Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world. About 87.2 percent of all Indonesians are Muslims. Islam is not the state religion and Islamic law is not practiced except in a few localities. Islam in Indonesia is composed of three essential elements: 1) priyayi, Islam, with classical Hindu Buddhist elements, practiced mainly among the educated urban classes; 2) santri, orthodox Islam, most common among merchant and landowners; and 3) abangan, Islam with animist folk influences, traditionally practiced by the rural peasantry.

Nearly all Muslims in Indonesia are Sunni. Of the more than 230 million Muslims, an estimated one to three million are Shiites. Differing understandings of the role of the clergy are a key distinction between Sunni and Shiites. Emphasizing predestination and predetermination by Allah, Sunni clerics emphasize free will and the infallibility of divinely inspired imams to interpret ancient texts. Many smaller Muslim groups exist, including approximately 200,000-400,000 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

In Indonesia there is no enforced uniformity in Islam as there is in Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim countries. Indonesian Muslims display a great variety of beliefs and levels of piety. There are “nominal Muslims” ( abangan) who barely recognize their religion and embrace consumerism and modern life and buy products advertized by pretty girls and zealots ( santri) who pray so often they have bruises on their foreheads. There are Muslim-oriented and secular-oriented political parties for abangan and santri and various shades in between.

In Indonesia you can find Sufi sects and cults that have incorporated local animist, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and rituals. In many places you can find shrines and tombs dedicated to saints and holy men, something that would be regarded as sacrilegious in conservative Muslim countries.

Indonesia is a secular country. Most Indonesian Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, which sometimes incorporates Hindu and animist beliefs. though an increasingly vocal extremist fringe has gained ground in recent years. They have in some cases succeeded in influencing government policy, because many leaders depend on the support of Islamic parties. Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, enshrines monotheism, and blasphemy is illegal. However, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and speech.

Surveys have shown that most Indonesians are observant Muslims who fast and obey the rules during Ramadan and try to go on the hajj. But even devout Muslims are turned off by Muslim extremism. Several hundred thousand Indonesians go on the Hajj every year. Many of these have been turned off by the corruption and fanaticism they saw in Saudi Arabia.

Arrival of Islam in Asia and Indonesia

The Indian Ocean continued to serve as both a commercial and a cultural link between Indonesia and the countries to the west. Thus Islam, which was established on the Arabian Peninsula by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D., followed the Hindu and Buddhist religions into the archipelago. By the late twentieth century, approximately 85 percent of Indonesia's inhabitants considered themselves to be Muslim. Among some Indonesians, Islam is only an element in a syncretic belief system that also includes animist and Hindu-Buddhist concepts. Others are intensely committed to the faith. Like the introduction of Indian civilization, the process of Islamization is obscure because of the lack of adequate historical records and archeological evidence. The archipelago was not invaded by outsiders and forcibly converted. Yet states that had converted to Islam often waged war against those that adhered to the older, Hindu-Buddhist traditions. Religious lines, however, do not appear to have been clearly drawn in Javanese statecraft and war. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Over the centuries, merchants from Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean ports and mystics and literary figures propagated the faith. Because commerce was more prevalent along the coasts of Sumatra, Java, and the eastern archipelago than in inland areas of Java, it is not surprising that Islamization proceeded more rapidly in the former than the latter. According to historian M.C. Ricklefs, legends describe the conversion of rulers to Islam in coastal Malay regions as a "great turning point" marked by miracles (including the magical circumcision of converts), the confession of faith, and adoption of Arabic names. Javanese chroniclers tended to view it as a much less central event in the history of dynasties and states. But the Javanese chronicles mention the role of nine (or ten) saints (wali in Arabic), who converted rulers through the use of supernatural powers. *

Doubtless small numbers of Muslims traveled through and resided in the archipelago at a very early date. Historical records of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) tell of Arab traders who must have stopped at Indonesian ports along the way to Guangzhou and other southern Chinese ports. Yet the conversion of rulers and significant numbers of indigenous peoples to Islam apparently did not begin until around the late thirteenth century. Many areas of the archipelago resisted the religion's spread. Some, such as Ambon, were converted to Christianity by Europeans. Others preserved their distinctiveness despite powerful Islamic neighbors. These included small enclaves on Java and the adjacent island of Bali, where animist and Hindu beliefs created a distinct, inward-looking culture. *

