Islam in Indonesia Unity in Diversity

Islam in Indonesia Unity in Diversity

Photos: Hussein Lari

Green spaces, cheerful faces and warm smiles make you feel safe, which is rare in a capital with a population of twenty thousand million. Tall minarets; wide, clean roads; countless cars and motor-cycles driven by young and old men and women in a predominantly Muslim developing society, representing the largest Muslim population in any one country, amounting to 205m out of a total population of 230m. However, they are an example of respecting others, bearing a noble, unique slogan: Unity in Diversity , which is the source of the power of this society. But the picture usually looks hazy, and our task was to adjust the picture and present it in its natural colours. The starting point was Manila airport.

Before take-off to the Indonesian capital Jakarta I didn t have any impression about Indonesia as a society or the capital as a city. I deliberately left myself subject to ignorance, impressions from general readings and my colleague Hussein Lari s previous visits to Indonesia, including the one which covered the well-known massive tsunami. In Manila airport departure lounge I got into conversation with an Indonesian employee who was on a business trip to the Philippines, but out of his intense curiosity about our Arab region, he hurried to ask questions, wondering why no Arab-Muslim leader has succeeded Abdel Nasser, adding in brief that his country has become the target of globalization. I had to understand what he meant and find answers to my questions about this country which has the largest Muslim population in the world living on 17,00 islands (6,000 inhabited), speak 262 local languages and are divided into 240 ethnic groups. The plane covers the distance between the country s easternmost and westernmost parts in eight hours!

Upon our arrival at Jakarta airport it was past midnight and therefore we didn t see the crowded streets we expected in this densely populated city. But what grabbed my attention was the clean streets, green spaces and absence of pollution, but it was humid for the duration of our journey.

The following day I found out how the problem of traffic jams was solved in Jakarta. Instead of the usual means of transportation, the city s streets are full of thousands of motorcycles with young and old men and women on. There is a special bus lane between the right and left lanes. Bus stops are accessed through a raised passage and passengers wait in front of glass doors which only open when the bus stops, thus preventing jostling; a very civilized solution.

Jakarta is another cosmopolitan city, crammed full of vehicles, motorcycles and people. Globalization has left its mark on the city: deluxe hotels, modern high-rise towers, wide roads, flyovers, tunnels and huge shopping malls similar to or even bigger than those in the Arab and Western world because of the large population. Even most of the many mosques in the capital are large enough to accommodate the prayers who, e.g., number 200,000 at the Eid prayer at Independence mosque, Jakarta s largest; 50,000 at Friday prayers. What I realized during my first two days in Jakarta was to understand that the nature of Islam in a country like Indonesia needs to identify the essence of the population s culture first.

Museum of cultural diversity

Accordingly, we decided to visit the large Jakarta National Museum which contains everything related to the country s culture and is surrounded by a large space where Indonesia s culture is on display. Near the museum there are many big wooden buildings representing this type in Indonesia, in addition to models of mosques and Buddhist and Confucian temples which were banned during Suharto s age but have been allowed again by the current President Susilo Bambang Yudhohono, affirming freedom of worship for all faiths.

At every museum representing the population of different provinces there is interior design consisting of furniture, mats and appliances reflecting the local residents culture and traditions, with artificial lakes and large gardens as well as a cable car for visitors to see the place from a height. To show the big difference among the various cultures, one can just compare the diversity and difference between Jakarta s and Papua s residents in north-east Indonesia. The former are civilized, wear modern clothes and drive cars or motorcycles, whereas the latter are still primitive and earn their living by hunting. They have dark skin and paint their faces and naked bodies in different colours and drawings, wear feather caps and use spears.

In this way Indonesia presents a unique national slogan and a daily practice as well: Unity in Diversity , which is almost similar to the one adopted by many other Asians who promote tolerance and co-existence, regardless of religion, culture or belief. This is not only a slogan but a culture of life as well. There are hundreds of mosques in Jakarta and many women wearing headscarves, but it is not just religiousness in form but a culture based on the spirit of the true religion, in the essence of which is respect for others in the true sense of the word.

