Oct 28, 2021 Last Updated 10:22 AM, Oct 21, 2021

One Islamic community, two rival sisters

One Islamic community, two rival sisters
Published: Dec 17, 2010

Kevin W Fogg and Muhammad Saleh Ending

   Tuan Guru Bajang introduces his cousin, H L Gde Wirasakti, to the
   Kevin W. Fogg

In July 2010, thousands of people gathered from across Lombok and across Indonesia to celebrate the 75th anniversary of an Islamic boarding school. The event featured seven musical performances, a cabinet minister, a charming young governor, award-winning Qur’an reciters and, of course, West Nusa Tenggara province’s leading Islamic scholars. However, the real superstars of the day were two elderly sisters who never even took the microphone. Applause broke out every time their names were mentioned. The Lombok Post covered their attendance on the front page on both 25 July – the day of the anniversary – and the following day. The reason these women received such attention is because their cooperation represents a new hope for an old organisation to return to its old self.

The organisation is Nahdlatul Wathan, a huge and powerful network of religious boarding schools and social operations. Although its name is Arabic for ‘Revival of the Nation’, Nahdlatul Wathan is famous for its activity specifically in eastern Indonesia. It is almost certainly the largest non-governmental entity based east of Bali. Its hundreds of thousands of students, alumni and loyal followers have also led the organisation into fields other than religion, particularly politics, which has in turn led Nahdlatul Wathan into trouble.

Family ties

The two sisters whose appearance elicited such an enthusiastic response are Siti Raehanun and Siti Rauhun, the daughters of Maulana Syaikh TGKH Muhammad Zainuddin Abdul Madjid (1904-1997), who founded the Nahdlatul Wathan religious boarding school. This teacher was usually called simply ‘Tuan Guru Pancor’, a title that combines an honorific for respected teachers of religious knowledge and the name of his home town, Pancor, in East Lombok. He came back from Mecca in 1934 and began founding Islamic schools in the region, the crown jewels of which are Nahdlatul Wathan Diniyyah Islamiyyah, which just celebrated its 75th anniversary, and its companion school for girls, Nahdlatul Banat Diniyyah Islamiyyah. Teaching adherence to the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence (like the much larger organisation Nahdlatul Ulama on Java) and encouraging all graduates to found schools of their own, the Nahdlatul Wathan network grew exponentially for the next several decades. This led Tuan Guru Pancor to establish a formal religious organisation of the same name in 1953. At that point, there were 66 schools in the Nahdlatul Wathan educational network scattered across Lombok, with corresponding organisational branches.

Today, the influence the organisation can be seen throughout West Nusa Tenggara. Over 700 Nahdlatul Wathan-associated schools are run in the province, with some 200,000 students throughout the entire system. Mosques throughout Lombok sport Nahdlatul Wathan branch signs out front, and droves of government office-holders are affiliated to Nahdlatul Wathan. In fact, the governor, who is the grandson of Tuan Guru Pancor, rode his grandfather’s (and the organisation’s) popularity into office in 2008 as the youngest governor in Indonesia. He ran using the honorific ‘Tuan Guru Bajang’ (Young Teacher, and very reminiscent of his grandfather’s title), giving his proper name, KH. Zainul Majdi, small billing on campaign posters.

Ties broken

Although Tuan Guru Bajang’s name and face are perhaps the most well-known or visible Nahdlatul Wathan symbols in Lombok today, his leadership is open to question. This is because of a split in the organisation dating back to the death of its founder in 1997. When Tuan Guru Pancor passed away at 93 years old, he had no sons and no designated spiritual heir. The subsequent organisational congress in July 1998 elected his younger daughter, Siti Raehanun, as General Head of Nahdlatul Wathan. Her selection caused significant controversy, however, because of the prohibition on women as spiritual leaders in traditional Syafi’i Islamic theology. This also brought to a head several points of conflict between the two sisters rumoured to have begun years earlier. Fairly soon, a group around the older daughter, Siti Rauhun, made a move to take over the organisation. This group held a rival, ‘reformasi’ congress in December 1998, in which Tuan Guru Bajang, the current governor and the son of Siti Rauhun, was elected General Head of Nahdlatul Wathan.

In the ensuing struggle, the older sister’s group (including the current governor) wound up with the sprawling Pancor boarding school complex where Nahdlatul Wathan was traditionally based. Perhaps as a result they also kept the lion’s share of the followers. The younger sister led her faithful from a rival Islamic boarding school in Anjani, 12 kilometres from Nahdlatul Wathan’s birthplace. Thus, for over a decade, Nahdlatul Wathan has had rival, and often parallel, organisations commonly known as NW-Anjani (under Siti Raehanun, sometimes also called NW-Kalijaga) and NW-Pancor (under Siti Rauhun and Tuan Guru Bajang).

