Islam in Indonesia

Modern Indonesia is known for having the largest Muslim population by percentage of any country in the world.  Coming to Indonesia in the 13th century A.D., Islam has continued to spread, and approximately 90 % of the current population considers itself to be Muslim.Nevertheless, many forms of Islam practiced there combine animist, Hindu, and Buddhist elements from the country's rich and varied religious past, creating an Islamic faith that looks different from that of the Orthodox Islam of the Middle East.  With over 17,000 islands spanning 3,000 miles along the equator, Indonesia's Islamic variations differ significantly not only from other countries but also from one part of its own land to another. Still, while Islam dominates the political and social structure of Indonesia, the country still maintains its other religious roots; as one critic notes, “Indonesia's civilization is like a marbled layer cake.”

Convergence of Religions

Before the introduction of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam into the country, early Indonesians were prominently animists who practiced ancestor and spirit worship. This form of religion, generally described as superstitious and ritualistic, believes that plants and animals, all living things, have a soul.  For instance, many Indonesians consider the waringin tree as sacred and a symbol of the “vital essence.” Thus they often bury animal sacrifices at the roots of the tree and no one is permitted to cut down the tree or its branches, otherwise severe punishment or even death ensues.   As another example of animism, many Indonesians still believe hair to have a magic quality called mana.  Young men, therefore, are encouraged to send girls a lock of their hair in order to seduce them. Furthermore, the Indonesians hold many rituals regarding life and death; some very important for appeasing the dead souls or assisting them through the underworld.  Although this dedication to the god and spirit of nature changed somewhat with the arrival of other religions, the natives usually just incorporated elements of their animist culture and superstitions into the new religions.

In 1,500 A.D., the Hindu and Buddhist faiths came to Indonesia and meshed with the primitive animism of the country. The Indonesians accepted and accommodated these new beliefs by mixing them with each other, as well as with their own culture.  In fact, in many parts of Indonesia, the natives combined all three religions to create something of a new Hindu-Buddhist animism.  A great relic from the ninth century called the Borobudur temple on the island of Java evidences this unique blending of faiths.  As the largest Buddhist monument in the world, this great structure holds almost fourhundred images of Buddha, while simultaneously displaying many Hindu, Hindu-Buddhist, and animist sculptures.  With its conglomeration of different deities in one temple, Borobudur manifests the Indonesians' unique combination of separate religions. As one example of a specifically Hindu-Buddhist convergence, Shiva, a Hindu god, was transformed into something of a Buddha image, while still keeping the Hindu name of Shiva.  As seen later, the Shiva god eventually adopts the Islam faith as well. The Shiva-Buddhist cult poignantly reflects the Indonesian mindset toward the variety of religions offered.  Despite these convergences, some places, such as the island of Bali, became solely Hindu and remain so to this day.Following the fusion of Hindu, Buddhist, and native religions, Islam appeared and lay yet another brick on the religious structure, which was held together by a mortar of deep cultural roots.

Introduction of Islam

Traveling to Indonesia by way of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, Muslim traders and mystical literary figures first brought Islam to the country in the thirteenth century. Coming from India, this was the mainstream Sunni variant, which was initially founded in Arabia. Scholars speculate that the mystical Sufi tradition influenced this Islam, which could have been easily fused with the native Indonesian culture.  Sufi holy men are described as “devout Muslim mystics renowned for the beauty of their music, poetry”and their internal spiritual focus, rather than for seeking to impose their religion on their surroundings or onto politics.  As one scholar notes, although no evidence of Sufi communities from early centuries in Indonesia exists, Indonesians would have been more likely to accept the more mystical form of Islam than the strict, law-bound versions. One similarity between the Sufi and Indonesian cultures was the idea of having a teacher who formed around him a small group of disciples to pass on higher wisdom.  Also, the Indonesian and the Muslim both seemed to focus more on the correct ways in which to communicate to god instead rather than on the nature of god.  Furthermore, Indonesian tantric mantras were means of meditation similar to that of the Muslims, as the Muslims often recited the Koran or other Arabic texts. This form of Islam, therefore, could be easily incorporated into the native culture. 

