Citation for The Wahid Foundation

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Suaedy, Ahmad . "The Wahid Foundation." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Nov 29, 2021. <>.


Suaedy, Ahmad . "The Wahid Foundation." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Nov 29, 2021).

The Wahid Foundation

The Wahid Foundation is a civil society organization that devotes itself to mobilizing, researching, and disseminating thinking about Islamic dialogue diversity and peace. With the motto “seeding plural and peaceful in Islam,” the foundation was formed in 2004 in Jakarta, Indonesia as the Wahid Institute, but publicly rebranded and changed its name to the Wahid Foundation in 2017.

The foundation takes its name from Abdurrahman Wahid (1940–1999), known affectionately as “Gus Dur,” an Islamic scholar and public intellectual who tirelessly campaigned for dialogue, interreligious understanding, and justice in Indonesia (Barton, 2006). Wahid was the Republic of Indonesia’s first democratically elected president and came into power in the wake of the Suharto New Order collapse in May 1998, when the Indonesian reform movement succeeded in navigating a transition to democracy from a repressive and authoritarian military regime. Wahid became president with the support of a nationalist political party and an Islamic voter base affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a traditionalist Sunni Islam movement (Asmawi, 1999).

The Wahid Institute was formed in the wake of Wahid stepping down from the presidency in 2001, an action which ended his association with the leadership of NU. During his three terms as chairman general of NU and his much shorter but very consequential term as the president of Indonesia, he tirelessly campaigned for a more moderate and tolerant understanding of Islam, and for dialogue, peace, and conflict resolution. The Wahid Institute was similarly established to disseminate and apply the vision of Gus Dur.

The vision for a dialogical approach to Islamic thought championed by Wahid arose directly out of traditionalist Islamic thought and scholarship. Mainstream Islam in Indonesia is traditionalist Islam, as it is around the world. Islamic traditionalism is often discounted as being old-fashioned, superstitious, and even the anti-modern. Reformers such as Wahid demonstrated that traditionalist Islam—as a conduit to local expressions of Islam and as the custodian of classical Islamic scholarship and learning—is well suited to the task of transforming the understanding and lived experiences of Islam in order to meet the needs and challenges of the modern age.

Indonesia has its own unique approach to understanding and living out Islam which draws upon ethnic tradition, local practice related to each area, and language group. The inhabitants of each distinct region not only have their own unique languages, but also their own different approaches to Islam, reflected through their traditional practices and social structures. They present examples of ethnic tradition and local variances in understanding and interpreting Islam, which is sometimes described as “local Islam.”

The leaders and followers of NU are, to a very large extent, drawn from the background of the pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding school) education (Dhofier, 1982). This educational tradition keeps alive classical scholarship in which a pluralistic approach is taken to better understand the different schools of thought jurisprudence. Here Islam is studied together with theology, Islamic spirituality (taṣawwuf), politics, and the history of Islam. Classical texts, namely the kitāb kuning—“yellow books”—served as traditional Arabic commentaries on the Qurʾān and ḥadīth literature (Bruinessen, 1999).

One of the main achievements of modern Indonesian Islamic scholarship has been the transformation of the pesantren, such that students can study classical Islamic scholarship alongside a separate state education curriculum, which eventually enables them to matriculate into higher education. This enables the pesantren graduates to enter tertiary educational institutions of Institut Agama Islam Negeri—IAIN or the State Institutes of Islamic Studies, then move to the State Islamic University (UIN) under the supervision of the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs. During the 1970s and 1980s, IAINs contributed to creating a Gerakan Pembaruan Islam, progressive Islamic thought of which Abdurrahman Wahid was a key figure. Since the early twenty-first century this movement has increasingly come to be known as Islam Nusantara—Archipelago Islam. Archipelago Islam emphasizes a dialogical approach to maintain and build religious harmony and respect for multiculturalism and religious diversity, both in Indonesia and around the world.

