Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world. Sunni Islam is the majority religion throughout most of the country. Notable exceptions include the province of Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi, which are predominantly Protestant Christian. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State]

About 87.2 percent of all Indonesians are Muslims; 7 percent are Christians (4.1 percent Protestant and 2.9 percent Roman Catholic); 1.7 percent are Hindu; 0.9 percent are Buddhists, Confucian and other; and 0.4 percent are unspecified. According to the 2000 census 86.1 percent of Indonesians were Muslims at that time and observed Islamic practices to varying degrees; another 5.7 percent were Protestant, 3 percent Roman were Catholic, 1.8 percent were Hindu, and 3.4 percent were other, including Buddhist, and unspecified. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

Nearly all Muslims in Indonesia are Sunnis. Islam is not the state religion and Islamic law is not practiced except in a few localities. Most of the people of Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan are Muslims.Christianity is practiced in parts of Indonesia where there was formerly a large Dutch presence— parts of Sumatra and the Maluka islands (Moluccas) —or Portuguese presence—East Timor. There are also many Christians in West Papua, where American and European missionaries have had success converting tribes—some of them former headhunters—there. The Minahasa and the Batak in North Sulawesi, the Toraja in South Sulawesi and people in East Nusa Tenggara (islands east of Bali such as Flores) and on Nias island in North Sumatra are largely Christian. Hinduism is practiced on Bali, and animism is practiced by small groups of people in isolated areas scattered around the archipelago.

According to “The Javanese are predominantly Muslim, though many are Catholic or Protestant, and many Chinese in Java and elsewhere are Christian, mainly 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: ]

Book: “Religion of Java” by Clifforf Geertz (1950s).

Religion and Life in Indonesia

Religion is perhaps the most important thing for an Indonesian. It is illegal not to have a religion and a person’s religion is stated in her/his ID card beside all the normal information that an ID card usually include: address, date of birth. However, there are people who are called "ID card Muslims, Christians" etc. These are people who are not particularly religious as they do not observe their religious practices, but when asked would say that she/he is a Muslim, Christian etc. according to their family’s belief and what is stated on their ID card. [Source: Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning, ||||]

The daily life and activities of an Indonesian are scheduled according to her/his religion; especially for Muslims who pray 5 times a day. During the normal office hour, until 4 or 5 o’clock, you will see Muslims pray twice: the second and the third prayer of the day. That is why in every office, a room is provided for this purpose. Please be sensitive to this need of your colleagues in the workplace. The men will also need to go to the mosque on Fridays to do the second prayer. ||||

Individuals identify strongly with their religion and the attitude is such that everyone belongs to some religious grouping—Muslim, Hindu or Christian. Whether or not they are devout practitioners is not relevant, the identity is still quite strong. It is just assumed that westerners are Christian. In the work place there is a lot of respect for religious duty and time is given for individuals to practice their religion of choice. Thus, the Christians in our office were off at Christmas while the Muslims and Hindus worked, but the Muslims were off at Ramadan while the Hindus and Christians worked. The Hindus have quite a demanding religious calendar and, being in Bali where the majority are Hindu, the office accommodated their needs completely. ||||

Religious Infusions in Indonesia

Religion in Indonesia is best viewed as a series of amalgamations rather than a process of successions. Islam has been infused with the Buddhism and Hinduism that preceded it and Buddhism and Hinduism in turn have been infused with the folk religions that preceded them. Many Indonesian pilgrims visit sights with connections to Muslim saints and associations with Buddhism, Hinduism and animism even though Islam generally discourages such practices.

On the whole the Indonesian people are regarded as religious in nature.Indonesia’s religious make-up 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.

Many Indonesians are familiar with a number of different faiths. To hedge their bets, they recognize and respect each one. It is not unusual to find devoted Muslims who make offerings to Hindu gods and seek help from faith healers. During December, Jakarta streets are lit up with Christmas lights; Garuda, the name of the Indonesian airline, is a Hindu God. Asking someone their religion in Indonesia is as common as asking someone their job in he United States. In the early Suharto era if you said you were a non-believer the assumption was that you were a Communist and that could get you in big trouble.

Mysticism endures in Java beneath Islam in form of beliefs of benevolent and malevolent spirits and ghosts and magical powers possessed by amulets, heirlooms such as sacred kris knives, parts of the body such as hair and nails and certain musical instruments.

According to “Mystical cults are well established among the Javanese elite and middle class, and members of many ethnic groups still follow traditional belief systems. Officially the government recognizes religion ( agama ) to include Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, while other belief systems are called just that, beliefs ( kepercayaan ). Those who hold beliefs are subject to conversion; followers of religion are not. Belief in ancestral spirits, spirits of diverse sorts of places, and powerful relics are found among both peasants and educated people and among many followers of the world religions; witchcraft and sorcery also have their believers and practitioners. The colonial regime had an uneasy relationship with Islam, as has the Indonesian government. The first of the Five Principles extols God ( Tuhan ), but not Allah by name. Dissidents have wanted to make Indonesia a Muslim state, but they have not prevailed. [Source: ]

Early History of Religion in Indonesia

In ancient times most people who lived in what is now Indonesia most likely practiced some form of animism (belief in spirits) and ancestor worship. Perhaps, as is true some Indonesian animists today, many of their beliefs were tied to making sure that ancestors rest in peace, harvests were good and people had enough to eat and maintained good health. Animists remain in West Papua and Sumba.

