Aceh Muslims who attended the Hajj

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.

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.

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”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

Muslims praying in Java

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 regu”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

Indonesian image of Muhammad riding a mythical beast

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.

Last updated June 2015

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