Over the past 20 years, Indonesia — the world’s fourth most-populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation — has evolved into a democracy based on tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam, and has emerged as one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. This essay is part of a series on “Indonesia and the Middle East: Exploring Connections,” which examines the nature, scope, and implications of Indonesia's ties with the MENA region. See more ...


There is a certain established image of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, as representing “moderate” Islam. This image has been consolidated especially since Abdurrahman Wahid assumed the leadership of the NU in 1984. Wahid, a religious pluralist, emphasizes the importance of inter-religious dialogues and co-existence, and opposes to Islamism calling for implementation of sharia law and endorsing a state based on Islam. Many scholarly works have spotlighted the pluralist leadership of the NU.[1] Opposition forces within the NU are often depicted as a peripheral minority, as though the organization’s diversity allows them to exist.

Recent events in local and national politics, however, have severely undermined the NU’s established image. Notably, a series of demonstrations took place in Jakarta in 2016-17 to protest the alleged “blasphemy statement” by the Christian Chinese governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as “Ahok.” Some observers have drawn their attention to these events as symbolizing Indonesia’s “conservative turn.”[2] Many NU members allegedly joined and endorsed the protest against Ahok, including notorious Islamists such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI) and Salafi preachers. While there is an extensive literature on “conservative” Islamist groups such as FPI and Salafi organizations in Indonesia, the questions on who the NU’s “conservatives” are, and what drives them to ally with the former have rarely been examined. 

As Arifianto (2018) observes, the NU conservatives are gaining popularity both through traditional propagation activities (dakwah) and via online media.[3] To further understand their increasing prominence, this article explores the trajectories of NU’s anti-pluralist dissidents. They are largely the second and third generations of NU kiais (Islamic boarding school’s teachers and clerics) who have been opposing pluralists’ rule and have been attempting to bring about the reformation of the organization. They often claim that the “original” ideas of NU have been forgotten and replaced by pluralism, which, they claim, virtually justifies “morally corrupted liberalism and secularism.” These allegations have attracted many Muslims who are dissatisfied with the existing political order and religious authorities.

A Sufi in Saudi Arabia and Indonesian Followers

Suharto’s authoritarian regime marginalized Islamic organizations, including NU, by adopting policies to undercut their political involvement and influence since Islam was regarded as a potential “threat.” This political environment virtually gave larger room for the religious pluralists who can adopt the secular state ideology Pancasila, to dominate the discourse within the major Islamic organizations. Despite repeated attempts to criticize and undermine Wahid’s pluralist ideas by numerous kiais, they never succeeded in toppling him, as they largely lacked coherence. 

However, the anti-pluralist forces within NU slowly consolidated the support bases during the Suharto regime. They are originally followers of the Saudi cleric, Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki (1944-2004). Among the NU kiais, Muhammad Al-Maliki was a renowned ulama whose grandfather, Sayyid Abbas bin Abdul Aziz Al Maliki, the qadi (chief judge) of Mecca taught hadith to the NU’s founder Hasyim Asy’ari and whose father Sayyid Alawi bin Abbas al-Maliki also taught to many kiais at Haram Mosque.[4] Muhammad al-Maliki was also known for his immense knowledge of hadith.

Al-Maliki visited Indonesia in 1975 for the first time to meet with Suharto as part of a delegation of the Muslim World League (Rabitat al Alam al Islami).[5] During several visits to Indonesia, he discovered a huge potential following in NU’s Islamic boarding schools or pesantrens.[6]

Although based in Saudi Arabia, a country known for the strict doctrines of Wahhabism, Muhammad Al-Maliki taught not only the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) but also Sufism, which has been regarded as “heresy” by Wahhabi ulama. In early 1980s, as Wahhabi ulama increased pressure and Al-Maliki was removed from the teaching position as professor of sharia at Umm al-Qura University and that of Haram Mosque.[7] He then began to teach privately at his home and sought disciples outside of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, he has become more influential and well-known in Indonesia than in Saudi Arabia.

In East Java, the heartland of NU, Al-Maliki cultivated the acquaintance with many prominent NU kiais, including Abdullah Faqih of Pesantren Langitan.[8] He also encouraged Hasan Baharun, a Madurese sayyid and a former NU political party campaigner to engage in dakwah in Bangil and establish a Pesantren Darul Lughoh Wadda`wah (Dalwa).[9] From both pesantrens, many students were sent to Mecca to study under Al-Maliki,[10] who generously covered all costs of travel, study and living expenses in Mecca. Furthermore, even after they return to Indonesia, Al-Maliki continued to provide mental and financial support.[11] In exchange for this support, followers were told to engage in dakwah in mosques and on university campuses and to increase the student enrollment in the pesantrens.

