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Indonesia, Religious Pluralism in

M. Syafi’i Anwar
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Indonesia, Religious Pluralism in

The issue of religious pluralism in Indonesia is related to the country’s status as a nation-state and a multicultural society. Sociologically speaking, Indonesia is a pluralistic society that comprises more than 17,800 islands, big and small. There are also 656 ethnic groups in the country, each with its own culture, traditions, and customs. These ethnic groups spoke more than 746 different local languages and dialects, although only 23 languages still survive. Along with these sociological conditions, various religions and beliefs exist in the archipelago.

Currently, the total population of Indonesia is around 235 million. Of these, 88.2 percent are Muslim, 5.87 percent Protestant, 3.05 percent Catholic, 1.8 percent Hindu, and 0.84 percent Buddhist. The remaining 0.2 percent comprise other beliefs. Officially, the Indonesian government only recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This diversity of belief makes Indonesia an enormously pluralistic and multicultural society. Although Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation, it is also the most distant majority-Muslim nation from the Holy Land of Islam (Mecca and Medina) and the least Arabized among the majority-Muslim countries in the world.

It is believed that Islam came to Indonesia in the thirteenth century, spread mostly by traders-cum-missionaries; thus, Indonesia was Islamicized by peaceful penetration. The Sufi teachers had a crucial role in spreading Islam in the Indonesian archipelago, which were dominated by Hindu and Buddhist cultures and traditions. They were able to accommodate local beliefs and practices peacefully, although they were committed to disseminating the universal values of Islamic teachings. As a result, Islam underwent an indigenization process in the archipelago. Indonesian Islam is thus regarded by many outsiders as syncretic, particularly in the Javanese community. This Islamic accommodation with local beliefs and cultures, however, contributed significantly to the character of Islam in Indonesia. For this reason, Indonesian Islam is essentially different from that of Islamic cultures and traditions in the Middle East.

Based on these differences, the renowned American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his work The Religion of Java, describes three variants of Islam in Java and to some extent also in the archipelago. The first variant is priyayi (aristocratic Muslims), which is strongly influenced by Indic-Sanskrit culture. The second variant is abangan, which is highly indigenous and animistic. The third is santri, with a heavy orientation towards Middle Eastern cultural patterns. Geertz claimed that only santri is the “real” Islam, although their total number in the population is relatively small.

Geertz has been criticized particularly for his identification of Islam in Java with the modernist Muslims. In his work The Venture of Islam, Marshal Hodgson, a noted expert on Islamic civilization at the University of Chicago, criticizes Geertz’s statement that “Javanese Islam” has long been cut off from “the centers of orthodoxy at Mecca and Cairo.” Moreover, Hodgson adds, his anthropological methods of investigation seemed to neglect historical aspects of Islamic development in Java. In fact, other anthropological and historical studies on Javanese Islam show that Islam in this archipelago has never been cut off from the Middle East connection.

Islamic values have also influenced indigenous communities in Java. Anthropologist Robert Hefner of Boston University, in his anthropological study on Hindu Tenggerese enclaves in some mountainous areas of East Java, found obvious Islamic features in their daily life. The historian M. C. Ricklefs points out that the nineteenth-century Islamic reform movements of the Middle East played a decisive role in stimulating change within religious circles in Java. Ricklefs also provides comprehensive data on the dynamic of Javanese Islam in response to developments in Islam in the Middle East. Meanwhile, recent studies conducted by historians Azyumardi Azra and Michael Laffan have shown that Islam in the archipelago during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was never cut off from connections, networks, and religio-cultural encounters with the Middle East.

The Two Moderate Islamic Organizations.

The networks connecting Indonesia to the Middle East significantly influenced the development of Islamic movements in the archipelago in the twentieth century. In this regard, the establishment of modernist Muslim organizations such as Muhammadiyah can be said to be part of the historical development of Islam in modern Indonesia. Established in 1912 by Kiai Ahmad Dahlan in Yogyakarta, Muhammadiyah was inspired by Islamic renewal and reform in the Middle East, particularly promoted by leading reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Ridha in Egypt and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab in Saudi Arabia.

