The Wind Blows from Indonesia: The Emerging Global Role of Indonesian Islam

The recent conference in Jakarta and an event in Yogyakarta in the ASEAN framework, are nestled within a complex historical canvas, the context of which reaches much further back.[1] There is a history leading to the recent conference in Jakarta – and a pre-history. The ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference 2023 (ASEAN IIDC 2023), held as part of the Indonesian presidency of ASEAN this year, may represent another milestone on the long journey of Indonesian Islam.[2] The story begins with the founding of Nahdlatul Ulama in 1926 as a response to the changes in the Islamic world after the First World War. This event was preceded by a long history of Indonesian and Southeastasian Islam, as well as its preceding traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. Going back to the 15th/16th centuries, we may discover the phenomenon called wali songo, the nine saints. These semi-legendary figures played a significant role in the process of social and cultural accommodation of Islam within the Malayo-Indonesian archipelago. Aptly dubbed “where Islamic faith meets local history“[3] this process of acculturation took place/ran in parallel with adapting Islamic law (fiqh) and creating a network for dissemination and indigenization (pribumisasi)[4] across the Indian Ocean.[5]

We cannot follow the whole vastness of the complex histories of Indonesian Islam within the confines of one article[6] and will restrict ourselves to mentioning the mystic synthesis, a notion coined by M. C. Ricklefs:

„The mystic synthesis was the fruit of many years of conflicts and accommodations, and never constituted a formal or established orthodoxy that the [Javanese] were able, or concerned, to enforce. It was no established church but its lineaments are nevertheless clear.

We may see this mystic synthesis as the Javanese understanding of Sufism, resting on three prominent distinguishing features. The first of these was a strong sense of Islamic identity. Javanese society was a society of Muslims. […] The second prominent feature of the mystic synthesis was fulfilment of the five pillars of Islamic ritual life […] The third characteristic – perhaps surprisingly for some readers, given the two previous ones – was acceptance of local spiritual forces.“[7]

„Aside from the late fourteenth-century tombstones found in the Trowulan–Troloyo area, the earliest manifestations of proselytising Muslims on Java are associated with the so-called Wali Songo-Sufis called ‘Nine Saints’ credited with facilitating the early spread of Islam throughout Indonesia’s most populous island. Different sources list varying names of these saints, in whose life stories myth prevails over historical precision – dates elude verification, while purported facts lack authenticity. What is known today about Wali Songo reached us from sources written much later, very likely with intent to create a specific narrative of the history of Islamization in Java. Historical evidence about Wali Songo is scarce before the sixteenth century. The significance of transmitted tales about the Nine Saints lies in their pertinence to the Javanese Muslims’ understanding of their own history.”[8]

To acquire a more accurate view of the dominant imaginary within the Javanese world, we need to further underline the remaining aspects of the Hindu-Buddhist pre-history of the Indonesian archipelago.[9] Finally, the Dutch colonial influences, which gradually acquired more momentum since the 19th century, further impacted the transformation of Indonesian societies. New Muslim/Islamic actors appeared on the scene, among which was the organization of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Foundation of Nahdlatul Ulama

Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) was established as the result of several occurrences in Indonesia and the Islamic world at large. Its founding was an outcome of the competition between the Muhammadiya, an Islamic modernist organization, and the forces called traditionalist. – The dichotomy between modern and traditional implied here should not be taken for granted and understood as comparable to the universal meaning these terms convey, as these binaries were more finely attuned to the nuances within the local religious, social and political spheres. Internally, the interplay of religious and political aspects is one of the most important elements in the history of NU.[10] Recent developments allow for the construction of a narrative about NU that highlights the importance of entanglements between religion and politics.

