Nahdlatul Ulama’s 99th anniversary celebration

“May God bless our beloved Shaykh and may we recall his final injunction to Nahdlatul Ulama…. We must have the self-discipline and courage to devote all that we possess to strive for a more noble and glorious civilization. Not merely for ourselves… not merely for Nahdlatul Ulama… not merely for Indonesia… not merely for the world’s Muslim population… but for ALL of humanity.”
~ H.E. KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf
General Chairman, Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board

BANGKALAN, Madura, East Java — Following his December 2021 election as General Chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board, H.E. KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf initiated a year-long series of events anticipating the approach of Nahdlatul Ulama’s centennial according to the Islamic lunar calendar. The 99th anniversary celebration of the world’s largest Muslim organization was held on the island of Madura, at the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) of Kyai Muhammad Kholil bin Abdul Latif al-Bangkalani (1820 – 1925), whose disciples established Nahdlatul Ulama shortly after his death.

Referred to as “Our Shaykh” (Syaikhona), Kyai Bangkalan (photograph below) is widely revered as a saint among NU’s 100-million-plus followers.

The Puncak Peringatan (“Commemorative Summit”) featured a keynote address by Shaykh Yahya, in which he discussed Kyai Kholil of Bangkalan’s vision and mission, which arose from the beloved saint’s direct experience of Nur Allah (“the Light of God”).

Shaykh Yahya’s address, which appears below, was preceded by a poem honoring Syaikhona Kholil and his leading disciples. Titled The Miracles Performed by Our Beloved Shaykh Kholil’s Wooden Staff, the poem was composed and recited by the renowned Madurese poet, and Islamic scholar, KH. Zawawi Imron. It appears below in English translation. A video of the poem’s recitation may also be viewed with English subtitles.

The Miracles Performed by Our Beloved Shaykh Kholil’s Wooden Staff

Bismillah (in the name of God)
A wooden staff,
sent by our beloved Shaykh Kholil
via his disciple Kyai As‘ad Syamsul Arifin
to the Eminent Shaykh Kyai Hasyim Ash‘ari of Jombang

A staff that was no mere piece of wood
but rather, a sacred heirloom imbued with spiritual power, meaning, and authority.
A staff that would soon illuminate the path forward, and alter the direction of time,
proclaiming that utter darkness had fallen upon Nusantara (“the East Indies”),
urging its inhabitants to seize the initiative and exercise the immense willpower required to produce a spiritual awakening.
For Muslims and Nusantara society at large were in desperate need of the light kindled by ulama (Islamic scholars):
the blazing light of justice. . . civilization. . . courage. . . and liberty

Hence, Shaykh Kholil’s wooden staff signaled the awakening of the ulama (literally, “nahdlatul ulama”)
and precipitated the establishment of Nahdlatul Ulama in 1344 H (1926),
so that the brilliant rays of Sunni Islam would illuminate Nusantara: the Land of Indonesia

Why, among so many stars in the firmament
Do these Nine shine so brightly?.
.[a reference to the Wali Songo, or “Nine Saints” who brought Islam to land of Java].
Because we follow the ulama, and ulama are heirs of the Prophet Muhammad

The Madurese people often sing:.
.[Speaking Madurese] Why, among so many stars in the firmament
Do these Nine shine so brightly?
Why do I follow the ulama? Because the ulama are the heirs of our beloved Prophet

The utter darkness of colonial rule was vanquished through prayer and the light of God-consciousness (taqwa).
So take note, writing with the honeyed ink of a thousand precious chrysolites:
after Bung Karno (Sukarno) proclaimed independence on 17 August 1945
the Dutch (and their British allies) came once again to colonize Indonesia, and crush our struggle for independence.

Our beloved Shaykh Kholil’s wooden staff rose, once again, to issue a fatwa:
Resolusi Jihad,
which the Eminent Shaykh Hasyim Ash‘ari proclaimed
declaring that every Muslim had a religious duty
to take up arms and expel the colonial invaders,
and that whoever fell in our war for independence
would be a precious Flower of our nation
who perished following the path of God.