Because of their ethnic diversity, the people of Indonesia have a very high degree of tolerance with delicate features. Surprisingly, a city this big and densely populated isn t noisy at all, despite the tens of thousands of cars, motorcycles and buses there. In other words, Indonesia is a model of peaceful co-existence, clear of the culture of chaos, noise and selfishness found in some Arab capitals. Crowds are harmonious and unselfish, in contrast to what is in Arab crowded streets and causes traffic congestion.

The adjacent 230-acre Tamin Mini park founded by the wife of the late President Suharto comprises 27 museums each representing one of Indonesia s cultures.

A journey through the ages

It took us more than three hours to tour this large area during which we saw remnants of Bali s characteristic style of architecture, which, with its decorations and mural paintings of a variety of animals, people, legends and traditional tales. This historical park comprises models of buildings representing the cultures of Indonesia s islands, especially the five largest ones: Java, with the majority population and Jakarta, Sumatra, Kalimantan (the Indoenesian part of Borneo), New Guinea (shared with Papua New Guinea) and Sulawesi.

The tour was like a journey through history. (I saw a man with African features, all but stark naked, his body covered with different colours, holding a spear, standing in front of a hut, recalling the past). A few steps from the modern city with its high-rise towers, this large space combines tens of close wooden houses with a variety of styles, mainly Asian, but reflecting the environment and traditions. Some houses on the islands near the coast are supported by columns to protect them from high tide and storms, which shows how nature has an impact on a place s building style. Each culture reflects itself on the colour of the building and the design of the roof which mostly takes the shape of a tent to suit the area known for its heavy rain.

The journey through the ages is in a way a journey through mythology, legends and different beliefs. E.g., the design of the wooden houses on Aceh (adjacent to the area hit by the massive tsunami) includes a small room on the house roof which has one religious function as the home of the spirits which the inhabitants believe protect them from the forces of evil. That s why there are many drawings and statues of animals and on murals each acting as a significant symbol. Warriors in the past believed that swords and knives possessed a magic power that made them rebound against their holders, and had therefore to be cleaned with blood and roses.

The culture of islanders completely surrounded by water develops fishing and the traditional basket, net and fishing equipment industries as well as boats. The building style also reflects this water culture as houses are supported by wooden pillars.

Even the formation of rivers is associated with legends, like the one related by our companion in the park about a woman who saw a fish stranded on a beach and she threw it into the sea, thus saving its life. To return the favour, the fish offered to make three of the woman s wishes come true: to be very beautiful; to be very rich; to have a mild heart attack, but on condition that her husband be given ten times her lot. Consequently, the third wish caused his death and she acquired his wealth. That angered gods and made them inflict punishment on her in the form of storms and rain which drowned her and all her fortune. Heavy rain continued washing away her sins, and thus Kajakarti , Jakarta s first river, was formed and it has been flowing through the city to this day. As this legend shows, the beginning of anything is associated with a story or legend related over the ages.

As far as Indonesian s ethnic diversity is concerned, there are three main groups with a number of subgroups each. The people of Sumatra and Java are known as Milana Sowet ; of Kalimanta and Sulawesi as Monogolit ; and of Papua, which separated from New Guinea, as Negroit because of their dark complexion which reminds us of Africans.

Premitiveness-modernity harmony

Though they embraced Islam centuries ago, Indonesians still practise their special celebratory rituals. E.g., a number of young men stage a folkloric march wearing traditional masks, playing loud music, and carrying something like a small wooden throne with a young boy in the middle wearing colourful clothes. His face is covered with bright colours, and something like a royal crown is placed upon his head. As we were told, this is how the circumcision of boys was celebrated in the past.

In addition to the people of Papua who still lead a primitive life similar to their life before the Dutch occupation, with many of them living naked and fighting and hunting with spears, a stranger ethnic group in terms of rituals and lifestyle are the tribes of Sulawesi who are divided into three subgroups: Bogines, Mokasaris and Turaga, who have different burial rituals. They bury their dead in chambers dug on mountain tops, but the funeral does not take place until they make an expensive sacrificial offering, not less than a hundred strong bulls. It takes a year or more for a deceased s poor family to provide such a large number of bulls during which the body is kept in his home even if it becomes just remains. When the offering is complete, the body is put in a fine wooden cylindrical coffin and a big funeral takes place and is attended by the deceased s relatives and tribe who carry the coffin and climb a mountain where he or she is buried. Turaga people s features are similar to the Chinese, and they breed cocks at home because they are fond of cockfighting.

