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Nahdlatul Ulama: why India is keen on this Indonesian Islamic body

It is an ideology of moderate Islam that India believes deserves much more attention.

Participants at the event on the role of ulema in inter-faith dialogue in New Delhi between participants from India and Indonesia.


India's National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, led a major dialogue on understanding the role of the ulema (religious scholars) in fostering a culture of interfaith peace and social harmony in India and Indonesia recently in New Delhi. Indonesia's Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mohammad Mahfud also attended the event.


This event underlined growing ties between the two countries in tackling extremism, with special emphasis on the role of religious scholars and the ulama in countering radicalism. India and Indonesia have two of the largest Muslim populations in the world, around 200 million each. Muslims are also the largest group in Indonesia, around 88 per cent of citizens. In India, Muslims are the second-largest community.


This places the question of religious harmony at the centre of the functioning of both countries. It may be noted that both the countries have deep histories of religious diversity and emphasise on the democratic principles of peaceful coexistence. While both have faced Islamic extremism, India believes Indonesia has an interesting model.


Indonesia, the largest Muslim population in the world has a unique Islamic philosophy, that India believes needs highlighting. In extending a hand of support and cooperation to Indonesia, India aims to bring this ideology of ‘moderate islam’ to the forefront.


A unique Indonesian islam


What is particularly unique in the Indonesian understanding of Islam is that it combines the religious teachings with the local context. This essentially means that the principles of Islam can be adapted to the context in any case and this makes it easier to apply the teachings rather than having a rigid interpretation of the religion. This rigid interpretation essentially becomes a breeding ground of radicalisation and religious extremism.


When it comes to understanding the Indonesian interpretation of Islam, one cannot forget the mention of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Mohammadiya. The two largest religious muslim organisations in the country.


With a membership of over 40 million, The Nahdlatul Ulama aims to promote the notion of ‘humanitarian islam’. The Mohammadiya, with over thirty million members, also cooperates with the Nahdlatul Ulama to create a uniquely Indonesian understanding of Islam. This is translated into the concept of “Islam Nusantara”, or the Islam of the Indonesian Archapalego. The idea is to combine the ‘sacred’ with the ‘human’ which is also the main tenet of the wasatiyyah islam. The Indonesian interpretation of Islam can be combined with the state system and hence becomes the basis for a tolerant, harmonious and peaceful state structure. The main principle is to not discriminate between the muslims and the non-muslims, i.e. between the majority and the minority. This primarily comes in contrast with the idea of a ‘caliphate’ or the global leadership of all the muslims of the world. The Islam Nusantara rejects the idea of a ‘caliphate’ and aims to strike a balance between religion and governance.


A scope for cooperation with India


India and Indonesia came together for the Interfaith Dialogue in 2018 which was held for the very first time in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This dialogue now forms the basis of interfaith cooperation between the two countries and there is a greater need for involvement in the unique understanding of Indonesian Islam.


The principles of Nahdlatul Ulama occupied a significant political character in 1999 when its prominent leader Abdurrahman Wahid became the first democratically elected President of Indonesia. The present Indonesian government led by President Joko Widodo also views NU and Mohammadiya as important assets in countering the ideologies of radical extremism and fostering the principles of ‘moderate islam’ which focuses on religious harmony and cooperation.


The Indonesian state involvement with the Nahdlatul Islam is also evident in the constitutionally recognised pancasila which has five major tenets - democracy, state justice, national unity, humanitarianism and belief in god.


Now, the recognition of the democratic principles based on the ideologies of coexistence and harmony is very pertinent for both India and Indonesia alike. This is why the recently organised event of understanding the role of the Ulema is extending this cooperation between the two countries holds immense prominence.


Fostering a culture of interfaith peace and social harmony


The importance of the principles of pancasila and wasatiyyah islam were reiterated in the recently organised event by the Insia Islamic Cultural Centre. The panellists across different sessions presented lucid insights on the understanding of the Indonesian culture of interfaith harmony and religious coexistence and how it can be emulated all across the world by putting it in the cultural context.


The event was inaugurated by the speech of the Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. The Indonesian delegation of twenty five religious scholars of different faiths were led by the Coordinating Minister for political, legal and security affairs of Indonesia, Mohammad Mahfud who also gave the keynote address to kickstart the event. The noted scholars from both sides reiterated the rich cultural and religious diversity that is at the root of their identity as Indians and Indonesians.


The shared traditions of Islamic principles and ideology was highlighted by noted speakers such as India's Dr. Akhtarul Wasey, Dr. Abdul Mu’ti from the State Islamic University of Jakarta and Dr. Zaitoon Rasmeen, the general secretary of the Central Indonesian Ulama Council. Wasey also asserted that India could learn from the Indonesian experience of navigating the problem of religious diversity and ensuring equal rights and privileges for the muslims and non-Muslims alike.


Tackling the challenge of extremism


“I have not found a nation which has greater respect for its heritage than Indonesia. This is the similarity between India and Indonesia. Our ability to handle the diversity of people, culture, heritage and history,” said General (retired) Syed Ata Hasnain, a decorated Indian army general and noted strategist, at the event. Hasnain painted a clear picture of the parallel of religious harmony and diversity that exists between the two nations while also drawing attention to the common challenge of radicalism and religious extremism.


Describing the ideology of radicalism, Hasnain suggests that radicals believe that there exists no other interpretation of religion than their own. For him, the role of the ulema is very important here in countering this radical ideology by developing the culture of intellectual interpretations of religion. The support of the ulema, the academia, is needed to foster a culture of thinking and dialogue.


The ideas of Hasnain, were echoed by the Indonesian delegation of Dr. Mohammad Cholil Nafees, the head of the Indonesian Council of Ulema and Dr Abdul Muqsit Ghazali of the Interfaith Harmony Commission. Nafees suggested that the spirit of cultural harmony is “shaken by the intolerance movement in the name of religion”in Indonesia. He touched upon the experience of Indonesia on dealing with terrorism and religious extremism. Over the last decades, Indonesia has emerged successfully from the grips of radical islamic traditions and the development of moderate islam has been a response to the religious sectarian conflicts and growing islamic radicalisation.


Religious extremism is a phenomenon experienced by all the religions in some form or the other. Therefore, the need for religious scholars and theologians becomes all the more important to develop an interfaith understanding of different religions. As per Nafees, the role of the Ulema in this case is to consistently reiterate the principles of peace, coexistence and harmony among the religions that forms the basis of Islam.


The Indonesian experience of Islam and fostering coexistence with the different religions is an exemplary story for the rest of the world. This adds to the importance of developing closer relations between India and Indonesia to create a strong institution of cultural harmony and successfully countering the challenges to faith in the name of extremism and radicalism.

The role of the Ulama has been central to propagating the intellectual traditions of moderate Islam.


The event organised by the India Islamic Cultural Centre in New Delhi on November 22, 2022, hence, was a direct indication of India’s growing interest in understanding Indonesia’s perception of Islam and create efforts to forge a strong partnership in propagating interfaith harmony in the face of extremist radicalisation.

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