During this period, the rivalry occasionally spiralled out of control, causing the destruction of many members’ houses, the burning of educational institutions, and even loss of life. Not only were pride and religious orthodoxy (over the role of women) at stake for each side, but also the control of organisational assets. These assets range from kindergartens all the way up to universities, but most prominently include large numbers of pesantren and their associated land and buildings. The leadership on each side goaded their followers into fighting to support their side’s leadership and thus control over these resources. As sharp as the rivalry had been, however, the 75th anniversary celebration this past July was a major step toward ending the split and reconciling the sisters’ organisations.

A religious spectacle

Back at the 75th anniversary celebration, the day started early, as thousands of people began the pilgrimage to Pancor. Upon arrival the growing crowd assembled at the centre of the school compound in a square that had been covered especially for this ceremony. General supporters were seated on the ground in front of the platform, behind a row of students; by 10am this number had reached roughly 8000. Religious and social leaders were seated in chairs to the left and right of the stage, as well as in an adjacent quandrangle where they could watch a simulcast on large screens. Those organisational leaders and special guests important or lucky enough to get a VVIP pass were reserved a space on the stage, where genders were divided (stage-left for women; stage-right for men). Out of everyone in attendance, roughly two-thirds were women. Attendees ranged in age from toddlers to octogenarians.

   Tuan Guru Bajang’s face is easily the most recognisable in all of
   Kevin W. Fogg

The program itself was an even mix of performance (through multiple musical numbers and trilingual presentations), politics (through the appearance of government officials – and aspirants – from all levels), and piety (through the preaching of several famous ulama, and a few of the politicians). Although the crowd had already been entertained for some time by student song and dance performances, the real start of the program came at 9:20am, when Siti Raehanun and Siti Rauhun came on stage together, escorted by Tuan Guru Bajang and their husbands. Siti Raehanun had stayed up late the night before, debating her attendance until past 11pm, but still managed to arrive on time at the start of the program. Her sons, though, each interrupted the program, entering individually about half an hour afterward, later explaining that bad traffic had prevented their punctual arrival.

After numerous welcome speeches from Nahdlatul Wathan leaders and the district head of East Lombok, the Minister for the Development of Left-Behind Regions took the microphone at 10:40 to deliver a rambling, 20 minute sermon on humanity, brotherhood, and thankfulness. (There was some grumbling after the fact by the religious scholars who had been seated on the platform about the propriety of a government minister trying to preach to a group of religious experts.) Then came Siti Raehanun’s eldest son, representing NW-Anjani. His speech mixed in a few phrases from the local Sasak language, but the most memorable comment came in Indonesian when he proclaimed, to much applause, that ‘Without the greater Tuan Guru Pancor family, Nahdlatul Wathan cannot be great!’

The day’s keynote speech came just past noon when the governor took the microphone. Over 45 minutes, the quick-talking Tuan Guru Bajang ranged from religious and family advice to education policy, using a style very familiar to those who have seen the charismatic, religious-motivation-cum-entertainment sermons popular on Indonesian television. Over and over, however, he returned to the theme of Nahdlatul Wathan’s core purpose as an organisation. The most frequent way he expressed this idea was by leading the audience in repeating the organisation’s motto: ‘Above all, support NW; NW supports faith and propagation above all.’ In perhaps the most surprising comment of the day, the governor also called upon the crowd, at this point standing-room-only as far as the eye could see, to join him again in attending a second 75th anniversary celebration at the ‘other’ Nahdlatul Wathan complex in Anjani.

Meaningful as well as moving

Two notable trends stood out during the official events. The first was unity, driven home not only by repeated references in speeches, but by the thunderous applause that each reference to unity received. Representatives from each side were extremely jovial in greeting one another, with plenty of embracing and complimenting to go around. The two sisters appeared side-by-side throughout the entire day, from their first step onto the stage to their exit and seats at the VIP lunch afterward. More than one speaker emphasised that the cooperation of this day demonstrated how Nahdlatul Wathan should always be.

A second major theme concerned gender politics, the ostensible reason for the break in the first place. At this event, both sides seemed either to be making concessions on the gender issue or to have reached a happy medium together. NW-Pancor, which had objected vehemently to a female head of the organisation in 1998, appointed a female chairperson for the 75th anniversary committee, as well as a female representative to receive the Family Planning Commendation (two very high profile roles during the day’s program). Female students also lead the opening Qur’an recitation, gave speeches as student competition winners, and sang the musical numbers.

Granted, these could have been in concession to the majority-female audience, but the contrast with NW-Anjani is telling. Despite having gone to the mat to support a female head in 1998, none of the speakers from NW-Anjani were women. Siti Raehanun herself never took the microphone, and when the governor called up an Anjani representative during his speech, it was Siti Raehanun’s second son, H L Gde Wirasakti who took the stage. Wirasakti’s appearance, however, points to the politics of reconciliation brewing outside the anniversary celebration itself.

