Former Nahdlatul Ulama chairman Hasyim Muzadi. Photo by NU.


Hasyim Muzadi, who died on 16 March, aged 72, was a dominant figure in Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for more than 25 years. A former politician, NU chairman, vice-presidential candidate and presidential advisor, his main achievements lay in steady, competent, somewhat conservative leadership, rather than in bringing change or leaving a distinctive intellectual legacy.


Hasyim (commonly called “Cak Hasyim”) was born in Bangilan, Tuban district, on East Java’s northern coast, on 8 August 1944. His parents were small traders, selling mainly tobacco and cakes, and by his own account, they struggled to support their family of eight children, of which he was the seventh. He went to local state schools until he was 12, when he moved in with his older brother to ease the financial burden on his parents. Hasyim completed his secondary education at the famous Gontor Modern Pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Ponorogo, where he encountered many future prominent scholars and leaders, including progressive intellectual and Paramadina University founder Nurcholish Madjid, former Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin, former Jemaah Ismamiyah (JI) emir and convicted terrorist Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and prominent NU preacher Syukron Makmun. Hasyim went on to gain a degree in Islamic education at the State Islamic Institute (IAIN) Sunan Ampel in Malang in 1967.


From Hasyim’s teenage years, NU was the focus his life. His parents and much of his extended family were nahdliyyin (NU members) and his older brother, Muchith, was a rising figure in NU from the mid-1950s, serving as local branch secretary and also personal assistant to the influential kiai (Islamic scholar) Ahmad Siddiq, who would later become rais am (president) of NU. Hasyim learned much from Muchith about career progression in NU. Like his brother, he was disciplined, strategically astute and a tireless networker. Not coming from an elite or wealthy NU family himself, he understood the importance of developing trusting relations with notable kiai who could later serve as patrons for his advancement. He became close to Kiai Abdullah Faqih of Langitan, Tuban, and Kiai Anwar Nur of Bululawang, Malang, both of whom fostered his career.


Hasyim was active in NU’s youth wing, GP Ansor, and its tertiary students’ body, the Indonesian Islamic Students Movement (PMII), holding executive positions in both. In 1971, he got his big break in politics, thanks to Anwar’s patronage, when he successfully contested a seat in the Malang legislature representing the NU party. Twelve years later, after the Soeharto regime forced NU to merge with other Islamic parties to form the United Development Party (PPP), he was elected to the East Java legislature for PPP.


In 1987, he decided to leave politics, setting his sights on the provincial chairmanship of NU. As part of NU’s recently proclaimed departure from formal politics (known as Kembali ke Khittah 1926 or return to the founding charter of 1926), no NU executive member at any level of the organization could hold leadership positions in a party. Hence, for Hasyim to pursue higher office in NU, he needed to distance himself from politics. Kiai Anwar again proved critical for his transition, supporting him to gain a seat on the NU provincial board and providing land and funding to establish the al-Hikam pesantren in a well-to-do district of Malang. The importance of al-Hikam is not to be underestimated. Most aspirants to senior NU positions need a pesantren to demonstrate their commitment to education and preaching – key NU activities. Al-Hikam became the base of Hasyim’s activities until his death. He was elected chairman of NU in East Java in 1992, the organisation’s most powerful regional branch, and he quickly acquired a reputation for sound management and judicious leadership.


The high point of his career came in 1999, when he was elected national chairman of NU, replacing Abdurrahman Wahid (“Gus Dur”) who had become Indonesia’s president earlier that year. Hasyim had none of Gus Dur’s charisma or intellectual flair, but did have executive skills that his predecessor lacked. He reformed NU’s shambolic administration, attracted corporate funding, and oversaw policy revisions that delivered improved services to NU’s branches and members. Under his leadership, NU was better run than it had been for many decades.


Hasyim, however, was no visionary and he lacked the ‘big picture’ thinking of Gus Dur and numerous other NU leaders of his generation. His main ideological concern was to lock NU into the centre of the Indonesia’s Islamic and socio-political spectrum. He never tired of warning nahdliyyin that they must avoid the extreme right (hardline Islamism) as well as the extreme left (liberalism). He had no time for the innovative hermeneutical thinking of NU’s young intellectuals and nor did he like the abrasive demands and aggression of Muslim vigilante and pro-shari’a groups.


Like Gus Dur, he involved himself in interfaith dialogue but was always cautious, and indeed conservative, in his pronouncements. Despite trumpeting that Indonesia was “the most tolerant Muslim country in the world”, he advocated banning the controversial Muslim sect Ahmadiyah in the mid-2000s and more recently spoke out against what he saw as growing Shi’a influence, much to the chagrin of his fellow interfaith leaders. He disapproved of direct election of provincial and district heads, believing that this was excessive democratisation, and he exasperated the US government by repeatedly claiming that the JI terrorist organization was a creation of the CIA. He also sought to play a role on the international stage, travelling frequently abroad and hosting conferences for global Islamic leaders in Indonesia, but his speeches and ideas were seldom memorable and his accounts of his journeys seemed more like travelogues than reports of substantive activity.


More than anything else, Hasyim was a traditional NU leader in the mould of Idham Chalid, who was chairman for a record 28 years from 1956. He understood intuitively the nexus between power and patronage, particularly of a material kind. He travelled tirelessly around NU branches, dispensing funding for programs and equipment, and financially assisting individuals who were in turn expected to work loyally for him. He also never ventured far from majority opinion in NU’s heartland, such that the term “safe player” was often used by his colleagues to describe his approach. His public views tended to reflect those of NU’s tens of millions of members, rather than to persuade them to a different stance, as Gus Dur so often sought to do.


Hasyim’s later career was one largely of disappointment. In 2004, he was vice-presidential running mate to Megawati Soekarnoputri, only to suffer a heavy defeat at the hands of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Jusuf Kalla. A particular blow was Yudhoyono’s majority support in Hasyim’s home province of East Java. After relinquishing the NU chairmanship in 2010 upon completion of the maximum two terms, Hasyim sought to remain in the leadership by running for rais am. He was defeated in a bitterly fought contest at the 2010 Makassar congress and again at the 2015 Jombang congress.


Hasyim will be remembered as an able, decent and consolidating leader of NU but not one of the organisation’s most inspiring or intellectually gifted figures.


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