until after the establishment of the Indonesian republic. Independence decoupled modernity and unbelief. The ulama considered both struggle against the Dutch and the acquisition of the skills and knowledge to bring an Independent Indonesia into the modern world to be religious obligations. Gus Dur's father, Wahid Hasyim, played a central role in this transformation. Gus Dur is among the first of the traditional ulama to benefit from the combination of Islamic and modern education. Unlike many younger Muslim scholars, Wahid did not study at a Western university, but spent considerable time at al-Azhar in Cairo and at universities in Iraq. When he was a student at Pesantren Krapyak, in the university city of Yogyakarta, he read deeply in Western philosophy and political thought.

The tripartite distinction between Islamicized Javanese culture or Javanism, traditional, and modernist Javanized Islam has profoundly influenced the course of Indonesian history and politics. Indonesia's first two presidents, Soekarno and Suharto, were Javanists. Scholars have often observed that during both the old and the new order, Indonesian politics was influenced by cultural and religious traditions derived from central Javanese royal courts. For much of this period, traditionalist and modernist ulama were the primary opposition.

In the 1999 elections, Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of President Soekarno, represented Javanist and non-Muslim constituencies. Modernist Muslims were represented by several political parties, and by Amein Rais, the general chairman of Muhammadiyah. Abdurrahman Wahid was the spokesman for, and perhaps reluctant candidate of, the traditional ulama. The political negotiations that led to Wahid's election were almost Byzantine in complexity. His election was facilitated by the fact that, despite their differences, modernists preferred Wahid to the Javanist Megawati. This unlikely coalition, referred to as the poros tengah or middle force, coupled with President Habibie's unexpected departure from the contest, enable Wahid to secure the required majority in the upper house of the Indonesian parliament.(9)

President Gus Dur and the Islam of Nahdlatul Ulama

Anderson and other have argued that to understand Indonesian politics one must understand the Javanese cultural and religious principles on which it is based.(10) For much of the last fifty years, this has meant understanding concepts of power and authority Javanist Indonesians inherited from the Islamicized Javanese courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. Today, it is equally important that scholars and others concerned with Indonesian politics understand the religious, social, and political thought of the traditional Javanized Islam of Abdurrahman Wahid and Nahdlatul Ulama. Like his grandfather, Hasyim Ashari, President Wahid is among the most learned and pious ulama of his generation. He is at once a faqih (legal scholar), a mutakalimun (theologian), and a Sufi (mystic). Unlike most ulama, he has read deeply in European social and political thought. He is nearly as conversant with the writings of Marx and Heidegger as he is with those of al-Ghazzali and other classical Muslim scholars. He is among the leading proponents and formulators of what Charles Kurzman describes as "liberal Islam."(11) Like Western liberals, President Wahid values religious and cultural pluralism, democracy, freedom of speech and thought, the rights of women, and economic progress tempered by concern for the well being of the poor. Unlike secular Western liberals, Wahid's thought is firmly rooted in the sacred texts and history of Islam.

The Islam of Nahdlatul Ulama is deeply rooted in classical Arabic legal, theological, and mystical traditions. Nahdlatul Ulama is an Arabic expression best translated as "renaissance of the religious scholars." The guiding ideological concept of Nahdlatul Ulama is ahl al-sunnah wa'l jama'ah, meaning "the disciples of the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and the consensus of the ulama." In more concrete terms, the religious and social teachings of NU are based on those of the four recognized schools (madhabib)of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, the theology (kalam) of the ninth-century scholar Abu Hasan Ash'ari, and the mysticism of the tenth-century Sufi Abu Qasim al-Junayd.(12) Despite, indeed because of, its roots in medieval Muslim thought, NU's primary goals, expressed through its political program as well as its attempts to instill Muslim virtues and ritual practice in the local community, are focused on the social and spiritual welfare of the Muslim community. The organization has been willing to employ diverse strategies and to work with a variety of governments in order to attain these goals.