This vision of a dialogical approach to Islam that respects diversity found expression most recently in the form of Abdurrahman Wahid. However, long before him, it was represented in Nahdlatul Ulama, which was tightly bound to the growth of the Indonesian nationalist movement in the first part of the twentieth century and with the continued development of Indonesian identity in the second half of the twentieth century. A unified network of pesantren came into being with the establishment of Nahdlatul Ulama in 1926. NU came to represent a movement of Islam that had both local Indonesian dimensions and a global perspective of traditionalist Islam in the modern world. At the same time, the pesantren-based movement of NU was inspired and shaped by the nationalist movement striving for Indonesian independence.

It ran in opposition to the rising influence of both the Wahhābīs and the Muslim Brotherhood who, in principle, rejected the local Islam and nationalism supported by NU. Following the tradition of the pesantren movement and NU, the Wahid Foundation is based on Archipelago Islam, Indonesian nationalism, and Pancasila—the state philosophy that respects diversity and pluralism. Pancasila is the five-principle philosophy of the nation and state of Indonesia. They are: 1) Belief in the one supreme God; 2) Just and civilized humanity; 3) The unity of Indonesia; 4) Democracy led by the wisdom of deliberations among representatives; and 5) Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia. This is the foundation of Archipelago Islam: a dialogical approach to Islam, respecting diversity, embracing pluralism, and working for peace.

Wahid argued instead that Islam, when correctly understood, should champion justice, protect minorities, and respect adversity and pluralism. As a progressive thinker Wahid was rooted in traditionalist scholarship and tradition, yet as a modern reformer he was neither an Islamic Modernist (after Egypt’s Muḥammad ʿAbduh and Indonesia’s Muhammadiyah) nor a Salafī reformist. It was Fazlur Rahman who described Wahid as a Neo-modernist (Esposito and Voll, 2001; Barton, 1999). Alternatively, Rumadi and Kersten describe the position of Wahid as post-traditionalist (Rumadi, 2015), interpreting and applying Islam that draws upon classical Islamic scholarship (turats) and tradition to respond to the challenges and changing circumstances of modern society.

Wahid argued that Islam’s position on upholding justice, human rights, and democracy was not merely a matter of a subsidiary moral message or an appeal to ethics, but rather a central pillar of the religion of Islam itself (Wahid, 2007), contained in the three principles: musawah (equality), ʿadālah (justice), and syura (consensus, democracy) (Wahid, 2001). For Wahid, the true test of whether the use force is properly controlled and held accountable is the treatment of minorities, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The Wahid Institute (now Foundation) was created in the wake of the transition to the Reformasi Era, which began with the fall of the Suharto regime in May 1998. This was also a time when the aspirations of many groups emerged and were finally freely articulated, namely social, cultural, and political groups that had been oppressed, marginalized, and discriminated against, as well as Islamic movements, political movements, and separatist movements (Bertrand, 2008). As a consequence, the conflict and violence that Indonesia witnessed at that time was complex at multiple levels. The Wahid Institute intervened in addressing interethnic conflict, such as the instances in Ambon, Poso, and West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Following the al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks in the United States and the bombings in Bali a year later, the Wahid Foundation responded by seeking to document and understand these events, while campaigning for a dialogical approach to Islam, diversity, and conflict resolution.

The activities of the Wahid Foundation include research, capacity building and training, and campaigning to promote dialogue, respect for diversity and conflict resolution. Research has been focused along two main axes. The first involves observational research examining the dynamics of religious behavior, conflict, and violence. This research involves responding in real time to developing events, such as media-monitoring and pursuing follow-up phone interviews with witnesses on location. Research findings are disseminated through a publication entitled “Monthly Report on Religious Issues,” available in both hard copy form and downloadable PDF form on the institute website.

The second line of research focuses on more in-depth studies of issues and events, which are identified and then allocated resources for longer-term or more intensive research. This research is intended to arrive at a better understanding of causes and dynamics. The results are published as compilations in book form produced both in regional branches and through the Jakarta office of the Wahid Foundation.

