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The Legacy of Gus Dur: Indonesia's Gentle Muslim Conqueror

Greg Barton

Abdurrahman Wahid - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2000. (Courtesy World Economic Forum)

The passing of Abdurrahman Wahid on December 30, 2009 sparked a wave of grief across Indonesia that rippled around the world. Even many of those who had been deeply critical of the former president during his time in office felt an acute sense of loss in his passing. Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur, as he was known to all, was a polarizing figure both in politics and in the broader realms of Islamic thought and social activism. But he was also a figure who evoked deep affection from literally millions of Indonesians and tens of thousands of admirers around the world. Whether or not they understood or agreed with his political actions, they could not help but feel a sense of loss at the passing of a Muslim leader who was much loved for his humanitarian vision and his earthy humanism mixed with a spirituality that transcended conventional religious boundaries.

The ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia, for example, continues to mourn his passing, remembering how as Indonesia's first democratically elected president he had stood up for their rights, as indeed he had done throughout his career as a public intellectual. In February 2000, he had joined with them in the first public celebrations of Chinese New Year in more than three decades, opening a door for Chinese culture to be practiced openly once more in Indonesia. Even his political opponents, who were often irritated by his maverick maneuvers and outspoken comments, recognized that Indonesia had lost a rare kind of leader who was at once a patriotic nationalist and a global citizen.

For the time being, his name will be remembered for his contribution to Indonesia's successful democratic transition. Building on the remarkably reformist interim presidency of the previously underrated Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, Gus Dur helped raise aspirations and expectations of what democracy meant and how a democratic president should act.

His tenure in office was not marked by a series of great legislative achievements or administrative reforms, but it did build on the achievements of the Habibie administration in asserting the freedom of the press and freedom of belief and in demystifying the office of the president. The fact that today Indonesia is, remarkably, the only healthy liberal democracy in Southeast Asia is testimony not only to the evident leadership of President Yudhoyono and his colleagues but also to the subterranean foundations laid during the transitional Habibie and Wahid presidencies.

By traditional measures, Gus Dur was not a highly successful president. He was a nonpolitician politician, and his highly unconventional style—which had served him well as a civil society reformist and dissident—fit awkwardly with the expectations of office. Unprecedented openness to the press, a personal style given to the jocular and hyperbolic, and a raft of powerful enemies from the ancien regime determined to use the press and every other instrument available to them to discredit the president and block reform meant that the Wahid presidency was tumultuous and full of controversy from the moment of his election in October 1999.

This was compounded by the fact that Abdurrahman Wahid resolutely refused to make deals with the military elite, establishment powerbrokers, or the wealthy cronies of former president Suharto. In January 2000 he sacked former military commander General Wiranto from his post as coordinating minister for politics and security on account of the military's links to militia-led violence around the time of East Timor's August 1999 referendum on self-determination. From this point on the die was cast and all the elements of the former regime came together to drive him from office. But even in his peaceful departure from the palace in July 2001, following an effective vote of no-confidence against him in the parliament, Gus Dur helped establish expectations of how future Indonesian presidents should behave.

If, in the short term, it is for his twenty-one months in office that he is remembered, in the longer term it will be for his contribution to the reform of Islamic thought and practice that he is best known. Even before he was elected president, Gus Dur was well known around the Muslim world. Having led the world's largest Muslim mass-based organization, the 40 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for almost fifteen years and having traveled extensively as an invited speaker and well-known activist, he was on good terms with most of the leading figures in Islamic thought and Muslim society around the globe.

But if many people can say that they knew him as an individual, very few outside of Indonesia can claim to be intimately familiar with his thought and writing. This is primarily because of the barrier of language. Like most Indonesian intellectuals, even though he was comfortable in English as well as in Arabic, it was his practice to write in Indonesian. As with other leading Indonesian intellectuals, such as Nurcholish Madjid and Azyumardi Azra, comparatively little of Abdurrahman Wahid's writing is available in translation. This will almost certainly change over the coming decade, and as it does his reputation as an innovative and profound Islamic intellectual will be consolidated.

Born in 1940 in Jombang, East Java, the eldest child of leading nationalist Wahid Hasyim and grandson of two of NU's founders, Hasyim Ashari and Bisri Syansuri, Adurrahman ad-Dakhil—named after the founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba in the Iberian Peninsula—had an illustrious lineage. Abdurrahman "the conqueror" (ad-Dakhil) made good use of his secure position in Muslim society to break down barriers. As a young man he was a frequent speaker at Bible colleges in East Java, where he took the initiative to reach out and connect with Christian communities. In time he became well known to the national leaders of Indonesia's faith communities in Jakarta and had a rich array of friends from around the globe from all religious traditions and orientations.