Because of the traders' traveling routes, Islam spread most rapidly in the northern parts of Sumatra, Java, and the eastern archipelago.  Evidence of this beginning Islamization comes from Marco Polo.  In 1292 he landed in Sumatra where he found an Islamic town named Perlak.  Although Perlak was already Islamic with a Sunni monarch, Islam was not found within its surrounding towns.  One of the larger cities, Melaka, was a major impetus for the spread of Islam.  This rich port city controlled the Strait of Malacca and much of the archipelago's trade throughout the fifteenth century.  Iskandar Syah, a prince converted to Islam, founded Melaka, and through his rule, his successors, and the trading fleet he extended the religion to various parts of the archipelago.  Islam not only offered a simple message of personal faith and hope, but it could also give one favor and therefore success in trade or nobility; thus Indonesians had a double incentive for conversion.  Still some regions were resistant to Islam, such as Bali and parts of Java that kept a more strictly Hindu culture.

Islamic Expansion

Islam branched out further in the sixteenth century, when Muslims began establishing Islamic kingdoms.  The Aceh kingdom, formed on the western part of Sumatra, was a region of major Islamic allegiance in the early sixteenth century and today is a part of Sumatra where “Islamic character of population is most pronounced.”  Also in the early 1500's the Portuguese came to Indonesia; although they intentionally brought Catholicism with them to Christianize the islands, their efforts inadvertently aided Islamization.By closing off the central ports to Indian Muslims, they pushed the Muslims with their Islam faith to smaller ports across the islands.  Islam, then, was taken to some of the more remote pockets of the widespread country.

Nevertheless, Java still did not easily accept the faith. There, Majapahit was the last and greatest of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that predominantly controlled the archipelago and surrounding regions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Islamic port towns conflicted with Majapahit power, however, and under the challenge of Islamization Hindu Javanese leaders fled to the small island of Bali to keep their faith alive.  Bali, as an exception in Indonesia, remains untouched by Islam to this day.  Those inland on Java eventually accepted Islam but only as a “formal legal and religious context for Javanese spiritual culture.”  In Java, Islam was allowed to exist only on Javanese cultural terms.   That is, only as in a form mixed with previously held religious beliefs. 

Although most early conversions were peaceful, one scholar says that converted Islamic states sometimes waged war against traditional Hindu-Buddhist regions.  The same scholar also recognizes that because of inadequate historical records and evidence, the process of Islamization in Indonesia is somewhat unclear.Although some believe Hindu princes converted to Islam because of their desire for power, commerce, and riches, the legend of Sunan Kalidjaga offers a different perspective on the eventual conversion of inland Java. Kalidjaga was a prince in Java who grew up in the traditional Hindu-Buddhist culture of the Majapahit kingdom.  In a conversion experience similar to that of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, Kalidjaga had a vision of a Muslim religious leader who instructed him to spread the doctrine of Islam.  Consequently, the prince converted to Islam and began peacefully sharing the faith throughout Java.  He was thus able to bridge the two religions; for the Javanese, his life is “the meaningful link between a world of god-kings, ritual priests, and declamatory shrines and one of pious sultans, Koranic scholars, and austere mosques.”  Kalidjaga is considered, therefore, to be one of the wali sanga, or nine apostles, who helped bring peaceful conversions to Islam in Java. Because of the differences between Indonesian culture and the Islam of Mecca, however, conversion usually meant an acceptance of Islam wherein the faith would be combined with traditional and indigenous beliefs.

Versions of Islam

Most Indonesians, when converting to Islam, synchronized the new religion with their personal mixture of one or more of Hindu, Buddhist, or, animist religions, while a minority switched completely to Orthodox Islam.  Therefore, like the many diverse cultures of the islands, Islam began to take on different shapes across the country.  The two distinct versions of Islam, Orthodox and the blended , were in tension with one another.  A believer in Indonesia who became exclusively Muslim and adhered strictly to Mecca-oriented Islam and the laws of the Koran is called santri.  Santri can also signify a person who removes himself from the secular surroundings to devote himself to Islamic schools called pesantren, which translates literally as “the place of the santri.”  The second form of Islam commonly identified is called kebatinin.  This version is a mixture of Hindu-Buddhist beliefs, animism and Islam practices.  Kebatinin is also called kejawen, agama Jawa, Javanism, or abangan.One case of this blend of religions was described earlier in the Hindu god Shiva who adopted Buddhist characteristics.  As Islam spread through the culture, the Javanese claimed Shiva went to Mecca and also embraced Islam, thus creating a god of three faiths combined. Because Hinduism never completely reached the eastern islands, a more pure, orthodox form of Islam formed in the east, while the western part of Indonesia tended to more often combine Islam with its Hinduism or other ancient belief systems.

