Ramadan in the Plague Year: Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Pesantren System

Mark Woodward*

The COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented challenges for Muslims as the fasting month of Ramadan approaches. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is one of many Indonesian Muslim organizations planning for the fasting month in the plague year. From the outset of the pandemic NU leaders realized that social distancing is the only measure through which the pandemic can be contained and that this requires Muslims to alter their religious and social behavior. NU faces a unique and vexing set of challenges for two reasons. The first is organizational. NU is a loosely structured federation of independent religious boarding schools (pesantren) each led by charismatic Muslim scholars (Kyai). Loyalties are as much, if not more, to individual Kyai, many of who are regarded as saints or holy men, than to the organization. Many NU followers turn to kyai for guidance on a wide range of personal and social as well as religious matters. The second is how to bring a sense of religious meaning to the COVID-19 plague.

Many prominent Kyai realized early on that social distancing is the only way to contain the pandemic and that this requires adjustments to normal pesantren procedures and for individual Muslims to change their religious and social behavior. Providing guidance to Muslims on how they can fulfill religious obligations, while at the same time protecting themselves and the public from the contagion is a difficult task. As Ramadan approaches Kyai who would usually be preparing for the complex array of religious and social events that accompany the fast are now concerned with responding to the pandemic and managing pesantren under extraordinary circumstances.

Ramadan makes social distancing very difficult. It will be impossible to contain the pandemic if Muslims blithely continue with normal Ramadan observances. Still, the are many who worry that they will fall into sin and face divine retribution if they ignore their religious obligations. There is also a tendency to confuse religious acts which are obligatory (wajib), others that are recommended because they were the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah) and others that are elements of Islamicate cultures. People are also reluctant to cancel non-obligatory events including visiting the graves of saints and ancestors the week before Ramadan begins (nyadran) communal fast breaking (iftar/buka bersama), daily Ramadan markets, religious talks (Tabligh Akbar), parades, parties, family gatherings, Id al-Fitri/Lebaran celebrations and most of all mudik that empties cities as people returns to their ancestral towns and villages at the end of the month. These are not religious obligations and are beloved elements of Indonesian Muslim cultures. Managing pesantren is never as easy task and is now especially challenging because there are four million students (santri) living in crowded conditions in which the virus spreads rapidly.

Nahdlatul Ulama

NU was founded in 1926 in Surabaya, East Java, in response to the Wahhabi conquest of Mecca. Many of its founding members, including KH Hasyim Asyari (1871-1947), had studied in the holy city for decades and were among the world’s most eminent Muslim scholars. It is Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization and has approximately eighty million devotees. NU is primarily Javanese. There is a highly educated NU urban elite, but the majority of NU people are villagers. There are similar organizations in Lombok, Nahdlatul Wathan, and Sulawesi, As’adiyah. Religiously NU defines itself as Ahlussunnah wal Jama’ah (the community of the Prophet Muhammad). This is defined as those who adhere to one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the theology of al-Asyari that stresses rational interpretation of the Qur’an, and the Shari’ah centric Sufism (Islamic mysticism) of al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and al-Junaid (830-910). Saint veneration is a basic part of NU piety. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesia Muslim make pilgrimages (ziyarah) to the shrines of the Wali Songo, the nine saints instrumental in making Islam the religion of Java. NU legal reasoning, including that concerning religious obligations is based on Shafi jurisprudence as well as on the application of principles derived from the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet Muhammad). NU actively promotes Javanese and other Indonesian Muslim cultural traditions. Many of which include large scale public events. It also operates universities, health centers and hospitals.

Baca juga:   Covid-19 dan Pergeseran Nilai Pendidikan


There are more than fifteen thousand pesantren in Indonesia. Most offer a combination of Islamic and modern secular education. Others teach only religious subjects. Pesantren provide a level of Islamic education on par with that available at similar institutions in South Asia and the Middle East. Each pesantren is unique and reflects the specialization of the leading kyai. Some offer basic Islamic education. Others provide more advanced instruction in Islamic jurisprudence, Qur’an recitation, theology and Indonesian Muslim performance traditions. The number of santri ranges from less than one hundred to more than twenty thousand. Life in a pesantren is austere. As many as twenty students share a single room. Some sleep in the mosque because conditions are so crowed. Meals are simple for two reasons: to contain cost and because a simple diet is understood as a forms of Sufi asceticism (zuhud).

NU, Pesantren, Religious Guidance and the Coronavirus Pandemic

At times like these religious advice can make for sound public health policy and practice. NU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic combines Shafi legal reasoning with medical pragmatism. It relies on the respect for the authority and wisdom of Kyai, shared among NU Muslims.
Like many other countries Indonesia was ill prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The first cases to be reported were in the first week of March 2020. When the extent of the pandemic became apparent NU and individual Kyai recognized that social distancing was the only way to contain the spread of the virus and that this required Muslims to change their social and religious behavior. NU also established command post across Indonesia to provide information about information about the pandemic and provide assistance to victims. It redirected its medical resources to diagnosis and treatment.

At local and national levels NU offered guidance for how Muslims should conduct themselves while the plague persists:

Baca juga:   Koronavirus dari Lensa Batin Penghayat

On March 28th the NU health agency advised Muslims to remain in place and not to return to towns and villages for the Lebaran holiday. On April4th the NU Central Board issued a directive stating that normal Ramadan activities must be curtained. It urged Muslims to hold tarawih, special evening Ramadan prayers that are normally performed in mosques at home and to cancel collective Id al-Fitri prayers celebrating the conclusion of the fast. Early in March local leaders closed shrines of the Wali Songo. Tens of thousands Nyadran observances have been cancelled.

Many Kyai urged Muslims to stay home over the Lebaran holidays at the end of Ramadan. Typically, millions of Indonesian Muslims “mudik” emptying cities and returning to their ancestral towns and villages to celebrate Lebaran. This is not a religious obligation. It is a much-loved aspect of Indonesian Muslim culture. It is the only chance that city dwellers have to reconnect with friends are relatives. Cancelling plans for mudik is a painful sacrifice but one that is necessary to contain the pandemic.

Pesantren and the Pandemic

Pesantren leaders face a difficult dilemma. Crowded conditions make pesantren particularly vulnerable locations for spreading the Corona virus. Normally Ramadan is vacation time for santri. To allow them to return home risks expanding the pandemic. Sheltering santri “in place” risks spreading the plague in areas where medical services are rudimentary. Some Kyai chose to start the Ramadan vacation early. Lirboyo, one of the largest pesantren, chose to provide medical screening and treatment for students before sending them home. Others have chosen to keep santri in place in efforts to establish their pesantren as virus free areas. These are difficult choices. Both reflect the deep concern that Kyai have for their santri.

Victims as Martyrs      

Many people have died from illness caused by the COVID-19 virus. The exact number is unclear and it is certain that more will perish in the weeks and months to come. NU has offered guidance and solace to friends and families by declaring that those who have perished are martyrs (shahid), who will reap heavenly rewards for their suffering. Numerous NU statements mention this hadith to explain that those who perish from COVID-19 have achieved this rank.

The Prophet Muhammad asked his companions: “Who are the martyrs among you? They replied: “Those who died on the battlefield are martyrs.” The Prophet responded: “In that case, very few of my people were martyred.” The companions asked: “Then who are they?” The Prophet answered: “People who die on the battlefield are martyrs, people who die in the way of Allah (not because of war) are also martyrs, people who are struck down by plague are martyred, people who die from stomach illnesses are also martyrs and people who drown are martyrs.”

It is not hard to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is a plague.

*Mark Woodward is Research Professor at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.

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