Buddhism and Hinduism arrived in the A.D. 3rd and 4th centuries presumably as traders from India and other places arrived on Indonesian islands and brought their religions with them. There are numerous Buddhist and Hindu sites in Indonesia. The oldest Hindu art in Indonesia are Hindu statues found in Sumatra and Sulawesi dated to the A.D. 3rd century. Hindu Sanskrit inscriptions dated to the A.D. 5th century have been found in West Java and eastern Kalimantan. Early Indonesian rulers were regarded as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. Some scholars believe that early Indonesian kings invited Hindu priests from India to provide them with mystical powers and a spiritual justification for their rule.

Buddhism was introduced to Java by the A.D. fifth century and established in Sumatra in the 7th century. It took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century. Buddhism existed peacefully with Hinduism and indigenous magical beliefs. Buddhism grew from Hindusim in India. In Indonesia the two religions have often been interwoven with each other and with traditional Javanese beliefs. Hindu statues sometimes have Buddhist symbols and Buddhist temples often have depictions of Hindu gods.

Buddhism and Hinduism were embraced by Indonesian royalty and, some speculate, they were used to justify the rule of Indonesian leaders with the god-king beliefs. Many believe they were practiced by royals and elite while ordinary people kept their traditional religion. Many events in the great Hindu epic the Ramayana take place in Java.

Before Islam became dominate, Indonesia was ruled by a succession of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms for over a thousand years. The first Hindu kingdom—Melayu—was established on Java in A.D. 400. Indian influence between the 8th and 14th century produced a number of small Shaivite-Buddhist kingdoms. In the 7th century the Buddhist Sriwijaya Empire ruled Western Indonesia and controlled trade in much of the area. In the 9th century the Hindu Mataram Kingdom ceded control to the Buddhist Sailendra Kingdom. The effect of India on Indonesia was quite profound but greatly modified. When the great Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore visited Java he said, “I see India everywhere but I do not recognize it.”

See Separate Article ISLAM ARRIVES IN INDONESIA under History

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.

See Islam, History

Later History of Religion

In the 16th century the Portuguese introduced Catholicism to what is now Indonesia. In the 17th century the Dutch introduced Protestantism. Although some local people who worked with Europeans in the colonial administration converted to the religion, Christianity did not make much headway with the local population expect in a few areas like East Timor and the Spice islands.

When Indonesia became independent in 1949 it was established as a secular state. After an election in 1955 a committee called the Konstituante was established to draft a new Constitution. Some Muslim groups pushed for having Islam made the state religion. Nationalists and Communists opposed the move. A tense situation was resolved when Sukarno disbanded the Konstituante and decreed a return to the 1945 Constitution.

In the 1960s the Indonesia government attempted clamp down on animist and folk beleifs by abolishing all religions except for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Later Hindu-Balinese was added and lawyers for the Toraja and others ethnic religions argued that their religion was no different than Hindu-Balinese. ♧

Kejawen—a Javanese spiritual teaching, which claims that all religions are good—was introduced by Suharto and helps explain how so many religions have managed to co-exist relatively peacefully in Indonesia. AFP reported: “Suharto's personal quirks have also had an influence on Indonesian life. Although a Muslim, Suharto's devotion to traditional pre-Islamic mysticism also influenced the national culture. His Javanese brand of synchretic Islam, popularly known as Kejawen, later was added to the list of five major religions then recognised by the state, but under a different name: Belief in God Almighty. Suharto's 1998 fall was quickly followed by a rise in more orthodox Islamic piety, but the supernatural still looms large — especially when it comes to talk of the ex-dictator himself. While many would see Suharto's team of doctors as the main reason for his survival so far, theories popular among millions of Indonesians include possession by black magic and his ownership of a Javanese royal family's sacred dagger. [Source: Aubrey Belford, AFP, January 14, 2008 /]

Religion and Society

In the Indonesian language there is clear distinction between the concept of religiosity and belonging to a community. Columnist Ignas Kledenin wrote un the Jakarta Post. “The Indonesian word ‘beragama’ comprises both one’s membership in a religious community and the degree of personal internalization of religious values...As a result people tend to equate the spiritual dimension of living religiously with eh organizational aspects of one’s membership in a religious-based grouping.

“Psychologically speaking, religion is not only a membership group but also a reference group. It is not only a physical collective made up of members as its constituents, but also a place where one identifies oneself according to the certain knowledge, ideals, norms and values of that group...But if religion is treated only as a membership group, which is self-contained and exclusive, the outsiders will be easily faced with suspicion, misgivings, prejudice and even animosity. Those who ate not with is must be against us.”