On the international level, the development of the NU was influenced by the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the takeover of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, along with the ongoing struggle between modernists, traditionalists/conservatives, and those agents who were open to assimilation with the colonial culture/policies/influences.[11]

Due to the need for brevity, in this article we cannot treat the full history of NU, from its founding in 1926 and throughout the 20th century. We focus on the democratization period after the dictatorship of Suharto (1967-1998) and the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid[12] (d. 2001), 4th president of Indonesia and chairman of NU. One of the important concepts he inspired is the concept of Humanitarian Islam.

Humanitarian Islam

Humanitarian Islam emerged from an intense debate against modern Islamic extremism and exclusivism in modernity. A crucial moment in the history of Indonesian Islam was the publication of the book Ilusi Negara Islam[13], the Illusion of an Islamic State, marking the moment when the Indonesian Muslim mass organizations of NU and Muhammadiya grew in conviction that Islamic doctrines from the Arab world were threatening Indonesian Islam. We cannot discuss the elements of Humanitarian Islam in this context[14], but will quote a text published by Bayt ar-Rahmah, an Indonesian NGO promoting the Humanitarian Islam movement:

Humanitarian Islam is a global movement that seeks to restore rahmah (universal love and compassion) to its rightful place as the primary message of Islam, by addressing obsolete and problematic events within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny, while positioning these efforts within a much broader initiative to reject any and all forms of tyranny, and foster the emergence of a global civilization endowed with nobility of character.

The inspiration for Humanitarian Islam is the unique example of the 15th/16th century Wali Songo (“Nine Saints”) who proselytized Islam Nusantara (“East Indies Islam”) – rooted in the principle of rahmah – stressing the need to contextualize Islamic teachings and adapt these to the ever-changing realities of space and time, while presenting Islam not as a supremacist ideology or vehicle for conquest, but rather, as one of many paths through which humans may attain spiritual perfection.“[15]

 This quote represents the basic ideas of Humanitarian Islam which inspired many declarations and communiqués along with texts written with intent of applying these ideas to the most pressing issues of contemporary societies like the climate crisis. On April 10th, 2019, the Centrist Democrat International – a political network with over 100 parties active in 70 countries (among them Indonesia) – unanimously adopted the principles of Humanitarian Islam and called for its widespread dissemination.[16]

A series of events (co-)organized by NU is scheduled for 2022-2023 with aims to foster the advancement and promoting of the ideas of NU (giving birth to/promoting? Humanitarian Islam), bringing them to a global level. The creation of a working group called R20 as part of the G20 intergovernmental forum has been one of these events.

The G20[17] or Group of 20 is an intergovernmental forum of 19 member states and the European Union working on issues like global economy, financial stability, etc. Under the presidency of Indonesia, the G20 adopted the R20 in Bali in 2022 as a forum to discuss the new role of religions in contemporary society.

R20 International Summit

This forum was virtually unnoticed by the global – Western – media, even though it merits close scrutiny. This forum is described as committed:

„to help ensure that religion in the 21st century functions as a genuine and dynamic source of solutions, rather than problems. In order to fulfill this vision, R20 forum will mobilize diverse religious, political and economic leaders from G20 Member States and elsewhere throughout the world.“[18]

The R20 forum was co-organized by NU and the Saudi-based Muslim World League and took place in Bali in November 2022, over the course of several sessions. The first session included greetings and addresses from leaders of many religious traditions, among them His Holiness Pope Francis. The second session covered the issues of shared values and reciprocity, and the third session discussed historical grievances, truth-telling, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The fourth session bore the lengthy title of „What values do our respective traditions need to ensure that religion functions as a genuine and dynamic source of solutions, rather than problems.“ The fifth session endeavored to establish a list of values the development of which was needed for the sake of peaceful co-existence. The sixth and final session opened up to the burning questions of how to create a spiritual ecology.[19]

All these questions were discussed by religious leaders from all over the world. Thus, R20 may justifiably be called a turning point in the current state of affairs pertinent to religions.