However, the Islamic teachings and commitment to sharia learned in Mecca was not deemed valid by NU leaders, as Wahid repeatedly emphasized the coexistence as well as their religious rights of non-Muslim and non-Sunni Islam, especially Shia. In their eyes, religious pluralists represent “the establishment,” who are willingly to accommodate themselves an oppressive secular regime. In his teaching, however, Al-Maliki also repeatedly underlined the importance of tolerance of those holding different opinions and beliefs and avoid referring to them as “kafir” (disbelievers or infidels).[12] Nevertheless, some of Al-Maliki’s followers have become increasingly aggressive against the pluralist leadership, enjoying the silent support of the kiais, who regard Shiism as “heresy” (sesat) and have felt threatened by prominent Shia cleric, Husein Al Habsyi, and his Yayasan Pesantren Islam (Foundation of Islamic Pesantren, YAPI) in Bangil, East Java. 

One of Al-Maliki’s followers, Hamid Baidlowi, son of the renowned kiai Baidolowi in Rembang, repeatedly criticized Wahid’s leadership for defending Shia in an attempt to discredit and unseat him by exploiting the anti-Shia sentiment which was prevalent among many senior kiais in East Java. Although Hamid’s campaign ultimately had little impact, as Wahid again secured the leadership of the NU’s national congress in 1994,[13] the tactical use of anti-Shia discourse found potential supporters within NU. Many senior kiais subsequently remained critical of Wahid for being “pro-Shia.” 

Network of Conservatives in East Java

A wave of political liberalization in 1998 brought fueled hope for change among Al-Maliki’s followers. With a greater freedom of religious activities, they began to disseminate their own “orthodoxy,” different from the predominant discourse of pluralists. 

In 2000, Lutfi Bashori and Nurkholis Musytari, two ambitious alumni, founded Majelis Ta’lim ASWAJA (Study Group for Al-Sunnah wal Jamaah). Since then, they have occasionally provoked anti-Shia sentiments, mobilizing young Muslims in Bangil, and led protests against YAPI and Shia assemblies in East Java.[14] One of the largest protests mobilizing young Muslims took place in 2011. It was reported that right after a pengajian  (religious gathering) held by Lutfi Bashori, who had cast harsh criticism against Shia, acts of provocation and attacks against students of YAPI ensued.[15]

Several other followers of Al-Maliki in different areas also increasingly intensified attacks on Shia. In Sampang Regency, East Java, too, anti-Shia mobilizations in 2012-2013 resulted in persecution of more than 300 Shia residents.[16] Many reports and witnesses assert that the attacks were initiated by one of the alumni, Ali Karrar Shinhaji.[17] Persecution was also endorsed by Thohir Alkaf, another alumnus of Al-Maliki and anti-Shia cleric in Tegal, Central Java. Ali Karrar has also developed a vast network among other sympathetic kiais in East Java, many of whom hold positions in local branches of Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Ulama Council, MUI). By using anti-Shia sentiment among kiais, they have worked on local branches of MUI to issue fatwas against Shia, declaring them “heretical.”[18] In 2012, one such effort was successful. This fatwa virtually legitimized persecution in Sampang and anti-Shia sentiment. The following year, Majelis Ta’lim ASWAJA held assembly gathering 2,700 people from major organizations not only from NU, but also Muhammadiyah and Persis.[19]

When Said Aqil Siradj won a new chairmanship in the NU’s national congress in 2010, anti-Shia Al-Maliki alumni found new allies within NU. Said Aqil has a track record for staunchly defending religious minority rights, especially of Shia, as Wahid did. Because of this, he has been subject to protests mounted by kiais. Pesantren Sidogiri, one of strongholds of Said Aqil’s foes, published a book criticizing him. One of the writers and most vocal critics studied in Pesantren Sidogiri is Idrus Ramli. Idrus Ramli is known for his stern criticism of Wahhabism as well as Shiism. He was endorsed by Lutfi Bashori and Muhammad Najih Maimoen, another Al-Maliki alumnus to run for the chairmanship in 2010 and 2015.[20]

Yahya Zainul Ma’arif, aka Buya Yahya,[21] a rising conservative kiai based in Cirebon, is also known as an ally of Lutfi Bashori. Buya Yahya studied under Hasan Baharun, one of Al-Maliki’s followers, at Pesantren Dalwa and was sent to Al-Ahgaff University in Yemen.[22] His daily sermons of “Al Bajah TV” on YouTube, which is frequently uploaded, has more than 300,000 followers. One of the popular programs is “Buya Yahya Answers” (Buya Yahya Menjawab), in which he responds questions raised by the audience on subjects ranging from fiqh and sufism to daily concerns such as Islamic practices, relationships and marriage life. 

