The Nahdlatul Ulama (Revival/Awakening of Religious Scholars) was established in 1926 as an organization for orthodox Muslims opposed to the modernist policies of the Muhammadiyah organization, which rejected pre-Islamic Javanese traditions. The organization was established by Hasjim Asjari, the head of an Islamic religious school in East Java The organization expanded, but the base of its support remained in East Java. By 1928, the NU was using the Javanese language in its sermons, alongside Arabic.
In 1937, despite poor relations between the NU and Muhammadiyah, the two organizations established the Supreme Islamic Council of Indonesia (Indonesian: Majlis Islam A’laa Indonesia, MIAI) as a discussion forum. They were joined by most of the other Islamic organizations in existence at the time. In 1942, the Japanese occupied Indonesia and in September a conference of Islamic leaders was held in Jakarta. The Japanese wanted to replace the MIAI, but the conference not only decided to maintain the organization, but also elected political figures belonging to the PSII to the leadership, rather than members of the non-political NU or Muhammadiyah as the occupiers had wanted. Just over a year later, the MIAI was dissolved and replaced by the Japanese-sponsored Masyumi (Consultative Council of Indonesian Muslims). Hasjim Asjari was the notional chairman, but in practice the new organization was led by his son, Wahid Hasyim. Other NU and Muhammadiyah figures held leadership positions.
In 1945, Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesian independence. During the Indonesian war of independence, the NU declared that the fight against the Dutch colonial forces was a holy war, obligatory for all Muslims. Among the guerrilla groups fighting for independence were Hizbullah and Sabillilah, which were led by the NU.
The NU as a political party
Following the recognition of Indonesian independence, a new party called Masyumi was established with the NU as a component of it. The NU leadership at the time had no political skills, and was awarded few influential cabinet positions, with the exception of chairman Wahid Hasyim, who was appointed religious affairs minister. The NU was unhappy with its lack of influence within Masyumi, especially after a decision at the 1949 party conference changed the party’s religious council, on which the NU held several positions, into a powerless advisory body. Two years later, a dispute over the organization of the Haj pilgrimage led to Prime Minister Natsir’s opposition to the reappointment of Hasyim as religious affairs minister in the next cabinet. In the ensuing cabinet crisis, the NU made a series of demands, including the retention of Hasyim, and threatened to leave Masyumi. On 5 April 1952, a few days after the announcement of a new cabinet without Hasyim, the NU decided in principle to leave Masyumi. Three months later it withdrew all its members from Masyumi councils, and on 30 August it established the Indonesian League of Muslims, comprising the NU, PSSI and a number of smaller organizations. It was chaired by Hasyim.
During the liberal democracy era (1950–1957), NU members served in a number of cabinet posts. In the first Ali Sastroamidjojo Cabinet, the NU held three seats, with Zainul Arifin appointed second deputy prime minister. However, following the fall of this cabinet, some NU members were opposed to the NU joining the new cabinet, to be formed by Burhanuddin Harahap Cabinet, believing that if he was unable to form a cabinet, the NU would be invited to try. It was finally pressured into participating, and was awarded the interior and religious affairs portfolios in the cabinet, which was sworn in on 12 August 1955.
On 29 September 1955, Indonesia held its first parliamentary elections. The NU came in third, with almost 7 million votes, 18.4% of the total, behind the Indonesian National Party and Masyumi. It was awarded 45 seats in the People’s Representative Council, up from only 8 before the election. The NU was the largest party in its East Java base, and 85.6% of its vote came from Java. There was a clear division between Masyumi, representing outer-island, urban voters and the NU, representing the rural Javanese constituency. Three months later, elections were held for the Constitutional Assembly, which was tasked with drawing up a permanent constitution. The results were very similar, with the NU winning 91 of the 114 seats.
In the 1950s, the NU still wanted to see Indonesia become an Islamic state, and expressed its disapproval of a 1953 presidential speech in which Sukarno rejected this. Three years later, it also argued against Sukarno’s “conception” that would eventually lead to the establishment of guided democracy, as this would mean PKI members sitting in the cabinet. On 2 March 1957, the Permesta rebellion broke out. Among its demands was the restoration of Mohammad Hatta to the vice-presidency. The NU supported these calls. Meanwhile, in the Constitutional Assembly, the NU joined Masyumi, the Indonesian Islamic Union Party (PSII), the Islamic Educators Association (Perti) and other parties to form the Islamic Block, which wanted Indonesian to become an Islamic state. The block made up 44.8% of total seats. However, with none of the blocks able to command a majority and push through the constitution it wanted, the assembly failed to agree and was dissolved by Sukarno in a decree on 5 July 1959 that also restored the original 1945 Constitution, which declared the state to be based on the Pancasila philosophy not Islam.