Hence, when the British and Dutch attacked Surabaya,
Thousands of young religious students, policemen, rickshaw drivers, sate vendors, and farmers — rushed into battle to expel the colonial invaders,
who were led by an egotistical, power-hungry, and savage Lord, on the move with all his troops.

The streets of Surabaya were soon awash in blood.
Surabaya became a raging sea of flames.
Thanks to the Jihad Resolution, Nahdliyin (NU followers) regarded the enemies’ bullets as insignificant
His machine guns as insignificant
His tanks and bombs as insignificant
Even death itself they regarded as insignificant and of no concern.
Allahu Akbar! God alone is the Great ‘One!’ God alone is the Great ‘One!’”
That was the sacred, divinely inspired, and invincible day of 10 November
The Day of National Heroes
When Surabaya became the City of Heroes.

Tonight we celebrate Nahdlatul Ulama’s 99th anniversary.
We bow and press our foreheads to the earth.
We bow and prostrate our hearts, also, before God.
We recall, with gratitude, our beloved Shaykh Kholil’s immense service to Indonesia and the world.
We recall, with gratitude, the Eminent Shaykh Kyai Hasyim Ash‘ari’s immense service.
We recall, with gratitude, Kyai Abdul Wahab Hasbullah’s immense service.
We recall, with gratitude, Kyai Bisri Syansuri’s immense service,
and all the heroes whose names remain fragrant, to this day, because of their immense service to our nation, our beloved homeland.

Love of nation is integral to faith.
Love of nation is integral to faith.
Love of nation is integral to faith.
Love for one’s motherland is integral to faith.
Why is it a religious duty to love our nation and homeland?
All of us drink the waters of Indonesia, which become our very blood.
All of us consume the rice, fruits, and fish of Indonesia, which become our very flesh.
All of us breath the air of Indonesia, which becomes our very own breath.
All of us bow in prayer to God upon the earth of Indonesia, which means that its earth is our prayer carpet.
And when the time comes for us to die
All of us shall sleep in the embrace of Indonesia’s precious earth,
Our flesh will dissolve,
and reunite with the fragrant soil of Indonesia.

Hence there is no [religious] reason why we should not love our nation and our homeland.
There is no [religious] reason why we should not love Indonesia.
Indonesia is our beloved mother.
Whoever loves her: Do not taint her with immorality and sin!
Do not fill her with hatred, slander, and conflict!
Do not afflict her by provoking intense polarization among her children
and the inevitable strife that results from such behavior!

The land of Indonesia is our prayer carpet.
Whosoever loves her must plant the seeds of faith,
the seeds of God-consciousness, creativity, hard work, and (national) progress.

The land of Indonesia is our prayer carpet,
where we prostrate ourselves, body and soul, to God.

Praise be to God — Indonesia
By the Glory of God — Indonesia
By the will of God — Indonesia
I beseech God’s forgiveness — Indonesia

View a recitation of The Miracles Performed by Our Beloved Shaykh Kholil’s Wooden Staff in its original Indonesian with English subtitles.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s 99th Anniversary Address

Delivered by H.E. KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf
General Chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board
at Pondok Pesantren Mohammad Kholil Bangkalan in Madura, East Java

17 February 2022

[Speaking in Arabic].

May the peace, mercy, and blessings of God be upon you. Praise and thanks be to God, and may peace be upon the Messenger of God, our lord Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah (the Servant of God) and upon his family, companions, and followers. There is no strength or power except that granted by God.

[Speaking in Indonesian].

This is the 99th anniversary of Nahdlatul Ulama’s birth, one year before its centenary.

Our beloved Shaykh Kyai Muhammad Kholil bin Abdul Latif al-Bangkalani died one year before Nahdlatul Ulama’s founding. Before his death, our Shaykh gave explicit religious authorizations to his followers, known as an izin.

From our perspective in Islamic boarding schools, the word izin also carries the meaning of an order (amr), as in Surat al-Ahzab, verse 46: “and as one who summons [all men] to God by His izin.” In this verse, izin clearly means God’s command.

