New Chief of Indonesia’s Largest Islamic Group Seeks to Reform Orthodox Doctrines

Tria Dianti
New Chief of Indonesia’s Largest Islamic Group Seeks to Reform Orthodox Doctrines Indonesian Muslim women perform prayers during the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, in Malang, East Java, July 6, 2016.

The new leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization is calling for the reform of orthodox Islamic doctrines which, he says, are incompatible with modern realities in the 21st century.

A tradition of tolerance that Muslims across the Indonesian archipelago have practiced for centuries could be an antidote for religious extremism and contribute to global peace, according to Yahya Cholil Staquf, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama.

“We will continue our efforts to strengthen Islamic civilization, which has grown and developed in Indonesia for a long time and has been proven up to now to be able to maintain a harmonious socio-cultural order, despite diversity,” Yahya told BenarNews during an interview after being elected as the new chief of NU in late December.

“This is a model that will certainly be very valuable to be offered to the world as the contribution of Indonesian Islam, to seek a way out of various kinds of turmoil that are currently raging in the Islamic world.”

He refers to this unique brand of Indonesian Islam that has evolved over many generations as Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam).

The influential group that Yahya heads claims to have 90 million members scattered across Indonesia, a religiously and culturally diverse archipelago, and the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

NU is seeking to help create a just and harmonious world order based on respect for human rights and dignity by addressing the problem of religious radicalism, he said.

As an example of problematic doctrines, Yahya cited the “kafir” (infidel) label that Muslims use when speaking about non-Muslims, and the belief that the caliphate is a God-ordained form of government.

“It is clear that in classical Islamic discourse, there are those who are viewed that way. This doctrine is vulnerable [to abuse], and is something that we can’t follow any more today because the world has become one village and we have to live side by side with each other,” he said during the 45-minute phone interview.

“The caliphate was part of the dominant discourse of orthodoxy, and became a practice that shaped the past civilization. Now, we can no longer impose a universal caliphate in the context of the current reality.”

A 2019 national conference of NU scholars proposed the elimination of the term kafir to refer to non-Muslims, and replace it with “muwatinun,” an Arabic word for “fellow citizens.”

The scholars argues that kafir had negative connotations and was divisive.

But conservative Muslims who opposed the proposal argued that the term was neutral, and not meant to be hateful.

Another concept in orthodox Islam that Yahya identified as vulnerable to misinterpretation in the modern context has do to with conflict.

“When there is a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, what are the obligations of Muslims? According to orthodox teachings, we should help fellow Muslims to fight non-Muslims,” Yahya, 55, ​​said.

“This has to be straightened out. We can’t just involve ourselves in a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims because it will only worsen the conflict and [lead to] no way out.”

Yahya Cholil Staquf, the newly elected chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), speaks at a gathering with the group’s regional administrators, Dec. 24, 2021. [Handout photo from NU]

Since the turn of the century, Indonesia has been grappling with Islamic militancy and violent extremism.

Several major terror attacks carried out by Islamic militants rocked the country in the 2000s, notably the 2002 Bali bombings in which 202 people were killed. Indonesian authorities blamed that and other attacks during the first decade of the new century on Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda.

In recent years, hardline Sunni Muslims in the country have persecuted members of the tiny Shi’ite and Ahmadiyya minorities, accusing them of trying to spread heretical interpretation of Islam.

Yahya said the Islam Nusantara concept is not a new ideology, but a unique brand of Islam practiced here since the 1300s.

Indonesian Muslims believe that Wali Songo (Nine Saints) helped propagate Islam in the archipelago between the 14th and 16th centuries. They blended Islamic practices with pre-existing traditions from Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths, and thereby created a more tolerant brand of the faith.


Under his leadership for the next five years, NU will undergo a consolidation, Yahya said.

This week, he appointed several women to NU’s leadership board, the first such appointments since the organization’s founding in 1926.

Robi Sugara, executive director of the Indonesian Muslim Crisis Center, a local NGO, described Yahya’s ascension as NU’s leader as a breath of fresh air.

“NU will not be interested in establishing an Islamic state, a caliphate or formalization of Islamic law, things that radical groups aspire to,” Robi told BenarNews.

The promotion of moderate Nusantara Islam is timely.

“Puritan Islamic groups consider polytheism something that is not permissible and when they see it they should not remain silent. However, Nusantara Islam, although it doesn’t allow it, tries to see it from a different perspective,” Robi said.

This report is the second of two parts.


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