In every house we entered we found children performing dances or a folklaric music and dance band presenting their traditional art. During our tour of the historical park we saw many such festivities organized by the residents of different areas in designated places. E.g., near the museum of Sumatra s houses a song and dance festival is held, and if you listen to more than one singer and watch folklore and dance performances, you will hear beautiful voices and nice tunes like Wing Wong music and songs which represent Indonesia s traditional music. As you listen, you will notice mutual interaction among the music of different areas and ethnic groups. E.g., the music of the areas near India, known as Dan Dot , has many of the characteristics of Indian music. Meanwhile, there are bands with a specific dance style and special folkloric clothes. Other dances known as Tikilan are done in slow steps to the tune of music with a fast rhythm quite a contrast!

Cultural-religious mix

The adoption of Islam by most Indonesians, the spread of Islamic culture, mosques, Islamic centres and universities, religious lessons for men at mosques didn t make the people give up their old culture and habits and even many social rituals, some of which are mixed with religious festivals. In each of the mosques we visited Independence, Islamic Centre, Golden Dome, Ulama Council we saw a big drum left in a corner. That was used with calls to prayer before the invention of loudspeakers. These drums are still kept as a sign of the people s combination of the past and present and preservation of their values, traditions and moral and religious principles, without affecting religious observances, of course. Known as a beduq , the drum also reflects the environment; its wooden body is made from a massive tree over 300 years old. There are many marks of Indonesia s unity and diversity, e.g. the Independence Monument, most of which were initiated by President Ahmad Sukarno, in addition to tolerance and co-existence.

Before reviewing Jakarta s religious institutions, centres and schools which reflect its Islamic character, it may be in order to give a brief account of the historical background to this country which before the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century was known in the West as the Indu Islands and the home of tribes of cannibals.

The spice islands

According to sources, Indonesia s name is derived from the two Latin and Greek words Indus and Nesos respectively, meaning the Indus Islands. As studies suggest, primitive groups lived in this area about two thousand years before Christ, as indicted by the discovery of skeletons of the Java Man, and in modern times immigrants from south-east Asia, especially Taiwan, settled there and grew rice because of the fertile land.

Islam entered Indonesia in the 13th century through Arab traders who had known the route to this region since the 8th century AH, and many of them, especially Yemenis known as Hadramis, settled there. Many Indonesians today have Arab features, but they no longer live as isolated groups. But the spread of Islam started on the islands of Sumatra and Java first then moved to the other parts, except Bali, which remained Hindu until the 16th century.

The spread of Islam took place peacefully, perhaps due to the inhabitants nature, and it was not forced, in addition to the arrival of Sufis from Syria, Yemen and elsewhere who called to Islam in a gentle manner without clashing with the country s cultural heritage. The vast majority of Indonesians are Muslims, nevertheless, Islam isn t the country s official religion, as established by President Sukarno upon the drafting of the first constitution following independence in 1945. This makes Indonesia s Islamic experience worth pondering on.

The lure of Indonesia s enormous wealth of spices and foodstuffs attracted the colonial powers, starting with the Portuguese in 1512, when a ship with traders on board landed there to monopolize trading in nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices. Indonesia was eventually occupied by Portugal for 31 years until a big Dutch company succeeded in breaking the monopoly and paved the way for the Dutch occupation which started in the 15th century and continued for 350 years.

Indonesia s Muslims managed to preserve their religion, and up to the turn of the 20th century Indonesia responded favourably to the religious reform movement led by Sheikh Muhammad Abdou who said Islam was the means to resist the Dutch occupation. The influence of the reformist movement reflected well on its symbols in Indonesia. Mannan Kapu Ulama played a major pioneering role in this respect. Taher Jalal published his book Faith in Singapore in 1906. A number of modern Islamic schools were later opened in west Sumatra and elsewhere.