The parting instructions of our beloved Shaykh contained an izin, a [de facto] command, to his disciples, including the Venerable Shaykh Muhammad Hasyim Asy’ari, to establish an organization of ulama (Islamic scholars). This organization was later called Nahdlatul Ulama.

Next year, Nahdlatul Ulama will enter its centenary — one hundred years. How could we not want to come here (to Bangkalan) and honor our Shaykh, feel his traces upon the earth, and remember why our mass organization was founded?

Our celebration of Nahdlatul Ulama’s 99th anniversary is comprised of four different events:

First, on 31 January 2022 we inaugurated the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board (PBNU) in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan.

Second, we organized celebrations in Labuan Bajo, West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara. We announced these anniversary celebrations, even though they had to be postponed due to the Coronavirus Pandemic which — thank God — is nonexistent here in Bangkalan. . . or so it is said. [Laughter.]

Third, we have also announced a celebration to be held shortly in Palembang, South Sumatra.

Finally, tonight here in Bangkalan, we hold the culmination of this series of celebrations.

The locations of these anniversary celebrations are the result of an intense effort to reflect upon both the journey that Nahdlatul Ulama has undergone to realize the vision and ideals of its founders, and what additional steps are necessary for us to go further still, especially as we approach Nahdlatul Ulama’s centennial.

We deliberately chose Balikpapan in East Kalimantan to host the inauguration of the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board on January 31 — the date of Nahdlatul Ulama’s founding according to the Gregorian calendar.

We chose this location as our nation — represented by the Government of the Republic of Indonesia — has undertaken an iconic initiative symbolizing its future direction, namely that Indonesia will have a new capital city [on the island of Kalimantan], named Nusantara City. [Applause.] This initiative is already the subject of political consensus within Indonesia.

In the past we often heard that “Nusantara” (“the East Indies”) was an abbreviation for “NU, religious students, and the army” (NU, santri, dan tantara). Due to historical events, however, you’ll forgive us for making an adjustment to this. Now, “Nusantara” is an abbreviation of “NU, religious students, and the people’s government” (NU, santri, dan pemerintah rakyat). [Applause.] This means that the relationship between Nahdlatul Ulama and its followers is akin to the relationship between a government and its people. [Applause.]

Nahdlatul Ulama embraces the future, we do not want to be prisoners of the past. This is an iconic, forward-looking initiative of which we want to be a part, and to advise our government to think about the nation’s new capital not just in terms of its physical design, but in terms of its social design as well.

We are undertaking the task of constructing an entirely new city, and need to consider what kind of society will inhabit it. Nahdlatul Ulama clearly state that we intend to participate in the creation of this social design.

We chose Labuan Bajo, West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara as a location for NU’s anniversary celebrations because East Nusa Tenggara is considered to be the province that best reflects our archipelago’s maritime traditions.

The overall character of Nusantara civilization is maritime. All of us are maritime people, because our ancestors were sailors who traversed vast oceans and were not afraid to cut though waves and violent storms. We may face a future full of uncertainty and storms of historic magnitude, but fear not, because we are the descendants of seafarers. [Applause.] We are not afraid because, for us, facing storms in normal.

We chose Palembang, South Sumatra, because — just as we must look to the future — we need to understand our past. Palembang is Srivijaya [671–1025 AD], and Srivijaya was an experiment on the scale of the Nusantara Archipelago. It was the oldest recorded civilizational experiment to encompass this vast expanse of islands. We want to comprehend how this archipelago-scale civilization was manifested by our ancestors, so that we may capture the spirit of their vision and harness it for the distant future, for the future of our global civilization.

Finally, we chose Bangkalan to orient ourselves once more toward Our Shaykh Muhammad Kholil. Our Shaykh’s madrasah is not just a place of blessings, it also houses tomes filled with valuable scholarship.

Nevertheless — frankly speaking — the principal intention behind our celebration of Nahdlatul Ulama’s 99th anniversary here in Bangkalan today is indeed to receive blessings (tabarruk). [Applause.]

