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Indonesian Islam: Great and Unknown

Indonesia stretches over 5,500 km from the north-western tip of Sumatra (Aceh) to the border with Papua-Nugini on the eastern island of New Guinea, and over about 1,500 km from the Philippines to the Indian ocean. More than 1,000 of the over 16,000 islands filling that space are inhabited by a total of about 215 million people. The population of Indonesia is growing at about 1.8% per year and is distributed very unevenly. About 62% of Indonesians live on Java alone. Together with the small island of Madura, Java covers about 132,000 km2. Thus the population density of Java is almost 1,000 people every square kilometre. This is in spite of the fact that Java has many high mountains that are still largely uninhabited. It is said that Indonesia has at least four hundred different languages, most of which belong to the Austro-Malaysian language group, which includes the Philippines and Madagascar.



The largest language group, to which belong about 42% of all Indonesians, are the Javanese who speak Javanese and originally inhabited Central and Eastern Java. The second largest group is made up of the Sundanese who live in the western part of Java. Then there are the Madurese who live on Madura and on the northern coast of East Java. There are only about six million Malay, who gave Indonesia her language, and these live on the eastern part of Sumatra and along the coast of Kalimantan (Borneo). (1) These four major language groups are all Muslim.


About 85% of the population of Indonesia is Muslim. Almost 10% of all Indonesians are Christians and two-thirds of these are Protestant. 1.5% are Hindu: the original inhabitants of the island of Bali. The remaining 3.5% of the population practice indigenous religions (less than one million people) or belong to a growing Buddhist community consisting for the most part of Chinese who are thus known as adherents of the 'Chinese religion'.



Today it is the general opinion that Islam was brought by traders and travellers from the Gujerat and from China and began to spread slowly from Aceh from the thirteenth century onwards. Java was converted to Islam during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


Most Indonesian Christians belong to peoples who were not converted to Islam: the Toba, Karo and other Batak tribes in Northern Sumatra who originally were converted by Protestants missionaries, for the most part German Lutherans, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. Practically all other Protestants are Calvinists or now belong to Evangelical communities. Major parts of the Dayak in Kalimantan are Christian (both Protestant and Catholic), as is Minahassa (the Menadonese) in Northern Sulawesi, and some other regions on Sulawesi which are mostly Protestant. Also Christian are several parts of the Molukkas (mostly Protestant), the island of Flores and its surrounding islands (Catholic), Western Timor (both Protestant and Catholic,) and Papua (Protestant with a solid minority of Catholics). A considerable proportion of the perhaps six million Indonesian Chinese, although less than 50%, are also Christians.



In addition, there are about one million Catholics among the Javanese, as well as a strong Protestant community, and a few smaller Christian communities among the Sundanese from Western Java. The Javanese and Sundanese communities sprang from an Islamic environment.



Two Islams and Many Orientations



Indonesian Islam is extremely heterogeneous. (2) The distinction, although this is challenged by some, between 'Santri' and 'Abangan' is still helpful. The 'Santri', understood (by Geertz) in a broad sense, (3) are those Muslims that consciously shape their lives on the basis of Islam and who, if possible, perform Muslim duties such as praying five times a day (sholat) or fasting. The 'Abangan' ('the reds') are those Muslims, especially among the Javanese, who, or at least until forty years ago, only belonged to Islam in name, who never said prayers or kept the Muslim fast, and whose daily culture was little shaped by Islam. These differences were quite visible. While Abangan women never had any clothing on their heads, Santri women had some kind of cloth placed loosely over their heads. The Abangan tended their graves, whereas the Santri often neglected them. The famous Javanese cultural traditions of the wayang shadow play (whose plots originate from the Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata), the gamelan orchestra and the beautiful dances (shoulders always bared) were taboo for most Santri.



