Published: Sep 30, 2007

For a newcomer to Indonesia, the Islamic landscape can be profoundly confusing. Islamic discourse is shaped by different organisations with varied agendas of political, social, economic and religious issues. As the first in English to provide inside information about the history of the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), this book is a great help. Six long time NU observers trace the process of NU's development after its establishment in 1926 until the present day.

Three chapters analyse NU's relationship with the army (Andree Feillard), its search for a new identity as a radical yet traditional organisation (Mitsuo Nakamura), and how it managed to reinvent itself in the 1980s by returning to the spirit of the strategy (khittah) of its founding fathers (Martin van Bruinessen). The return meant that NU would strive for the improvement of education, charity (social justice), and economic matters, and that it would work to overcome the Muslim community's backwardness.

Traditionalist Muslims 'follow the great ulama of the past'. Several articles explain how NU ulama managed to condone renewal by using certain methods of interpreting the traditional sources. Highlighting these methods serves to debunk the often heard opinion of NU as an opportunistic club that would bend to the most favourable political wind. For example, the concept of the middle way (tawassuth) implies religious tolerance. It also implies acceptance of Pancasila and for NU to stay on the right side of the government.

Biographies and analyses of the writings of three of NU's most influential leaders give insight into the political thoughts that inspired them. The ulama were the 'ultimate units of authority and autonomy'. Wahab Chasbullah, one of NU's founders whose role in its transformation into a political party always seemed overshadowed by Wahid Hashim's performance, gets due attention. Greg Fealy's article follows him from an enlightened religious teacher to a seasoned, pro-Sukarno politician.

Greg Barton and Douglas Ramage analyse how Achmad Siddiq and Abdurrahman Wahid shaped the reform process that led NU out of its antagonistic position toward the New Order government into a program of social change. Reports of NU congresses, however, testify that the sweeping changes NU underwent were not always taken for granted by the delegates.

Throughout the book the colourful NU figures spring to life. This makes it an excellent source of information for anyone who wants to know what NU stands for, what constitute its differences with the modernists, and what it means to Islam in Indonesia.

Nelly van Doorn teaches at Duta Wacana Christian University, Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 52: Oct-Dec 1997