Nahdlatul Ulama: Reformist Group Focused On Humanitarian Islam

Nahdlatul Ulama is the world’s biggest Islamic organisation and an antithesis of forces such as the Taliban but hardly known perhaps because its progressive ideas do not fit into the dominant narrative about Islam particularly when Islamophobia is lucrative and many demagogues globally have tapped into it for political power. 

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In the second week of November, the Taliban banned women and girls from visiting parks and gyms irrespective of whether male chaperones accompanied them or not. The news came hardly as a surprise. The ban was the latest in a series of the Taliban’s moves since returning to power in Afghanistan in 2021 to erase women from public life.

The Taliban have gone back on their pledges and continued to violate the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls, who have been the worst sufferers since the Soviet occupation plunged Afghanistan into conflict in 1979. They have been at the receiving end of both their oppressors as well those claiming to be their saviours, who used women’s rights to justify wars before abandoning them.

The Taliban’s return to power has primarily been disastrous for women, who have been asked to refrain from attending work until systems were in place to ensure their safety. The access of women to education has been restricted until the Taliban are able to create a secure ‘learning environment’ for them.

The women have also been barred from travelling long distances without a male chaperone, forced to cover their faces in public, and asked to remain indoors except in cases of emergency.

The Afghan women have, however, refused to back down and have also taken to the streets as the Taliban have continued to deprive them of their rights. They are among a bulk of even deeply religious Afghans who reject the Taliban brand of ‘sharia’ and so do an overwhelming majority of Muslims globally.

The Taliban are literalists and have turned a blind eye to the Islamic mandate for love and compassion. But that should be no excuse to tar Muslims for the Taliban cannot even claim to represent Afghans not to mention the 1.97 billion adherents of Islam globally or about 25% of the world’s population.

The Taliban are a source of despair. But there is no dearth of organisations working for a more harmonious and just world. Indonesian Nahdlatul Ulama (Reawakening of the Islamic Scholars) is one of them.

Founded in 1926, Nahdlatul Ulama is the world’s biggest Islamic organisation and an antithesis of the Taliban. But it is hardly known perhaps because it does not fit into the dominant narrative about Islam particularly when Islamophobia is lucrative and many demagogues globally have tapped into it for political power by demonising Muslims.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s progressive ideas are like a balm. It embraces spirituality, and cultural traditions and supports equal citizenship while rejecting the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims as legal categories.

Nahdlatul Ulama has been working for inter-faith cooperation to promote peace globally including by joining hands with the World Evangelical Alliance, which claims to represent 600 million Protestants, to promote solidarity.

Its membership of 90 million is more than double the population of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (37 million or two percent of Muslims globally). It also represents the larger ethos of Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy governed by five foundational principles called pancasila—belief in God, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy, and social justice.

Nahdlatul Ulama embodies these principles. In his book Civil Islam, American academic Robert Hefner has documented the contributions of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-biggest Islamic organisation, to the country’s democratisation in the 1990s.

Nahdlatul Ulama leader Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), a reformist who drew inspiration from humanitarian Islam, became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president in 1999. Indonesian religious affairs minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas is a Nahdlatul Ulama member and one of the three signatories of a decree that banned the imposition of headscarves on students.

Nahdlatul Ulama, which recognises the legitimacy of nation-states and their constitutional and legal systems, rejects the idea of a global caliphate or that a single leadership should unite Muslims globally. In 2014, it began to focus on humanitarian Islam in response to the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that masqueraded as a caliphate.

Nahdlatul Ulama has had Islamic scholars put their heads together for reforming Islamic thought on issues such as political leadership, equal citizenship, and relations with non-Muslims. This is crucial since fiqh or jurisprudence has been wrongly projected as beyond change. Fiqh is man-made and neither divine nor immutable. It is a result of human reflection and literally means understanding. Fiqh has different schools and is human and hence fallible.

The likes of the Taliban are literal followers of fiqh which was formulated centuries back and is incompatible with the contemporary world. The Taliban violate Islam’s universal and inclusive spirit, which the Prophet Muhammad reemphasized in his last sermon.

The Prophet called all humans descendants of Adam and Eve and declared there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’ He underlined the need for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to Muslims.

The Prophet directed Muslims not to inflict nor suffer inequity. ‘… you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. … Treat women well and be kind to them…’ Equality was the crux of the Prophet’s teachings that in seventh-century Arabia first resonated with marginalised people such as women but is completely lost on the likes of the Taliban even in the 21st century.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan



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