Despite Indonesian society s tolerance in general, there are differences among some religious groups, mainly because one group argues that religious rituals should be clear of other cultures practices, whereas another group maintains that the islanders adopted Islam because of easy acceptance of some formalities in religious celebrations without affecting the essence of religion. Other differences involve Muslim fundamentalists and followers of other religions, as well as moderate and extremist Muslims. In addition, some promote new sects which is not in line with the true religion. Examples include the Ahmadiya group which has been banned in Indonesia by the Council of Ulama and some extremists who carried out a number of bombings and acts of violence in the early 1990s.

An Islamic university

We met Dr Mujib Abdul Wahhab, Vice-President of Sharif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta, who pointed out that state Islamic universities were established in fulfilment of the wish of the great majority of Indonesia s Muslims who had made a great effort in this connection since the university was known as Academy of Religious Studies (ADIA) (1957-1960), which was a college of the state Islamic university in Jakarta (1960-1963). It became known as IAIN in 1963 and has acquired its current name since 2002.

The University consists of six colleges at undergraduate level. These are the colleges of: Education, Arts and Humanities; Fundamentals of Islam and Philosophy; Sharia and Law; Daawa and Communication, Islamic and Arabic Studies; Psychology; Economics and Social Sciences; Science and Technology; in addition to master s and PhD programmes.

Twenty two thousand students are enrolled in this university, seven thousand of whom do Islamic studies. The academic staff include 1300 PhD-holder professors and 500 master s holder lecturers. Graduates of the Islamic colleges are employed in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Awqaf or as school teachers of Islamic Education. Some work as preachers or are engaged in other fields.

The philosophy of scientific progress

The university s philosophy strongly stresses that scientific progress should go hand in hand with religion so that students are trained in both science and religion. There is a minimum of religious studies that students at science, medicine and other colleges should do. Dr Mujib affirmed that the university is keen to promote tolerance and respect for others as a basic Islamic concept, in addition to being a general concept in a multi-cultural/religious society. To this end, students study all Islamic religious schools and learn Arabic, being the language of the Holy Quran.

In addition, he affirms that this philosophy is part of society s overall philosophy based on diversity, with no separation between people s beliefs and social traditions. You may notice such cultural harmony between Islam and the original inhabitants culture, even in mosque style of architecture, which led to further diversity and cultural richness all over the country. We are especially keen to graduate students who are distinguished in science and technology, as we noticed a low level of science teaching and learning in Indonesia. This should be a common approach in all Islamic countries, Mujib said.

As far as the educational and social aspects are concerned, he said the university plays a key role in this respect by publishing books which promote the restoration of moral values which the youth lost in their attempts to find opportunities or because of poverty. A number of service and Islamic institutions are aware of this matter and are planning some educational and social programmes. Among these institutions is Sharif Hidayatullah University which encourages boosting students efficiency so that they may share in social development and combating poverty and engage in voluntary work.

The Islamic Centre in Jakarta

The centre s site was chosen at a waste ground which was a place for illegal activities and prostitution and was decided to turn it into an Islamic centre to eliminate negative practices and serve the local inhabitants and raise their awareness and teach them to learn the Holy Quran by heart. That s what Dr Muhammed Hamdan Abdul Rasheed, the centre s development manager said as we met him, adding that the current centre s director is Mr Afandi Anas. The centre was established in 2004, following completion of the adjacent mosque in 2001.

The centre s activities started with teaching learning the Quran by heart to children and young men and women, and classes were later opened for teaching young women some professions such as embroidery, sewing, women s hairstyling, etc. As Dr Abdul Rasheed pointed out, most of the teachers of religious lessons are seconded from the Council of Ulama and sate Islamic universities. He said the centre had made a difference in the area and eliminated the bad signs. A thousand persons come to the centre daily, and the number goes up to 6000 on Fridays and even more at Eid and on feasts celebrated by way of entertainment, including song and folklore evenings. In addition, the centre offers programmes in mosque management, trainer training, planning, Islamic economy, English, finance, Islamic banking, programming, etc., which attract a large number of learners. As a matter of fact, the centre is a major service project which undertakes other arts and social and religious activities.

The modern-style mosque is large enough to accommodate about 20,000 prayers and has a wide space where a model of the Kaaba is placed. It is used to demonstrate the rites of pilgrimage and Umrah. The centre houses a large library with thousands of books in all fields of general knowledge, most of which are religious books for children and young men and women.

