God Needs No Defense

H.E. KH. Abdurrahman Wahid (“Gus Dur”)

“Omnipotent, and existing as absolute and eternal Truth, nothing could possibly threaten God. And as ar-Rahman (the Merciful) and ar-Rahim (the Compassionate), God has no enemies. Those who claim to defend God, Islam or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves, or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes.”

“People who are convinced that they know more than anyone else about Islam, and yet are full of hatred towards any of God’s creatures who do not travel the same path as they; and those who claim themselves to be in possession of the absolute truth, and for that reason entitled to act as God’s vice-regents on earth (caliphs) and to dictate how everyone else must live—clearly, their words and behavior will not lead us into the presence of God. Their dream of an Islamic state is merely an illusion, for the true Islamic state is not to be found in the structure of any government, but rather, in hearts which are open to God and all His creatures.”

~ H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, from his introduction to The Illusion of an Islamic State

“The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara”

“In the East Indies, Islam did not face the enormous political and military challenges that existed in the Middle East. As a result, those who proselytized Islam in the Malay Archipelago could immediately address the very nature and essence of religion itself: that is, spirituality… the immense richness of the inner life. . . the life of the soul. As it so happened, this was perfectly compatible with the pre-existing Nusantara civilization, which viewed religion as a means to develop human potential in its entirety, not merely in a physical or material sense, but rather, and above all, our spiritual potential.”

~ KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf, The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara

  1. For thousands of years, Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago) has been a civilizational crossroads and home to a wide array of peoples, cultures and religious beliefs. In their collective wisdom, the inhabitants of these islands developed a unique civilization founded upon the principle of “unity amid diversity” (bhinneka tunggal ika), which inspired the creation of Indonesia as a multi-religious and pluralistic state.
  1. A key element of this ancient “civilizational wisdom” is the ability not only to grasp but also prioritize, individually and collectively, the spiritual essence of religion, rather than purely formal and dogmatic elements that readily lend themselves to weaponization and, in the wrong hands, foster conflict rather than social unity.
  1. This distinguishing characteristic of Nusantara society—i.e., the impulse to position spiritual wisdom, rather than dogma, as the central pillar of socio-cultural, religious and political life—enabled Nusantara civilization to embrace the essence of newly arrived religions; neutralize their potentially divisive effects; and transform religious pluralism into a source of social unity and strength, by cultivating humility, compassion and respect for others, rather than fear and hatred. By fostering social harmony and peaceful co-existence among and between those of widely varying ethnicities, cultures and faiths, religion served Nusantara inhabitants as a path to attain spiritual nobility, rather than a pragmatic means to claim privilege and/or supremacy vis-à-vis others.”

~ Nusantara Manifesto, October 25, 2018

It was this “civilizational wisdom” that inspired the creation of Indonesia as a multi-religious and pluralistic state in 1945, and enabled KH. Abdurrahman Wahid—backed by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization—to transform it into the world’s third largest democracy following the overthrow of President Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998. Drawing upon his unshakable faith in Islam as rahmah (universal love and compassion), President Wahid established a free press; liberated Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population from severe discrimination and the denial of basic civil and political rights; restored civilian control of the military; eliminated the Indonesian army’s role in politics, after 32 years of dictatorship; established regional autonomy; and preserved the political foundation of Indonesia—as a multi-religious and pluralistic state—in the face of serious challenges posed by extremist political parties and their opportunistic allies.

During the final months of his life, President Wahid expressed a keen desire to mobilize the concentrated energies of America and the West to “help Islam,” by joining people of good will of every faith and nation in the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy, designed to marginalize and discredit Islamist extremism among Muslim populations worldwide. This “big idea” exemplifies the values of Islam Nusantara, and lies at the heart of our strategic vision.

Co-founders of Bayt ar-Rahmah and the “Humanitarian Islam” movement—Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri (center) and C. Holland Taylor (center left)—with KH. Muhammad Yusuf Chudlori (left), KH. Dian Nafi (center right) and Hussein Syifa (right) at the Indonesian launch of The Illusion of an Islamic State on May 16, 2009. Edited by H. E. KH. Abdurrahman Wahid, the book derailed the political aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party PKS and other transnational Islamist groups hostile to Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance.

Indonesia’s ‘Big Idea’:
Resolving the Polarizing Global Debate on Islam

Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri and C. Holland Taylor

“Prior to his death in December 2009, our friend Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid. . .  set in motion a pair of interrelated endeavors to help realize Indonesia’s strategic potential as an engine of spiritual progress for humanity. The first of these, the International Institute of Quranic Studies (IIQS), seeks” to facilitate an intellectual, cultural, social, political, legal and spiritual transformation of the Muslim world, so that Islam may truly function as rahmatan lil ‘alamin, or “a blessing for all creation.”