According to The Economist: “It is not clear when Islam came to South-East Asia, and whether Arabs, Persians or Indians were its main disseminators. But there is no doubt that it was spread for the most part by merchants, rather than the warriors who brought it to the Middle East and North Africa. Local people seem to have converted gradually, while preserving many of their pre-Islamic beliefs. For a long time, Muslims remained a minority, and had to learn to rub along with people of other faiths. Hindu kingdoms endured in Java until the 16th century, for example, while Spanish colonisers and Muslim preachers seem to have arrived in the Philippines only a few decades apart. [Source: The Economist, May 29, 2003 \*/]

“What is more, the merchant missionaries themselves seem to have followed a fairly unorthodox brand of Islam. They introduced Sufism, a form of mysticism frowned upon by dogmatic Muslims. And although almost all South-East Asian Muslims follow the Sunni sect, Shia holidays have entered the local tradition. To this day, even the Acehnese, popularly considered the region's most devout Muslims, celebrate Ashura, an exclusively Shia festival in the rest of the Islamic world. \*/

Early History of Islam to Indonesia

Aceh in northern Sumatra was one of the first places in Southeast Asia where Islam took hold. It was well established by the 12th century and may have arrived as early as the 9th century. By the 13th century it was well entrenched. Marco Polo visited the northern Sumatran town of Perlak in 1292 and noted that the people there were Muslims. From northern Sumatra, Muslim traders island hopped eastward. The earliest Muslim inscriptions found in Java date to the 11th century. Javanese tradition holds that Islam was introduced to Java by nine holy men, wali songo, who possessed great knowledge of Islam and mystical powers.

It is not clear whether Arabs, Persians or Indians were the main disseminators of Islam in Indonesia. The aristocracy adopted a mystical Sufi form of Islam form—brought by Muslim traders from the Indian state of Gujarat and had been influenced by south Indian religious beliefs—rather than conventional Orthodox forms. Even though most Indonesians became Sunnis, elements of Shiite Islam were introduced. To this day many Indonesia Muslims celebrate the Shiite festival of Ashura. Islam in Indonesia was also fused with Hinduism and indigenous beliefs, creating a hybrid Islam that continues to exist today.

Islam was not introduced by force or by conquest as it was on much if the Middle East, Central Asia and India. Displacement by Islam was peaceful. Local people accepted Islamic gradually and were not forced to renounce their indigenous religions so Islamic merged and coexisted with Buddhism and Hinduism and traditional religions. The result was a hybrid form of Islam that was unique to Indonesia and different from the forms found in the Middle East and Central Asia.

First Reports of Islam in Indonesia

The first Islamic inscriptions found in Indonesia date from the 11th century, and there may have been Muslims in the Majapahit court. Islam really first took hold in northern Sumatra, where Arab traders had settled by the 13th century.

The first reliable evidence of Islam as an active force in the archipelago comes from the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. Landing in northern Sumatra on his way back to Europe from China in 1292, he discovered an Islamic town, Perlak, surrounded by non-Islamic neighbors. An inscription from a tombstone dated 1297 reveals that the first ruler of Samudra, another Sumatran state, was a Muslim; the Arab traveler Muhammad ibn-'Abdullah ibn-Battuta visited the same town in 1345-46 and wrote that its monarch was a Sunni rather than a Shia Muslim. By the late fourteenth century, inscriptions on Sumatra were written with Arabic letters rather than older, indigenous or Indian-based scripts. [Source: Library of Congress *]

There also were important Chinese contacts with Java and Sumatra during this period. Between 1405 and 1433, a Chinese Muslim military leader, the Grand Eunuch Zheng He, was commissioned by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) emperor to make seven naval expeditions, each comprising hundreds of ships and crews numbering more than 20,000. The various expeditions went from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Rather than voyages of exploration, these expeditions followed established trade routes and were diplomatic in nature and helped expand contacts among and provide information about the regions visited. Zheng used Java and Sumatra as waystops and, on his first voyage, destroyed a Chinese pirate fleet based near Palembang on the north coast of Sumatra. He also is said to have developed close contacts with Melaka on the Malay Peninsula. *

