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Posted by : Ham uza Mar 8, 2015

Chapter One
KH. Wahab Chasbullah,
Traditionalism and the Political Development of Nahdlatul Ulama

Greg Fealy

  There have been few more controversial ulama (religious scholars) in modern Indonesian history than Wahab Chasbullah.1 
During a half century of prominence Islamic affairs his
actions aroused strong emotions ranging from veneration to
contempt. For his followers he was an inspirational and dynamic
ulama who gave resolute leadership to the traditionalist Muslim
community in times of crisis.2 The more devoted of his
supporters regarded him as a wali (saint), an ulama besar
(eminent religious scholar) and bapak rohani (spiritual father).
For his detractors he epitomised some of the worst aspects of
traditional ulama-hood; he was seen as authoritarian, self-serving, 
casuistical, politically naive and corrupt. Critics pilloried
him with appellations such as 'dictator', 'NU's fuehrer', 'kiai
pemecah umat' (literally, the Islamic leader who split the
community of believers) and kiai Nasakom (a derogatory
reference to his role in supporting Sukarno's coalition of
nationalist, religious and communist groups).
  The purpose of this article is to describe and assess Wahab's
career and contribution to Indonesian Islam and politics. I will
seek to show that whilst there were questionable aspects to his
character and actions, he nonetheless had a profound impact on
traditional Islam from the late 1910s and, to a lesser extent, on
national politics in the 1950s and early 1960s. The article is
largely biographical with particular attention given to two
periods when his influence was most widely felt: the 1920s and
1950-60. In the former period it will chart his initial rise to
prominence as an advocate of traditionalist Muslim values and
interests, culminating in the formation of Nahdlatul Ulama, and
in the latter, it will examine his term as rais am (president-
general) of NU.
  There are considerable historiographical obstacles to writing
an account of Wahab Chasbullah's life. He wrote little for
publication and the surviving primary documentary evidence
consists of only a few transcripts of speeches and debates, some
reprinted letters, and an assortment of brief quotations in the
press. In the scholarly literature on Indonesian Islam, he
receives, somewhat undeservedly, only brief mention. As a result
the material for this study is drawn largely from literature
produced by NU writers, much of it hagiographic, and oral
evidence obtained from interviews with those who knew him.3
Contradictory information abounds in both of these sources.

