Philadelphia: For most people involved with Islamic boarding schools, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is not just an organization. NU is a genuine version of ahl sunnah wa al-jama’ah (or aswaja, which means the People of the Prophet’s Traditions and Community, the Sunni).
In this setting, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid can be categorized as a wali (saint).
A wali in Sufi tradition is a friend of God’s, a moral guardian and protector of other creatures. In our time, what can be more articulate for the true meaning of a wali than Gus Dur’s life?
His life was an extraordinary example of the tireless struggle for freedom, equality and justice for all, deeply rooted in his Islamic faith.
His being literally accessible for everyone made him almost like a crystal to whom every type of group and individual might voice their hope and be assured of human solidarity: human rights activists, politicians, philosophers, clerics, interfaith thinkers, feminists, intellectuals, artists, students, spiritualists, peasants, religious and ethnic minorities, authors, international leaders — you name it.
His simple life was a rare example for more than 30 million NU members, most of them at the grass roots. In 1987, as the NU chairman, Gus Dur still lived in a rented house and frequently used crowded public transportation to get around the city. For years he toiled in his office in the stifling Jakarta heat, with no air conditioning or even an electric fan.
In almost every aspect, Gus Dur was a giant: social class, intellectual capacity, political talent, religious piety. What made him even more unusual was his tireless schedule traveling around the country for silaturahmi (maintaining and improving social relations), to meet people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to share support and wisdom. He kept doing this even after becoming president, even after suffering for years from strokes, blindness, kidney failure, diabetes, etc., until the last days of his life.
Thanks to this intensive silaturahmi, not only did Gus Dur keep in touch with so many real people and their actual problems around the country, or bring great charismatic clerics such as Abdullah Faqih of Langitan to national attention, but he also gave due recognition and introduced local leaders of remote villages previously unknown, people like Shaikh Mas’ud of Cilacap — a collector of rare books written by classical Indonesian Muslim scholars.
Many other local leaders, values and wisdom from the Islamic boarding schools he discovered for the wider public.
His most frequent practice was probably the ziarah kubur (grave visit), which was also the most misunderstood both by modernist Muslims and secular groups. Regardless of how you may want to understand “the unseen world” — a key principle in Islamic faith — visiting a grave, especially to those of saints, is a very well-known practice of spiritual exercise in Sufism throughout Islamic history. By performing this exercise properly and sufficiently, the human spirit will be purified and sensitized. It is this purity and sensitivity that enables a Muslim to translate Islamic faith beyond mere orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
By way of ziarah — praying, chanting, dzikir, learning the lessons of the saints, deeply contemplating in the right time and psychological mood — one may get spiritual enlightenment that will draw one closer to God and human beings. That is why haul (death anniversary) is a popular part of Islamic boarding school tradition. Haul is not so much about remembering death as it is a celebration of life and its meaning in relation to the spiritual world.
Gus Dur may never remember my name. But I am among the tens of thousands of young NU people from remote Indonesian areas who have traveled to far-off countries to explore new horizons of ideas and realities, thanks to the inspiration he gave and the difficult path he walked with sincerity and courage.
I am part of the Islamic boarding school generation, millions in number, born and raised during the Soeharto era. We were an ignored generation under Soeharto. Our attitude toward relations between Islam and modernity was very ambiguous. With no access, we were jealous about the many fascinations of modernity as displayed by Soeharto’s high modernism and development projects. On the other hand, we were so proud of Islamic learning and tradition that was branded backward and irrational, an obstacle to national development and even a potential enemy of the state.
We knew the government was corrupt, unjust and anti-Islamic, but it went unchallenged. We knew Islamic boarding schools were rich and had so much to offer, but we did not know how to unpack it.
We were so powerless and lost.
Thanks to Gus Dur, we learned that students of these schools did have an equally valuable heritage to offer the modern world, and we learned how to present it meaningfully. That Islam is completely compatible with the principles of modernity. That in order for Islam to be rahmatan lil ‘alamin (God’s mercy for the Universe), Muslims should be in sincere dialogue and total engagement with others regardless of their ethnicity, culture, worldview and faith.
At time when most people grow pessimistic about NU, Gus Dur became the loudspeaker who assuaged our optimism. He had unconditional and abundant love for his country, especially NU and more specifically young people.
“No single Muslim organization on Earth has as much potential as NU,” he said repeatedly and confidently to everybody.
The writer is the president of the NU community in North America and a PhD student in religious studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, US.
[Picture: Jombang Mosque, birthplace of the Nahdlatul Ulama. Photo: Wiki.]