Advance of Islam in Indonesia

There was a Muslim presence in the archipelago as early as 1100 but there was little Islamic growth before Malacca on the Malay straits became a Muslim stronghold in 1414. Aceh in North Sumatra began expanding its Islamic influence about 1416. Muslim scholars push the date of Islam’s advent in Indonesia back almost to the time of Muhammad. But some of the incidents they record were probably not significant. The real advent of Islam seems to be when Arab and Persian missionaries entered Java in the early 1400’s and gradually gained converts among the ruling classes. [Source: ***]

By 1450, Islam had gained a foothold in the court of Majapahit in East Java. Van Leur feels this was aided by a disintegration of the Brahman culture in India. Surabaya (Ampel) became the center of Islamic learning and from there famous Arab entrepreneurs spread their power. The fall of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in 1468 has been linked with intrigue in the royal family due to the fact that a royal son, Raden Patah, had converted to Islam. Unlike the Hindu leaders, Islamic missionaries encouraged military power to seal their advantages. No foreign army invaded Java to force the people to believe. But coercion was involved in getting the rulers to accept the faith of Muhammad. Both in East Java and West Java, rebellion in the royal families was fomented by the Islamic military pressure. As the nobility changed allegiances, the people followed suit. Despite this, we must remember as Vlekke points out that religious wars seldom occurred throughout the history of Java. ***

Raden Patah settled in Demak which became the first Islamic kingdom on Java. It reached the zenith of its power by 1540 and in its time subdued peoples as far away as West Java. Bernard Vlekke says Demak expanded towards West Java because Javanese politics had little interest in Islam. In the meantime Sunan Gunung Jati, a Javanese prince, sent his son Hasanudin from Cirebon to make extensive conversions among the Sundanese. In 1526, both Banten and Sunda Kelapa (Jakarta) were under the control of Sunan Gunung Jati who became the first sultan of Banten. This alignment of Cirebon with Demak brought much of West Java under the sway of Islam. “In the second quarter of the 16th century, all the northern coast of West Java was under the power of Islamic leaders and the populace had become Muslim” (Edi S. Ekadjati, Masyarakat Sunda dan Kebudayaannya. Jakarta: Girimukti Pasaka, 1984:93). Since population statistics of 1780 list about 260,000 people in West Java, we can assume the amount was much less in the 16th century. This shows that Islam entered when the Sundanese were a small tribe located primarily on the coasts and in the river basins like the Ciliwung, Citarum, and Cisadane Rivers. ***

Islamization in Indonesia

The major impetus to Islamization was provided by Melaka, a rich port city that dominated the Strait of Malacca and controlled much of the archipelago's trade during the fifteenth century. According to legend, Melaka was founded in 1400 by a princely descendant of the rulers of Srivijaya who fled Palembang after an attack by Majapahit. Originally a Hindu-Buddhist, this prince converted to Islam and assumed the name Iskandar Syah. Under his rule and that of his successors, Melaka's trading fleets brought Islam to coastal areas of the archipelago. According to the sixteenth century Portuguese chronicler Tomé Pires, whose Suma Oriental is perhaps the best account of early sixteenth century Indonesia, most of the Sumatran states were Muslim. The kingdom known as Aceh, founded in the early sixteenth century at the western tip of Sumatra, was a territory of strong Islamic allegiance. In Pires's time, the ruler of the Minangkabau people of central Sumatra and his court were Muslim, but their subjects were not. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In eastern Indonesia, Islamization proceeded through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often in competition with the aggressive proselytization of Portuguese and other Christian missionaries. According to Pires, the island states of Ternate and Tidore, off the west coast of Halmahera in Maluku, had Muslim sultans, and Muslim merchants had settled in the Banda Islands. In 1605 the ruler of Gowa in southern Sulawesi (Celebes) converted to Islam and subsequently imposed Islam on neighboring rulers. Muslim missionaries were sent from the north coast of Java to Lombok, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan until the late seventeenth century. *