The primary sources of Islamic law are the Qur'an and Hadith. Analogy and the consensus of the ulama are used to arrive at collisions concerning matters not clearly elucidated in the primary sources. Rulings of successive generations of legal scholars are collected in compendia of fiqh. These are frequently thousands of pages long and consider almost every aspect of religious, personal, and social life. Questions concerning ritual performance and personal piety are as important in this tradition as those concerning commercial, civil, and criminal law.(13) Traditional Indonesian ulama follow the school of the eighth-century Arabic jurist, al-Shafi, who emphasized the importance of qias or analogy and consensus (ijma). The use of analogy allows jurists to abstract general principles of the Qur'an and Hadith and apply them to new phenomena and historical conditions, including those of the modern world. The principle of consensus is rooted in a Hadith according to which:

My community will never agree upon an error.
Wahid is well versed in the classical fiqh books of all of the Sunni legal schools, but has argued that, in the modern world, it is essential to rely on the method of al-Shafi as well as the collected works of his school.(14) Here Wahid freely admits that his views differ from many of his fellow ulama. He applies the same logic to the legal tradition that the tradition applies to the primary text--arrive at conclusions concerning its basic principles and seek a consensus concerning how they should be applied in particular cases. He has also shown himself willing to use a much wider variety of fiqh texts than most other ulama. In general, he is a legal pragmatist. His views and policies are both based on and justified by fiqh.

Perhaps the most general principle of Islamic law is that of:

commanding the good and forbidding the evil.
This concept is discussed at length by al-Ghazzali in his compendium of Islamic theology Ihay 'ulum-ud-Din (The Revival of Religious Learning).(15) He roots this legal maxim in the Qur'an (3:105) "There shall be a party from you who will call towards good and prohibit evil and they shall be successful." He also establishes a direct connection between ability to perform this function and proper ritual behavior. In most cases, al-Ghazzali enjoys a series of strategies up to and including the use of force to prevent evil deeds. But in the case of rulers he states that:
only the first two methods [enquiring about the condition of the sinner and informing the sinner that he is committing a sin] should be adopted and not the other modes of harsh treatment, abuse, assault and fighting. In other words, they should be advised with sweet word and full possession of knowledge of their evil actions To apply other modes in their case is unlawful as it creates disturbance and loss of peace and tranquility.
Wahid adopted precisely this approach in his dealings with former President Suharto and, in 1998, played a significant role in bringing about Suharto's resignation. Wahid adopted a similar strategy in his attempts to encourage public morality. He is well known for a long series of essays published in the weekly newsmagazine Tempo in which he used "sweet words," in this case tales of the lives of pious kyai, to encourage moral behavior among Indonesia's secular elite who know little of the pesantren world.(16) For a time, Wahid was the president of the national film board, for which he was often criticized by more conservative ulama who are inclined to view films as haram. Wahid explained that he was attempting to unite the artistic and religious communities. He viewed this as a somewhat dangerous thing to do because of the unusual behavior and attitudes of Indonesian artists. Like artists everywhere, they are inclined toward intellectual nonconformity and Bohemian life-styles. Wahid argued that, despite these tendencies, some of them expressed interest in religion and clearly need the guidance of the pesantren community. These and many other of his actions can be best understood as attempts to find effective ways to "command the good and prohibit the evil" in the context of modern Indonesian culture. This is very much in keeping with the legal reasoning of al-Shafi and the moral teachings of al-Ghazzali. It also builds on and extends an approach to dakwah (propagation of the faith) commonly used by kyai. Kyai often teach that it is better to model proper behavior than to admonish those who behave improperly. Wahid's grandfather, Hasyim Ashari, chose to build Pesantren Tebuireng in a rural area located in the vicinity of a sugar plantation. In the early twentieth century, these plantations were known as centers for all sorts of un-Islamic vices, including drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Kyai are also willing to use local symbols and cultural performances, including the Javanese wayang (shadow play), as vehicles for teaching Islam. Wahid's work with the contemporary Indonesian artistic community brings this combination of approaches to a new, modern audience who, like plantation workers of old, are "in need" of moral instruction.