This cultural-religious split escalated in the 1950s when political parties took clear positions on one side or other of the Abangan-Santri divide. In Indonesian political discourse 'Islam' referred only to the Santri, or more precisely to those Indonesians that belonged to Muslim organisations or political parties. They were opposed by the 'Nationalists' who for the most part were, of course, Muslim, but who rejected political Islam and instinctively rejected all religious sectionalism. It was the Nationalists who from the very beginning of the Indonesian Republic (1945) blocked any attempt to make Islamic shariah legislation state law. (4)



There are different currents within the Santri. The most important distinction is between 'traditional' and 'modern' Islam. 'Modern Islam' is an understanding of Muslim identity and practice that was influenced by such Egyptian reformists of the end of the nineteenth century as Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh or by Wahabist influences. The 'modernists' are represented by the 'Muhammadiah' organisation, founded in 1912 in Yogyakarta, which has modern schools, universities and hospitals throughout the country. The Islamic Students' Association (HMI) is modernist and is one of the organisations from which national figures have emerged over the last fifty years. Partly as a reaction to criticism of their 'impure' Islam by the Muhammadiah, in 1926 the Kiais in Eastern Java founded the traditionalist 'Nadlatul Ulama' (NU) which functions as a kind of umbrella organisation for most of the 'pesantrens'. The Muhammadiah claims twenty-seven million members and the NU claims forty million members.



The relations between these organisations have often been difficult. In political terms they have usually adopted different stances. In the 1950s the Muhammadiah supported the Masyumi Party which, together with the Socialist Party, the Catholic Party and the Protestant Parkindo Party, promoted Western democracy. The NU, in opposite fashion, while always moderate in religious matters, supported Sukarno's 'guided democracy'. In 1989 Soeharto took a pro-Muslim direction that led to the founding of the ICMI, the 'Association of Muslim Intellectuals', and to the rise of Prof. Habibie (who later succeeded Soeharto as President), who among other things initiated a 'purification' of public posts, involving the removal of Christians, in the name of proportional representation. This was opposed sharply by the subsequent President, Abdurrachman Wahid, the leader of the NU, who, together with Christian intellectuals, founded the 'Democracy Forum', a body that was very much disliked by Soeharto.



The Five Principles at the Basis of the State



That religious freedom has been, not withstanding all kinds of smaller and local forms of discrimination, a fact in Indonesia can be traced back to 'Pancasila', the five principles on which the Indonesian state is founded (first formulated by Sukarno): a belief in one God, just and civilised humanism, nationalism, orientation towards the people, and social justice. But the key point of Pancasila is something implicit: an agreement that in Indonesia nobody will be discriminated against because of their religion. In consequence, there is not one reference to Islam in the national Constitution. And it is a fact that today church bells ring all over Muslim Java, churches are full, and on Java there are several major places of pilgrimage, almost all of which are consecrated to Mary. Christians participate to the full in the political, social and cultural life of the country.



Since the last years of the Soeharto government attacks on Christian churches on Java have multiplied (and it is very difficult to obtain permits for building new churches). The climax was the two civil wars between Christians and Muslims in eastern Indonesia that was fought in the years 1999-2002 (even now peace is not yet completely restored), with almost 10,000 deaths and almost a million internal refugees.


The strange but positive fact is that these conflicts did not flow over into the other regions of Indonesia. On the contrary, it is probably the case that we have never had better relations between the two religions.



In particular, between the NU and Christians cordial relations really exist, and this means that on the nights of Christmas and Easter NU militias protect many of our churches against possible terrorist attacks (four years ago Muslim terrorists exploded thirty devices close to churches, ranging from Sumatra to Lombok, within sixty minutes of each other, with seventeen deaths and a hundred and forty people wounded. Among the dead was an NU youth who was carrying a bomb out of a church in Mojokerto when it exploded).



Extremists and Liberals



After the fall of Soeharto, Muslim extremists used the democratic opening to come out into the open. But it appears that they did not succeed in obtaining much influence. After 12 October 2002 (the Bali bombing) they had to lie low again. In two free elections the Muslim parties received 37% and 40% of the vote, while the parties that campaigned for the introduction of the shariah only received 17% of the vote. Both the NU and the Muhammadiah have categorically rejected calls for the introduction of the shariah.


