Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)

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The organization of the Nahdlatul Ulama (Revival of the Religious Scholars), or NU, was founded on 31 January 1926 as a countermovement to the increasingly successful reformist Muhammadiyah organization. NU is a mass-based socioreligious Islamic organization under the leadership of ulema, and it is the largest in Indonesia with around thirty-five million members. NU activities include the religious, social, educational, economic, and political. Its founders were ulema (called kiyai in Indonesia) who led rural Islamic boarding schools, pesantren. They represented traditionalist Muslims, those who practice Islamic mysticism (tasawuf; Ar. tasawwuf), and are not against indigenous rituals and beliefs as long as they do not contradict the normative teachings of Islam. The two most prominent founding ulema were Hasyim Asy˓ari, and Abdul Wahab Chasbullah.

NU members refer to themselves as Aswaja: "ahlus sunnah wal jama˓a," (Ar., ahl al-sunna wal-jama˓a) people of sunna and community, who base their religious reference on the hadith, the sunna, and the adat (local practices, Ar., ˓ada). They follow the Shafi˓i school of jurisprudence and in their interpretation of religious texts include the opinions of the great ulema in unbroken chains that reach back to the prophet Muhammad. Pesantren are considered the heart of NU tradition. Here students learn the essentials of traditionalist Islam in order to maintain and spread this interpretation.

NU's history can be divided into four phases:

  1. The initial years NU served as a socioreligious organization.
  2. From the late 1930s until 1984 it became involved in political activities. From 1952–1971 it had its own political party and participated in the national cabinet.
  3. When the Suharto government rendered all political parties ineffective with its suppressive regulations NU decided to leave politics. This was expressed in the 1984 watershed event called kembali ke khittah, a return to the original charter of 1926.
  4. In 1998, after the fall of Suharto, NU again became involved in national politics. It initiated the National Awakening Party (PKB) while its national chair, Abdurrahman Wahid, was elected Indonesia's fourth president for a brief period (1999–2001).

The return to its socioreligious activities in 1984 not only meant withdrawal from politics, but a total refocus on education, community welfare, mission, social, and economic development. Through its new role, NU became active in guiding large numbers of Indonesian Muslims in adapting to social change and modernity. Various institutions related to NU started multilevel dialogue about issues of social justice, human rights, democracy, and the rights of women and children. This made NU an active codeveloper of a model for civil society, suitable for the Indonesian context.

Over the years, several divisions were founded within the NU structure. Among others, there are divisions for youth (Ansor), women (Muslimat NU), young women (Fatayat NU), and male and female students (IPNU and IPPNU). Apart from these divisions, NU comprises institutions for education, family affairs, agriculture, economic development, and Islamic banking. The membership of ulema and lay people is reflected in a two-tiered structure of councils that reach from the national to the local level: the syuriah (Ar. shura), the religious council, which has only ulema as members who develop and monitor the NU activities; and the Tanfidziah, which is the executive council where ulema and lay members supervise the daily affairs. It is characteristic for NU that decisions taken at the highest level are not binding for the lower levels. This is based on a tradition of the Prophet's saying that "disagreement among the ulema is a blessing from God for humanity."

See alsoSoutheast Asian Culture and Islam ; Southeast Asia, Islam in .


Barton, Greg, and Fealy, Greg, eds. Nahdlatul Ulama, Traditional Islam and Modernity in Indonesia. Clayton, Australia: Monash Asia Institute, 1996.

Dhofier, Zamakhashari. The Pesantren Tradition. The Role of the Kiyai in the Maintenance of Traditional Islam in Java. Tempe, Ariz.: Program for Southeast Asian Studies, ASU, 1999.

Oepen, Manfred, and Karcher, Wolfgang, eds. The Impact ofPesantren in Education and Community Development in Indonesia. Jakarta: P3M, 1988.

Sciortino, Rosalia; Marcoes Natsir, Lies; and Mas udi, Masdar. "Learning from Islam: Advocacy of Reproductive Rights in Indonesian Pesantren." Reproductive Health Matters no. 8 (November 1996): 86–93.

Nelly van Doorn-Harder