His style might appeal less to social media users, but Ahmad Bahauddin Nursalim has gained a following in Indonesia for his intellectual capacity.
Unlike other modern Indonesian preachers, Ahmad Bahauddin Nursalim’s rise to fame is an anomaly. In the age of social media, preachers tend to use a straightforward and concise language in providing Islamic content – as is preferred by the urban-millennial generation. But the sermons of Nursalim, who is also famously known as Gus Baha, can be considered as less friendly to social media users. He has yet to follow the playbook success of modern Indonesian preachers who have produced attractive religious content on social media. He looks settled in the conventional way of preaching. He does not quickly go for the punchlines, but will go through a longer, more elaborate method of referring to authoritative sources before nailing his arguments. Gus Baha prefers to deliver sermons the traditional way by conducting classes or seminar-like religious events where he shares his expertise on Islamic exegesis or other subjects with a group of audience, followed by a question-and-answer session. He is indifferent towards gaining fame and a celebrity-preacher status, and remains steadfast in his humble lifestyle.
Despite his personal quirks and orthodox style of preaching, the 50-year-old preacher has found himself ranked as one of the top religious preachers in the country. His meteoric rise to fame is credited to his extraordinary intellectual capacity in presenting strong arguments and masterful understanding of the Quranic exegesis. His moderate thinking also appeals to the public who are tired of the omnipresent conservative, divisive and populist sermons delivered by social-media or celebrity preachers.
Due to his rising popularity, Gus Baha was recently named as the Indonesian Islamic Preacher of the Year 2020 by the Indonesian Islamic Preachers Association (ADDAI). His name rose to prominence at the national level after his sermons were listed by Alvara Research Centre as the most watched sermons during the holy month of Ramadhan last year, in a national survey conducted by the Indonesian research firm. According to the survey, conservative preacher Abdul Somad, continues to be the most popular religious preacher in Indonesia, with 18.6 per cent of respondents watching his sermons during last year’s Ramadhan. However, newcomer Gus Baha came in second with 15.7 per cent of the total 701 respondents across Indonesia. This surpassed the viewership shares of more established preachers such as Mustofa Bisri (8.3 per cent), Abdullah Gymnastiar (5.3 per cent) as well as Professor Quraish Shihab and Adi Hidayat, who each registered 4.9 per cent.
The percentage of viewers gained by Gus Baha is reflective of the reality on the ground.
The draw of Gus Baha is that he provides an alternative for people who seek to challenge the dominant non-violent extremist narratives. Many preachers in Indonesia have promoted moderate views of Islam, but only a few, like Gus Baha, are skilled in supporting their arguments with the richer authoritative sources in Islamic scholarship. Hence, his moderate and intelligent sermons, which are often delivered in a light-hearted fashion, are a formidable alternative against conservative narratives. Longing for the rise of such alternative figures, his followers and pesantren (Islam boarding school) students have eagerly circulated his sermons through their YouTube postings.
Born in a pesantren-educated family that is affiliated to the traditionalist Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) organisation, he was sent by his father to study in the Al-Anwar pesantren in Rembang regency when he entered teenagerhood. The school was run by the charismatic preacher Maimun Zubair. In the pesantren, Gus Baha proved to be one of the school’s most intelligent students. Due to his academic excellence, he was often assigned to accompany the late Maimun Zubair in receiving guests who visited the pesantren, including high-ranking government officials and religious figures.
After graduating from the pesantren and becoming a full-fledged preacher, he developed an unrivalled expertise on Quranic exegesis. He is dubbed as the young Quraish Shihab, a prominent Quranic exegete in Indonesia. Quraish Shihab himself once said that Gus Baha’s capacity in Quranic exegesis and the fiqh of Al Quran (the science of human understanding and practices of Al Quran) is second to none.
The percentage of viewers gained by Gus Baha is reflective of the reality on the ground. One of his recent sermons, which was recently uploaded to YouTube, has reached one million views in the span of three months. Urban millennials have begun to watch his sermons on YouTube after some of them went viral. Dozens of officials at a Muhammadiyah private university in Malang, including its rector, were also willing to take the four-to-five hour journey by car from Malang city to Tahfidzul Qur’an, a pesantren ran by Gus Baha, to study his thought on Islam rahmatan lil alamin (Islam as a blessing to the universe). This event is significant as it is rare for senior officials from the modernist Muhammadiyah organisation to initiate and participate in such event – given the longstanding ideological rivalry between Muhammadiyah and NU. This shows that the appeal of Gus Baha’s sermons has attracted people beyond his ideological base of pesantren students and other NU followers.
A'an Suryana was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.