As an Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah is committed to upholding the Quranic doctrine of amar ma’ruf wan nahi munkar, an Islamic mission calling for the promotion of good deeds and the avoidance of bad deeds in all aspects of human life through strategic and peaceful means. It also encourages a spirit of tolerance and respect for other religious. Since its establishment in 1912, Muhammadiyah has founded various educational, health care, and social welfare institutions for Indonesian Muslims. It claims to be the second-largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, with approximately 35 million members.

Another leading Islamic organization in Indonesia is Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, the Revival of the Clerics), which was established in 1926 by Kiai Hasyim Asy’ari in Surabaya. A highly respected Muslim cleric, Asy’ari pointed out that the role of the ulama is crucial in uniting the Muslim community and maintaining religious teachings. The social base of NU is the pesantren (Islamic boarding school), which maintains traditional and classical Islamic education systems. Ideologically speaking, NU’s doctrine is based on the spirit and notion of ahluss sunnah wal jamaah, which literally means “the followers of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.” NU’s theological doctrine refers not only to the tradition derived from the Qur’an and sunna, but also to the principles and guidance of several great classical ulama.

NU is committed to defending pluralism, as reflected in its two crucial doctrines: (1) tawassuth (moderation), which means avoiding radical action and expressing opinions with prudence; and (2) tasamuh (tolerance), meaning respect for other faiths and religious beliefs. It claims to have approximately 40 million members, which would make it the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia.

These two leading Islamic organizations play a vital role in Indonesian Muslim social communities, especially in maintaining a moderate brand of Islam as well as developing a spirit of religious tolerance in Indonesia as a pluralistic society. Although they are not political movements, they are regarded as pillars of civil Islam with significant political leverage.

Pancasila and religious pluralism.

Although Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is crucial to note that it is not an Islamic state. The state ideology and the Indonesian constitution are not to be based on shari’a. Rather, they are based on pancasila (Five Principles). These five fundamental values are: (1) belief in one supreme God; (2) just and civilized humanism; (3) the unity of Indonesia; (4) popular democracy guided by wisdom and prudence in a system of deliberation and representation; and (5) social justice for all Indonesian people. In fact, Muslim leaders played a significant role in the acceptance of pancasila, which is originally derived from secular ideology. Prior to Indonesian independence in 1945, Muslim leaders along with secular nationalist leaders considered pancasila a common platform for Indonesia as a pluralistic society. Initially proposed by Sukarno, a secular nationalist leader and then the first president of the Republic of Indonesia (1945–66), pancasila is the fundamental principal of pluralism in Indonesian Islam. It is the result of a compromise between secular nationalist leaders, who proposed a secular state, and Muslim leaders, who advocated an “Islamic state” based on shari’a, during the long and sharp intellectual debates that led to the 1945 Indonesian constitution. The Muslim leaders finally decided to accept pancasila after it was included in the preamble of the constitution. They concluded that pancasila is compatible with the spirit of Islamic teachings and useful for maintaining Indonesia as a pluralistic and multicultural society. Accordingly, the acceptance of pancasila was a major element in upholding religious pluralism in modern Indonesia.

In regard to pancasila and its relation to Indonesian Islam, Prof. Franz Magnis-Suseno, a renowned Catholic intellectual, pointed out that the Muslim leaders’ contribution to a pluralistic Indonesia is undeniable and it is highly respected by non-Muslim people in Indonesia. He recognizes that pancasila has led to the great fundamental consensus of nondiscrimination on religious grounds, and has made it clear as a matter of state policy that Islam does not have a special status in Indonesia.

Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid.

The role of Muslim intellectuals in maintaining the notion of religious pluralism in Indonesia is crucial, because of their influence within Muslim and non-Muslim society. In this respect, the role of two leading Indonesian Muslim intellectuals, Nurcholish Madjid (1939–2005) and Abdurrahman Wahid (1940–2009), has been fundamental. Many Indonesians have regarded them as the guardians of religious pluralism in Indonesia. Madjid, for instance, is widely admired for his contribution in developing Islamic theological underpinnings for the policy of religious inclusivity.

Born on March 17, 1939, in Jombang, East Java, Madjid was graduated from a modern pesantren in Gontor, Ponorogo, East Java. He then continued his study at UIN (State Islamic University) in Jakarta. While there, Madjid was an activist and chairman of the HMI (Indonesian Muslim Student Association), a leading Islamic student movement in Indonesia. He obtained his PhD in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago in 1984. In 1986, he established the Paramadina Foundation, which supports the promotion of interfaith dialogue, dissemination of the ideas of progressive-liberal Islam, and the defense of religious pluralism as the hallmark of the Indonesian polity.