Because of the antiquity of Java's civilizations and the relative isolation of some of its most powerful kingdoms, the process of Islamization there was both complex and protracted. The discovery of Muslim gravestones dating from the fourteenth century near the site of the Majapahit court suggests that members of the elite converted to Islam while the king remained an adherent of Indian religions. The early focus of conversion was the northern coastal region, known as the Pasisir (Javanese for coast). Melaka's domination of trade after 1400 promoted a substantial Islamic presence in the Pasisir region, which lay strategically between Melaka to the west and Maluku to the east. Muslim merchants were numerous, although their role in the conversion of royal courts is unclear. The north shore state of Gresik was ruled by one of the nine saints. During the sixteenth century, after Melaka had ceased to be an Islamic center following its capture by the Portuguese in 1511, the Malay trading network shifted to Johore and northwest Kalimantan. *

Scholars have speculated on why Islam failed to gain a large number of converts until after the thirteenth century, even though Muslim merchants had arrived in the islands much earlier. Some have suggested that the Sufi tradition--a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the ultimate reality of God and the illusoriness of the perceived world--may have been brought into the islands at this time. Given the mystical elements of both Sufism and indigenous beliefs, it may have been more appealing to Indonesians than earlier, more austere, and law-bound versions of Islam. Yet according to Ricklefs, no evidence of the existence of Sufi brotherhoods in the early centuries has been found. *

Later History of Islam

By the end of the 19th century more and more Muslim Indonesians had traveled to the Middle East and brought home more Orthodox forms of Islam. Beginning at this time liberal and conservative Muslims began struggling for dominance.

In 1945, when Indonesia became independent conservatives fought for the inclusion of sharia (Islamic law) into the Constitution. Liberals prevailed and sharia was left out of the Constitution and replaced with with the secular pancasila ideology that recognized five state religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Sukarno and, to a greater extent Suharto, cracked down hard on Muslim groups. Under these two men—Indonesia’s first two post-independence leaders who dominated Indonesian for almost half a decade—hundreds of Muslim leaders were imprisoned; Muslim publications were banned; and Muslim political parties had to pledge loyalty to the state. When Suharto was ousted, conservative Islam reemerged as a major social and political force.

See History of Islam and Politics.

Character of Indonesian Islam

The character of Indonesian Islam and religious practices vary a great deal from region to region and even individual to individual. Some Indonesian Muslims have incorporated elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and local animist beliefs into their personal belief system. Many Muslims, for example, make offering to volcano spirits and the goddess of the sea.

Indonesians have a reputation for having a fairly relaxed view about religion and Islam. It, Malaysia and Turkey are regarded as the most liberal and open Muslim countries. In Indonesia, there are two main types of Muslims: 1) the santri, followers of Orthodox Islam; and 2) abangan, the followers of a less stringent form of Islam the influences of Buddhism, Hinduism and folk religion.

You hear the muezzin throughout Indonesia. Businesses and offices are often closed on Friday afternoon so the faithful can attend Friday prayers. During Ramadan many Muslims fast, but there are also many that don’t. Indonesian Muslim women enjoy more freedom than Muslim women in some other Muslim countries. They are not segregated and not required t wear a head coverings and many don’t. According to Indonesian law, for a man to take a second, third, or fourth wife, he must obtain court permission and the consent of the first wife

One Indonesian Muslim man, regarded as a “nominal Muslims,” told Vanity Fair, “I am a social Muslim...A bit like being a social drinker.” According to Vanity Fair Muslims like him don’t wear Muslim clothing, pray five times a day or fast during Ramadan but they do burn incense to placate ancestors and spirits and regularly consulted dukun (traditional sorcerers). The magazine said some practicing Muslims in Indonesia are more likely to tune in to television shows in which Islamic preachers answer questions about sex than they are to attend Friday prayers.

Types of Indonesian Muslims and Other Religions and Beliefs

In Indonesia, you can find devout Muslims that leave votive offerings, venerate idols and objects and recognize and honor a pantheon of Buddhist, Hindu and local gods. The annual labuhan ceremony to honor Ratu Kidul, the goddess of the Indonesian seas, begins with a turbaned priest reciting a Muslim prayer and presenting offerings of silk, curry, bananas, hair and toenail clipping from the Sultan of Yogyakarta to the goddess, which are carried in a procession and deposited in the sea by Muslims, who then take turns lighting incense at strange-shaped rock that is the focus of the cult. Muslim participate in similar rituals to honor local volcano gods.