Bless Our Shaykh and remember his final injunctions to Nahdlatul Ulama, especially those filled with civilizational import and meaning: the guidance of Our Shaykh to His Eminence Kyai Haji Hasyim Asy’ari.

There is a Qur’anic verse — I forget the number — which reads “They aim to extinguish God’s Light with their utterances: but God has willed to spread His Light in all its fullness, however hateful this may be to all who deny the truth.” (Qur’an 61:8).

If we reflect on the historical context of Nahdlatul Ulama’s birth, this verse becomes extremely relevant. Nahdlatul Ulama was born at a time when the world’s great powers were directing their forces towards, and striving to extinguish, the Light of God (nur allah).

During this time of darkness, Our Shaykh wrote to his students — to the ulama, the line of prophetic transmission (sanad) — that they should not be disheartened, for God always perfects His Light. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, Nahdlatul Ulama was born in the hope that it would become a means through which the Light of God is perfected, however hateful this may be to all those who deny the truth.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we truly believe that our mandate is to perfect God’s Light (itmam nur allah), and that this hope has been placed upon our shoulders, then we ourselves must become a living example of nur allah. Earlier, I specifically requested that our qari, the man who recited Surat An-Nur (“The Chapter of Light”), read verse 35 because it contains a clear example of God’s Light.

[God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp [enclosed] in glass, the glass [shining] like a radiant star: [a lamp] lit from a blessed tree – an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west – the oil where of [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light [of itself] even though fire had not touched it: light upon light!

God guides unto His Light whom He wills; and [to this end] God propounds parables unto men, since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things (Qur’an 24:35).].

[Speaks in Arabic] “His Light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp.” I adore this verse, which is especially relevant to Nahdlatul Ulama. What I am conveying here is not an orthodox interpretation (tafsir) but rather my own way of rationalizing Nahdlatul Ulama’s mission amidst the turmoil of history and human civilization.

[Speaks in Arabic] “His Light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp.” Here “mishka” means an opaque niche in the side of an indoor wall.  Its function is to hold a lamp. The misbah (lamp) is placed inside it. From my perspective, Nahdlatul Ulama’s membership (jamaʿah) is the mishka, while the organization (jamaʿiah) is the misbah. Our membership provides a niche within which the lamp can be placed, but the misbah will not be able to stand upright and illuminate its surroundings if it is not protected by zujajah (glass) or semprong in Javanese.

This semprong will guard the flame of truth, allowing it to burn undisturbed with a light that illuminates its surroundings. The zujajah is the organizational structure, which must function like glass, projecting the light from its source while ensuring that it burns calmly. In order to do this the glass must be truly clear and free of impurities.

[Speaking in Arabic] “the glass [shining] like a radiant star: [a lamp] lit from a blessed tree – an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west.”

In books of exegesis (tafsir) we find many interpretations regarding what is meant by “lit from a blessed tree – an olive tree.” I don’t want to get into these debates. I simply wish to say that so long as there is a point called East (sharqiah), then there must also be a point called West (gharbiah), and vice-versa.

Bangkalan is sharqiah from the perspective of Surabaya, but gharbiah from the perspective of Mataram: West Nusa Tenggara. In turn, West Nusa Tenggara is gharbiah from the perspective of East Nusa Tenggara, but clearly sharqiah from a Madurese perspective. Therefore “neither of the east nor of the west,” means something universal, a point so all-encompassing that it can neither be East, nor West. [Applause.]

This is relevant because the function of a misbah is to illuminate the entire room, not just one corner, but the whole room. It is to illuminate all without exception. Similarly, Nahdlatul Ulama, this jamaʿiah, must truly function in a way that benefits all without exception or consideration as to differences in background. [Applause.].