In 1960, President Sukarno banned Masyumi for alleged involvement in the Permesta rebellion. However, the fundamentalist and compradore leadership of NU saw the pro-poor Communist Party of Indonesia, which was close to Sukarno, as an obstacle to its ambitions, and competed with it to win support from the poor. Five years later, the coup attempt by the 30 September Movement took place. The Indonesian Army blamed the PKI, and the NU youth wing, Ansor, participated in the subsequent widespread killings of suspected communists.
Following the deposing of Sukarno, the New Order regime under President Suharto held elections in 1971. Despite manipulation of the NU by the government, which caused it to lose much credibility, the NU managed to maintain its 18% share of the vote from the 1955 poll. However, in 1973, it was obliged to “fuse” into the new United Development Party (Indonesian: Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP). The PPP came second, after the government sponsored Golkar organization in the elections of 1977 and 1982, but in 1984, the new NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid (also known as Gus Dur), the son of Wahid Haschim, withdrew the NU from the PPP because of dissatisfaction with the NU’s lack of influence. As a result, in the 1987 election, the PPP vote collapsed from 28% in 1982 to only 16%. From then on, it was expected that the NU would concentrate on religious and social activities.
In 1984, the New Order government announced that all organizations would have to accept state ideology Pancasila as their basis. Once again the NU was accommodating, with Gus Dur calling Pancasila a “noble compromise” for Muslims. Five years later. Gus Dur was reelected for a second five-year term as chairman, a position he held until being elected president in 1999.
In 1990, the NU worked with Bank Summa to establish a system of rural banks. Suharto did not approve of the NU straying beyond purely religious activities, and the fact the bank was owned by a Christian ethnic-Chinese family led to controversy. The bank was eventually shut down two years later because of financial mismanagement. Gus Dur also incurred the disapproval of the regime by holding a mass rally at a Jakarta stadium three months before the 1992 legislative elections, ostensibly to express support for Pancasila. This resulted in Gus Dur being invited to meet Lt. Col. Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law at Jakarta Military Headquarters. At the meeting, Gus Dur was warned to avoid unacceptable political conduct, and told that if he insisted in involving himself in politics, rather than confining himself to religious matters, he should express support for a further presidential term for Suharto. In response, Gus Dur threatened to leave the NU. This resulted in the regime backing down, as it could not risk bringing Gus Dur down.
The NU in the post-Suharto era
Following the fall of Suharto and his replacement by Vice-president B.J. Habibie, in July 1998 Gus Dur announced the establishment of the National Awakening Party (Indonesian: Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB). On 10 November, Gus Dur met with other pro-reform figures Amien Rais, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Sultan Hamengkubuwono. The so-called Ciganjur Four, named after the location of Gus Dur’s house, issued a declaration calling the Habibie administration “transitional” and calling for elections to be brought forward and for the Indonesian Military to end its political role.
In Indonesia’s first free elections since 1955, held on 7 June 1999, the PKB won 13 percent of the vote. In the ensuing session of the People’s Consultative Assembly, Gus Dur was elected President of Indonesia, defeating Megawati by 373 votes to 313. However, he was deposed just two years later. The PKB subsequently split into two warring factions, one led by Gus Dur’s daughter, Yenny Wahid. An attempt in 2008 by Gus Dur to involve President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in resolving the dispute failed, and the PKB vote in the 2009 elections was half that of the previous vote in 2004. At its 2010 conference, held in Makassar, the NU decided not to discuss the split, and passed a resolution banning officials from holding political posts, seen as a commitment to avoiding future political involvement. After the conference, concerns about the longer term role of the NU continued to attract comment in the national media. During 2011, for example, there was continuing discussion about the national role that the NU should play and about the close political links between the NU and the National Awakening Party (PKB). Comments by Gus Dur’s daughter, Yenny Wahid, for example, reflected these concerns when she said that the NU was fragmenting and “sliding into irrelevance”.
The NU exists to spread Islamic teaching. As well as preaching, it undertakes educational activities through its network of 6,830 Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren. It also owns 44 universities, and is involved in economic and agricultural studies, and social activities including family planning.
The highest body in the NU is the Supreme Council (Syuriah). Under this is the Executive Council (Tanfidziyah). The Advisory Council (Mustasyar) provides input to both. At the 2010 NU Conference, Sahal Mahfudz was elected chairman of the Executive Council, and thus serves as executive chief. At the same conference, Sahal Mahfudz was elected chair of the Supreme Council for the 2010-2015 period. Under the Executive Council, there are provincial level Regional Boards, as well as autonomous bodies, institutes and committees, with the structure extending down to Sub Branch Representative Council Boards in villages.