Let’s turn to events that took place specifically in the context of NU! The process leading to the celebration of its 100th anniversary was mentioned at the R20[20] stressing the strong interrelations between the international events and national events.

NU Centennial

Celebrated early in February 2023, the centennial[21] of NU was expected to mark a new awakening[22] of the NU, making it ready to face the challenges of the new century of its existence, according to the words of the General Chairman of the Central Executive Board of NU, Yahya Cholil Staquf[23]:

„Chairperson of the NU centennial executive committee, Yenny Wahid, said that nine programs would be launched. These programs will cover NU Tech, the formation of NU Women, the Festival of Islamic Traditions of the Indonesian Archipelago, awards for Nahdlah figures, the NU sports week, Religion of 20 (R-20), the launch of the NZ Independence movement, the Congress of Civilization Fiqh, and an NU centennial reception.“[24]

The event itself is described as an overwhelming experience including poetic elements:

„On 7 February 2023, the world’s largest Muslim organization released the Nahdlatul Ulama Centennial March to celebrate its 100th anniversary according to the Islamic lunar calendar.

The song — whose lyrics were composed by the revered religious scholar, poet, painter, and Muslim intellectual KH. A. Mustofa Bisri — was performed by a live orchestra at a massive event attended by the President of Indonesia and a crowd of nearly two million NU followers, who converged upon the small town of Sidoarjo to take part in the centennial celebrations.“[25]

This celebration was part of commemoration of the centennial of NU. There were other events of the centennial worth mentioning: The gathering of over 300 Muslim scholars at a prestigious Islamic seminary, Pondok Pesantren Lirboyo, may be regarded as another important step in the process of developing the ideas of Humanitarian Islam. This gathering represented the culmination of a series of 231 meetings intended to popularize the concept of fiqh al-hadarah, Islamic jurisprudence for a global civilization. Among the most pertinent issues discussed were possible conflicts between Islamic jurisprudence and the Charter of the United Nations.[26] The outcome is aptly summarized in the Nahdlatul Ulama Centennial Proclamation, issued February 7, 2023:

„The Charter of the United Nations and the United Nations Organization are imperfect, and, indeed, remain problematic to the present day. However, the UN Charter was intended to end the destructive warfare and savagery that have characterized international relations throughout human history. Thus, the UN Charter and United Nations Organization constitute the strongest available foundation upon which to develop a new fiqh for a peaceful and harmonious future for human civilization.“[27]

Bringing together Islamic jurisprudence and the UN Charter as a starting point for the development of a new fiqh may be one of the most important results of the process that NU started many years ago. The next step was the move on the ASEAN level to promote a specific kind of soft diplomacy, putting religion on the regional agenda.

ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference 2023

Organized by the Nahdlatul Ulama, the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, and the Indonesian government, this conference marks a new level of engagement with religion at an international level. Leading representatives of religious communities of the ASEAN member states took part in this event: Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Christian, etc. Linking ASEAN IIDC 2023 to the R20 Summit of 2022 was the book launch on Friday 4th, August, 2023, organized by Universitas Gadjah Mada and Universitas Nahdhatul Ulama (UNU) Yogyakarta of the proceedings of the R20 summit.[28] The volume comprises the statements of the plenary sessions of the R20 summit along with some additional documents.

The spirit of this book and the events it reports about are well expressed by a statement of Yahya Cholil Staquf, chairman of the Executive Council of Nahdlatul Ulama:

„Religion must have credibility if it is to play a constructive role in this struggle of values. I believe that the first step on the path to gaining this credibility is to resolve both inter- and intra-religious conflict.

Now there is another complex aspect to this equation that we need to consider. In order for political consolidation to occur and be directed towards the achievement of certain goals, a supportive constituency is required. […]

Hence, we need to initiate a process that will consolidate this ‚constitutency of values.‘ We need to identify values that have the potential to unite an extremely broad and diverse constituency.“[29]

This constituency was embodied through the participants of the R20 International Summit and ASEAN IIDC 2023, as well as through strategies to make the creation of this constituency permanent.


