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Abdurrahman Wahid

Scholar-President

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

In October 1999, Abdurrahman Wahid, a prominent Islamic leader, became the first elected president in Indonesia's history. As leader of the Nahdatul Ulama, (the renaissance of religious scholars), Abdurrahman Wahid heads the biggest Islamic organization in the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, where 87 percent of the population of 220 million are Muslim. The Nahdatul Ulama (NU) is a predominantly conservative, ruralbased, sociocultural organization with some thirty-five million members (approximately 20 percent of Indonesia's population), headed by a man best described as a modern, urban liberal Muslim intellectual. Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, is an intellectual/activist who attracts and repels modernists and traditionalists alike. While some have charged that he is too close to government, government officials have feared his influence and “interference.” The head of Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, he nevertheless warns against those Islamic reformers who would reassert Islam's role in politics.

Abdurrahman Wahid was born into a prominent Javenese Muslim family in 1941 in Jombang, East Java, a district in Indonesia known as a center for Islamic learning. Both his grandparents were prominent religious leaders, founders of important “pesantrens” that educated thousands of students. Pesantren (“the place of the santri,” those learned in sacred scripture) in the Indonesian-Muslim tradition refers to Islamic residential educational institutions or schools. Pesantrens educate the students who board there in religious sciences; the master, or kiai, a combination of religious scholar and Sufi (mystic) guide, also offers religious instruction and guidance to the outside community. Wahid's paternal grandfather, Hasyim Asyari (Hashim Ashari), studied in Mecca and, shortly after his return, founded a pesantren at the turn of the century (1898). Abdurrahman's grandfather came to be recognized as a great Islamic scholar, writing in both Javanese and Arabic. He founded the Nahdatul Ulama but is also remembered as a preeminent Sufi leader (Naqshbandi shaykh). Abdurrahman's maternal grandfather also studied at Mecca and established his own pesantren. Both grandfathers became prominent Islamic leaders, were acknowledged leaders of the ulama, and were active in the Indonesian nationalist movement.

Abdurrahman's father, Wahid Hashim, was educated in the pesantren system and later became vice-chairman of his father's pesantren; he also was a national political leader. Active in the anti-Dutch nationalist movement, he was one of the founders of the Masjumi party and of the postindependence modern Indonesian state. After independence, the family moved to Jakarta in 1950, where Abdurrahman's father became minister of religious affairs, a position he held until his tragic death in an auto accident at the age of thirty-eight. Wahid Hashim was one of the formulators of the Jakarta Charter, the preamble to Indonesia's Constitution, and of the Pancasila, a set of five basic principles, which forms the basis for Indonesia's national ideology. Abdurrahman's experience as a teenager of witnessing the constitutional debates (1956–1959) had a formative influence on his belief regarding the relationship of Islam to the state. In particular, the religious compromise that produced the formula or doctrine of Pancasila, the principle of belief in one God or supreme principle, which was formulated to include all of Indonesia's faiths, convinced him of the certain “failure of formalizing Islam in the life of a state like Indonesia.”1 Abdurrahman Wahid, interview with the authors, Jakarta, July 1991.

The first of six children, Abdurrahman's educational formation combined modern and traditional religious education. Despite the fact that his family was so closely associated with the pesantran system and that he was literally born in a pesantran, he was enrolled in the government or public school in 1946 at the age of six. (Although he was actually born in 1941, his birth date was changed to 1940 in order to enroll him early.) He attended government primary and high schools and subsequently (1957–1964) spent almost six and a half years studying in four pesantren, among them Pesantren Tegalrejo at Magelang and Pesantren Krapyak in Yogyakarta. Here he studied Arabic, Islamic law, and hadith (Prophetic traditions). It was a time of austerity and long hours spent memorizing and studying texts. During this time he also taught (1959–1963) at a pesantren in Jambong. His formal education was supplemented by exposure to different currents of thought and culture. His family introduced him to a diverse group of people. Family friends with whom he socialized, and at times lived with, included ulama of the modernist Muhammadiya, as well as a diverse group of prominent NU ulama and Europeans (the beginning of his love of European classical music).

After completing his studies in the pesantran system, Abdurrahman traveled to the Arab world (Egypt and Iraq) and Europe for higher studies. He studied at al-Azhar University in Cairo (1964–1966) and at the Arts Faculty of the University of Baghdad (1966–1970) and served as chairman of the Association of Indonesian Students in the Middle East from 1964 to 1970. Because al-Azhar, the oldest center of Islamic learning in the Muslim world, has long been a training ground for Indonesian religious families, the Islamic modernist movement of Egypt's Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) had spread to Southeast Asia in the early twentieth century, where it had a significant impact. However, Abdurrahman was disappointed with the level of instruction at al-Azhar and spent much of his time in libraries reading and in the coffee shops of Cairo listening and participating in intellectual discussions and debates on culture and politics, in particular the merits of nationalism and socialism. This was the period of the ascendancy of Arab nationalism and socialism; among the more prominent forms were Nasserism and Baathism in Syria and Iraq.

Dissatisfied with al-Azhar, Abdurrahman went to Baghdad, where he enrolled at the university during the early years of the Baath party's rule. In contrast to al-Azhar, he now encountered a more secular, Western-style approach to education. The faculty of Islamic law had been absorbed into the faculty of letters and transformed into a department of religion, and he was shocked to find several Communist professors on its faculty:2 Ibid. He studied Arabic literature and culture as well as European philosophy and social thought. During this period, he became convinced that Islam had to be reinterpreted, and that change in Islamic teachings was necessary to bring them into conformity with modern science and knowledge. Although he completed his coursework and exams for a master's degree, the death of his mentor delayed his ability to write his thesis, so he went to Europe to pursue doctoral studies. However, frustrated by European language requirements for advanced study, he spent the better part of mid-1970 to 1971 traveling in Europe. He would later teach himself French, English, and German.

Returning to Indonesia, Abdurrahman married, began to have a family, and moved back to his grandfather's pesantren. Abdurrahman now devoted his time to teaching students and training teachers. He occupied a variety of positions in the pesantren network, including that of dean at Hasyim Asyari (Hasan al-Ashari) University (1972–1974) and secretary general of the Pesantren Tebuireng in Jombang (1974–1980). In 1974 he joined with others in creating the Committee for the Development of Pesantrens in order to revitalize the pesantren system by expanding its economic base and impact. They networked with other pesantrens and persuaded government agencies to fund development projects, from clean water and energy to mathematics and technology

As in his youth, Abdurrahman Wahid continued to be involved with and influenced by diverse currents of thought, national and international. After moving to Jakarta in 1977, he became active in intellectual and religious circles, participating in forums with prominent progressive Muslim thinkers like Nurcholish Madjid, as well as with non-Muslims. It was then that he emerged as a public intellectual and national commentator on current events, visible in public meetings, the media, and the press, in particular in the prominent weekly magazine Tempo. He also expanded his contacts with social movements in the Third World, traveling extensively. In particular, he visited Latin America, where he became quite familiar with Catholic social movements and liberation theology. He met with Archbishop Oscar Camara in Brazil and other leaders and became familiar with the thought of liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff. Moreover, he observed the development of Christian base communities and bank-credit unions that had been established to help the poor. These experiences have influenced his later life and work.

Notes:

1. Abdurrahman Wahid, interview with the authors, Jakarta, July 1991.

2. Ibid.

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