“The second endeavor consists of a systematic effort to help educate and mobilize Western governments, civil society and public opinion at large, to address the complex array of threats posed by Islamist ideology, terrorism and a rising tide of Islamophobia in the West. This strategic endeavor, jointly undertaken by the Nadhlatul Ulama and LibForAll Foundation, seeks to develop a broad center-left to center-right coalition in North America and Europe that will unite the “humanitarian left” and “national security-oriented right” in forging the societal consensus required to marginalize and discredit both Islamist extremism and its mirror phenomenon in the West. . .  This entails preventing the instrumentalization of Islam for political purposes, whether by Muslim extremists or by Western politicians, political parties and/or their ideological allies, and helping to ensure the ascendency of a pluralistic, tolerant and spiritual understanding of Islam throughout the world, including the Sunni and Shiite heartlands of the Middle East.”

Indonesia’s ‘big idea’: Resolving the bitter global debate on Islam

Then-president of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressing a mass rally of PKS cadres (Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated extremists) in Jakarta’s Bung Karno Stadium

by Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri and C. Holland Taylor

As Dr Hassan Wirajuda, the editor-in-chief of Strategic Review [and former foreign minister of Indonesia], recently observed in the pages of this journal, for Indonesia to earn its place as a leading figure in the community of nations, it must do so not as a producer of raw materials, but of ideas – and more specifically, “big ideas” that will help shape the world of tomorrow in a manner beneficial to humanity at large.

Men and women who embody the exemplary values of our ancient culture, including its profoundly spiritual view of religion, constitute what may be Indonesia’s most geopolitically significant – and certainly its most unique – strategic asset. This is especially true in light of what the late Indonesian president and Islamic cleric Abdurrahman Wahid called the “crisis of misunderstanding” about Islam that afflicts so many Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world. “Dry grass burns fast and hot,” warns an old Javanese proverb, whose truth is on display whenever and wherever a harsh, narrow and rigid (ie, spiritually arid) interpretation of religion gives birth to hatred, supremacism and violence.

Dr. Achmad Syafii Maarif

One of Indonesia’s leading intellectual and spiritual figures, former Muhammadiyah chairman Dr Syafii Maarif, referred to this vexing issue when he said, “The Shariah we know today is the result of ijtihad, or centuries-old human reasoning, and thus time-bound. As a result, a huge project such as creating an Islamic system of governance [as desired by many contemporary Muslims] is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without rethinking the very basis of our ideas about Shariah. Small, narrow minds cannot provide a solution to the problems facing Muslim societies today. We need big, broad minds to understand the fundamental message of the Quran as rahmatan lil ‘alamin – a source of love and compassion for all humanity – and how to bring this message down to earth.”

Because of its particular cultural and historic circumstances, Indonesia is uniquely positioned to help lay the foundation for a cultural, theological, legal, political, intellectual and spiritual renaissance of the Islamic world that will enable Muslims to build a bridge between their traditions and the modern world of freedom, democracy and human rights. In the words of Wahid, Indonesia can help “restore honor and respect to Islam, which the extremists have desecrated,” and “restore the majesty of Islamic teachings as rahmatan lil ‘alamin, which represents a vital key to building a peaceful world.”

Indonesian spiritual leaders can also help resolve the increasingly polarized and strident debate on Islam that has paralyzed most Western societies since 9/11. This institutional deadlock, which prevents North American and European governments from effectively addressing the complex array of threats posed by extremist ideology, terrorism and a rising tide of Islamophobia in the West, jeopardizes the prospects of a peaceful and harmonious future for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Semar in His Manifest Form (above) symbolizes the divinely-illumined guides and egoless servants of humanity who appear with every new generation to guard, nurture and sustain spiritual and material balance and the glory of Nusantara civilization” ~ From the film The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara. To many Indonesians, H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid was an “incarnation” of Semar.

Indonesia is capable of leveraging its remarkable depth of human capital in the fields of culture and religion to attain a high degree of geopolitical influence, and the respect this will naturally inspire among other nations and peoples. However, such influence can never be acquired through mere talk, pretense or manipulation that presents our nation as a model of pluralism and tolerance while ignoring the very real threats to these values in Indonesia itself. Rather, for such an endeavor to succeed, it must be guided by spiritual leaders who live the values they expound, and whose sincerity and lack of self-aggrandizement is evident to all who meet them. It is only such men and women who can achieve the desired transformative effect by visibly demonstrating how religion may function as a source of universal love and compassion for all sentient beings.