Wahid sometimes takes what most ulama believe to be extreme views in his understanding of this principle. Some claim that he neglects the obligation to "prohibit the evil" in his attempts to promote intellectual freedom. His refusal to call for a ban on Solomon Rushdie's novel, Satanic Verses, is a clear example. Most ulama denounced the work as blasphemy because its suggests that Muhammad was a "false prophet" and his wives prostitutes. From any Islamic perspective, no matter how liberal, this is blasphemy. Wahid agrees in principle, but argues that because Allah will certainly judge the author, humans need not do so. He dismisses the claim that a novel can lead to apostasy, arguing that real Muslims would not be affected, adding that anyone who leaves Islam because of Rushdie's writings had previously formulated the intention (niyah) to do so. This statement is rooted in the Shafite and Sufi notion that intention is a necessary element of ritual performance and other religious acts, and that humans are judged as much on the basis of their intent as on their actions.(17)

The kalam of al-Ashari and his school stresses the omnipotence of Allah. It is best known for the doctrine of takdir, the Allah's determination of human acts and for the enumerations of his attributes (sifat). Among the attributes of Allah are mercy, justice, and power. Wahid is particularly concerned with justice. Unlike most Indonesian ulama, he is willing to look beyond Asharite thought to develop this concept. He has turned to the rival Mutazilite school in an attempt to further develop the notion of divine justice in which he roots his understanding of social justice. The Mutazila state emphatically that Allah neither creates injustice nor causes humans to act in unjust ways.(18) This leads them to reject the doctrine of takdir because humans are, in fact, known to act unjustly. Wahid does not go this far, but he does emphasize the absolute justice of Allah, who creates only the potential for injustice. Humans, therefore, are free to choose to act in just ways and can be held morally accountable for their unjust deeds.(19) Wahid extends this spirit of philosophical enquiry to the works of non-Muslim authors. Marx, Lenin, John F. Kennedy, Sartre, and Mahatma Ghandi are among the non-Muslims who influenced his intellectual development. He is also a close associate of Hasan Hanafi, the Egyptian philosopher considered by many to be among the leading proponents of "leftist Islam." Wahid wrote a lengthy introduction to an Indonesian translation of a collection of Hanafi's work in which he characterizes Islam as a transformative force rooted in a divinely inspired moral imperative. Social change, transformation, and improvement of the collective life of the Muslim community is defined as a religious obligation, not merely as the product of a human ideology.(20)

The Sufism of al-Junayd combines the quest for personal experience of Allah with the requirement that Sufis adhere strictly to the program of ritual piety required by Islamic law. It emphasizes the teachings of takwa--complete trust in Allah--and ikhlas--performance of ritual acts with the sole intent of pleasing Allah. NU scholars contrast this understanding of Islamic mysticism with more popular variants concerned primarily with the acquisition and use of magical powers, and with the school associated with the tenth-century Persian Sufi al-Hallaj that proclaims the doctrine that the essence of Allah and of the human soul are identical. Indonesian ulama maintain that both tendencies can be found in popular versions of Islamicized Javanese culture and in contemporary Javanist mystical associations or aliran kebatinan.(21) This school of Sufism teaches that human attributes are replaced by those of Allah as the mystic progresses on the path leading to full knowledge. This links mystical practice and theological inquiry. It also establishes the place of Sufism in worldly affairs. Sufism does not advocate world renunciation like some schools of Buddhist and Hindu thought. The mystic is fully engaged in the affairs of the world. Sufis almost always marry and participate fully in social life. They become agents of Allah in the world to the extent that they act on the basis of divine knowledge and attributes.

This combination of law, theology, and mysticism is the basis of pesantren culture and daily life. Students in pesantren begin their studies with the careful, line-by-line study--and, often, memorization--of volumes known as kitab kunning (yellow books).(22) One of the most basic texts concerns the twenty attributes of Allah elucidated in more advanced Asharite kalam texts. Students also are required to memorize and recite large portions of both the Qur'an and fiqh manuals. They are also required to adhere to a strict regimen of prayer and devotional activities, including "extra prayers" or zikr (remembrance of God) and pilgrimages to the graves of saints, that far exceeds those required (wajib) by Islamic law. This complex of devotional activities is referred to collectively as zuhad.