These three figures are considered as leaders of the rising conservative group, “NU Garis Lurus” (True Path of NU, NUGL). Since its establishment in 2010, NUGL have ceaselessly attacked Said Aqil for his pluralist ideas and pro-Shia stance. They also contributed to the protests in Jakarta by mobilizing thousands of Muslims, including NU members. Until the NUGL’s website was shut down in early 2017, they had 190,000 Facebook followers. They have denounced religious pluralism, claimed that it has justified secularism and the “heretical” element that contradicts original belief of the founder, Hasyim Asya’ri. Presenting themselves on the Internet and through social media as courageous anti-establishment figures, they have gradually encroached on the NU pesantrens and consolidated their support.

Cultivating New Networks: Alliance with FPI and Salafis 

The NUGL kiais are now points of contact to bridge other Islamist preachers and expand their network beyond NU to reach a broader audience. Their propensity to denounce other religions and beliefs and to endorse the implementation of sharia law overlaps with the ends of FPI and Salafi organizations. For instance, as early as 1998, Hamid Baidlowi and Lutfi Bashori had already joined FPI.[23] Especially the latter has developed a friendship with its founder Rizieq Shihab since both studied (almost at the same time) in Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. Ali Karrar in Pamekasan also is often involved in activities in the Pamekasan and Sampang branch of FPI. The head of the Sampang branch is his own nephew.

Furthermore, with their vehement anti-Shia agenda, NUGL have found allies among Salafi  preachers too. Since early 2010, when persecution of Shia increased in East Java, several alumni such as Ali Karrar and Hamid Baidlowi joined the event of the anti-Shia foundation, National Alliance of Anti-Shia (Aliansi Nasional Anti Syiah, ANNAS) declared by Athian Ali from Forum Ulama Umat Islam (Forum of Scholars of the Islamic Nation, FUUI).[24] Meanwhile, Idrus Ramli joined one of Salafi influenced organization, the Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia (Council for Young and Intellectual Ulama of Indonesia, or MIUMI), whose leaders initiated the protests in Jakarta. Buya Yahya often collaborates with media-savvy Islamist clerics such as Arifin Irham, who passionately endorsed the protests against Ahok, and Abdul Somad Batubara, who has gained fame and positive recognition among young Muslims and has emerged as a candidate for vice president in the 2019 election.


NU has been known for its leader’s vision on religious pluralism. However, since 1998, a new power constellation has been taking shape within NU, driven by its own diversity — a phenomenon that has received scant attention. There have emerged within the NU elements that have made adept use of social media and YouTube, articulating critical views against the religious establishments and even allying with FPI and Salafi preachers. These currents certainly diverge from the conventional image of the NU. However, the dissatisfaction with the “establishment” provides the larger space and raison d’etre for the followers and descendants of Al-Maliki. While it appears that the rising conservative are acting individually and thus far lacking coherence, the discourse they generate has indisputably infiltrated into the social lives of many Indonesian Muslims.   


[1] Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000); Robin Bush, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power Within Islam and Politics in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009); Saiful Mujani and R.William Liddle, “Muslim Indonesia's Secular Democracy,” Asian Survey 49, 4 (July/August 2009): 575-590; and Jeremy Menchik, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance Without Liberalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[2] Martin van Bruinessen, Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the “Conservative Turn” (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013).

[3] Alex Arifianto, “Nahdlatul Ulama is home to its own hardliners,” New Mandala, August 8, 2018, http://www.newmandala.org/nadhlatul-ulama-home-hardliners/.

[4] Hasyim Asy’ari is the grandfather of Abdurrahman Wahid. Other prominent leaders such as Maemon Zubair also learned from Sayyid Alawi in Mecca. Kisah Hidup Sayyid Muhammad Al Maliki Al Hasani.(Malang: Majelis Khoir Publishing, 2016) 55, 69.

[5] Habib Sholeh bin Ahmad Al-Aydrus, Mutiara Ahlu Bait dari Tanah Haram: Sebuah Biografi Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi Al-Maliki Al-Hasani (Malang: Madinatul Ilmi, 2010) 46.

[6] Interview with one of the eldest alumni, Ihya Ulumuddin, June 27, 2018.

[7] Stéphane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011) 221-222.

[8] Interview with an alumnus kiai in Pesantren Langitan, Abdullah Munif Marzuqi, June 25, 2018.

[9] Al Hasaniyah, Biografi Sang Murobbi: Auya Al Ustadz al Habib Hasan Bin Ahmad Baharun (Bangil: Ikatan Alumni Darulughah Wadda’wah Al Hasaniyah, 2012).