The interior of the Syaikhona Muhammad Kholil mosque in Bangkalan, Madura

In fact, ladies and gentlemen, we have already seen the enormous benefits that can be wrought if we truly behave without consideration of either East or West (la sharqiah wa la gharbiah). Just two months ago — at the end of December — we concluded our National Congress, and NU’s new leadership were only confirmed in office on 31 January. In this short period, we have received commitments from numerous government ministries to collaborate with Nahdlatul Ulama, including from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

We have already signed agreements with the Ministry of State Owned Enterprises and the Ministry of Cooperatives and Small and Medium Enterprises. We are also in the process of beginning close cooperation with the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs.

We have already been awarded, among other things, the community palm oil rejuvenation program — which has the potential to involve at least 130 NU branches throughout Indonesia — and a project to build fishing villages at 90 locations across the country.

We recently signed a cooperation agreement with two ministries that, Insha’Allah, will lead to the construction of 250 NU-owned enterprises and the education of at least 10,000 seminary students. [Applause.].

I am already receiving reports from colleagues who have worked intensively over the past three weeks to foster collaboration, including Ibu Alissa Wahid, Pak Nasrul Falah, Pak Amin Said Husni, Pak Marsah, Pak Arif Marbun, and other good friends. In just three weeks we have worked with the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to take on an ambitious project. We were asked how many of the total 4 million hectares of community palm oil forests throughout Indonesia we would like to manage. As this is just the beginning, we took 1 million hectares.

Similarly, we were asked how many fishing villages we would like to build, and we took just 90. With Pak Erik [Thohir, Minister of State Owned Enterprises], we were asked how many NU-owned enterprises we would like to construct, perhaps 50? Already we have received 242 and, God willing, if we asked for 1000 we would receive them.

It is a similar story with other ministries, such as the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs. We were asked how many joint projects we would like to take on, and we took on 10,000. Hopefully we will be able to take on more and more. All of this is the result of us declaring ourselves open to all parties. [Applause.].

If there are those who feel uncomfortable with this, so what? In reality, by opening yourself to all, you can receive greater benefits. If anyone feels bad about this, I can’t recite poetry like Kyai Zawawi Imron or the earlier announcer. In truth, the only poem I know is an ijazah by [Indonesian comedian] Kadir Srimulat [speaks in Javanese]: There’s a snake under the table. No need for heartbreak. That’s how it’s always been done. (Sor mejo ono ulane, jo gelo wis ngono carane). [Laughter and applause.].

Ladies and gentlemen, all of us here can only hope to receive blessings equal to the blessing of Nahdlatul Ulama’s founding, to truly be a light lit from a blessed tree, the oil whereof is so bright that it would well-nigh give light of itself even though fire had not touched it: light upon light! A light so pure that even without an endowment it returns great benefit. What will it be capable of, therefore, when blessed with donations!?

This is the main capital we possess: the Shaykhs who founded this jamaʿiah did so at a time when they were a part of colonized people, a nation enslaved by the Dutch and reduced to the level of dogs. As was written on the governor’s office at the time: “No Indonesians or Dogs Allowed.”

However, because in the heart of our Shaykhs there was [speaking in Arabic] “oil so bright that it would well-nigh give light of itself even though fire had not touched it,” they dared to think about the future of civilization. Today, we have chairmen like Ibu Khofifah Indar Parawansa, Ibu Alissa Wahid, Haji Marani Maming, and Secretary General Saifullah Yusuf. We have the Banser of Erick Thohir, and the Vice President of Indonesia, Kyai Ma’ruf Amin.

If we don’t dare to set our sights on the future of human civilization, we will be like stunted frogs. We were born from the wombs of victors, the wombs of those who won Indonesian independence and secured the dignity of our nation, the wombs of those who educated all the children of this nation to become warriors of a noble civilization. We must have the self-discipline and courage to devote all that we possess to strive for a more noble and glorious civilization. Not merely for ourselves. . . not merely for Nahdlatul Ulama. . . not merely for Indonesia. . . not merely for the world’s Muslim population. . . but for ALL of humanity. [Applause.].

[Speaking in Arabic].

May God aid us in the performance of actions that are dear to Him, and that attract His infinite blessings.

May the peace, mercy, and blessings of God be upon you.

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