Two important declarations on the reform of Islamic law (fiqh), as well as other commentaries on the R20 experience, serve the purpose of linking R20 to other important events, like the NU Centennial or the First International Convention on Islamic Jurisprudence for a Global Civilization

As mentioned before, the efforts of religious movements like Nahdlatul Ulama are linked to the policies of the Republic of Indonesia. As stated in the Guide Book to ASEAN IIDC 20

„The Conference seeks to precipitate a revival of the cultural and civilizational mentality, or worldview that was long characteristic of Southeast Asia, prior to the modern era. This ‚cultural and civilizational mentality‘ is characterized by a willingness to accept differences while preserving and strengthening harmony among society’s diverse elements. Integral to this effort is a regional strategy called the ‚Ashoka Approach‘, a mode of intercultural and interreligious dialogue that championed compassion, extensive discussion and interchange among followers of diverse spiritual paths, inter-faith tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect for the dignity inherent in others.“[30]

This conference, along with other related events, represents the result of the efforts of the world’s largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama. Supported by the government of the Republic of Indonesia, and nestled within the framework of geopolitical changes, it has potential to change the structure of the religioscape worldwide – hopefully, in a positive way.

A kind of conclusion

NU is the driving force behind the events that we have presented here. Thus, it may be appropriate to close with a look at the logo of NU.

The NU logo, designed by KH. Ridwan Abdullah in 1927, prominently displays nine stars and a rope with 99 segments encircling the globe. The image of the earth represents Nahdlatul Ulama’s civilizational mission, and religious mandate, to “consolidate the universe” by manifesting love and compassion for all sentient beings and every aspect of creation (rahmatan li al-‘alamin, Qur’an 21:107).

The rope symbolizes the 99 Beautiful Names of God (al-asma ul-husna) and the overriding imperative to ensure the welfare of humanity by maintaining a vertical tie with God and the horizontal tie of fraternity with one’s fellow human beings. The nine stars symbolize the Wali Songo, whose teachings inspired the founding of Nahdlatul Ulama and serve as a direct chain of transmission to the Prophet Muhammad (saw.) himself. Simultaneously, the nine stars also represent the Prophet and his four righteously guided successors (situated above the globe) and the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (below the globe).“[31]

This logo represents well the symbolic universe depicted by the NU as its base of operation and enables the NU to reach out to other religious traditions, bringing along a social epistemology that will influence the global role of religions – and beyond.


[1]      Thanks to Nikola Pantic for his helpful comments.

[2]      Some interesting insights on the current development of ASEAN are provided (a selection of some interesting recent literature) by 50 Years of Amity and Enmity: The Politics of ASEAN Cooperation, edited by Poppy S. Winanti and Muhammad Rum. Yogyakarta: Gadjah University Press, 2018, Managing Conflicts in a Globalizing ASEAN: Incompatibility Management Through Good Governance, edited by Mikio Oishi. Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020, and ASEAN International Law, edited by Eric Yong Joong Lee. Singapore: Springer Nature, 2022. For the strategic issue of relations of ASEAN to India cf. ASEAN and India-ASEAN Relations: Navigating Shifting Geopolitics, ed. by M Mayilvaganan. Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2022.

[3]      Quinn. Bandit Saints, p. 15.

[4]       Rüdiger Lohlker: Islamic fiqh reconsidered: An Indonesian approach, in Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society – J-RaT 7i (2021), pp. 188-208.

[5]      Mahmood Kooria. Islamic Law in Circulation. Shāfiʿī Texts across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

[6]      For an excellent overview of the history of Islamic Indonesia until modernity cf. M. C. Ricklefs. A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1200. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 20084.

