Syncretism in Indonesia

Where Islam Mixes with Old Rituals

Many Indonesian Muslims still practice a rather syncretistic mix of beliefs, combining Islam with other cultural and religious traditions. They are often criticized by Muslim purists for their eclecticism. Christina Schott reports

Hindu temple on Bali, Indonesia (photo: Melinda Klayman)
In Indonesia, various religions exist side-by-side – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and even animist beliefs

​​Every year on the first Suro, Java's new year, the Sultan of Yogyakarta climbs to the top of the Merapi followed by a regal procession. At the caldera of the most active volcano in the world, located north of the central Javanese Sultan's city, pilgrims plea to the forces of nature to protect them from all kinds of catastrophes.

The gifts they bear with them – colorful rice cones, flowers and fruit – are offered up to the smoking crater. The ritual continues later on the black sand of Parangtritis Beach, where the goddess of the sea receives offerings along the raging surf.

Religious eclecticism

The first Suro happens to coincide with the first Muharram, the Islamic New Year. But this is not just a coincidence – most of the participants of this Hindu-Buddhist-animist ceremony are, like the Sultan himself, practicing Muslims. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. About 90 percent of its 240 million inhabitants are Muslim.

But many Indonesian Muslims still practice a rather syncretistic mix of beliefs, combining Islam with other cultural and religious traditions. They are often criticized by Muslim purists for their eclecticism.

Arabic and Indian merchants brought Islam to this huge archipelago of 17,000 islands. The native inhabitants were animist communities practicing cults oriented around death and ghosts. To this day, for example, animist groups still inhabit West Papua and the Mentawai Islands. Hinduism and Buddhism began to spread in the fifth century, but these two religions intermingled and then mixed with older traditions.

Islam – initially a religion for the elite

The first kingdom that converted to Islam was Perlak – which is today familiar as the tsunami disaster area Aceh, also known as "Mecca's Terrace." It was only in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that Islam spread to the other islands, initially remaining a religion for the elite.

The people were obliged to take on the religion of their ruler, but they continued to practice a combination of old religions and local traditions. This syncretistic mix of beliefs is found still today, especially in rural areas.

On the densely populated main island, Java, the Muslims can be divided into two groups: the purist and Arabic-oriented Santri, and the followers of the Kejawen, which combines animist, Hindu-Buddhist, Islamic, and local traditions. Syncretism also exists in other parts of the country. The Muslims in Calimantan, for example, still perform many animist rituals.

"There is no such thing as a pure Islam"

Syncretism is often associated with negative connotations. But the phenomenon simply means that an older culture or religion overlaps with a newer one. This is only human, says Professor Machasin, Dean of the postgraduate faculty at the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) in Yogyakarta.

"I believe that there is no such thing as a pure Islam. No matter who reads the Koran, their background and their culture will influence their interpretation of it. I was born Javanese – that is, Hinduism and Buddhism and other traditions have influenced me, although I was raised as a Santri. I see syncretism as something positive, as long as we deal with it rationally."

The two major Muslim organizations in Indonesia

Mosque in Jakarta (photo: AP)
With about 185 million Muslims - roughly 85% of the population - Indonesia is largest Muslim nation worldwide

​​Machasin is a leading figure in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which is the largest Muslim organization in the world with some 40 million members. It was founded in 1926 to defend Islam against the growing nationalist and communist currents in the country. But it also served as a counter to the reform-oriented Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim mass organization in Indonesia, founded in 1912.

These two organizations are still the most important and influential political forces in Indonesia today. While Muhammadiyah members come primarily from the urban middle class, NU adherents are usually from rural areas, where many forms of syncretism are still found – from animism to black magic.

It is thus not surprising that NU promotes a more traditional interpretation of Islam that at the same time tolerates older traditions, while Muhammadiyah represent a pure, moralistic brand of Islam.

"We can't simply forget our traditions"

When it originally emerged, Muhammadiyah was also more open to syncretistic elements. But in the 1990s it transformed into the hardline organization that it is known as today. "But we will once again become more tolerant," promises Professor Abdul Munir Mulkam, Vice Secretary of the Muhammadiyah Office in Yogyakarta. "I understand syncretism as a historical process. We can't simply forget our traditions."

As an instructor at the IAIN Yogyakarta as well as at the Muhammadiyah University in Surakarta, Mr. Mulkam believes in education: "Education has improved and therefore so has our understanding of natural and social phenomena. Previously the people understood natural events as a kind of magic. Although they still practice certain rituals, they have a much more realistic view of them."

photo: AP
With Indonesia being an island nation, the omnipresence of water inspired animist beliefs

​​Thus the Sultan of Yogyakarta continues to take part in ceremonies like the new year's ritual, despite the fact that the ruling family has promoted a pure form of Islam for centuries. The Sultans in the neighboring city of Surakarta are even stronger supporters of syncretism for the island of Java.

"My master is neither Muslim, nor Christian nor Buddhist, nor Hindu. He respects all his subjects equally regardless of their different traditions. That's why he's a Kejawen," explained a proud tour guide at the Sultan's palace Mangkunegara in Surakarta.

Christina Schott

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

© 2005

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