Early Life

  Although the general outline of Wahab Chasbullah's early life
is reasonably clear, accurate dating of his movements prior to
1920 is extremely problematic. None of the data in the available
biographical accounts of these years offers an internally
consistent chronology.
  Wahab was born at his family's pesantren (traditional Islamic
school) at Tambakberas, Jombang, East Java. The birth date is
suggesting that the actual date may have been 1881 or 1884.4 He
was the eldest of eight children,5 and his father, Chasbullah, was a
wealthy kiai (religious teacher and scholar) and trader. His family
contained many notable ulama and also boasted aristocratic
origins.6 His great-grandfather was Kiai Sihah, the founder of
  His upbringing and education were typical of a young santri
(Muslim student) and aspiring ulama. He was raised at his
family's pesantren and from the age of seven received basic
religious instruction, including Arabic and Qu'ranic recitation,
from his father. At 13 'Gus Dul', as he was known to family and
friends, embarked on the life of a santri kelana ('wandering
student'), travelling from one pesantren to another gaining
religious knowledge. At each pesantren the santri kelana would
study the particular texts and branches of Islamic learning in
which that kiai specialised. Apart from its didactic aims this
period as a 'wandering student' was also seen as a rite of passage
from childhood to manhood during which time the santri would
gain a sense of independence and self-knowledge. Over the next
15 years, Wahab studied at seven different pesantren in east and
central Java.
  During this time he studied under two of the most influential
Javanese ulama of the modern era: Kiai Cholil of Kademangan,
Bangkalan, Madura, and Kiai Hasjim Asj'ari of Tebuireng,
Jombang. In the latter part of the nineteenth century and early
twentieth century Cholil was renowned for his charismatic
teaching and magical powers. Hasjim Asj'ari, a prize student of
Cholil's, enjoyed a high reputation for his rigorous intellect,
piety and deep knowledge of Islamic law and hadis (traditions of
the Prophet Muhammad). Both of these ulama attracted santri
from throughout the archipelago to their pesantren. Wahab
spent three years at Kademangan and four at Tebuireng, rising,
at the latter, to the rank of lurah pondok (effectively, manager
of the pesantren's daily affairs).7 It was at these pesantren, that
Wahab met many future leading ulama including Kiai Bisri
Syansuri, who would become his brother-in-law and successor to
the NU leadership, Kiai Abdul Karim, the founder of Lirboyo
pesantren in Kediri, Kiai Abbas from Buntet, and Kiai As'ad
Syamsul Arifin of Situbondo.8
  An early indication of Wahab's outlook and temperament
can be gained from accounts of his role in the discussion classes
or kelas musyawarah for senior santri at Tebuireng. At these
sessions various jurisprudential issues would be discussed, with
santri being expected to prepare arguments based on references
to the classical texts, the kitab kuning (lit. 'yellow books'). In
contrast to most of his colleagues, who adopted a strictly textual
and legalistic approach, Wahab advocated practical and
contextual solutions to the application Of Islamic law. He argued
that religious law should not be based solely on jurisprudential
texts but must also be sensitive to social conditions. There was
little point, he said, in issuing legal opinions which ordinary
Muslims did not understand or would not follow. His calls for
compromise in the application of the law generated spirited
discussion at the kelas musyawarah with his good friend, Bisri
Syansuri, a frequent disputant. Hasjim Asj'ari, who would often
attend these sessions to offer comments, was also critical of his
approach.9 Despite the disapprobation of his colleagues and
teacher, Wahab held steadfastly to his views. This combination
of wilfulness and realism would become hallmarks of his career.
  During these years as a santri kelana Wahab studied various
aspects of Islam including dogmatic theology (tauhid),
jurisprudence (fiqh) and roots of jurisprudence (usul fiqh), Arabic
literature, and pronunciation and recitation of the Qu'ran
(tajwid). Aside from religious studies, he showed a keen interest
in politics and current affairs and would often engage in long
debates with his fellow santri on these matters. He also enjoyed
physical activities, most notably the indigenous martial art
pencak silat. This was a favoured sport in pesantren and,
although of short, wiry build, Wahab was said to be a game and
skilled exponent.10
  At about 27 years of age Wahab completed his Islamic
education by travelling to Mecca to undertake the pilgrimage and
further study. He was to spend five years there studying with
various eminent teachers including Kiai Mahfudz Termas, Kiai
Baqir Yogya, Kiai Muchtaram Banyumas and the most senior of
all Indonesian ulama in the Hijaz, Syekh Ahmad Chatib from
Minangkabau.11 Typically though, Wahab did not restrict
himself to Islamic learning. He socialised widely with Malay and
Javanese students in Mecca and became active in politics. During
his stay there (probably in late 1913) Wahab, along with three
colleagues, founded a Meccan branch of the Indonesian political
movement, Sarekat Islam.12