The proper role of government in this endeavor may be glimpsed through the wisdom of lakon wayang kulit (shadow puppet stories) and their recurrent theme of the king who welcomes a visiting resi (enlightened sage) to his palace. Humbly vacating his throne in the presence of one who knows Reality, the king implores the resi to sit upon it, while instructing the ruler and his ministers in the principles of good governance and how to achieve a state of self-transcendent awareness of, and surrender to, Divine will (in Old Javanese, mokso or nirvana; in Arabic terminology, the state of islam).

Translation of text on a t-shirt featuring the three resis (sages) who presented The Illusion of an Islamic State to the Indonesian public in May of 2009: “Although a ruler has the form of a human, he or she should embody the characteristics of a divine being armed with the sacred trident—honest, grounded in Truth, and free of egotistical self-interest; be obedient to holy sages (resis), whose unshakable grip upon the sacred trident is embedded in their very souls; and live to serve the people.” ~ Motto of the Bhinneka Tunggal Ika Movement, inspired by the 12th century Javanese text, Serat Jongko Joyoboyo

Spiritual leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama and former Chairman of its Supreme Council, KH. A. Mustofa Bisri (“Gus Mus”). Called “Sang Kyai Pembelajar”—the Great Religious Scholar Devoted to Learning—by followers of the NU, Gus Mus is also a distinguished public intellectual, painter and poet

The universal values of Indonesian Islamic civilization

by Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri

“According to the Sunni view of Islam, every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with rahmah (love and compassion) and foster the perfection of human nature, as expressed through sublime moral character (akhlaqul karima). This may be achieved—in fact, may only be achieved—if one’s understanding and practice of the exoteric norms of religion (such as ritual prayer, fasting, etc.) is augmented by a full grasp of its inner, spiritual dimension.

“When Muslim extremists act in ways that contradict the substantive teachings of religion—while loudly claiming to represent the true teachings of Islam—it is only natural that many non-Muslims will take these extremists at their word and develop (or, in light of history, ‘rediscover’) an aversion towards Islam itself.”

Read the full article (PDF).

Independence (Day) Prayer

Painting by Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri

by Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri

A poem that illustrates the intimate relationship between spirituality and patriotism, which is characteristic of the Nahdlatul Ulama and Islam Nusantara in general.

As point 4. of the ISOMIL Nahdlatul Ulama Declaration states: “From the perspective of Islam Nusantara, no conflict exists between religion and nationalism. Hubul watan minal iman: ‘Patriotism is integral to faith.’ Whoever lacks patriotism either has no native land, or is devoid of attachment to it. Those who lack a native land will be devoid of history.”

Read the poem (PDF).

 Current General Secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama and Advisor to Indonesia’s President, KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf is a distinguished Muslim scholar who co-founded Bayt ar-Rahmah and the global Humanitarian Islam movement

How Islam learned to adapt in ‘Nusantara’

by Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf

“Within this nonpoliticized atmosphere, Islam has proved more successful at grounding its core teachings in public life than in many parts of the world. This is because of Nusantara Islam’s willingness to empathize with others and engage in dialogue with reality, rather than seek to impose one’s own understanding of reality upon others by force. The success of Nusantara Islam also stems from its conviction that religion should serve as a path to enlightenment for individual souls, and that Shariah should serve to promote the well-being of humanity, rather than function as a tool of repressive authority. In Nusantara, Islam was free to fulfill its mandate in the Koran: to become a source of universal love and compassion.”

Read the full article (PDF).

Dalam Dunia Fana

In This Perishable World

by Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf

Published and widely distributed in July 2014, amid blatant attempts to steal Indonesia’s presidential election.
A vibrant and courageous civil society movement
—rooted in a profoundly spiritual understanding of Islam—
succeeded in preserving the nation’s democracy.

Dedicated to H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid and all who share in his struggle for good governance and democratic reform

In this savage, transitory world,
will you strive to create your own destiny
or delegate that authority to someone else
who promises to fight on your behalf?

Amid a sea of competition,
where so many seek a comfortable resting place,
will you join hands (with others who are upright)
and participate in the desperate (struggle),
for the cause of human dignity?
Or will you eagerly join the stampede,
stretching out your hands
as you scramble and fight to grab
(politicians’) handouts
and (attract their grudging) benevolence (to you)?