According to Madjid, religious pluralism is sunnatullah (the law of God), and it cannot be denied. He presented an Islamic perspective on pluralism by developing an inclusive interpretation of Qur’anic verses related to the position of non-Muslims. Madjid argued that Islam teaches Muslims to respect other religions. Islam recognizes Jews and Christians in particular as ahl al-kitab, meaning those who have a sacred book, as stated in the Qur’an (3:64). Consequently, Islam recognizes the right of each religion to exist and to worship according to its own rituals. According to his exegesis of sura 2:62, all believers (including Jews, Christians, and everyone else) will be rewarded by God in the next life for their virtuous deeds. In view of this inclusive theology, John Esposito rightly argues that for Madjid, religious pluralism was not simply a theological issue, but a mandate for all Muslims to respect the rights and position of non-Muslims. Militant Islamists, on the other hand, reject Madjid’s point of view, judging him as kafir (infidel) and the guru of “liberal Islam” who poisons Islamic faith with haram (forbidden) concepts.

Like Madjid, the late Abdurrahman Wahid has widely been regarded as a true defender of religious pluralism, not only in his theological perspective, but also in his concrete actions. Born in Jombang on August 4, 1940, Wahid is the grandson of the founder of NU, Kiai Hasyim Asy’ari. He was educated in a pesantren and then continued his studies at al-Azhar University in Cairo and a university in Baghdad. He was the chairperson of NU (1984–99) and then the fourth president of Indonesia (1999–2000). Popularly known as “Gus Dur” (honorable nickname) by the Indonesian people, Wahid is regarded for his contribution to the development of inclusive, modern, and liberal theology, while remaining committed to enhancing traditional Islamic culture.

Wahid strongly rejects both the fundamentalism and the legal formalism of conservative and militant Islamist groups, particularly in their strong inclination toward literal, textual, and exclusive interpretations of Islamic teachings. For instance, conservative and militant Islamist groups regard Jews and Christians as “enemies of Islam,” based on their interpretation of sura 2:120. Wahid argued that literal interpretation of this kind is misleading and far from the spirit of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance. He argued that Muslims should respect Jews and Christians because historically these two religious communities are part of the Abrahamic tradition. He urged Indonesian Muslims to practice moderate and tolerant Islam and to respect the non-Muslims in their daily lives.

As a consequence of his inclusive view of non-Muslims, Wahid was committed to defending the rights of non-Muslims and minority groups against any sort of discrimination. For instance, when he was the president of Indonesia, he instituted the celebration of Imlek, or Chinese New Year’s Day, as a national public holiday. He also joined the first public celebration of Imlek in February 2000, which stimulated the opening of Indonesian society to Chinese culture after it had been prohibited for almost three decades during the Suharto regime. The Chinese community now enjoys celebrating Imlek every year without fear of political threat or pressure.

After resigning from the presidency in 2001, Gus Dur remained active in promoting religious pluralism. In 2004, he visited a church in Tangerang, West Java that was threatened with closure by conservative Muslims who suspected it of promoting a “Christianization” agenda. He urged the local authorities and the Muslim community to protect Christians and reopened the church to its congregation. Like Madjid, Wahid was also judged by conservative ulama and militant Islamists as an “agent of Judeo-Christian conspiracy.” More seriously, in 2008 a conservative Islamic magazine wrote that Wahid was also “an enemy of Islam.” Wahid died on December 30, 2009, leaving a most important legacy for the Indonesian people in the form of his strong commitment to religious pluralism. Indonesia’s current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has stated that “Gus Dur is the father of pluralism for Indonesia.”


It is clear that the role and contribution of Muslim leaders and intellectuals toward religious pluralism in Indonesia is crucial. They are committed to pancasila as a state ideology and common platform for all Indonesian people. Pancasila is the root of religious pluralism in Indonesia as a pluralistic and multicultural society. It has been the basis for developing a non-discrimination policy toward all religions in Indonesia. It is obvious that the contributions of leading Muslim intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid are greatly appreciated by many Indonesians, despite challenges from conservative and militant Islamist groups.


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