Political History

By the end of the sixteenth century both the Dutch and British had gained interest in the “Spice Islands” (Indonesia) and its wealth of trade.  The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1602, which attempted to take over all trade control with Indonesia from other European countries, thus creating a commercial monopoly.  This monopoly served to shape the foundation of the Dutch territorial empire.  Historians mark this time, which is disputed to be either 1511 or 1600, as the commencement of European control and influence that would last up to the twentieth century.  The time between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries has been generalized as an “age of commerce” both for Indonesians and foreign traders.  The Dutch East India Company's involvement did not remain limited to trade, however, but instead it became a political force among the islands.  Although opposed by certain Islamic leaders in Java, such as Sultan Agung and his successor Amangkurat II, the Dutch eventually dominated all of Java and then spread its empire into Sumatra and other surrounding areas.With this Dutch influence extending into Indonesia, the face of Islam underwent various changes.  For instance, the native trading peoples were forced further inland.  Holding a strong Islam faith, they brought their beliefs with them and began to rely more and more on the pilgrimage to Mecca as their connection with the larger Muslim world.  Consequently, they formed and spread an Islam somewhat orthodox but still mixed with the deep traditions of Java culture.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch decided to try to make its governed lands at least self-sufficient, but they met some unexpected challenges.  In 1825 the Java War began, due in part to protest of Dutch rule on the island.  The war was supported by many Muslim leaders in Indonesia who also recognized the Koran's promise of a coming Madhi, a messiah or “Just Ruler” that would bring peace and harmony to the territory.  In the years of 1826-30, a man who was overthrown from Javanese rule by the Dutch claimed himself to be the Madhi of Islam and he began a jihad, or Holy War, against the government. During the Java War, another battle began in Sumatra called the Padri-War.  This conflict began between the traditional leaders of the community, called the adat, and the revivalist Muslim leaders; some of the orthodox revivalists killed a royal family of the more Indocized Islam.  As a result of the battle, Dutch authorities called for a military invasion, which served to strengthen Dutch administration in the area.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Dutch were able to make the islands into a “unified colonial dependency,” which formed the basis for the future republic of Indonesia. By this time, western thought began to pervade Islamic circles, forming a modernist strain of Islam.  Furthermore, Indonesian nationalism began to develop, and with it, an organization called the “Islamic Association” or Sakerat Islam, the largest nationalist party of the time.  After World War I, many more of these types of associations were formed, most of which were aimed toward nationalism.   Inner conflicts between the conservative and communist leaders in 1921 caused the decline of Sakerat Islam, and a new nationalist movement rose to prominence: the Indonesian Nationalist Party, formed under the leadership of Sukarno, the rising president of Indonesia.  As a result of World War II, Indonesia fell from the clasp of Dutch rule and into the hands of Japan.  The Japanese allowed the rise of both Muslim and nationalist leaders, including Sukarno, who began establishing himself as the leader of the nation.  After an Indonesian revolution, Japan gave Indonesia its independence in the year of 1945.

Role of Islam in Politics

After gaining independence, the Indonesians needed to decide on the role of Islam in the nation's government.  After heated disputes, the leaders agreed to keep religious freedom and to create “a civic code instead of an Islamic one.”At the same time, one current of Kebatinin, the more indigenous-type of Islam, became legitimized by the government.  Sukarno then became the first Indonesian president of the Republic.  Because he disliked the divisions among Muslims and other religions (specifically Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian) of the nation he propagated a somewhat disguised, authoritarian form of government called the “Guided Democracy.”  His successor, Suharto, introduced a similar type of rule named “The New Order.”  Some scholars say both of these rulers showed “their Javanese religious-cultural bias against Islam”and made sure that Islam's political influence was limited by various forces, including the military.  Both Sukarno and Suharto, therefore, restricted political freedom throughout the nation.  In response to the bias against Islam, Islamic and nationalist organizations united to create parties against Suharto's government.  The “red-green” alliance, in existence today as the Wahid-Megawati administration, was one political coalition of the nationalist- Islam that helped to defeat the dictatorship of Suharto.   Suharto, upon realizing the threat to his rule, turned to a militant form of Islam.  This led to much violence across the nation, and religious groups who had formerly lived in peace, such as Muslims and Christians, began to fight against one another.   This more militant, violent form of Islam instigated by Suharto became a lasting part of Indonesia's various branches of Islam.