Over the course of the mostly peaceful introduction of Islam to Indonesia beginning in the ninth century AD, tensions periodically arose between orthodox Muslims and practitioners of more syncretistic, locally based religions. These tensions are still evident in the early twenty-first century. In Java, for instance, they are expressed in the contrast between a santri, a pious Muslim, and an abangan, an adherent to a syncretistic blend of indigenous, Hindu-Buddhist beliefs with Islamic practices, sometimes called kejawen (Javanism), agama Jawa (Javanese religion), or kebatinan (mysticism).[Source: Library of Congress]

As we have said before there are three main types of Muslims in Indonesia: 1) priyayi, who recognize classical Hindu Buddhist elements and mainly belong to the educated urban classes; 2) santri, devout followers of orthodox Islam, who have traditionally belonged to the merchant and landowning class; and 3) abangan, Muslims who have fused Islam with animist folk beliefs and have traditionally belonged to the rural peasantry.

Rural abangan are often ignorant of many of the basic tenets of Islams and tend to fuse indigenous beliefs, Hinduism and Buddhist with Islam. They often recognize and worship Hindu deities and local spirits—in part perhaps to place them and hedge their bets if they do exist—and believe in the magical power of dukun, traditional healers. Urban abangan tend be more knowledgeable about Islam and less superstitious and more likely to embrace ideas of secularism. Priyayi tend to embrace mystical beleifs and have a sophisticated philosophy about fate. Some meditate and practice asceticism and consult the equivalent of gurus.

Santri are found in all social classes but have traditionally been associated with the merchant classes. They follow the five pillars of Islam. In Java, santri not only refers to a person who is consciously and exclusively Muslim, but also describes persons who have removed themselves from the secular world to concentrate on devotional activities in Islamic schools called pesantren— literally, the place of the santri, but meaning Islamic school. Although these religious boarding schools, typically headed by a charismatic kiai (Muslim religious scholar), provide education for only a minority of Indonesian children (less than 10 percent), they remain an important symbol of Muslim piety, particularly in rural areas. [Source: Library of Congress]

Mystical Islam in Indonesia

In Indonesia there is a long history of religious practice associated with more mystical and often highly syncretistic beliefs. Drawing variously on Hindu-Buddhist ideas about self-control and intellectual contemplation, as well as more animistically inclined ideas about the spiritual character of nature, and often based on miraculous revelations, various kinds of hybrid Islamic beliefs flourished in Java until a presidential decree in 1965 urged consolidation under the rubric of the main scriptural religions (agama), including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Several of the more mystical varieties of Islam continued to flourish under the Suharto regime, and some continued to struggle for autonomy and recognition by the government, eventually receiving recognition in 1973 as keper cayaan (faiths), albeit under the umbrella of one of the scriptural agama. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Among the more prominent of these faiths was kebatinan. Only nominally Muslim, kebatinan is an amalgam of animist, Hindu-Buddhist, and Muslim, mostly Sufi, spiritual practices concerned with harmonizing the inner self with the outer material world. Spirits are believed to inhabit natural objects, human beings, artifacts, and grave sites of important wali (Muslim saints). Illness and other misfortunes are traced to such spirits, and if sacrifices or pilgrimages fail to placate angry deities, the advice of a dukun, or healer, is sought. While it connotes a turning away from the militant universalism of orthodox Islam, kebatinan moves toward a more internalized universalism. In this way, it seeks to eliminate distinctions between the universal and the local, the communal and the individual. *

There are also cults like Salamullah that is headed by a woman who claims to be the Holy Spirit and delivers messages she says are personally given to her by Gabriel, the archangel who delivered the Koran to Mohammed. Frida Mebius Önnerfors, who wrote a dissertation on the group for Centre for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University in Sweden, wrote: “Salamullah, established in Jakarta at the end of the 1990s, has no ready-made ideology but is open towards impulses. The movement, led by Lia Aminuddin, is from its outset Muslim but has during the years adopted a more 'indonesian' style: Salamullah combines the religions officially accepted in Indonesia to a unique mixture. To the same extent, political and social events as well as Indonesian mythology are integrated into the teachings. Religious content is developing very dynamically and the movement has during the years been in open conflict with religious authorities and institutions.”

