By Zacky Umam
July 31 2015
The founders of Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulema (NU) were the product of late 19th century Islamic encounters with modernity and colonialism.
Both the founder of Muhammadiyah, Kyai (revered cleric) Ahmad Dahlan (as Muhammad Darwish is better known) and NU founder Hashim Asyari were well trained under many renowned teachers in Mecca, including those from Jawi or Java.
The August congresses of Muhammadiyah in Makassar, South Sulawesi, and NU in Jombang, East Java, will be an historical moment for both organizations to stimulate efforts to articulate the magnitude of Indonesian Islam.
With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Mecca and Medina were vital centers for Sunni learning for scholars from Java. In this milieu, in the 17th century, some Jawi scholars became commentators of the Shafi‘i school of law, knowledgeable Sufis and harsh critics of Dutch colonialism.
Their oeuvres were even published not only in Istanbul and Hyderabad, but also, mostly, in Cairo printing houses.
Circulation of ideas, furthermore, took place in the interaction between Sunni traditionalism, the reformism proposed by Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida and the need to articulate “imaginary independence” for Muslim liberation.
This milieu nurtured the young Darwish and Asyari to hone their struggle to improve Muslim society.
While Darwish proposed building modern schools and hospitals and promoting economic improvement and the radical criticism of traditionalism, Asyari attempted to preserve Sunni traditionalism by continuing the role of pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) as prestigious seminaries for the Sunni school in the archipelago.
One century after the birth of Muhammadiyah and NU, much has been said about their respective transformation.
In the early 21st century, their members have been educated in Western academies.
NU has many members studying at Al-Azhar University and others in Arab countries, in addition to a recent increased interest in Turkey.
The leading students from an NU background have delved into critical scholarship of non-traditional intellectuals such as those found in Egypt, Morocco and Syria, making them the transmitters of Middle Eastern encounters with European philosophy.
Their contemporaries read Western philosophy and social sciences with enormous curiosity, as a result of persistent efforts by former chairman and Indonesian president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid and his compatriots from the 1980s onwards to advocate a democratic culture and literacy.
In some leading NU pesantren, students discuss the works of Jacques Derrida, Karl Marx and others, in addition to their engagement with world literature.
If this trend continues, it could be comparable to the long development of religious seminaries in Iran, “the land of ideas”, in the Muslim world.
Similarly, the youth of the two largest Muslim organizations have traveled to many Western countries in pursuit of knowledge, not only to deepen their understanding of the pure sciences and technology, but also humanities and social sciences.
Many have been engaged in Islamic studies. Muhammadiyah, unlike NU, treats its youth based on merit. NU, by contrast, holds traditional reverence to the senior cleric, or the rule of kyai.
NU youth thus need to learn to use accepted parlance and approaches to effectively transform the organization where necessary.
Muhammadiyah, on the other hand, has no hierarchical problem.
In 20 to 30 years, both organizations will be led by the current generation, the product of intimate encounters between classical Islamic discourse and critical thinking, along with an engagement in efforts to improve the social and economic conditions of their communities.
The current generation has also had to deal with various influences, including that of the capital-rich Wahhabism.
The religious leaning of Islamists and their destruction of Islamic heritage in the name of puritanism is a crucial issue for NU.
An historical precedence of safeguarding Islamic traditions against claims of puritanism lies within NU’s origin.
It was the initiative of their founding fathers to form the “Komite Hijaz 1926.” In 1926, the committee sent a few scholars to the ruler of the Hijaz, later Saudi Arabia, and successfully negotiated freedoms for Islamic followers in the holy land other than those of the Wahhabi.
Both organizations, furthermore, must continue to respond intensively to the call for jihad promoted by the barbarism of the Islamic State (IS) movement.
It is an exaggeration to differentiate Muhammadiyah from NU along black and white lines.
Both can be avant-garde institutions for progressive Muslims seeking a new movement that is plural in nature, without succumbing to the temptation to ruin the gift of an Islamic tradition of scholarly debate.
Many, because of their ignorance to this long Islamic tradition, fail to value its nature.
Muhammadiyah and NU should be endlessly proud of their culture of scholarly debate.
If both can cooperate in the future, we would see a better affirmation of Indonesian Islam.
With the increase of Indonesia’s economic and political profile in international relations, both organizations could contribute much to the nation in this century.
Their slogans, such as “constitutional jihad”, as declared by Muhammadiyah leaders, and the “Fiqh [seeking jurisprudence in Islamic teachings] of eradicating corruption”, as cited by NU leaders, must be further detailed according to interpretations of Islamic law.
Nowadays the enthusiasm of the youth of Muhammadiyah and NU, strengthened by the emergence of their overseas offshoots, should not be neglected, because they will become the leaders who will determine the future of Indonesian Islam in accordance with the global call for just societies.
This challenge is much more complex than the challenge posed during the late Dutch colonial period when both Ahmad Dahlan and Hasyim Asyari made their mark in history.
Zacky Umam chairs Germany’s chapter of the Nahdlatul Ulema, and is a PhD fellow at the Berlin Graduate School for Muslim Cultures and Societies.