MUHAMMAD Rofiqul A’la is a jovial and portly thirty-nine year old farmer and kyai (or ustaz) from Jember in the densely populated province of East Java. Kiyai Rofiq as he’s called in his village is also part of the reason that Joko Widodo (or Jokowi) was able to surprise Indonesians and the world, in last week’s Presidential elections.
According to the results collated thus far (the official tally will only be released on May 24), Jokowi increased his share of the votes in two key provinces, East and Central Java by well over 12% and 10% respectively, staving off a marked decline in the more sparsely populated islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.
A key factor in this dramatic outcome was Jokowi’s courtship of the huge and amorphous Islamic organisation called the Nahdlatul Ulama (translated as the ‘Revival of the Ulama’ and generally referrred to as the NU).
Estimates of the NU’s membership vary – though 40 million is generally accepted as the base figure – and if you were to count affiliates, networks and allies who identify themselves as part of the NU family, the number could swell up to more than a 100 million. Founded in 1926 as a direct response to the occupation of Mecca by the Saud’s and the imposition of stern Wahabi teachings, the NU – whilst extremely diverse – has generally sought to balance Javanese traditions, scholarship and identity alongside Islam.
Many factors have endeared Jokowi to the NU rank and file.
First and foremost is his unequivocally Javanese manner. Understated and calm, Jokowi has rarely, if ever displayed much emotion in public. Kyai Rofiq has high regard for the President’s restraint and composure especially when under pressure.
Of course, Jokowi has also built up a network of friends and allies among the NU pantheon culminating in his surprise selection of the sarong-wearing, Ma’ruf Amin, a prominent and at times controversial ulama, as his running mate.
At the same time Jokowi has been a resolute promoter of figures such as Khofifah Indar Prawansa, the Muslimat head of a women’s group closely aligned with the NU. Indeed, last year Ibu Khofifah with her staunch phalanx of female supporters secured the Governorship of East Java in a hotly contested race.
By way of comparison, the avuncular and extremely approachable Kyai Rofiq – he’s married to a religious schoolteacher and has one child, a teenage girl – is a quintessential grassroots NU figure.
He’s earthy, practical and full of jokes and homilies, most of which he delivers with a chortle. When Team Ceritalah visited him, he was also busy attending to his rice paddies. Only recently finished planting, he’d been spending the past few nights out in the fields monitoring the flow of water to his 1.5 hectares of irrigated land. Apart from corn, cassava and other vegetables, he’s recently started cultivating coffee and insisted that Team Ceritalah tries his personally prepared brew.
Kyai Rofiq’s house is a hive of activity. Every morning after the subuh (early morning) prayers he heads off to the local market to buy supplies, returning to prepare breakfast for the twelve workers who help him with his farm. Thereafter, there is a constant flow of visitors, apart from the many children who come for religious classes that he, his wife and his widowed mother give free-of-charge.
The two evening prayers –maghrib and isyak – are performed communally, after which there are yet more religious classes. And as the local kyai he’s very much involved in counselling families, not to mention a constant stream of NU events.
He makes no apologies about his conservative views, explaining: “We shouldn’t get over excited by new things. Appearances alone aren’t a guarantee that something’s correct and true. Islam is about being a good person – a good farmer. You must try to base your life on the Prophet’s teachings.”
Kyai Rofiq’s ideas are also based on the writings of the founder of the NU, Hasyim Asyari. He himself prefers to focus on practical matters that he feels will help his community such Islam and everyday life, mutual respect and praying regularly. He has no problem mixing with non-Muslims or Muslims whose views are quite different, saying, “It’s important to meet people, to maintain social relations but I wouldn’t participate in their religious practices.”
At his core, Kyai Rofiq is very much a proponent of the concept of Islam Nusantara – a fairly straightforward combination of social relations, cultural traditions, faith and practice, which are integrated as a way of life that reflects his Indonesian and Javanese surroundings.
To him, maintaining social relationships and interactions can be complementary to spiritual relations and the ritual practice of the religion – it should not be viewed separately as both are equally important. Hence his emphasis on “amaliyah” (practice of Islam in daily life) and the fact that cultural norms such as visiting the grave, prayers for the deceased (tahlilan) should be practiced.
This is antithetical to the more progressive, scholastic teachings expounded by Muhamiddiyah, the second largest Islamic mass organisation after the NU but with only about a third the size of the Java-centric NU. Muhammidiyah’s strict adherence to the Quran and the Sunnah means that cultural norms which are central to the practice of religion in Java are not accommodated.
Similarly, he’s opposed to movements such as the now banned Hizbut Tahrir with their disdain for Indonesia’s national ideology, Pancasila as well as their single-minded advocacy of the return to a pan-Islamic Khalifah.
He also shrugs off the growing social phenomenon of ‘hijrah among young “born again” Muslims who say “this is more about lifestyle. Sooner or later they’ll realise that Islam Rahmatan Lil Alamin (as the way of life) is more appropriate.”
For Kyai Rofiq, tradition and “roots” are important. While he was unable to complete his Islamic education due to his father’s early death, he remains committed to his former religious teacher – returning once a month to Sumenep on the island of Madura where he studied as a young boy.
That’s not to say that village life is unchanging. Indeed he’s noticed differences pointing out the paved lanes and improved water supplies. As he explains: “In the past, local people were more passive because development projects were always handled by the government. But now with Dana Desa (the village fund) people are much more actively involved - they discuss issues amongst themselves. They want what’s best for the village.”
Kyai Rofiq is a man with a strong sense of his place in the world. He is very aware of the need for faith and social practices that bind us with together whatever our beliefs and with that he laughs loudly. It’s time for him check his rice paddies once again.