Inevitably Disastrous: Why World’s Biggest Islamic Org Opposes Caliphate

Nahdlatul Ulama has cited ISIS’s attempt to create a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria and argued it will inevitably be disastrous and contrary to the basic purposes of Sharia—the protection of religion, human life, sound reasoning, family, and property

Nahdlatul Ulama cited ISIS’s attempt to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and said it will contrary to the purposes of sharia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In 2014, the so-called Islamic State aka ISIS overran a third of Syria and 40% of Iraq and posed the most potent transnational terror threat at its peak. The terror group masquerading as a caliphate was decimated militarily in 2019. But the ideological battle to counter it remained far from over.    

In far-off Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (Reawakening of the Islamic Scholars), the world’s biggest Islamic organization, took up the ideological challenge ISIS posed. It shifted its focus in 2014 to humanitarian Islam to counter the nihilistic threat the terror group represented.

Nahdlatul Ulama challenged the version of a single universal state or caliphate to unite Muslims globally that ISIS and al-Qaida propounded. On February 7, 2023, it issued a declaration at a gathering in the Indonesian city of Surabaya calling the re-establishment of such a caliphate neither feasible nor desirable.

The declaration cited ISIS’s attempt to do so in Iraq and Syria and said it will inevitably be disastrous and contrary to the basic purposes of Sharia—the protection of religion, human life, sound reasoning, family, and property.

New Vision

The declaration was issued as the organization completed 100 years of its existence. It said a new vision to replace the idea of the caliphate was essential for Muslim well-being. The declaration was read out in Arabic and Bahasa at a gathering which included Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

In his address to the gathering, Widodo said the Indonesian government appreciates the group’s efforts to build a better and more noble global civilization. He added Nahdlatul Ulama helped people to stay safe from identity politics and extremism.

New Awakening

Jokowi told Nahdlatul Ulama’s followers that the new century should mark a new awakening for the group by strengthening Islam and Indonesianness. “As NU [Nahdlatul Ulama] enters its second century, if God wills, NU will grow stronger, set an example for moderate Islam and good Islamic etiquette, and uphold good and eastern customs as well as maintain tolerance, unity, and the spirit of mutual cooperation…,” Widodo said.

He asked Nahdlatul Ulama’s educational institutions to prepare the young to master state-of-art science and fast-growing digital technology.


Nahdlatul Ulama has been working for religious reform. It has endorsed pluralism, the United Nations Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its declaration called for reforming Islamic jurisprudence for it to embrace a new vision. The organization called for developing a new discourse on Islamic jurisprudence.

Nahdlatul Ulama underlined the need to prevent the political weaponisation of identity, curtail the spread of communal hatred, promote solidarity and respect among diverse peoples, cultures, and nations, and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order.

James M Dorsey, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, wrote the strength of the Nahdlatul Ulama challenge was evident. He added some of the world’s foremost opponents of the Indonesian group’s reformism felt the need to be represented at Nahdlatul Ulama’s conference in one way or another.

Dorsey wrote one-third of Indonesia’s 270 million people identify themselves with Nahdlatul Ulama. He added the group is likely to formally announce its reform of relevant Islamic jurisprudence, potentially supported by various non-Indonesian scholars, mosques, and other Muslim associations, irrespective of opposition to its moves.

Sustained Effort

Dorsey wrote the declaration constitutes the latest move in a sustained Nahdlatul Ulama effort to spark reform of Islamic jurisprudence and inspire other faiths to take a critical look at their potentially problematic tenants as a way of countering extremism and religiously motivated violence.         

The declaration came against the backdrop of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan and their violations of universal rights in the name of their brand of sharia. It should go a long way in countering attempts to tar Muslims over the wrongdoings of groups such as the Taliban, which cannot claim to represent Afghans not to mention the 1.97 billion adherents of Islam globally or about 25% of the world’s population.

Back To Basics

Nahdlatul Ulama has sought to refocus on the Islamic mandate for love and compassion, which the literalist Taliban and those of their ilk have turned a blind eye to. Founded in 1926, Nahdlatul Ulama, an antithesis of the Taliban, is the biggest refutation of the disinformation about Islam used to fuel Islamophobia.

Nahdlatul Ulama is progressive, embraces spirituality, and cultural traditions, and supports equal citizenship. It rejects the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims as legal categories. It has worked for inter-faith cooperation to promote peace globally. Nahdlatul Ulama has joined hands with organizations such as the World Evangelical Alliance, which claims to represent 600 million Protestants, to promote solidarity.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s membership of 90 million is more than double the population of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (37 million or two percent of Muslims globally). 

National Ethos

Nahdlatul Ulama represents the larger ethos of Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy governed by five foundational principles called pancasila—belief in God, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy, and social justice.

In his book Civil Islam, American academic Robert Hefner has documented the contributions of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-biggest Islamic organisation, to the country’s democratisation in the 1990s.

Nahdlatul Ulama leader Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), a reformist who drew inspiration from humanitarian Islam, became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president in 1999. Indonesian religious affairs minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas is a Nahdlatul Ulama member. He was one of the three signatories of a decree that banned the imposition of headscarves on students.

Nahdlatul Ulama recognises the legitimacy of nation-states, and their constitutional and legal systems while rejecting the idea of a global caliphate. It opposes the idea that a single leadership should unite Muslims globally.

Islamic scholars under Nahdlatul Ulama’s umbrella have put their heads together for reforming Islamic thought on issues such as political leadership, equal citizenship, and relations with non-Muslims. Nahdlatul Ulama has sought to prevent the abuse of Islam as a political weapon and to reinterpret Islamic law in line with 21st-century norms to counter radical ideologies.

It seeks a re-examination of elements of Islamic law on relations with non-Muslims, the structure of government, and the proper aims and conduct of warfare to challenge interpretations of groups such as ISIS.

Now Or Never

Indonesia, a secular country with full rights for religious minorities, has sought to engage with countries across the world and the United Nations to achieve a global consensus needed for the purpose and to ensure groups like ISIS are unable to rear their ugly heads again.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s declaration was the latest in the attempts to reclaim Islam and counter extremism that the siege of Mecca, the overrunning of the American embassy after the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 triggered.

The chain reaction in the aftermath of the three events among other things birthed transnational terror groups such as al-Qaida. These groups manipulated elements of ‘Islamic law’ to justify their acts and rally fighters for the so-called caliphate and caused untold miseries primarily to Muslims. It is now or never. The manipulation has to end and Nahdlatul Ulama has perhaps set the ball rolling in doing so. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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