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Abdurrahman Wahid

By:
Nakamura Mitsuo, Joseph A. Kéchichian
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Abdurrahman Wahid

Elected as Indonesia's fourth president in 1999, Abdurrahman Wahid (b. 1940) is an influential Muslim intellectual leader, as well as a popular writer on cultural, social, and political affairs. Over the years, he underlined Islam's contribution to pluralism, social justice, and democracy, and served as chairperson of the Executive Council (Tanfidziyah) of the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), an association of traditionalist ʿulamāʿ with a reported thirty million supporters. He is widely called “Gus Dur”; Gus is an honorific for a young man from a respected Javanese family, and Dur is a diminutive of Abdurrahman.

Gus Dur was born in 1940 in Tebuireng, Jombang, East Java. His grandfather was Hasyim Asyʿari (1871–1947), a great ʿālim (Islamic scholar) of the Shāfiʿī school, who founded a pesantren (rural Islamic boarding school) at Tebuireng in 1899 and established the NU in 1926 as a federation of pesantren leaders. His father was Wahid Hasyim (1914–1953), a leader of the NU and minister of religion of the Republic of Indonesia. His mother, Shalihah, was the daughter of Bisri Syamsuri, the head of a pesantren at Tambakberas, Jombang, and a cofounder of the NU.

In spite of his familyʾs pesantren background, Gus Dur received his primary education at a government school (sekolah rakyat) in Jakarta (1947–1953) and went on to a secular secondary school in Jogjakarta, graduating in 1956. He then studied at the pesantrens of Tegalrejo (1956–1958) and Tambakberas (1958–1963). From 1963 to 1970, he went abroad to study at the Department of Higher Islamic and Arabic Studies of al-Azhar University in Cairo and the Faculty of Letters at the University of Baghdad. On returning to Indonesia, he taught first as a lecturer and then as dean of the faculty of ushuluddin (Usūl al-Dīn, Religious Sciences) at the University of Hasyim Asyʿari in Jombang from 1972 to 1974. He served as the secretary at the pesantren of Tebuireng from 1974 to 1979.

By the end of the 1970s, Gus Dur was widely known outside pesantren circles through his contributions to major newspapers and journals. He participated actively in a number of seminars, symposia, and conferences on national development. Through these opportunities, he attracted public attention to the pesantren's role in rural development and grassroots democracy.

Gus Dur represented the trend of neomodernism among the new generation of Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia. He argued for the liberation of the Muslim community from the restrictions of traditionalist as well as modernist scripturalism, calling for a reinterpretation of the Qurʿān and sunnah (traditions of the Prophet)in historical perspective. Toward that end, he underscored values such as basic human rights, social justice, fair development, and democracy as inherent to Islam; thus, contemporary Muslim pursuit of those values was not an ideological compromise or cultural mixture with Western liberalism, but an undertaking genuinely grounded in Islamic teachings. Gus Dur stood in opposition to traditionalists and modern Islamists that hindered the rediscovery of these principles, leaving the Muslim community in a state of ignorance, backwardness, and poverty in Indonesia. To remedy these shortfallings, he joined the NU's national leadership in 1979 as a junior secretary to the Syuriyah or Consultative Council of ʿulamāʿ. At the muktamar (congress) of the NU in 1984, he was elected chairperson of its executive council for the period 1984–1989, and again in 1989 for another five-year term.

Gus Dur initiated a bold turnaround in the direction of the NU after 1984 in collaboration with Ahmad Siddiq. Under their leadership, the NU accepted the state philosophy of Pancasila (Five Pillars) as the sole foundation of the organization, reconfirming its loyalty to the present regime. It withdrew from party politics, severing its relationship with the PPP (Development Unity Party), a coalition of four Islamic parties, and decided to return to its original identity as a social, religious, and educational movement. Gus Dur opposed making Indonesia a secular state, but he stood firm against fundamentalism that claimed Islam to be a comprehensive way of life superior to existing secular regimes. He believed that Islam, as a revealed religion, should not be degraded to the level of an alternative to any human-made ideology but should be regarded as an eternal source of moral and ethical inspiration for Muslims in any regime. In practice, he established the Democratic Forum in 1991 as an interreligious coalition, mostly with Christian intellectuals, intending it to be a movement to counterbalance the recent tendency of exclusivism within the Muslim community. For these efforts, he was presented with the 1993 Raman Magsaysay award, the “Asian Nobel prize.”

In 1994, Abdurrahman nominated himself for a third term as chairman of the NU, drawing the ire of President Suharto. In the event, and state-orchestrated shenanigans notwithstanding, he was reelected, which led Abdurrahman into an alliance with the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and Megawato Sukarnoputri. Yet, by 1996, Abdurrahman withdrew from politics. Although he fell ill, he was summoned by Suharto in May 1998 to participate in a Reform Committee to restore popular confidence after the Asian financial crisis. Suhartoʾs offer was rejected and the President resigned in favor of Vice President Habibie.

In June 1998, Abdurrahman formed a nonsectarian political party, the National Awakening Party (portai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB), which nominated him for the presidency the following year; he won with 373 votes to Megawati's 313 votes. In turn, Megawati was elected vice president. His government proclaimed its intention to limit corruption, and created a national unity cabinet, but demands from East Timor for separation and disagreements with the military led to new crises. In March 2000, Abdurrahman's government opened negotiations with the Free Aceh Movement and by 2002 welcomed independence for the territories. A vengeful military made several allegations of corruption against the president, which significantly reduced his credibility. A military confrontation was avoided in July 2001 when, on the 23rd, the president was impeached and replaced with Megawati. He left the country on the 25th ostensibly for medical treatment. By April 2004, the PKB still led by Abdurrahman, participated in scheduled legislative elections with little success.

Gus Dur has remained an inspiration behind the Abdurrahman Wahid Institute, a Jakarta-based nonprofit organization led by his daughter Yenni Wahid. He has also served as patron, member of the board of directors, and senior advisor to LibForAll (“Liberty for All”) Foundation, which aims to reduce religious extremism and to discredit terrorism. See also INDONESIA and NAHDATUL ʿULAMāʿ.

Bibliography

  • “Making Islamic Law Conducive to Development.”Prisma (English edition) 2 (November 1975): 87–94. Delineation of his idea of the innovative adaptability of fiqh methodology.
  • McIntyre, Angus. The Indonesian Presidency: the Shift from Personal Toward Constitutional Rule. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
  • “Menetapkan pangkalan-pangkalan pendaratan menuju Indonesia yang kita cita-citakan” (Setting up Landing Bases towards an Indonesia We Hope for). In Dialog: Indonesia kini dan esok (Dialogue: Indonesia Today and Tomorrow), edited by Imam Walujo and Kons Kleden, pp. 103–129. Jakarta: Lembaga Penunjang Pembangunan, 1980. Discussion of his strategy for constructing Muslim community gradually as a basis for democracy, social justice, and fair development.
  • “The Islamic Masses in the Life of State and Nation.”Prisma (English edition) 35 (1985): 3–10. Justification of the acceptance of Pancasila as the state ideology of the Republic of Indonesia.
  • “The Nahdlatul Ulama and Islam in Present Day Indonesia.” In Islam and Society in Southeast Asia, edited by Taufik Abdullah and Sharon Siddique, pp. 175–186. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986. Excellent summary of his vision on the role of the Nahdatul ʿUlamāʿ in contemporary Indonesian society.
  • Barton, Greg. Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President. Singapore: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. An authorized biography that introduces Wahid and his world and explains his controversial public career as well as his twenty-one-month presidency.
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