Traditionalist Leader

  Wahab returned from Mecca probably in late 1914 or 1915
when in his early 30s.13 The next ten years were a critical period
in his personal development and public career. Rather than
return to Tambakberas to teach and assist in the running of his
father's pesantren, as was customary for an aspiring kiai, he
decided to reside in the bustling port city of Surabaya. The
cloistered and routinised nature of pesantren life probably held
little allure for the energetic and ambitious Wahab. Surabaya, by
contrast, was the second largest metropolis in the Netherlands
Indies and boasted a cosmopolitan society and thriving
commercial environment. It was also a major centre of political
activity in the 1910s with Sarekat Islam, the leftist Indische
Sociaal-Democratische Vereniging (ISDV) and numerous other
organisations having their headquarters there.
  Wahab soon immersed himself in a diverse range of activities
in Surabaya. In 1916 he married the first of his many wives, the
daughter of Kiai Musa, a prosperous businessman and religious
teacher in the suburb of Kertopaten, and began teaching at his
father-in-law's Qu'ranic school.14 In the same year, he co-
founded, with Mas Mansoer, a madrasah (Islamic school with
grades and modern-style syllabus) called Nahdlatul Wathan
(Revival of the Homeland). Wahab served as the head of its
teaching council and was joined by close colleagues such as Bisri
Syansuri, Abdul Halim Leimunding and Abdullah Ubaid.15
  Wahab also established himself as a trader. He dealt initially
in rice and wheat from his family's farm at Tambakberas, but
later diversified into sugar and precious stones.16 In 1918 he
helped to found a commercial cooperative amongst Muslims
from Jombang and Surabaya. Called Nahdlatul Tujar (Revival of
the Traders), Wahab held the important positions of Treasurer
and legal adviser with Hasjim Asj'ari as chairman.17 Though
short-lived the venture was a forerunner of many subsequent 
(and often ill-fated) attempts to create a trading network within
the traditionalist Islamic community.
  Wahab's most lucrative business activity was that of syekh
haj or hajj agent, arranging Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca.18 He
began working in Kiai Musa's thriving hall agency in the late
1910s but also used connections which he had made with several
Arab shaikhs in Jeddah and Mecca during his stay in the Hijaz
After his father-in-law's death, he assumed control of the
business and soon became a major agent for the Kongsi Tiga
shipping line.19 His involvement in hajj matters was later to
prove controversial as allegations of inept or corrupt practices
were made against him.20
  But perhaps his most important activity in the late 1910s and
1920s was his participation in various religious and political
groups. Wahab mixed widely in the world of Surabayan politics.
A gregarious man who enjoyed debating issues and matching wits
with others, he was well suited to political life. Unlike some of
his fellow traditionalists, who regarded politics with disdain,
Wahab believed it to be a fitting and, indeed, necessary activity
for Muslims. 'Islam and politics are as inseparable as sugar and
sweetness', he would often say.21 He remained active in Sarekat
Islam (SI) at least until the early 1920s and seems to have been
one of the young Muslims drawn into the circle of H.O.S.
Tjokroaminoto, the charismatic SI leader. This would have
brought Wahab into contact with prominent figures of the time
and many future political leaders as well, including Agus Salim, Ki
Hadjar Dewantoro, W. Wondoamiseno, Hendrik Sneevliet,
Alimin, Muse, Abikusno Tjokrosujuso, and the young Sukarno,
who was then boarding in Tjokroaminoto's house.22
  Within the Islamic community of East Java, this was a time
of growing polarisation between traditionalists and modernists.
since the early 1910s, the modernist movement had expanded
rapidly, particularly through organisations such as
Muhammadiyah and Al-Irsyad. By the latter part of the decade
rivalry between the two streams grew as the modernists won
increasing support from within traditionalist strongholds along
the north coast region and in eastern Java. This modernist