Islam in Different Parts of Indonesia

According to “The Javanese are predominantly Muslim, though many are Catholic or Protestant. The Javanese are noted for a less strict adherence to Islam and a greater orientation to Javanese religion, a mixture of Islam and previous Hindu and animist beliefs. The Sundanese of West Java, by contrast, are ardently Muslim. Other noted Muslim peoples are the Acehnese of North Sumatra, the first Indonesians to become Muslim; the Minangkabau, despite their matriliny; the Banjarese of South Kalimantan; the Bugis and Makassarese of South Sulawesi; the Sumbawans of the Lesser Sunda Islands; and the people of Ternate and Tidor in Maluku. [Source: >>>]

Muslims living in urban areas tend to be more liberal and Westernized than those living in the countryside. Muslims on Java weave a lot of Hindu and Buddhist rituals into their brand of Islam. Many Muslim women cover their hair but face coverings are rarely seen. There is a growing fundamentalist Muslim movement among young people on Java.

The Acehnese in northern Sumatra are considered to be the most conservative Muslims in Indonesia. Here, women are not only wear head coverings they are also urged to wear a special garment on their wrists that covers their hands (some Muslims believe the hands as well as head should be covered) and some clerics have called for the stoning of adulterers.

Javanese Islam

There is great diversity among Javanese religious practices. Although most Javanese are Muslims, the wide variations in Islamic beliefs and practices are associated with complex factors such as regional history and social class. The most pious, and recognizably Muslim, varieties of Javanese religion are associated with the santri tradition, nurtured by traditional Muslim schools. Santri hold more tightly to the moralistic tone of Islam and express the fundamental universalism of its teachings. They may make a pilgrimage (hajj in Indonesian) to Mecca, teach their children the Quran, and work for the social, spiritual, and even political advancement of the ummah. In contrast to the santri tradition, varieties of kejawen (“Javanist”) religious practice variously incorporate pre-Islamic, animistic, and aesthetic forms of spirituality. [Source: Library of Congress]

Although some observers have distinguished between elite and common varieties of kejawen practice, many now see the traditional aristocracy and peasantry losing their distinctiveness in this regard. Religiosity is expressed through fasts, trances, visits to graves, and performance genres such as wayang kulit (a form of shadow theater employing flat leather puppets), concerts by gamelans (Javanese orchestras featuring percussive instruments), dance, and other arts of the courtly tradition, which are widely appreciated by the Javanese community as a whole. *

Most observers of Javanese religion agree that the core Javanese religious ritual is a brief feast known as the slametan. Neighbors, relatives, and coworkers may be invited to attend on the occasion of a birth, marriage, death, or change in status. The host typically gives a speech in high Javanese explaining the purpose of the event to the guests, after which some incense is burned, a prayer is recited in Arabic, and the special festive food is consumed, at least in part. Then, what is left is divided among the guests and taken home. Believers seek to protect themselves against harmful spirits by making offerings, enlisting the aid of a dukun (healer), or engaging in spiritual acts of self-control and right thinking. *

Labuhan Ceremony on Java

Merapi is guarded by spiritual “guards” who give offerings to the mountain. Annually, on the anniversary of the Sultan’s coronation, offerings (labuhan) are brought from the kraton of Yogyakarta to Mt. Merapi, together with similar offerings carried to the Indian Ocean to the south, to appease the spirits of the mountain and the sea, in order to bring welfare to the inhabitants of Java. The annual labuhan ceremony begins with a turbaned priest reciting a Muslim prayer and presenting offerings of silk, curry, bananas, hair and toenail clipping from the Sultan of Yogyakarta to the goddess, which are carried in a procession and deposited in the sea by Muslims, who then take turns lighting incense at strange-shaped rock that is the focus of the cult.