Branches of Islam Today

The two most influential Muslim organizations of Indonesia society today are the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), made up of the traditionalists, and the

Muhammadiyah, or, the modernists.  The traditionalists tend to be organized around Muslim boarding schools (the pesantren) while they preserve traditional Islamic education.In fact, the name of the organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, literally translates as “renaissance of Islamic scholars”, and the thirty-five million involved with this Islamic orientation follow charismatic religious scholars. The Muhammidiyah, on the other hand, embrace modern thought and culture while keeping to orthodox Islamic theology.  Founded in 1912, this modernist organization was aimed to create social institutions, such as orphanages and hospitals, in order to compensate the Protestant and Catholic efforts.   With about twenty-five million followers, it has less participation than the NU

Modern Muslim Culture

According to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, 210 million inhabitants of Indonesia today consider themselves Muslim.  Many of these believers, however, practice Islam in profoundly different ways.  The Unreached Peoples Prayer Profiles provides information on various modern Muslim groups in Indonesia.  The profiles show an incredibly diversified Islam with many lasting effects of animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. 

For instance, ninety-nine percent of the 800,000 Komering who live in Sumatra today claim Islamic faith, yet they mix their beliefs strongly with animism and superstitions.  In order to keep evil spirits away, for example, many Komering wear good luck charms that contain verses of the Koran.  Also, some believe that “whistling indoors at night entertains demons, or that walking around on your birthday will bring bad luck.” Thus, although Islam remains prevalent and maintains a strong influence on the culture, the Komering still incorporate old religious beliefs.

The Sekayu is another tribe of mixed religion.  Found spread throughout southern Sumatra, they consider themselves devout Muslims.  Indeed, they pray five times a day toward Mecca and reject common sacrificial rituals, believing only Allah gives true redemption.  Nevertheless, they still maintain some of their ancient animistic beliefs.  For example, many Sekayu visit a “soothsayer,” or dukun, in order to contact the dead spirits or have their fortune told.  They claim, however, that they do not pray “to” the dead spirits, as others do, but instead they pray to Allah “for” the benefit of their ancestors.The Sekayu, therefore, practice dedication to Allah while still sustaining animistic beliefs. 

The Alas-Kluet Batak people of the Aceh province in northern Sumatra, on the other hand, have very little concern for or devotion to Orthodox Islam even though they have been considered Muslims since the 1600's.   This tribe directs their religious practices toward what they consider good and bad ghosts who must be appeased through cult rituals and exorcist healings.  For instance, at a child's birth, the parents shave the child's head, leaving only a small lock of hair.  If the child then becomes ill, they cut the remaining lock of hair believing that bad luck will also be removed.  The people of Alas-Kluet Batak, then, remain Muslim only in name, not in practice.

The Bajau, as another example, are mostly Sunni Muslims who live mainly in the coastal districts and islands of Sulawesi.  These “Sea Gypsies” consist mostly of nomadic boat dwellers who often lack mosques for worship. Consequently, they rely on different communities on shore to visit a mosque.  Islamic religious status is very important to the Bajau.  For instance, they show special honor to descendants of Mohammed, or salip, and “variations of Islamic practices are associated with the relative status of different groups.”Although the Bajau uphold Islamic religious piety and learning for individual prestige, they continue to practice traditional forms of spirit worship.  At least once a year, they hold a “public séance and nightly trance dancing”while the spirit mediums assemble to contact the spirits.  The Bajau call on the spirit mediums particularly in times of illness to remove evil spirits from the community.  They accomplish this by putting a “spirit boat” adrift in the ocean.This people group, therefore, does not hold to a pure worship of Allah, but instead also looks to other supernatural powers.

A Country of Mixed Islam

Since the 13th century, Islam has filtered into the corners and remote pockets of Indonesian civilization.  Coming into a religiously mixed world of animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Islam began taking on forms different than that of Middle Eastern orthodoxy.  The majority of Indonesian Muslims today shape the Islamic religion to fit their traditional superstitions and other religious beliefs, while the minority strives for orthodoxy.   These various forms of Islam combine to dominate both the cultural and political aspects of the nation and give Indonesia the largest Muslim population of the world.  Yet in reality, rather than being unified under a pure Islam, this population truly is a “marble layered cake” of mixed religious belief.