Author: Muhamad Ali
An assistant professor at the Department of Religious Studies,
University of California, Riverside, USA
Pluralism has always been a contentious issue, but Abdurrahman Wahid or “Gus Dur” worked beyond passive tolerance. He advocated the creation of a public space for communication, dialogue and cooperation between the mainstream and the marginalized. Gus Dur was a consistent defender of the Pancasila, and saw the Religious Affairs Ministry as a political compromise between the Islamic state and the purely secular state. According to him, Muslims do not have the obligation to establish an Islamic state.
Raised in a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) tradition, but also in Western and Eastern traditions, Gus Dur became the advocate of a reform rooted in the traditions. He received awards and honorary positions from Shimon Peres, Temple University, for his continued advocacy for the rights of minorities in Indonesia, and many others. He was the president of the Non-Violence and Peace Movement, a board member of the International Strategic Dialogue Center in Israel, Inter-religious Society for Reconciliation and Reconstruction in London, and one of the founders and board members of the Shimon Perez Center for Peace in Israel. He has been regarded by many in the world as a true defender of pluralism. He underwent a religious and intellectual evolution from being an “extremist”, who viewed Islam as an alternative to the West, to being an “eclectic cosmopolitan”, who saw Islam as a way of life that learned from nonreligious and other religious ideas.
For him, religious pluralism was a new concept nonexistent in the writings of classical and medieval Muslim scholars, but the absence of the term did not mean Islam was not pluralistic. For him, pluralism was both descriptive and prescriptive. It meant awareness that Muslims were diverse and people were religiously diverse, believers and nonbelievers. Pluralism awareness could only come from a nation without a formalized religious system. He reasoned that because the Koran guaranteed religious freedom and no compulsion in faith, the state should not engage in making any one religious interpretation superior over others. Christian scholar the late Th. Sumartana calls Gus Dur a consistent interpreter and giver of meaning to pluralism as both reality and norm.
Gus Dur asked, rhetorically, “Isn’t it that God and his messenger promote a universal brotherhood (persaudaraan manusia)?” For Gus Dur, pluralism also meant accepting that everyone had the right to be exclusive as well as inclusive. Muslims’ claim of truth is not unique, as the Second Vatican Council stated they respected everyone’s right to reach their truths, but they believed the truth was in the Roman Catholic Church. Competing truth claims are normal. Gus Dur said, “That is clear.” “And Islam is also clear. We will not be shaken in our tauhid concept, but we respect other faiths. Our founding fathers, although mostly Muslims, were able to accept other concepts of God, and worked out to agree on the basic concept of One God for Indonesia.”
In 1995, Gus Dur said, “Essentially all religions are the same as they are revealed by God in order that human beings from different origins, cultures and trajectories may love each other and in order that they may uphold morality, mercy and solidarity.” He emphasized Islamic universalism in different aspects (belief, law and ethics), addressing humanness (insaniyya), including human equality and human rights. At the same time, Islam is open to different cultural manifestations and intellectual insights from other civilizations. This creative Islamic cosmopolitanism, in his view, had been achieved at its peak when there was a balance between Muslims’ normative orientations and freedom of thought given to all peoples, including non-Muslims.
For Gus Dur, a kafir was not just one who denied God’s truth, but also one who could be a believer but denied God’s blessing. “Kafir doesn’t necessarily mean non-Muslim,” Gus Dur said, but rather unbelievers who attacked Islam, in that context nonbelievers in Mecca. There was a difference, he went on, between non-Muslims and the offensive kafir, the categorical kafir.
To Gus Dur, the Koran was clear in affirming religious freedom. Concerning apostasy or irtidad, he was aware of the traditional view that it be punishable by death, but warned one should not compromise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Indonesian contexts. He wrote, “If capital punishment were to be applied in Indonesia, there would be more than 20 million people killed because of their conversion from Islam to Christianity since 1965.” Therefore, he urged reform in Islamic law in accordance with time and place.
Gus Dur also promoted the idea of localization (pribumisasi) of Islam, rather than “Arabization”, although he was well versed in Arabic. By the Indonesianization of Islam he meant the blending of Islamic beliefs and values with local culture. “The source of Islam is revelation, which bears its own norms. Due to its normative character, it tends to be permanent. Culture, on the other hand, is a creation of human beings and therefore develops in accordance with social changes. This, however, does not prevent the manifestation of religious life in the form of culture,” he said.
Islamic ecumenism, borrowed from historian Arnold Toynbee, or Islamic universalism or cosmopolitanism, was for Gus Dur based on the five objectives of Islamic law (of al-Shatibi): protection of life, protection of belief, protection of family and future generations, protection of property and protection of mind. The rule of law and certainty must guarantee fair and just treatment for all citizens, without exception.
He believed that through free and open dialogue, truths could be reached by those participants who had “healthy and common reason”. In dialogues, one must be sincere in seeking and keeping truth and in thinking and expressing views. Intolerance comes from religious illiteracy and narrow-mindedness. For instance, one who likes to mock the deities of others is religiously illiterate. Gus Dur quoted the Koran: “You should not mock the gods of others because when you mock them then it means you mock your own god.”
His progressive thinking, advocating democracy, religious tolerance and human rights, have become influential among younger, progressive NU and non-NU activists, liberal intellectuals, NGOs, Christians and Chinese, Ahmadiyah sect leaders, businesspeople and more.
Rest in peace, Gus Dur!