The Economist reported: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” the turbaned priest begins in the orthodox Muslim style. But that is as far as orthodoxy goes. As the annual labuhan ceremony unfolds, he blesses the various offerings the Sultan of Yogyakarta has prepared for Loro Kidul, the goddess of the surrounding seas: silk, curry, bananas, hair and toenail clippings. [Source: The Economist, May 29, 2003 |+|]

“The goddess, apparently, will be pleased with these items when they are carried in procession to the sea and thrown in, as will another local deity, who receives similar gifts tossed into a nearby volcano. The 200-odd participants, at any rate, seem happy with the proceedings: they bow their heads during the blessings, and take turns lighting incense at a curiously-shaped rock that is the focus of the cult. Later, some even charge into the foaming ocean to pluck a lucky banana from the waves. |+|

“This ritual has more to do with Java's Hindu and pagan past than with the professed religion of the vast majority of the island's inhabitants, Islam. Votive offerings, veneration of objects or idols and, above all, any hint of polytheism are anathema to most Muslims. Yet many Javanese happily describe themselves as Muslim, attend mosques and fast during Ramadan, while continuing to practice the folk religion of their forebears. The sultan himself, Hamengkubuwono X, a respected politician often mentioned as a possible president, takes pride in the preservation of local rituals while maintaining a reputation as a devout Muslim. This laxity about doctrine has given rise to the notion that Indonesian Islam in particular, and South-East Asian Islam in general, is more tolerant and less prone to extremism than that of the Middle East.” |+|

Modernism Verses Traditionalism in Indonesian Islam

Among Indonesian Muslims there is some tension between traditionalism and modernism, with traditionalism being associated with more liberal and inclusive forms of Islam and modernism being associated with more Orthodox forms. Determining how many Muslims are moderates and how many are conservative is difficult to say. It s believed that moderates make up the majority by a large margin.

The nature of this antipathy is complex and a matter of considerable debate. One key issue concerns the self-sufficiency of scripture and the moral responsibility of the individual. Modernists emphasize the absolute and transparent authority of the Quran and the responsibility of individuals to follow its teachings; traditionalists contend that Quranic texts can be ambiguous, and that it is wiser to trust in the collective wisdom of past teaching. While traditionalists accept a variety of ritual forms, they underscore the responsibility of believers to the community, and are less concerned with individual responsibility to interpret scripture. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Specifically, traditionalists are suspicious of modernists’ support of the urban madrassa (madrasah in Bahasa Indonesia), a reformist school that includes the teaching of secular topics. The modernists’ goal of taking Islam and carrying it more directly to the people has been opposed by traditionalists because it threatens to undermine the authority of the kiai. On the other hand, some modernists accuse traditionalists of escapist tendencies and of failing to directly confront the individual responsibility to make sense of a changing world. One point of agreement is that both modernists and traditionalists have sought, unsuccessfully, to add a clause to the first tenet of the Indonesian constitution requiring that, in effect, all Muslims adhere to the sharia. In fact, some even hint that modernist and traditionalist santri harbor greater loyalty toward the ummah (community of believers) of Islam than to the Indonesian state. *

Islam and Tolerance in Indonesia

Most Indonesians follow and practice a tolerant form of Islam. There are no laws that ban premarital sex or call for thieves to have their hands chopped off. Muslim inheritance laws that call for male descendants to get twice as much as females are ignored. To get around rules that ban Muslims from marrying non-Muslims, couples get married overseas.

James Clad, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at Georgetown University, told the New York Times, "Islam in Indonesia has never been an extreme orthodoxy. It's a religion there that has been in tune with traditions that are open to tolerance and a willingness to disagree. Broadly speaking, this a place where Islamic fundamentalism finds the soil pretty thin."

Part of the reason that Indonesian Islam is more tolerant than the Islam found in other places is that it succeeded Hinduism and Buddhism, which coexisted with local animist beliefs. Today, Indonesian Muslims continue to practice elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism. One principal at a Muslim school told Time, "We could never be like Iran, because we have too many cultures. All our differences are a gift in the country."

Abdullah Gymnastiar, a popular television preacher in Indonesia said that the concept of fairness is the essence of Islam. “In Christianity the significant word is love,” he told the New York Times. “But in Islam it is fair. Because if we are not fair we hurt someone. If we make war we have to be fair with our enemy.” He pointed out that one of the main reasons why anti-American sentiments run high is that the United States is regarded as unfair, particularly in the way it favors the Israelis over the Palestinians.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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