[7]      M. C. Ricklefs. Polarising Javanese Society: Islamic and other Visions c. 1830-1930. Singapore: NUS Press, 2007, pp. 5-6. For a more detailed presentation of the idea of a mystic synthesis cf. M. C. Ricklefs. Mystic Synthesis in Java. A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries. Norwalk: EastBridge, 2006.

[8]      Carool Kersten. A History of Islam in Indonesia: Unity in Diversity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, p. 28. For the contemporary importance of the wali songo cf. George Quinn. Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s Eccentric Saints are Challenging Fundamentalist Islam in Modern Indonesia. Burrough on the Hill: Monsoon Books, 2019. For a contemporary Indonesian overview cf. Agus Sonyoto. Atlas Wali Songo. Tangerang Selatan: Piustaka IIMaN, 20177.

[9]      We are aware that the Indonesian archipelago comprises more cultures and varieties than the Javanese one. For the sake of brevity, we restrict our narrative to the Javanese case.

[10]    I am referring to Robin Bush. Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power within Islam and Politics in Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS, 2009.

[11]    For the fight for Indonesian independence and its framework cf. David Van Reybrouck. Revolusi: Indonesien und die Entstehung der modernen Welt. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2022.

[12]    For a biography cf. Greg Barton. Abdurrahman Wahid; Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President. Sidney: UNSW Press, 2002.

[13]    Wahid 2009

[14]    For a conversation about Humanitarian Islam cf. the contributions in Katharina Ivanyi and Rüdiger Lohlker (eds.). Humanitarian Islam: Reflecting on an Islamic Concept. Paderborn: Brill/Schöningh, 2023.

[15] (last accessed August 16, 2023).

[16]    Available via

[17]    For some interesting Indonesian perspectives cf. G20 di tangah perubahan besar: Momentum Kepemimpinan global Indonesia? edited by Poppy S. Winanti and Wawan Mas’udi. Yogyakarta: Gadjah University Press, 2022.

[18] (last accessed August 16, 2023).

[19]    The contributions of these sessions are included in Proceedings of the R20 International Summit of Religious Leaders, edited by Muhammad Najib Azca, Timothy Samuel Shah, and C. Holland Taylor. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press, 2023.

[20]    By Ulil Abshar Abdalla, the chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Institute for Study and Human Resource

Development, Proceedings of the R20 International Summit. pp. 230-233.

[21]    The date is calculated according to the Hijri calendar.

[22]    Prayogi Dwi Sulistyo, The Trajectory of Nahdlatul Ulama Awakening in Kompas June 21, 2022 ( (last accessed August 15, 2023).

[23]    For some background information cf. Alexander Raymond Arifianto. “Humanitarian Islam”: New Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman and the Global Initiative to Promote Religious Moderation ( (last accessed August 16, 2023).

[24]    Sulistyo, The Trajectory.

[25]    Nahdlatul Ulama launches its Centennial March at a gathering of nearly two million men, women, and children ( (last accessed August 15, 2023).

[26]    Islamic Jurisprudence for a Global Civilization ( (last accessed August 15, 2023).

[27]    Proceedings of the R20 International Summit, p. 345.

[28]    Cf. the Proceedings of the R20 International Summit.

[29]    Yahya Cholil Staquf. The Competition to Determine what Values will form the Basis of a New Global Civilization. Address delivered […] in Surabaya, East Java, on 15 June 2023.

[30]    ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference 2023. Guidebook. Jakarta: Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board, 2023, p.6.

[31]    Yahya Cholil Staquf and C. Holland Taylor. The Civilizational Origins of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and its Humanitarian Islam Movement in Hudson Institute ( (last accessed August 15, 2023).

RaT-Blog Nr. 17/2023

  • Rüdiger Lohlker ist Professor für Islamwissenschaft an der Universität Wien. Seine Forschungsschwerpunkte sind die islamische Ideengeschichte, v.a. der Sufismus, Islam und Wissenschaft, Salafismus, Jihadismus und islamische bzw. arabische Online-Kommunikation.

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