Amid a siege of brigands
do you have the strength
to endure the torment still longer,
to sacrifice yet more,
for the sake of human dignity and self-respect?
Or do you prefer to survive as best you can,
allowing criminals to grab whatever they please (from others),
so long as they toss a few scraps your way?

Later, standing before a mirror
will you have the courage
to look at yourself,
or will you turn away
in order to sleep better at night?

Will your great-grandchildren
be slaves who curse you
(for having sold their future to tyrants)?
Or will they be indomitable men and women
who shed tears whenever they recall
your bitter tribulation and service (to God and humanity)?

Theology matters: The case of jihadi Islam

by Dr. Rüdiger Lohlker
Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna and co-founder of VORTEX (Vienna Observatory for Applied Research in Terrorism and Extremism)

“[I]t is crystal clear—to virtually anyone who has the linguistic capacity to grasp and the opportunity to witness what jihadists are actually saying, writing and doing, both online and offline—that religion matters. . .

“[W]ithout deconstructing the theology of violence inherent in jihadi communications and practice, these religious ideas will continue to inspire others to act, long after any given organized force, such as the Islamic State, may be destroyed on the ground. . .

“Flatly denying the importance of religion causes many in the West to overlook a crucial element of jihadi thought and action. This is particularly evident with regard to the mantra so often repeated in the wake of each new terrorist attack, viz.: “Islam is the religion of peace.”  The claim that religion motivates only positive behavior among human beings, and the implicit denial that religion may ever legitimize negative behavior, cannot withstand intellectual scrutiny. History provides countless examples of both positive and negative behavior legitimized by religion. . .”

Read the full article (PDF).

Enduring threat, global ramifications

by Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf

A rising tide of Islamism in its myriad forms – they run the gamut from preman berjubah (thugs draped in Arab garb) to social media activists, proselytism movements, educational networks, political parties and even terrorist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State – has been among the most noteworthy phenomena to emerge in Indonesia during the past 20 years.

Individually and collectively, these developments threaten the unity of Indonesia and its people, often in ways more subtle and profound than the bloody conflicts waged in the name of Islam in regions as diverse as Ambon, Poso and Aceh. And yet, this threat is far from new. Both before and after Indonesia achieved independence, its founding fathers had to grapple with the tension that exists between Islamic orthodoxy and the ideals of the modern nation-state. . .

Read the full article (PDF).

Maneuvering within Islam’s narrative space

by Lt. Col. Brian L. Steed
Assistant professor of military history at the United States Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

“The center of gravity for opponents in 21st-century conflict lies within the narrative space. For groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, that center of gravity lies in the specific belief that salvation may be obtained through martyrdom while battling infidels and apostates. This belief can only be engaged, and effectively countered, through maneuver in the narrative space.

“Global leaders, policy makers and military officials need to recognize the vital role that influence plays in virtually all contemporary conflicts. Those who seek to prevail would benefit from acknowledging the need to maneuver within narrative space, to acquire the desired influence. For to triumph, they must understand the morphology of any contested narrative space and master the history of this morphology. This knowledge provides contestants with an understanding of the refraction angle for any given engagement and the attendant perceptions. Successful maneuver in the narrative space thus requires an effective combination of ideology, strategy and tactical execution (ie, specific actions) in order to achieve the desired results. State and nonstate actors around the globe are constantly engaged in such maneuver. For example, Russian actions in Syria, Crimea and eastern Ukraine perfectly illustrate maneuver in the physical and narrative space.

“China’s conduct in regard to the South China Sea also provides a textbook example of combined maneuver in the physical and narrative space. The following essay in this edition’s cover package, “Lessons from Islam Nusantara,” describes how inhabitants of the Malay archipelago have successfully maneuvered in the narrative space for more than 500 years, to produce one of the most pluralistic and tolerant Islamic societies in the world today.”

Maneuver in the narrative space: Lessons from Islam Nusantara

by  C. Holland Taylor

“There has been a centuries-long struggle between competing forces, maneuvering in both the physical and narrative space, producing Indonesia’s uniquely pluralistic, tolerant and spiritual brand of Islam. It should be celebrated.”

Read both articles (PDF).

Towards a Reform of Islamic Teachings, and Principles, Regarding Muslim/Non-Muslim Relations

by Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf
Remarks delivered at the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club
December 13, 2016

“The politicization of Islam is readily enabled by the fact that supremacist political theories— which became fully established during the Middle Ages and continue to hold sway to the present—represent a core element of orthodox Islam. This supremacist belief structure has been continuously nurtured for over a thousand years by those who rely upon Islam as a primary source of political legitimacy and authority, and by various forms of Islamic activism.”

Read the full paper (PDF).