Traditional Javanese ulama are known as kyai. Kyai are viewed as models of learning and piety. They are considered to be the spiritual heirs of the Prophet Muhammad and to be greatly loved by Allah. Many, including President Wahid, are believed to possess spiritual powers (known as barakah) and to be living saints. Kyai are bound to a much higher standard of moral conduct than ordinary Muslims. It is widely believed that they fulfill the obligations of Islamic law and avoid not only that which is forbidden (haram) but even that which is displeasing to Allah.

Kyai are also Sufis. Many are members or leaders of Muslim mystical brotherhoods (tarekat) and enjoy the direct, personal experience of Allah known as ihsan. Kyai often explain that the real purpose of life in this world is to find the path leading back to the oneness of Allah. They mention Sura al-Fajar (27-30) as a source of inspiration:

To the righteous soul will be said: Oh soul in complete rest and satisfaction come back thou to thy Lord, well pleased and well pleasing unto him. Enter though then among my devotees. Yea, enter thou my Heaven.
The kyai believe that the emulation of the Prophet Muhammad in word and action is the surest path to Allah's pleasure. An Indonesian text cited by Dhofier states:
You must emulate the life of the Prophet Muhammad; you must live a life in conformity with the action and teachings of the Prophet, because the emulation of the Prophet's life expresses your love of God.(23)
Wahid has often stated that, in this respect, the Islam of the kyai is similar to that of the Shi'ah.(24) This is an important example of the way in which Wahid has sought to define Islam and the Muslim community in the most inclusive way possible. While, like all other Sunni Muslim ulama, he does not accept the Shi'ah condemnation of the "rightly guided" Kalifah Abu Bakr, Uthman, and Usman, Wahid respects the ways in which they venerate the Prophet Muhammad and his family.(25)

This emphasis on the world to come and on the value of mystical experience leads kyai to devalue the things of this world. This does not, however, mean that they consider extreme poverty or world renunciation to be virtues. The reverse is true. The kyai maintain that Muslims are obligated to work for worldly gain because they are obligated (by God's command) to provide for their family and to give alms to support widows, orphans, the poor, and religious institutions. The pursuit of wealth for its own sake or that of acquiring luxuries is, however, discouraged. This perspective on the religious life and life in the world is based on two Hadith:(26)

The world is heaven for the unbeliever and hell for the Muslim.
Work for your worldly life as if you will live forever in the world, and perform your religious obligations for your life in the hereafter as if you will die tomorrow.
Many kyai, including President Wahid, have few personal possessions, and dress and live quite simply despite their enormous prestige and power. They often refer to themselves as the fakir, as the poor or mendicants. Gus Dur does not share the expensive tastes of the Indonesian elite. He lives in a modest house in a kampung on the southern outskirts of Jakarta. Visitors are much more likely to be impressed by the neighboring mosque. But, for a kyai, this is as it should be. The house is of this world, the mosque is of the next. He receives foreign ambassadors dressed in worn slacks, sandals, and a batik shirt. His daughter recently stated that when she accompanied her father on a state visit to Manila she took time to buy shoes for him because he owned only a couple of old worn pairs that she considered unsuitable for state occasions. He once explained to me that he had only one Western suite and was somewhat embarrassed to wear it, but found it necessary to do so to avoid embarrassing those who wore them routinely.

The Javanese kyai, unlike ulama in many Muslim societies, live among the rural masses and are well acquainted with the fears, hopes, and aspirations of the poor. President Wahid has often spoken of the need for Indonesia's economic policies, and those of the International Monetary Fund, to be refocused to better serve the needs of both the poor and small businesses, and he has encouraged Indonesian banks to extend credit to petty traders and shopkeepers who have little experience with modern financial structures. In Indonesia, small businesses are very small. Many are little more than kiosks selling a motley array of basic consumer goods, or simple food stalls providing basic meals to urban workers. When he was teaching in a pesantren in the 1970s, Wahid's wife sold iced drinks in a warung.