advance posed a two-fold threat to the position of traditionalist
ulama: firstly, their authority as religious leaders was challenged
by modernist charges of 'un-Islamic' traditionalist practices and
advocacy of informed personal interpretation of scripture
(ijtihad); and secondly, the economic activities of their families
and pesantren were jeopardised by modernist recruiting of well-
to-do Muslim traders and landowners.23
  Wahab soon emerged as a principal figure in the traditionalist
response to this threat. One of his earliest initiatives was to
establish a Muslim discussion group called Taswirul Afkar
(Constellation of Thoughts) in 1918 with the prominent
Surabayan ulama KH Achmad Dachlan of Kebondalam.24
Taswirul Afkar became well known for organising debates on
religious problems and particularly issues such as ijtihad and
taqlid (acceptance of the legal interpretations of ulama). It was
significant as the first formal grouping where modernists and
traditionalists met to discuss such controversial matters.25
  Wahab featured prominently at gatherings such as these. A
vigorous and colourful debater, he was adept at blending serious
discussions of principle or law with witty anecdotes or apposite
stories from Islamic scripture and history. Although supportive
of modernist efforts at educational and social reforms, he
rejected their attacks on Sunni Orthodoxy and the primacy of
ulama. It was the ulama, he would constantly remind his
listeners, who were the legatees of the Prophet (pewaris nabi)
and guardians of Islamic law. It was their meticulous scholarship
in the sources and interpretation of religious law during the 9-
11th centuries which had resulted in the establishment of the
four Sunni law schools and an authoritative codification of the
Syariah (Islamic law). Modern-day ulama continued this
tradition of erudition and legal guidance. They alone possessed
the necessary training and knowledge to interpret Islamic law, he
argued. If non-ulama were to assume this role, as proposed by
modernists, misinterpretations of the Syariah could arise leading
Muslims to commit, unwittingly, improper or sinful acts.
  During the early 1920s, Wahab's profile rose with the
growing rivalry between traditionalists and modernists. He would
often engage in public debates with eminent modernists such as
KH Achmad Dachlan, the founder of Muhammadiyah, and Al-
Irsyad's Syekh Achmad Soerkati.26 In 1921 Muhammadiyah
established a branch in Surabaya and Achmad Dachlan succeeded
in convincing Mas Mansoer, who had previously had family and
professional links with both modernists and traditionalists, to
join the organisation. Relations between Wahab and Mansoer
seem to have deteriorated from this time, with the latter leaving
Nahdlatul Wathan in 1922.27 The two thereafter became the
leading spokesmen for their respective causes in Surabaya,
engaging in debate at a variety of forums, and gathering around
them contingents of loyal followers.28
  1922 also saw Wahab embroiled in controversy at the first
Al-Islam Congress held in Cirebon, West Java. Attempts to find
common ground on reform of the Islamic education system and
pre-requisites for ijtihad were only partly successful, leading to
sharp exchanges between Wahab and various Al-Irsyad and
Muhammadiyah delegates. The debate descended into mutual
denunciations with the modernists accusing the traditionalists of
polytheism (syirk) and the traditionalists branding the modernists
as unbelievers (kafir).29 The traditionalists left the congress
deeply mistrustful of the modernists' motives and took no
further part in the organisation of subsequent Al-Islam
  Relations between the two groups worsened further in 1924 as
the Indonesian umat endeavoured to find a united response to
two pressing international issues: the future of the caliphate
following the Turkish parliament's abolition of that institution,
and the capture of Mecca by the Wahhabi leader, Abdul-Aziz ibn
Saud. Two world Islamic congresses were scheduled to deal with
these issues, the first in Cairo in 1925 and the second in Mecca
the following year. At the third Indies Al-Islam Congress held in
Surabaya in December 1924 Wahab was chosen as the
traditionalist representative on a three-member Indonesian

