Islam in Indonesia

August has been something of a “vacation” from our trip for us, not only because we are spending less time on our photos and blog but also because travel in Southeast Asia is so easy and pleasurable. In keeping with the theme of our year, however, we felt that we should “vacation” in an Islamic country, and so are in Islam’s easternmost bastion: Indonesia. (Although Islam exists in parts of the Philippines, Thailand, China, etc., Indonesia and Malaysia are the only majority Islamic countries east of Bengladesh.)

Although fortunately for Indonesia it is not at the core of vexing geopolitical and security problems, like places such as Pakistan, Iran or Palestine, Indonesia’s size alone merits attention. As you may know, Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world, with over 200 million Muslims, far more than in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh (the countries with the second, third and fourth largest Muslim populations, respectively) or any country in the Middle East. Indonesia is also the fourth most populous country in the world (after China, India and the U.S.) and geographically one of the most expansive, stretching from Sumatra west of the Malay Peninsula to Papua near Australia. Indonesia is also of interest because it presents Islam at its greatest geographical and cultural distance from its Arabian roots.

Islam came to Indonesia in the eleventh or twelfth century through the Indian Subcontinent, brought by Indian and Arabian traders riding the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean. Islam was the third major religion to reach Indonesia from India–previously, Hinduism and Buddhism had come from India to dominate the Indonesian archipelago, leaving behind the rich Hindu cultures of Java and Bali and monuments such as the Buddhist temple of Borobudur. When Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta was in now Indonesia in the fourteenth century, only the extreme western island of Sumatra was Muslim–now, the Dar al-Islam stretches all the way east through Java, Lombok and Sumbawa (“skipping” Bali, which remains Hindu) and includes Sulawesi and the Moluccas to the north. The next island to the east, Catholic Flores, has a substantial Muslim population, and it is fair to expect that, in another five hundred years, Islam will have spread yet farther. But for now, at least, Indonesia feels very much a country at the fringe of the Islamic world, and this shows not only in demographics but in people’s attitudes.

While Indonesia is over 85% Muslim, there are significant religious minorities, as in many other Islamic countries. What makes the religious minorities of Indonesia somewhat more significant than religious minorities in other Islamic countries, however, is that Indonesia is so large that the minority groups actually dominate certain regions. Bali, famously, is Hindu, holding on to the ancient traditions that at one time thrived in much of Sumatra and Java. Given its cultural uniqueness, and its great wealth generated by tourism, Bali is likely to succeed in fiercely holding onto its traditions despite being a small part of a majority Muslim country. Other places, such as Flores and the Toraja region of Sulawesi, are largely Christian, or Christian and animist. Because minority religious groups dominate entire islands, or at least regions within an island, they are able to express themselves publicly and cohesively in a way that would be more difficult were such minority populations sequestered in small ghettoes in majority Muslim cities. Such local power likely makes it more difficult for the national government to pursue nationwide Islamic policies, given the very real fears of rebellion or secession in a country that spans thousands of islands in as many miles.

A parade float on Flores suggesting harmony among the three most important religions of Indonesia: Islam, Christianity and Hinduism

Christian church, Flores. In the city of Labuanbajo on the Catholic island of Flores, however, the muezzin’s call to prayer seemed as loud as in any Islamic city, showing perhaps the confidence of the Muslim population even in places where it is a minority.

Christian students on parade, Toraja, Sulawesi

Christian church set amid traditional tongkonan, Toraja, Sulawesi

Festival, Toraja, Sulawesi. Pork eating is a particularly proudly upheld element of Torajan and Balinese culture, no doubt in part because it distinguishes them from the Muslim majority (well, and because pork is so delicious)

Given the geographical remoteness of parts of Indonesia, and the lateness of the arrival of some of the world’s major religions, religious syncretism is a common phenomenon, and one by which Islam also is affected. Wektu Tulu is a special syncretic religion found on Lombok, believed to be a combination of Hinduism, Islam and animism.

Man at Hindu/Wektu Tulu temple, Lombok

Despite the dominance of Islam as a faith on the islands of Java and Lombok, the cultural residue of Hinduism is tremendous. For example, the courtly arts of Java are all based on the great Hindu epics, and superstitions and beliefs based on Hinduism and animism are very much alive throughout the archipelago.

Perhaps the most palpable difference for the traveler, however, between Islam in Indonesia and in parts of the Middle East, is not a matter of dogma but of attitude. In terms of general atmosphere, Indonesia is just another Southeast Asian country, not too dissimilar from Thailand or the Philippines. People are relaxed and friendly, and there are essentially no restrictions on tourists’ ability to interact on a casual basis with women as well as men. Some women may wear cover, but often with tight-fitting t-shirts or jeans, and even women in cover often like having their photos taken. As in Thailand or the Philippines, there is a large and visible transgendered population, which seems reasonably accepted by the general population (post to come). Fanaticism seems essentially not in evidence; it is unfortunate that the country has become associated with terrorism following the bombs in Bali.

Children outside a mosque, Lombok. Children are easily interrupted from prayer and run to have their photos taken. The adults continued praying without pause, but later came to greet us.

But just as the world is getting to be a smaller place, there are signs that orthodoxy and standardization are creeping into Indonesian religious practice. The number of large mosques going up on Lombok and around Indonesia is astounding–almost every town in Lombok seemed to be building or rebuilding its mosque. (If anyone has any insight into this–in terms of who or what is driving this in terms of motivation or financing–please let me know.)

Mosque parts on sale, Flores

Perhaps most interestingly, the architectural style of Indonesian mosques seems to be transforming. There is a uniquely Indonesian style of mosque reminiscent of Indonesian Hindu architecture, seen in some of the oldest mosques in the country. At least some of these bale-style mosques seem to be in the process of being replaced by more typically Arabian/Turkish style mosques in the current building spree.

Traditional Indonesian Mosque, Yogyakarta, Java

Mosque construction, Lombok

Does this imply foreign financing or influence? I’m not sure, but there is of course a great deal of wealth being generated in Gulf Arab states, some of which is being used to promote Islam across the world (I have read that there was a similar revival in the late 70s). The Islamic world as a network is in many ways being brought tighter, as countries such as Malaysia market their cars and universities across the Middle East and, we were told, Arab interests are investing in Kuta Lombok to create a resort intended to be the next Bali at least partly aimed at the Muslim market. Let us hope that, at least in this instance, a smaller world does not mean a more homogenized one, one in which the uniquely Indonesian form of Islam gives way to orthodoxy, Indonesian domestic relations supplanted by Arabian gender roles and elegant Javanese culture discarded on account of its Hindu foundation.

Women’s religious gathering, Makassar, Sulawesi (note the Arab dress of the speakers)

4 thoughts on “Islam in Indonesia

  1. With an estimated population of around 237 million people, it is the world’s fourth most populous country and the most populous Muslim-majority nation; however, no reference is made to Islam in the Indonesian constitution.

    The vast majority of Indonesia’s Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith and do not advocate violence.

    – Kemal Ramadhan

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