President Wahid was born into, and to this day participates in, the pesantren culture.(27) He is rarely without a tasbi (prayer beads), which he uses as an aid in zikr while commuting from his home in the south Jakarta suburbs to his office in the center of the city. One of his first acts as president of Indonesia was to visit the graves of his ancestors in east Java to ask for their blessing and guidance. He can be expected to bring a pesantren style to his presidency and to model patterns of behavior and piety rooted in that tradition.

President Wahid, Islamism, and the Sociology of Islam

Islamist discourse emerged in the beginning of this century as a religious response to Western colonialism and the growing gap between the Islamic world and the West in science, economics, and technology.(28) The fundamental tenets of Islamism, which could also be termed shari'ah-utopianism, are the inherent perfection of Islam as a way of knowing and living in the world as well as a religion, and the belief that the Islamicization of knowledge and social life will lead to a Muslim renaissance and, ultimately, to the decline or conquest of the morally decadent West. As Lawrence has observed, Islamists have been quick to adopt the technological products of modernity, but are unalterably opposed to modern concepts of pluralism and independent intellectual inquiry.(29)

Islamism has been a significant voice in Indonesian political and theological discourse since the establishment of the modernist organization Muhammadiyah in 1912. Muhammad Natsir, the chairman of the Muslim political party Masyumi during the Soekarno period, was its most articulate spokesman. Islamism was officially silenced by Suharto's New Order but reemerged as a significant political and theological voice in what is now known as the Reformasi Era. The two most important Islamist political parties are Partai Keadilan and Partai Bulan Bintang. Both advocate strict enforcement of shari'ah as the solution to all of Indonesia's problems. The leaders of the parties, like most Islamists throughout the world, are Muslim activists, not ulama. They understand Islamic law not as "the method of Imam Shafi" but as codified law in the Western sense. They are primarily concerned with "forbidding the evil"--which they define as gambling, prostitution, drinking alcohol, and usury--by the threat of harsh physical punishment.

President Wahid is fundamentally opposed to Islamism of any form. He has been referred to a "liberal" Muslim. This misses the point. Wahid is opposed to Islamism on basic theological grounds. He argues that in their attempt to Islamicize knowledge, Islamist misunderstand the Quranic statement, "All of you completely enter Islam." His interpretation is that this is a command for all humans to become Muslims. He states that Islamists understand the passage to mean, "enter Islam in a totalistic sense," from which they derive the view that all aspects of human knowledge and action must be, in some sense, "Islamic." Wahid's view is that it is essential to distinguish between those aspects of human life that are Islam, in the sense of "submission to Allah," and those that are merely the affairs and actions of this world.

This theological position underlies political acts that some Indonesian Muslims, particularly Islamists, have found perplexing. One was his refusal to join and frequent denunciation of Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia (ICMI), the association of Muslim intellectuals. This association was founded by President Suharto in an attempt to bring a more Islamic face to the late New Order, and was initially led by Habibie. Wahid argued that, despite its stated purpose of encouraging the intellectual development of the Muslim community (a goal he clearly shares), ICMI is a covert attempt to introduce the Islamist notion that all aspects of life must be exclusively and explicitly Islamic.(30) As an alternative, Wahid founded the Democracy Forum, a multireligious group that worked for social and political reform. Equally perplexing to Islamists is that fact that the political party Wahid founded, Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, is (nominally) secular and willing to enroll Christians as full members. Islamists conclude from this that Wahid is a "secularist." When I discussed this with one of the leaders of Partai Bulan Biting in March 1999, he explained that it was obligatory (wajib) for Muslims to vote for an explicitly Muslim political party and that those who chose not to could be considered apostates. The legal penalty for apostasy is death. The fact that Wahid is now president indicates that few Indonesian Muslims accept this position.