It s worth noting that mosque interior design is extremely beautiful, with fine decorations on walls, ceilings, and domes, in particular. Exterior design is a mix of Islamic and local architecture. That s what we saw at Independence Mosque in central Jakarta, Indonesia s largest mosque. A multi-story building, the mosque can accommodate 200,000 prayers, as at Eid, whereas the interior court has a 50,000 prayer space at Friday prayers.

The Golden Dome Mosque

The most attractive mosque, over 75 miles from the capital, at the town if Debuk in West Java. Its five domes are made of pure gold. It is one of seven mosques in the world with golden domes. Its floors and exterior walls are all marble and granite imported from Italy, Turkey, Spain and Brazil. Unfortunately, we didn t meet Hajja Dyan Jourish Maymoun Alrashid because she was on Umrah. She built this large mosque near her palace. She started giving religious lessons to men and women in the mosque nave, and expanding this service project is under way to include an international school for religious and general studies.

She started the mission of Islamic call in1980 by establishing a council for women s education at Maryung, Debuk, West Java, then moved to Jakarta in 1982 and continued establishing Islamic schools which are regularly attended by 30,000 people, and the total number of beneficiaries is 100,000. In addition, she bears the cost of pilgrimage for seventy Indonesians annually and of Umrah for thirty monthly, as reported by Camaro, Director-General of the Golden Dome Mosque Islamic Centre, adding that she allocates 25% of her annual revenue for the call to Islam and religious education, but the man in charge of the mosque and the surrounding area refused to disclose the cost of construction of the mosque as it is in the final analysis a charitable work which she doesn t like to talk about.

That is just one of many examples of the role played by NGOs in the field of social services and the call to Islam which integrates with the government s efforts to develop Indonesian society. The efforts helped limit air pollution, e.g., through greening and reducing carbon dioxide emission.

Has the qibla changed?

Our visit to the Council of Ulama to identify the role it plays in managing Muslims affairs coincided with an emergency meeting of the Fatwa Committee to discuss a topic covered in the Indonesian press concerning a change in prayer direction in Indonesia in the view of those who maintained the Earth had been subject to changes due to earthquakes. What attracted my attention was the large number of women who attended the meeting as members of the committee and the council, which made me enquire about the role of women in Indonesia, which I found out to be a significant one. Likewise, they enjoy a high status. (In many cases girls support their brothers if they are many). That s what I noticed in the many models of rituals in the National Museum which shows the importance of women as members of society and mothers in particular. Women, rather than men, still play the central role in some ethnic groups.

We met Hajji Amidan Sabra, Vice-President of the Council of Ulama/Chairman of the Islamic Economy section, who pointed out that the council is an umbrella organization under which 36 Islamic centres and institutions operate. The council s main duties include transaction of daily business, guiding Muslims in accordance with the message of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), forbidding evil action, supervising the Islamic institutions and giving fatwas on controversial matters, especially whether certain foodstuffs, cosmetics or medicines are halal or otherwise, as well as banking transactions and state financial affairs. In addition, the council evaluates the activities of some religious groups who deviate from the true religion, mainly the Ahmadiya group who falsely claim to have their own prophet and book and perform special rituals, which led the council to prohibit it. Hajji Sabra said the reason why such groups spread was that their founders targeted illiterates and those who are poorly informed about Islam because they can t read and do not understand Arabic.

The council offers programmes at mosques and on TV on interpretation of the Holy Quran, Prophetic Tradition, Quranic reading, Arabic and English, and encourages the building of Islamic schools, whose number stands at 14,000 now. It regulates the building of mosques 700,000 in Indonesia now and pilgrimage affairs. Indonesia s pilgrimage mission is the world s largest 210,000 pilgrims annually.

The council takes the form of an international organization. It has relations with comparable councils in Malaysia, Singapore and other Asian countries. Fatwas are given as a collective ruling on a certain matter after consideration with the 36 Islamic institutions.