Additionally, since the Wahid Foundation is linked to the NU and pesantren networks, it has a broad range of stakeholders extending well beyond urban students and graduates to include grassroots community members in rural areas, such as students, teachers, and religious leaders (ʿulamāʾ and kyai). To varying degrees these all looked to Abdurrahman Wahid for inspiration and guidance and as result have an abiding interest in his ideas and, by extension, the work of the Wahid Foundation. They share an awareness that the challenges facing pesantren communities extend beyond poverty, socioeconomic inequality, and the need for education to include the spread of extremism and terrorism. The latter came to be recognized as a rising problem in the wake of the Bali bombings of 12 October 2002, and subsequent attacks. This realization reinforced the need to build capacity at the grassroots and village level, advocacy for dialogue, respect for diversity, and commitment to conflict resolution. To this end, capacity building programs were conducted through workshops, training sessions, and other forms of education. Participants were equipped and inspired to teach others and champion the cause of peace-building.

The Wahid Foundation works together with local media, both print and electronic, to provide forums for discussion, conflict resolution, and progressive Islamic thought. At the local level, the focus of this work in rural locations is to help young people, their teachers, and community leaders engage with the challenges they face, such as poverty and lack of access to quality education, without succumbing to the sort of simplistic understandings promoted by fundamentalists and religious extremists.

The Wahid Foundation also seeks to understand and respond to the challenges presented by the promotion of extremist interpretations of an Islamic state, or caliphate, and Islamic law, or Sharīʿah. These programs are designed to build capacity, contribute to improving the quality of education, develop technical skills, and generally equip society. Rural programs with a focus on pesantren-based ʿulamāʾ were referred to as organic enrichment programs for kyai (pesantren leaders).

The Wahid Foundation’s progressive thought is disseminated by working closely with Indonesia’s two leading weekly current affairs magazines, Gatra and Tempo. In the decade and a half since it was established, the Wahid Foundation has published a number of seminal books, including: Cosmopolitan Islam (Islam Kosmopolitan, 2007); My Islam, Your Islam, Our Islam (Islamku, Islam Anda, dan Islam Kita, 2015). It has published books on a range of topics, including a series documenting cases of religious conflict in Indonesia. Titles in this series include: The Politicisation of Religion and Communal Conflict (Politisasi Agama dan Konflik Komunal: Beberapa Isu Penting di Indonesia, 2007), and Religion and Shifting Representations: Conflict and Reconciliation (Agama dan Pergeseran Representasi: Konflik dan Rekonsiliasi di Indonesia, 2009). These books presented the results of research conducted by the Wahid Institute into cases of religious intolerance and violence in Java, Sulawesi, Lombok, and Sumbawa.

Other books include Islam in Contention: Rethinking Islam and State in Indonesia (2010), which discuss the latest developments in thinking about issues involving Islam and the state in Indonesia, such as the Counter Legal Drafting, the compilation of Islamic law, and contemporary Islamic political developments in Indonesia; A Source Book on the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Indonesia (Buku Sumber Hak atas Kebebasan Beragama atau Berkeyakinan di Indonesia, 2016); and The Management of Tolerance and the Freedom of Religion: Three Pressing Issues (Mengelola Toleransi dan Kebebesan Beragama: Tiga Isu Penting). These latter two books focus on the theme of religious rights in Indonesia. An Anthology of Stories about Youth for Peace (Antologi Kisah Orang Muda untuk Perdamaian, 2017) documented the experiences of personal transformation of youth who have been involved with the Wahid Institute (Suaedy, 2010, 2012; Dja’far and Nur’aini, 2016; Zahrah and Ridhoi, 2017).

In early 2017 the Wahid Institute changed its name to the Wahid Foundation, while simultaneously establishing a religious education institute named the Wahid Institute. Since then the Wahid Foundation has focused on the development of both quantitative and qualitative research on the issue of violent extremism, with attention being paid to specific sectors such youth, women, and urban professionals.

The office of the Wahid Foundation is located in a compound in the Central Jakarta suburb of Menteng, which is home to six different organizations that have been developed and led by Wahid’s wife, Sinta Nuriyah, and their four daughters: Wahid Foundation, Puan Amal Hayati, Yayasan Bani Abdurrahman Wahid, Jaringan Gusdurian, Positive Movement, and Teman Bangkit.


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