Wahid also rejects the view that the religion of Islam is "perfect" in its totality. He again argues that Islamists misunderstand a critical verse from the Qur'an, "Today I have perfected your religion." Wahid's view is that Islam is "perfect" in its basic principles, but that neither the fundamental texts nor Islamic history mandate a particular social or political system. He bases this position on a complex interpretation (tafsir) of Surah a-Baqarah 177:

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards the east or west; But it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the angels and the book and the messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; To be steadfast in prayer and give Zakat (obligatory alms), to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.
Wahid's interpretation states that defining the relationship between faith, which is intensely personal, and the religious and social actions required of Muslims is among the central theological issues confronting Muslims at this and all other times. He observes that while faith is a private matter, much of Islamic ritual is public. Translating faith into action is problematic because many very pious people are largely asocial.(31) Conversely, some socially and politically active people have little faith. Wahid believes that it is essential to bring faith and action together for the betterment of society. He observes that this passage from the Qur'an requires Muslims to be concerned with the plight of the disadvantaged, but that it does not provide clear instructions on how change is to be achieved. This, he maintains, is the task of Muslim theologians. He then points out that theologians, as yet, have not been able to arrive at a consensus concerning what to do or how to do it. Wahid next presents brief summaries of Iranian and Pakistani political systems, and engages in a generalized discussion of communism and capitalism.(32) Elsewhere, in the same text, Wahid argues that it is necessary for Muslims to engage in active debate over these issues. However, he maintains that one cannot expect, in this area, the same unquestioned obedience (taklid) required in other domains of Islamic jurisprudence where a clear consensus exists.


Given President Wahid's understanding of the relationship between personal faith and social action, it could be argued that Indonesia now has the most or the least Islamic government in the Muslim world. Wahid's theology is remarkably consistent even if it is often, to paraphrase Amein Rais, impossible to know what he will do next. In one sense, this is because he views Islam and Islamic jurisprudence as an unfolding dynamic system located in space and time. What it is possible to say is that his actions as president will be shaped by his own sense of Islamic piety and social action, and that "commanding the good and prohibiting the evil" will be the watchwords of his presidency.


1. The literal meaning of the term kalifah (calif) is deputy. Muslim scholars have interpreted it as meaning deputy of the Prophet Muhammad or deputy of Allah. It is among the titles most commonly assumed by Muslim potentates, including those in Indonesia, from the seventh century onwards. The student explained that Wahid was simultaneously president of the Republic of Indonesia and the kalifah of the Indonesian Muslim community1

2. GOLKAR is the "Coalition of Functional Groups," now a political party; MPR is the upper house of the Indonesian parliament.2

3. Indonesia is simultaneously both a modern nation and a premodern Javanese empire. The conflict between the two ways of "imagining Indonesia" lies at the heart of debate concerning the future of the nation. Indonesian nationalists, President Wahid among them, understand the nation as a community transcending ethnic differences. Separatists in Aceh, Sulawesi, and other "outer island" communities describe Indonesia as an empire in which Java, and the Javanese, dominate minority communities. My own view is that Indonesia is a Javanese state in which non-Javanese elites are permitted to participate in Javanese political discourse. President Wahid is a Javanese Muslim and an Indonesian nationalist.3

4. See Mark R. Woodward, Islam in Java: Sufism and Normative Piety in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989); M.C. Ricklefs, The Seen and Unseen Worlds in Java, 1726-1749 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998); and Koentjaraningrat, Javanese Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).4

5. In most Islamic societies, centers of Islamic learning are found in urban areas. Indonesia is an important exception. For a discussion of the traditional ulama in the nineteenth century see Zamakhsyari Dhofier, The Pesantren Tradition: The Role of the Kyai in the Maintenance of Traditional Islam in Java (Tempe: Program for Southeast Asian Studies, Arizona State University, 1999).5

6. The dynamic tension between Islam, defined as a transcultural religious tradition, and local culture is by no means unique to Indonesia. It is present throughout the Muslim world, and has been since non-Arabs began to become Muslims in the seventh century.6

7. See Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974, 212; referred to hereafter as SEI).7

8. See Dhofier, The Pesantren Tradition, 171.8

9. Former President Habibie is a pious Muslim. He was supported by a substantial portion of the modernist Muslim community, especially by non-Javanese.9