Finally, we met Sheikh Anwar Ibrahim, Chairman of the Fatwa Committee, who pointed out that the outcome of discussion of the qibla issue that morning was confirmation of the validity of the prayer direction as customarily observed in Indonesia. The fatwa was given following review of approved jurisdiction books, particularly those based on the Shafiite school, which most Indonesian Muslims follow, and in accordance with the studies and reports of the bodies concerned. Al-Azhar graduate, Sheikh Anwar pointed out in Arabic that the committee is similar to a Fatwa House. The committee, one of many in Indonesia, meets weekly to discuss matters related to foodstuffs, beverages, new medicines and cosmetics and calls for enacting a law under which these goods may only be sold after obtaining a certificate from the council that they are halal. Sheikh Anwar also pointed out that the state is not an Islamic one; however, the council was able to make it pass a number of laws which are in favour of Muslims and regulate their affairs, including the Awqaf, Zakat, Pilgrimage and Personal Status laws.

In between and after these press interviews, and as we sometimes walked down the streets, toured big shopping malls or watched World Cup matches on TV in the hotel, we felt how people were friendly and welcoming towards us despite their inability to speak foreign languages effectively; in addition to shyness and apprehension. Meanwhile, we found out that Indonesian society, whose image is usually reduced in minds into poverty and exporter of maids, is much greater than that, and presents a positive image of Muslims in terms of tolerance, co-existence, productivity and development. It is we Arabs that need to learn from them and from every successful experiment, the Indonesian one not excluded. What remains in memory from these noble communities are green spaces, discipline, quiet and cheerful, polite smiles and words of farewell, in the hope of seeing us again some day.


(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


Ibrahim Farghaly


A panoramic view of Jakarta

Map of Indonesia

New high-rise towers in Jakarta, reflecting its globalized character

Many girls in Indoensia are their families’ breadwinners. Like young men, they ride motorcycles, a solution to the problem of traffic jams in Jakarta

"Tamin Mini” park in Jakarta, an example of the houses of ancient Javenese culture

Indonesia has managed to reduce air pollution using motorcycles, an economical solution to the problem of congested streets

Jakarta’s old port, which is now near the fish market, was the commercial centre during the Dutch occupation. The bridge leads to the entrance to the port

The buffalo is the symbol of power in the "Matri Liena” culture. That’s why their house roofs are shaped like bull or buffalo horns. The houses are known as "Minan Kapaw” (the victorious buffalo)

The Dutch square, which combines remnants of colonial architecture style. Carrying Jakarta’s old name (Pata Fia), the square is used as a recreation and weekend venue for Indonesian youth

Part of the Indonesian capital Jakarta

Jakarta National Museum, following Bali’s architecture design

On the mountain in the background there are burial chambers where the Tugara tribes bury their dead after making big sacrificial offerings of cows and bulls and a respectable funeral takes place

Decoration in Bali’s style of architecture are inspired by heritage and legends

A ceremonial folkloric procession emulates traditional male circumcision in ceremonies in Jakarta

Independence Mosque, the largest in Jakarta. This second floor has a 50,000–prayer space. The total space accommodates 200,000 prayers

The 152–m Independence Monument in Jakarta built by President Sukarno who prevented any building from exceeding its height. Built in August 1960 its top is 52 kilos of gold in weight

Traditional dance in Indonesia

Traditional wedding clothes in Indonesia vary according to region

Primitive life in Papua (New Guinea)

An Indonesian Council of Ulama meeting in June 2010 to discuss a fatwa on changing the direction of the Qibla

President of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (right) and Sheikh Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesia’s mufti

Indonesian Council of Ulama President

Sheikh Anwar Ibrahim

Hajji Amidan Sabra

Dr Muhammad Hamdan Abdul Rasheed

Dr. Mujib Abdul Wahhab

Hajji Roody Shamsuddin

Sharif Hidayutallah State Islamic University in Jakarta

A lecture at the Islamic Centre, which offers educational and religious services to a thousand citizens daily

Independence Mosque mihrab

A religious lesson for women at Golden Dome Mosque

A drum which was used in the past with the call to prayer is kept in Independence and other mosques

The Golden Dome Mosque at the town of Debuk whose domes are made of pure gold. Its founder gives religious lessons for women, assists those on pilgrimage and Umrah and offers many services to Muslims in Indonesia

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