Political motives

Numerous observers have seen an ulterior motive for reconciliation in the desire of Nahdlatul Wathan’s highest leadership (and political elite) for power. These leaders recognise that the majority of Lombok’s population follows Nahdlatul Wathan. Thus, they think it is only fitting that the positions of leadership on the island are held by Nahdlatul Wathan operatives, who have long desired to hold the reins of leadership, both as an opportunity for Islamic propagation and as a way to enlarge Nahdlatul Wathan educational institutions.

Siti Rauhun’s family has already succeeded in winning positions of power, from her son K H Zainul Majdi (Tuan Guru Bajang) the governor of West Nusa Tenggara, to the deputy district head and head of the regional parliament of East Lombok. The greater Nahdlatul Wathan family also includes district heads or assistant district heads in West Lombok, Mataram, and North Lombok. The list is almost unending if one includes the heads of offices and bureaus in the provincial and regional governments, which are almost all dominated by Nahdlatul Wathan’s cadres.

   A female student gave the opening Qur'anic recitation
   Kevin W. Fogg

Siti Raehanun’s side tried to break into politics by making her son, H L Gde Wirasakti, a candidate for district head of Central Lombok. In this effort, they enlisted the support of the whole Nahdlatul Wathan apparatus. One strategy used to ramp up enthusiasm was to enact a reconciliation of Nahdlatul Wathan amid the ongoing election for regional head in Central Lombok. Many see this political motivation as the reason the two sides could again weave together the long-broken connection.

Two years ago, Siti Raehanun’s family and the NW-Anjani organisation gingerly supported Tuan Guru Bajang in his bid for governor. This year, the leaders of both sides of Nahdlatul Wathan and the holders of power in the government practically engaged in guerrilla warfare to campaign for H L Gde Wirasakti to become district head. They drew on family friendships, social activities and religious activities and mobilised leaders of even the smallest Nahdlatul Wathan chapters at the village level. Even the institutes of higher education under Nahdlatul Wathan auspices were directly involved in encouraging people to vote for the Nahdlatul Wathan candidate.

As it turns out, though, becoming a district head is not easy. In the end of the competition, H L Gde Wirasakti, despite the full support of the whole Nahdlatul Wathan establishment and winning the most votes in the first-round election in early June, could not beat H L Suhaili in the 23 September run-off election.

Apparently the people of Central Lombok are more independent decision-makers than they were given credit for. One factor that came into play was this region’s history of strong support for the Java-based traditional Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an organisation that rivals Nahdlatul Wathan’s deep roots in Central Lombok and which campaigned in full support of H L Suhaili there. Moreover, other Islamic groups were afraid that if a power-hungry Nahdlatul Wathan cadre became district head then Nahdlatul Wathan would be able to monopolise both Islamic propagation and political power in the region.

The road ahead

This failure to elect H L Gde Wirasakti as district head, even after the strong (albeit implicit) endorsement he received from the governor at the 75th anniversary, provides the greatest test so far to the nascent reconciliation within Nahdlatul Wathan. Having lost the election, leaders began blaming each other for lack of unity in the Nahdlatul Wathan community. Even the much-rumoured second 75th anniversary celebration at Anjani, as pushed by the governor in his plenary address at Pancor, disappeared from public discourse. Those closest to the failed candidate are now calling the events of July a ‘half-hearted’ reconciliation, only skin-deep, because others did not give the whole-hearted moral and financial support necessary to secure elected office for Siti Raehanun’s son.

Yet the events of the 75th anniversary of Nahdlatul Wathan, and especially the unity displayed between the two sisters, were certainly a major turning point in the political and religious life of Lombok. In the days and weeks immediately following the meeting of Siti Raehanun and Siti Rauhun, the Nahdlatul Wathan family felt as close as it had in a long time. Everywhere one heard stories about prayers of thanks with tears rolling down the cheeks of Nahdlatul Wathan followers who had missed this unity so much. In the autonomous organisations under Nahdlatul Wathan (including the women’s and youth auxiliaries), many proposals came up for religious activities to unify the community down to the lowest level, with the spirit that there is no longer an NW-Anjani or NW-Pancor, just one big-tent Nahdlatul Wathan.

However, given the recent failure of the reconciliation to produce political fruit, the organisation faces a crossroads. It seems that the rank-and-file members support unity if at all possible, so the momentum remains in that direction. Leaders in NW-Anjani and NW-Pancor, however, continue to find fault with each other, and many probably fear losing their positions in any merger. The mid-level leaders and managers in the organisations appear to be the group most tepid in its support for unity. Yet given the continued power of the family at the heart of the organisation, in the end it is likely that any possibility of unity rests on two sisters and their individual spirits of reconciliation.

Kevin W Fogg (kevin.fogg@yale.edu) is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University, USA.
Muhammad Saleh Ending (ending_gpa25@yahoo.co.id) is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Universitas Gadjah Mada and a lecturer at IAIN-Mataram, both in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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