1  Formally, Wahab's full name was Abdul Wahab Chasbullah though the
   spelling Hasbullah was also in common use.

2  The term 'traditionalist' refers to those Muslims who adhere to the
   teachings of one of the four Sunni Schools of Law (mazhab) and are    also inclined towards syncretic devotional practices. 'Modernist'    Muslims, by contrast, do not acknowledge a priori the authority of    any particular  mazhab and instead regard the Qur'an and (example of    the prophet Muhammad) as the paramount sources of law. They are also
   highly critical of Muslims practising rituals of a non-islamic    origin.

3  The main published source for biographical and anecdotal information    is Saifuddin Zuhri, a loyal follower of Wahab. His Kyai Haji    Abdulwahab Chasbullah. Bapak dan Pendiri NU, Yamunu, Jakarta, 1972,    written to mark the 100-day anniversary of Wahab's death, is    effusively eulogistic Saifuddin's Berangkat dari Pesantren, Gunung    Agung, Jakarta, 19871 also contains numerous references to Wahab. The    interview material used in this study was gathered during field    research in Indonesia between June 1991 and July 1992, and in    November and December 1994.

4  Most accounts of Wahab's birth date and early life seem to be sourced
   from Aboebakar's Sedjarah Hidup KHA. Wahid Hasjim dan Karangan
   Tersiar, Panitya Buku Peringatan aim. KHA. Wahid Hasjim, Jakarta,
   1957 (p. 121) or less commonly, Parlaungan's Tokoh-Tokoh Parlemen
   di Republik Indonesia, C.V. Gita, Jakarta, 1956 (p. 214). Both give    the 1888 date for Wahab's birth, based presumably on information    provided or approved by him.
     The reasons for questioning this date are numerous. When Wahab
   died in 1971, his age was stated to be about 88, thus implying he was
   born circa 1883. He was also known to be several years older than his
   close friend and brother-in-law, Bisri Syansuri, whose birth date was
   almost certainly 18 September 1886. Finally, further support for an
   earlier birth date comes from the chronology of Wahab's early life in
   Aboebakar. It suggests that he spent some 20 years from the age of 13
   gaining an Islamic education from various teachers in Java and later
   Mecca (p.122) before settling in Surabaya when about 32. Given that
   Wahab had returned from the Middle-East by 1916, this indicates a    birth date of about 1883-84.
     Although it would seem surprising that he would allow an incorrect
   birth date to be circulated, Wahab seems to have been little    concerned with historical details.
5  Buku Informasi Pondok Pesantren Al-Lathifiyyah, Bahrul 'Ulum,
   Tambakberas, Pesantren Al-Lathifiyyah BU, Jombang, n.d., p.18.
6  His family claimed descent from King Brawijaya VI, one of the last    (semi-mythical) rulers of Majapahit, and Jaka Tingkir, the sultan of    the Sixteenth-century state of Pajang. See Saifuddin Zuhri,    Abdulwahab, p.141. Wahab sometimes appended the aristocratic title    'Raden' to his name.

7  Aboebakar, p.121; and Abdurrahman Wahid, Kiai Bisri Syansuri
   Pecinta Fiqh Sepanjang Hayat, Amanah, Jakarta, 1989, p.8.

8  Aboebakar, p.122; and Abdurrahman Wahid, p.26.

9  Abdurrahman Wahid, p. 24; and interviews with KH Abdulwahab
   Turcham, Surabaya, 3 November 1991, Abdurrahman Wahid, Jakarta, 5
   October 1991 and Zaini Dachlan, Jombang, 7 December 1994. For a
   description of the kelas musyawarah see Zamakhsyari Dhofier, Tradisi
   Pesantren, LP3ES, Jakarta, 1982, p. 31. The best account of the
   contrasting approaches to Islamic jurisprudence of Wahab and Bisri    can be found in Aziz Masyhuri, AI Maghfur-lah KHM Bishri Syansuri, Al
   Ikhlas, Surabaya, 1983, pp. 58-62.

10 Aboebakar, p. 121; Saifuddin Zuhri, Abdulwahab, p. 23; and interviews
   with Hasib Wahab (Wahab's son), Jombang, 28 October 1991 and
   Hasyim Latief, Sepanjang, 19 September 1991.

11 Aboebakar, p. 123.

12 Abdurrahman Wahid, pp. 15-16; Aziz Masyhuri, p. 29; and A. P. E.
   Korver, Sarekat (slam 1912-1916: Opkomst bloei en structuur van
   Indonesie's eerste massa beweging, Historisch Seminarium van de
   Universiteit van Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 1982, p. 77, n. 119.
   Some sources incorrectly state 1917 as the date for his homecoming    (for example, Abdurrahman Wahid, p. 15). There can be little doubt    that he had returned by 1915. Following the outbreak of the First    World War, the Dutch government repatriated most Indonesians in the    Hijaz. This was completed by early 1915 and shipping links between    the East Indies and Jeddah did not resume until 1919. (See Martin van
   Bruinessen, 'Muslims of the Dutch East Indies and the Caliphate
   Question', Les Annales de l'Autre Islam, no. 2, 1994, pp. 263-5·)
   Wahab must have returned prior to the cessation of shipping as Dutch
   official documents from 1916 include him amongst the office-bearers    of an Islamic school. Aboebakar also relates that Wahab was married    in Surabaya by 1916 (p. 122).