These groups the Islamic Defence Force (FBI), the Soldiers of Islam (laskar jihad), the Hizbut Tahrir (who campaign for the introduction of the Caliphate and, it seems, the dissolution of national States) and the Majelis Mujahiddin take a hard line although they always stress that other religious communities will not be discriminated against under shariah law.



They are sharply opposed by other groups that campaign for an open, tolerant Islam. These are the 'spiritual children' of such towering figures as Nurcholish Madjid (5) and Abdurrachman Wahid. One of these groups is the Network of Liberal Islam of Ulil Abshor Abdallah. There are also Muslim theologians who proclaim religious pluralism. It is interesting that the large Islamic state universities under the Department of Religion (IAIN, UIN) are places where an open, dialogical Islam is taught, whereas you find the real fundamentalists among students, especially students of the exact and technical sciences, at the large secular state universities. Thus within Islam there is a competition about what Islam should look like in the future. The exponents of tolerance and pluralism are especially attracted by some features of Catholicism, such as the theology of liberation movement, the Second Vatican Council, and openness to science ('evolution') (while Indonesian Protestants are much more hard-line and exclusionist). (6)



Indonesian Islam is a highly interesting phenomenon. Not only the Abangan variant (which seems to be evaporating: nowadays Muslim do in general pray, fast and try to go on the haj, although politically a majority of them are still not attracted to Islamic parties), but still more the consciously Islamic Muslim. There are also negative trends. In the provinces a narrow-minded Islam is often to be found, especially among state employees who try to make contacts between Muslim and non-Muslim children (for instance) difficult. But there are strong trends in the direction of greater openness. Here one should mention the strong feminist movement among Muslim women. For me this is one of the most hopeful signs of a growing opening up of Islam. Of course, this has implications for Christian attitudes to Islam. They must be positive but realistic. In Indonesia, the direction the Second Vatican Council gave to Catholics is, indeed, felt to be a great help.




(1) In 1928 young Indonesians, yearning for independence from the Dutch, chose the Malay language as the official language of the future Indonesia. Since Malay is also the national language in Malaysia and Brunei-Darussalam, the citizens of these three countries can directly communicate with each other. The Indonesian language has incorporated a number of Dutch words while the Malaysia and Brunei-Darussalam have adopted words from English. In addition, the Indonesian language is being continuously enlarged by Javanese words.



(2) Cfr. Clifford Geertz 1961, The Religion of Java, New York, The Free Press.



(3) The 'Santri' in a narrow sense are the pupils of Islamic boarding schools called pesantren that were created in particular on Java but which have since spread to the whole of Indonesia and which centre around a pious Kiai (a charismatic Muslim teacher). It is interesting to note that the word 'santri' comes from Sanskrit.



(4) Many Javanese Abangan make a point of insisting that Javanese culture rises above any religious affiliation. Ben Anderson inferred that the acceptance of Catholics among the Javanese was connected with the fact that the existence of Catholic Javanese made it possible for the Javanese to distinguish between Javanism and Islam. Javanese culture is the only local culture in Indonesia where Islam did not manage to become a fully integrated feature of popular culture.



(5) Nurcholish made many Muslim angry when as a young man he coined the slogan 'Islam yes, Islamic parties no' and said that secularisation was in fact the consequence of monotheism. He than developed an understanding of Islam that argued that since 'Islam' means 'surrender', all men and women who surrender to God through their religion (including Hindus and Buddhists, who are usually completely marginalised as kafirs (heathens) by Muslims) are in fact Muslim, thereby implying that they, too, will be saved.



(6) Thus where I work, the Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta, where more than 60% of the students are seminarians and students of different religious orders studying for the priesthood, 15% of our students are Muslim, most of whom are activists (members of Muslim organisations) and are often highly interested in philosophical currents such as the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, Habermas, post-modernism and hermeneutics (often of extreme relevance to the Koran).