Distinctly Indonesia: Pluralism of Islam in the Archipelago

One can easily say that Indonesia is a land of contradictions. The country acknowledges five official religions, but Islam is easily the most dominant of all. Yet, the ‘Islam’ that most Indonesians observe is not the carbon copy of Middle East’s ‘Islam’. To make things more complicated, there are different shades of the religion itself, ranging from the most liberal to the extreme radicalist. Despite all that, the climate of Islam in Indonesia never seems to reach the boiling point, though it might appear simmered from time to time. What makes Islam in Indonesia so distinct and special?


It’s a nice coincidence that Indonesian Student Association in Oxford (PPI Oxford) bring up these above questions as the theme of their latest iTalks session. And they managed to bring two important figures of Islam in Indonesia: Prof Yunahar Ilyas and Dr. Agung Danarto. Some might dispute that the topic they brought will be biased, as both figures come from Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia. However, what they share to the audience sure is an eye-opener. Since I had the privilege to be the moderator of that session (and thus forced to take notes onstage), I will share some of my notes into this short writing.

The origins and growth of Islam

It is helpful to know when and where Islam entered the country, yet the account is a bit confusing at the moment. According to Dr. Agung, there are three alleged source of Islam, each with its distinguishable characteristics. The Arabs brought the purest Islam possible, relying only to Al-Qur’an and Al-Hadiths. Those who came through Persian people are more likely to be Shiite and leaned more to the mysticism side. However, the Islam that penetrated the strongest are those originated from India, relying heavily on “the journey inward” (tasawwuf) and less towards ritualistic prayers. The last type of early Islam manifested into Widhatul Wujud in Aceh and Pantheism in Java. For me personally, this kind of Islam represents the kejawen beliefs that still present in some region of Java.

After this initial penetration, some people might feel that the ‘Islam’ in Indonesia is far too different from its roots. And thus, the reformations of Islam came in two big waves. The first wave is introduction of tariqa, or institutionalism of Islam teaching. During this time, Islam is upgraded from just mere belief into a religion with rituals. However, the tariqa still allow some local beliefs to be infused, such as the case of forty days post-mortem celebration (tahlilan). This reformation is followed by the second wave, which challenges the existing Tariqa and its embedded rituals according to the holy verses. “Is there any verse from Qur’an and Hadith that support this particular practice?” one might ask. If the answer is no, then the practice is discouraged.

The pluralism and what drives them

The topic of Islam’s plurality was touched by Prof. Yunahar. Roughly, he began, there are three large pool of Islamic school of thought based on how they interpret the holy verses: Salafi, Athari, and Maturi (the last two will be grouped together in this writing). One big difference between the two is their differing view on taqlid, or to follow one of the four madhhab. The second group practices taqlid without question, while the first group cast a more critical view on the madhhab. It happened that Muhammadiyah adopt the Salafi school of thought, which is the opposite of the Athari adopted by another prominent Islamic party in Indonesia, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU). Regardless, both NU and Muhammadiyah are viewed as two main Islamic organization in Indonesia, with their considerable size of follower, respectively.

This differing point of view, combined by the ‘colorful’ Islamic history, creates multiple newer organizations (some example including HTI and PKS). The radicalists seek to purify Islam in Indonesia from all those bid’ah (invented practices), while the liberalists criticizes their approaches that they deem too Arabic. Some organizations even aim for making Indonesia an Islamic country or to wholly uphold sharia law. The uniting characteristic of these seedlings is their less-tolerant attitude towards other. Prof Yunahar commented that this attitude might spring from their idealistic minds or their disappointment that the ‘higher ups’ (read: NU and Muhammadiyah) only ‘Islamitize’ on the society, as opposed to government, level. It is also possible that the radicalists are formed as a response on how ‘Islam’ (represented by Syria and Palestine) is treated by ‘The World’.

Simmering, not bubbling up

Regardless of the above situation, it seems that the conflict of Islamic society in Indonesia haven’t escalated into full-blown war (though the social media fights can be quite taxing as well). This can be attributed to the atmosphere of Indonesia that fosters discussion and get-together. Both speaker agree that there will be dialogues—albeit a long one—between the radicalists and the liberalists to talk things through. The difference between NU and Muhammadiyah is also bridged in some sort of tolerance, or acknowledging each other’s differences.

The iTalks session was closed with the nice question from one of the audience. What makes Islam in Indonesia so different? Prof Yunahar answered that the difference might lay in the characteristics of Indonesian people. “We love to laugh, during happiness as well as misery, and to other as well as ourselves,” he answered. And there is no problem that cannot be solved with Indonesian way (read: cordiality and discussion). This answer sure give an uplifting hope amidst all the unnecessary conflicts that arouse around us.


This article was originally posted on Ferdy Sechan’s blog.
Ferdy studies Medical Biotechnology at Wageningen University and works as an intern at Nuffield Department of Medicine – University of Oxford.

The event was sponsored by:



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