14 Aboebakar, p. 125; and interview with Umroh Machfudzoh (Wahab's
   granddaughter), Yogyakarta, 2 January 1992.

15 Choirul Anam, Pertumbuhan dan Perkembangan Nahdlatul Ulama,
   Jatayu Sala, Solo, 1985, p. 25; Soebagijo I. N., KH Mas Mansur:
   Pembaharu Islam di Indonesia, Gunung Agung, Jakarta, 1982, p. 21;
   and Saifuddin Zuhri, Abdulwahab, p. 25. Branches of Nahdlatul Wathan

16 Were opened in other Javanese cities during the next decade.
   Interviews with Zaini and Ridlwan Dachlan, Jombang, 7 December 1994

17 A copy of the original declaration of Nahdlatul Tujar's formation is    held in the Lakpesdam library, Jakarta. According to Abdurrahman    Wahid (p.23), the impetus for founding Nahdlatul Tujar came from    Wahab, even though the original document accredits this role to    Hasjim Asj'ari.

18 A syekh haj would be paid by intending pilgrims to handle travel and
   accommodation arrangements as well as give religious guidance.

19 Interviews with Umroh Machfudzoh, Yogyakarta, 2 January 1992: 1(11.
   Amynulloh, Jombang, 8 December 1994; and Ridlwan Dachlan,
   Jombang, 7 December 1994. Also, Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim
   Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1912, Oxford University Press.
   Singapore, 1973, p. 229; and Soebagijo I. N., K. H Masjkur, Gunung
   Agung, Jakarta, 1982, p. 19.

20 Allegations and rumours of Wahab's mismanagement of hajj funds were
   commonplace in modernist circles and newspapers. Establishing the
   validity of such claims is almost impossible. It is noteworthy though
   that in traditionalist circles he enjoyed a good reputation as a    syekh haj and maintained a busy agency until the late 1950s.
   Saifuddin Zuhri, Abdulwahab, p. 30.

22 Abdurrahman Wahid, p. 24; J.D. Legge, Sukarno: A Political
   Biography, George Alien and Unwin, Sydney, 1971, pp.54-55;
   Harsono Tjokroaminoto, Menelusuri Jejak Ayahku, Arsip Nasional RI,
   Jakarta, 1983, pp. 5 and 34; and Saleh Said, Kiyai Mas Mansur.
   Membuka dan Menutup Sejarahnya, Usaha Penerbitan Budi, Surabaya,
   n.d., p. 6.

23 Noer, p. 226.

24 Not to be confused with KH Achmad Dachlan from Yogyakarta, the
   founder of Muhammadiyah. Aboebakar, p. 469; Anam, p. 27; and M. Ali
   Haidar, Nahdlatul Ulama dan Islam di Indonesia. Pendekatan Fikih
   dalam Polirik, Gramedia, Jakarta, 1993, p 43.

25 Dhofier, p. 27; and Soebagijo, Masjkur, p. 18.

26 Aboebakar, pp. 470-1; Anam, p. 30; and Saifuddin Zuhri, Abdulwahab

27 Mansoer became one of Muhammadiyah's most influential figures during
   the 1930s and served as its chairman-general from 1937 to 1942.

28 Syubbanul Wathan, an organisation established by the younger
   traditionalist members of Nahdlatul Wathan, was well known for its
   Staunchly pro-Wahab views. The leaders of Syubbanul Wathan included
   such future NU leaders as Abdullah Ubaid, Tohir Bari, Abdul Halim
   Leuwimunding, and Nawawi (Jagalan). Anam, p. 31; Aboebakar, p.470;
   and interview with Zaini Dachlan and Muhammad Madchan, Jombang, 8
   December 1994.

29 I am grateful to Natalie Mobini-Kesheh for providing information from
   the official Dutch report on this congress (Mailrapport 85x/23) held    at the Algemeen Rijkarchief (The Hague), Ministry of Colonies. Also,
   Neratja, 4 and 7 November 1922; and Noer, p. 227.

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Title : Traditional Islam and Modernity Of Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama. Chapter One
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