Religion often become more of an issue when times are bad than when they are good. Kledenin wrote, “In Indonesia, religion seems to be a safe base for people to fall back in. People faced with pressing difficulties tend to seek security in their religions by relying more on their religious communities, taking God more seriously and relearning their prayers...People are more inclined to offer an easy explanation for the social and political problems by referring to the degree of one’s adherence to religious norms, which one is supposed to implement as a member of a religious community.”

Religion, Government Policy and Politics in Indonesia

Even though some 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslims, Indonesia is a secular nation. Indonesia guarantees freedom of religion and recognizes six religions :Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism and Protestantism. These religions are granted protection by the Constitution. According the Indonesian philosophy of Pancasila, all citizens are required to believe in God but they can chose between the recognized religions. Atheism is not permitted.

Religion in Indonesia is a complex and volatile issue, not easily analyzed in terms of social class, region, or ethnic group. Long discouraged by the New Order government (1966–98) from political participation, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions were increasingly influential frameworks for defining social participation after 1998. The state guaranteed tolerance of certain religions (agama) regarded as monotheistic by the government, but popular violence between Christians and Muslims in Java, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Ambon, and Halmahera made those guarantees difficult to honor. In some cases, the police and army were on different sides of clashes defined in religious terms.

According to During the New Order, those not having a religion were suspected of being Communist, so there was a rush to conversion in many areas, including Java, which gained many new Christians. Followers of traditional ethnic beliefs were under pressure as well. In places such as interior Kalimantan and Sulawesi, some people and groups converted to one of the world religions, but others sought government recognition for a reorganized traditional religion through both regional and national politicking. Among the Ngaju Dayak, for instance, the traditional belief system, Kaharingan, gained official acceptance in the Hindu-Buddhist category, though it is neither. People who follow traditional beliefs and practices are often looked down upon as primitive, irrational, and backward by urban civil and military leaders who are Muslim or Christian— but these groups formed new sorts of organizations, modeled on urban secular ones, to bolster support. Such moves represent both religious and ethnic resistance to pressure from the outside, from neighboring Muslim or Christian groups, and from exploitative government and military officers or outside developers of timber and mining industries. On Java, mystical groups, such as Subud, also lobbied for official recognition and protections. Their position was stronger than that of remote peoples because they had followers in high places, including the president. [Source: ]

Religious Laws in Indonesia

The constitution protects religious freedom, although some laws, policies, and local regulations restrict religious freedom. The Ministry of Home Affairs holds the authority to review and revoke local regulations that are not in accordance with national legislation. In 2012, the ministry reviewed approximately 13,000 local regulations and revoked 824. A ministry spokesperson reported some of the regulations were revoked because they violated religious freedom, but was not able to provide an exact number. The constitution accords “all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief” and states that “the nation is based upon belief in one supreme God.” The first tenet of the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, similarly declares belief in one God. The government does not allow for nonbelief. Government employees must swear allegiance to the nation and to the Pancasila ideology. Other laws and policies at the national and regional levels restrict certain types of religious activity, particularly among unrecognized religious groups and “deviant” sects of recognized religious groups. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, Indonesia, U.S. Department of State]

The government requires officially recognized religious groups to comply with directives from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and other ministerial directives, such as the Revised Joint Ministerial Decree on the Construction of Houses of Worship (2006), Overseas Aid to Religious Institutions in Indonesia (1978), and Guidelines for the Propagation of Religion (1978). The 2006 Revised Joint Ministerial Decree on the Construction of Houses of Worship requires religious groups that want to build a house of worship to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating that they support the construction. The decree also requires approval from the local religious affairs office, the Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB). The government established FKUBs under two 2006 joint ministerial decrees. The groups exist at the city or district level and are comprised of religious leaders from the six recognized religions. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The Guidelines for Overseas Aid to Religious Institutions require domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the Ministry of Religion to receive funding from overseas donors. The Guidelines for Propagation of Religion ban proselytizing to members of recognized religious groups under most circumstances. The Child Protection Act of 2002 makes conversion of minors to a religion other than their own through “tricks” and/or “lies,” terms that can be applied loosely, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Under the National Education Law, religious instruction in any one of the six official religions is required when requested by a student. Religious speeches are permissible if delivered to members of the same religious group and are not intended to convert persons of other religious groups. Televised religious programming is unrestricted for any of the recognized religious groups. Publication of religious materials or the use of religious symbols is permitted; however, the government bans dissemination of these materials to persons who do not adhere to the religion of the group disseminating the materials.

The law does not discriminate against any recognized religious group in employment, housing, or health care. Religious groups and social organizations must obtain permits to hold religious concerts or other public events. The government usually grants permits in an unbiased manner unless a concern exists that the activity would raise strong objections from members of another religious group in the area. Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

See Sharia Under Justice System, Government.

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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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