[10] The current heads of Langitan and Dalwa are both Al-Maliki alumni.

[11] Tim Majelis Khoir 2016: 41; and interview with Ihya Ulumddin, June 27, 2018.

[12] Senior alumnus such as Ihya Ulumuddin, for instance, have not been involved in any anti-Shia provocations. As Ihya has once studied under the founder of YAPI in the late 1970s, Al-Maliki told him not to miss the funeral and to pay respect the former teacher [Interview with Ihya Ulumuddin, June 27, 2018]. Muhammad bin Alwi Al Maliki Al Hasani, Pemahaman yang harus diluruskan (Malang: Yayasan Hai'ah Ash-Shofwah, 2016) 117-121.

[13] Wahid confronted with some government-backed opponents in the 1980s but nonetheless managed to win. See Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000) 167-174.

[14] Gatra, February 23, 2011, Tiada Api Tanpa Bara, http://arsip.gatra.com/2011-02-23/majalah/artikel.php?id=145796. During the New Order, the criticism of Shia was predominantly carried out by Islamist leaders in Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic Dawah Council, DDII) and Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union, Persis). See Zulkifli, “The Struggle of Shi’is in Indonesia.” Dissertation. Leiden University. The Netherlands. 2014.

[15] “Kronologi Penyerangan Pondok Pesantren YAPI Pasuruan,” Tribunnews, February 15, 2011,  http://www.tribunnews.com/regional/2011/02/15/inilah-kronologis-penyera…; and “Kapolda: Penyerangan ke Ponpes Yapi Kriminal Murni,” and “Polisi Tahan Enam Tersangka Penyerangan Ponpes Yapi Pasuruan,” Tribunews, February 17, 2017, http://www.tribunnews.com/regional/2011/02/17/polisi-tahan-enam-tersang…. Local government and religious authorities, including NU kiais, increased pressure on the provocateurs to curb their influence in Bangil. It is now difficult to hold anti-Shia assemblies [Interview with an activist of Gusdurian, June 6, 2018].

[16] Shia followers who became refugees after the series of attacks are still living in Sidoarjo, more than 100 km from their homes.

[17] Muhammad Afdillah, Dari Masjid ke Panggung Politik: Melacak Akar-akar Kekerasan Agama antara Komunitas Sunni dan Syiah di Sampang, Jawa Timur (Yogyakarta: Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, 2016) 38-42

[18] In January 2012, Sampang branch and East Java provincial branch of MUI issued a fatwa that determines Shiism is heretical. Abdusshomad Buchori, a head of the East Java branch, stated that they issued the fatwa because Shiism had become a reason for the conflict in many places such as Bondowoso, Jember, Malang and Pasuruan now [IPAC 2016: 16–17]. Furthermore, the governor of East Java issued a Gubernatorial Decree No. 55/2012 to extend the fatwa in the following year.

[19] “Ribuan Anggota Pengajian Aswaja Pasuruan Gelar Pawai,” Tribunnews, November 5, 2013, http://surabaya.tribunnews.com/2013/11/05/ribuan-anggota-pengajian-aswa…

[20] “Didorong Para Kiai, Gus Idrus Ramli Maju Sebagai Calon Ketum PBNU,” Hidayatullah, June 15, 2015, https://www.hidayatullah.com/berita/nasional/read/2015/06/15/72165/dido….

[21] Buya Yahya has numerous companies, such as a travel agency, local TV and radio station. “Buya Yahya Dekat dengan Kehidupan Pesantren Cirebon,” Pikiran Rakyat, August 20, 2016, http://www.pikiran-rakyat.com/jawa-barat/2016/08/20/buya-yahya-dekat-de…

[22] Since the Saudi government has tightened control over the acceptance of students from Indonesia, many disciples in Dalwa and Langitan have now been sent to Al-Ahgaff University in Yemen [Interview with Abdullah Munif Marzuqi, June 25, 2018].

[23] However, Rizieq Shihab, the head of FPI, is known for his moderate stance regarding Shiism. See Ken Miichi, “Minority Shi‘a Groups as a Part of Civil Society in Indonesia,” Middle East-Asia Project (MAP), September 20, 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/map/minority-shi-groups-civil-society-indone….

[24] Other figures who have joined ANNAS include Abu Jibril from Majelis Mujahiddin Indonesia (Indonesian Mujahidin Council, MMI); Abdus Samad from Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial (Institute for Islamic and Social Studies, LPPI); Ahmad Cholil Ridwan from Persis, DDII and Muhammad Alkhaththath from Forum Umat Islam (Forum for Islamic Brotherhood, FUI), etc. See the ANNAS website, http://www.annasindonesia.com/profil/iftitah-dan-sejarah-aliansi-nasion….


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