Since being invited in 1994 by Shimon Peres to witness the inauguration of the Peres Center for Peace, he made several trips to Israel and became increasingly known for his defense of Israel and of Jewish minorities around the world. In August 2000 he met with Peres when the latter visited him quietly in Jakarta ahead of a planned visit by Yasser Arafat. He spoke to both leaders of his vision for Jerusalem as the joint capital of Israel and an independent Palestinian state and publically urged Arafat not to reject out of hand the offer made by Ehud Barak at Camp David the previous month.

In explaining how he first came to be interested in Jewish society, Abdurrahman Wahid cited the novels of Chaim Potok, in particular My Name Is Asher Lev, explaining that he saw rich parallels between traditional Orthodox Jewish education and society and the pesantren communities in which he had grown up.

Although much of what he wrote has a particular local resonance and is cloaked with an idiosyncratic style that plays on local culture and conditions, the themes of his work are of broad universal relevance. Abdurrahman Wahid is a leading member of a generation of Islamic scholars who emerged in the second half of the twentieth century to argue against narrow, literalist, decontextualized readings of scripture and highly politicized understandings of Islam to assert that the message of Islam is, at heart, a message of humanism. Together with like-minded progressive Islamic intellectuals writing over the past four decades, such as Fazlur Rahman, Fethullah Gülen, Asghar Ali Engineer, Abdolkarim Soroush, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, and Nurcholish Madjid, he represented a bridge between the world of traditional Islam and modernity. He channeled the teachings of Sufism, with its emphasis on love, compassion, and empathy and on the importance of linking heart and mind, to a modern readership. He represented a powerful alternative to the radical Islamist narrative of victimhood and alienation and argued that Islam and the West had no basic argument, beyond the demand for justice and equity in global affairs, and shared a common heritage.

Gus Dur's education differed from that of the other progressive Islamic intellectuals just listed, who generally experienced a formal education built on earlier studies in classical Islamic scholarship followed by postgraduate studies in critical social science, often in Western universities. Having demonstrated, as a teenager, remarkable powers of memory and intellectual agility during his pesantren studies in Java, in 1963 as a young man, he was sent to study at the famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo. There, having earlier come under the influence of an Islamist uncle, he dabbled briefly in the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood before quickly tiring of its limited intellectual scope. He admired Sayyid Qutb for his courage and was there to join the hundreds in prayer outside of his jail in Cairo in 1966 when the author of Milestones and In the Shade of the Qur'an was hanged. But he was unconvinced by the ideas of Qutb and others in the Brotherhood, just as he was unconvinced by the old-fashioned style of education he encountered at Al-Azhar.

He found study by rote learning uninspiring and spent his time instead in coffee houses discussing politics and philosophy, watching French cinema and soccer, and, most of all, reading Western literature in the library of the American University. Dissatisfied with what was on offer at Al-Azhar, Gus Dur transferred to the University of Baghdad, where he happily studied Arabic literature and worked as a clerk alongside a Baghdadi Jewish friend during the week and made ziarah to the hundreds of historic tombs across Iraq on weekends and holidays. When he came home to Java in 1970 it was with the hope of quickly returning to Europe for postgraduate studies. After Baghdad, he had traveled to the Netherlands, where he was disappointed to find that his studies in Baghdad were not recognized.

After a few months pressing clothes at a drycleaners while listening to Janis Joplin, he returned to Indonesia. His hoped-for postgraduate studies in Western University never eventuated, and he instead became immersed in the world of development nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), activism, and essay writing. Nevertheless, although it was more informal than that of many of his peers, Abdurrahman Wahid had combined an education in classical Islamic scholarship with one in critical modern thinking. Even when a young pesantren student, he eagerly consumed Western literature and watched Western cinema, and throughout his life he devoured literature from around the world as well as works on philosophy, music, and politics. Along the way he developed an abiding interest in American presidential history–being particularly drawn to unlikely heroes such as Harry Truman–and in the music of Beethoven, together with a little Janis Joplin and anything else that spoke of the struggle of the human spirit.

A prolific essay writer, Gus Dur turned his attention over four decades to a wide variety of topics in rich, discursive, humorous narratives. His writing was typically marked by a love of life and of humanity–warts and all, a desire for justice, and confidence that God is on the side of the weak and the downtrodden, and he wrote in the conviction that the message of God's prophets affirmed these things above all else.