10. Benjamin Anderson, "The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture," in Culture and Politics in Indonesia, ed. Claire Holt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972).10

11. Charles Kurzman, ed., Liberal Islam: A Source Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).11

12. For a general introduction to Islamic thought see Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981). On Sufism see Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975). On kalam see Richard Martin, Mark Woodward, and Dwi Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam Mu`tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol (Oxford: One World Press, 1997). These and other studies on Islamic thought provide an essential background for understanding Wahid's thought.12

13. For an English translation of a fiqh book commonly studied in Indonesia see The Reliance of the Traveler: A Classical Manual of Sacred Islamic Law, trans. Noah Ha Min Keller (Evanston: Sunna Books, 1991).13

14. K.H. Imron Hamzah and Drs. Cholrul Anam, eds., Sebuah Dialog Mecari Kejelasan Gus Dur Diadili Kiai-Kiai (Surabaya: Penerbit Jawa Pos, 1989, 26).14

15. Translated by al-haj Maulana Fazal-Ul-Karim (Lahore: 1971, 225-57).15

16. The essays are collected in Kiai Nyentrik Membela Pemerintah (Yogyakarta: LKIS, 1997).16

17. On the doctrine of niyah see SEI, 449.17

18. Martin, Woodward, and Atmaja, Defenders of Reason, 92.18

19. Most Sunni Muslims consider the Mutazila to be heretics because they teach that the Qur'an was created. The orthodox Asharite view is that it is eternal. Wahid rejects this and most other elements of Mutazilite thinking. His willingness to affirm any aspect of Mutazilite thought is an example of theological daring.19

20. "Pengantar" (Introduction) in Hassan Hanafi, Agama, Ideologu dan Pembangunan (Jakarta: P3M, 1991).20

21. On al-Hallaj see SEI, 127-28.21

22. The term derives from the fact that, in Indonesia, Arabic texts are printed on yellow paper.22

23. Dhofier, The Pesantren Tradition, 146.23

24. Hamzah and Anam, Sebuah Dialog, 26.24

25. Abu Bakr, Uthman, and Usman followed the Prophet Muhammad as leaders of the Muslim community (kalifah). Sunni Muslims consider them to have been guided by Allah. Traditional ulama, including those of Nahdlatul Ulama, accept their ritual practice as models for Muslim piety. Indonesian and other reformist Muslims accept only the ritual behavior of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shi'ah maintain that all three were usurpers and that leadership of the Muslim community should have passed directly to the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali, who the Sunni consider to have been the fourth and final rightly guided kalifah. The Shi'ah routinely curse the first three kalifah. Consequently, most Sunni ulama consider the Shi'ah to be unbelievers (kafir).25

26. Hadith are statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad or accounts of his actions. They are second in importance only to the Qur'an as a source of Muslim law.26

27. For discussions of pesantren culture see Dhofier, The Pesantren Tradition, and Ronald Lukens-Bull, A Peaceful Jihad: Javanese Religious Education and Identity Construction (Ph.D. thesis, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University, 1997).27

28. Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989); and Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). I have used the term Islamism rather than fundamentalism for two reasons. Fundamentalism, with its Protestant Christian roots, does not adequately capture the flavor of militant Islamist ideologies. In the sense that it implies a return to or preservation of the fundamental truths of a religious tradition, fundamentalism can be applied to most any traditional Islamic school. Islamism more accurately translates the Arabic Islamiyah used as a self-referential term by many Islamist movements.28

29. Most Islamist movements share these traits. There are, however, many significant differences, particularly with regard to the political means through which they intend to realize the rule of Islamic law, which range from revolution to democratic action.29

30. This is a common theme in Islamist discourse and motivates discussion of such topics as Islamic economics and Islamic science.30

31. There is a tradition of moderate world renunciation in Islam. Some Sufi's retreat to mosques or remote areas to devote their lives to quiet prayer and contemplation of Allah.31

32. Quoted in Hamzah and Anam, Sebuah Dialog, 29-30.32