His near photographic memory and his lively intellect meant that he found it easy to draw on the works of classical Islamic commentators and scholars in order to argue his often very bold and innovative responses to modern dilemmas in a manner that could convince even the most conservative of readers and could persuade the most scholarly of ulama to consider his position.

This is what he will be remembered for in the decades to come. As his many volumes of collected writings are translated, a new generation of readers around the world will enjoy his confident assertion that Islam, including its classical scholarship, has answers for the modern world, answers that affirm the dignity of humanity and the primacy of love and compassion both for the community of Islam and for the community of humanity.

Selected Bibliography

  • Al-Awa, Muhammad Salim. "Political Pluralism from an Islamic Perspective." In Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, edited by John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito, pp. 279-287. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • An-Naim, Abdullahi Ahmed. Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Assyaukanie, Luthfi. Islam and the Secular State in Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS. 2009.
  • Barton, Greg. "The Liberal, Progressive Roots of Abdurrahman Wahid's Thought." In Nahdlatul Ulama. Traditional Islam and Modernity in Indonesia, edited by Greg Barton and Greg Fealy, pp. 190-226. Clayton, Australia: Monash Asia Institute, 1996.
  • Barton, Greg. "Indonesia's Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid as Intellectual Ulama: The Meeting of Islamic Traditionalism and Modernism in Neo-modernist Thought." Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 8(3) (October 1997): 323-350.
  • Barton, Greg. "The Origins of Islamic Liberalism in Indonesia and Its Contribution to Democratisation." In Democracy in Asia, edited by Michele Schmiegelow, pp. 427-451. New York: St Martins Press, 1997.
  • Barton, Greg. Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President: A view from the inside. Sydney and Honolulu: UNSW Press and University of Hawaii Press, 2002 [currently in print as Gus Dur: The Authorized Biography of Abdurrahman Wahid. Jakarta: Equinox Publishing].
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  • van Bruinessen, Martin. "Back to Situbondo? Nahdlatul Ulama Attitudes Towards Abdurrahman Wahid's Presidency and His Fall." In Indonesia: In Search of Transition, edited by Henk Schulte Nordholt and Irwan Abdullah, pp. 15-46. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Pustaka Pelajar, 2002.
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  • Fealy, Greg. "The 1994 NU Congress and Aftermath: Abdurrahman Wahid. Suksesi and the Battle for Control of NU." In Nahdlatul Ulama. Traditional Islam and Modernity in Indonesia, edited by Greg Barton and Greg Fealy, pp. 257-277. Clayton, Australia: Monash Asia Institute:, 1996.
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  • Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006.

Online Resources

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Subject Entries

Contemporary Islam
European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States
The Globalization of Islam
Human Rights
Ideology and Islam
Islamic State
Social Justice
Muslim-Christian Dialogue
Revival and Renewal


Abdurrahman Wahid
Gülen, Fethullah
Madjid, Nurcholish
Rahman, Fazlur
Sayyid Qutb
Soroush, Abd al-Karim
Wadud, Amina

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Asian Dawn
Dialogue Between East and West
The Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge
A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam
Humanity and Islam
The Indonesian Revolution
Is the Period of Ijtihad Over or Not?
Islam and Modern Civilization
Islam and the Challenge of Economic Development
Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World
Islam and Democracy
Islamic Faith and the Problem of Pluralism: Relations Among the Believers
Islam and Humanism
Islam and Modernity
An Islamic Response to Imperialism
Islam and Secularism
The Need for Civilizational Dialogue
Political Pluralism from an Islamic Perspective
Shura and Democracy
Democracy or Shuracracy
Why Democracy, and Why Now?
Tolerance and Governance: A Discourse on Religion and Democracy
Islamic Government
Islam and the Malay Civilizational Identity: Tension and Harmony Between Ethnicity and Religiosity
Islam as a Moral and Political Ideal
Islam, Reason, and Civilization
Islamic Faith and the Problem of Pluralism: Relations Among the Believers
Islamic Solidarity
Jihad in the Cause of God
Lecture on Islam
Message Not Government, Religion Not State
The Necessity of Renewing Islamic Thought and Reinvigorating Religious Understanding
The Need for Civilizational Dialogue
The Reinterpretation of Islam
Religion and Liberty
Rethinking Islam Today
Rights and Roles of Woman
The Second Message of Islam
Shari'a and Basic Human Rights Concerns
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What Is to Be Done?

Images and Maps

The Rise and Spread of Sufism
The Spread of Islam
The Second Mode: Sufi Communities and National Networks
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