When did Indonesia become predominantly Muslim?

Religion in Indonesia: an exciting overview

A contribution by Gunda Wörlein

Diverse, colorful and tolerant - Indonesia is an island nation known for its numerous ethnic groups, languages ​​and cultures.

The country looks back on a long tradition of pluralism, freedom of belief and religion and is often international for its own interfaith harmony and tolerance praised.

In this article we take a closer look at the different religions of the country and their historical backgrounds and find out what influence they have on socio-political events in Indonesia.

Table of Contents

Religion Indonesia: Key facts at a glance

1) According to the 2010 census, those at the time were around 240 million Indonesians about 87 percent Muslims, around 7 percent Protestants and 3 percent Catholics, almost 2 percent Hindus, <1 percent Buddhists, <1 percent Confucianists and the remaining <1 percent without indication.

2) Long before the arrival of well-known regions of the world, the indigenous people of Indonesia practiced traditional spiritual rituals that were strongly influenced by the animism and the Ancestor worship were shaped.

3) The Hinduism and Buddhism were the first "religions" or philosophies of life, which in the 1st century AD from India and China came to Indonesia.

4) The Islam came to the island nation via the trade routes in the 13th century and became the dominant religion.

5) During the Colonial times the Portuguese brought the Catholicism and the Dutch later that Protestantism in the country.

The role of religion in Indonesia

Religion plays an important role in modern Indonesia. They fill up five times a day Mosques on Java and Lombok, on Saturdays and Sundays, they fill up Churches in Sulawesi and Flores and in numerous Temples Offerings and ceremonies take place around the clock in Bali.

In a country with over 17,000 islands, the diversity of Indonesia can also be felt in the different faiths.

The Article 29 the Indonesian Constitution guarantees all people Freedom of belief and religion. Every citizen is entitled to live according to their own religion and worldview and to shape their everyday life accordingly.

The Indonesian motto "Unity in diversity“Emphasizes pluralism, which is recognized and praised again and again, especially internationally.

In the Pancasila, the guiding philosophy of Indonesia, this religious freedom is defined more clearly. It was proclaimed on June 1, 1945 by President Soekarno and contains the guiding principles of the independent nation.

The first principle of pancasila is: Belief in one God - which is a contradiction to article 29 for many followers of certain faiths.

The government has recognized this since 1965 6 official creed to: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Every Indonesian has to choose one of these beliefs, which is recorded in important documents and the identity card. It is meanwhile legally permissibleto leave the religion field in the ID card empty, but "people of other faiths" see each other again and again Persecution and discrimination exposed.

Unrecognized groups can register with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as social organizations. Only then can they build houses of worship, receive ID cards and register marriages or births.

Laws and guidelines restrict certain religious activities and present many adherents with administrative hurdles.

Traditional Beliefs in Indonesia

With his decision in 1965, Soekarno did not consider one thing: the numerous indigenous beliefsthat exist in the island nation.

These traditional beliefs ruled long before any religion could gain a foothold in the island nation. They have been passed down over thousands of years and generations and combine spiritual elements from the animism as well as the traditional ancestor worship.

Even though a large part of the population converted to one of the official religions, the traditional belief is still practiced today.

Especially in remote areas, the residents hold fast to the beliefs and rituals of their ancestors. It is estimated that there are more than 245 indigenous religionsthat show large regional differences.

In many cases, beliefs have mixed with an official religion and a species Mixed beliefs let arise.

Examples are the Toraja on Sulawesi, the Dayak from Kalimantan and the Batak in Sumatrawho, statistically speaking, are Christian or Muslim, but largely follow their traditional beliefs. There is also a mixed belief in animism and Islam in central Java.

Indonesia - an actually secular democratic state

Indonesia is considered a secular, democratic country the separation of religion and state. The autonomous region is an exception Aceh in Sumatra, whose central government was authorized to implement Islamic Sharia law.

Although the country with the largest Muslim population in the world is not an Islamic state, Islamic principles still influence and inspire politics.

Radical Islamic groups try again and again, sometimes under threat of violence, to control socio-political events.

Although the pancasila is supposed to maintain religious diversity and neutrality, in many cases the executive cannot escape Islamic influence.

Limits of Pluralism

atheism (World view that denies or doubts the existence of a god) and agnosticism (World view according to which the possibility of the existence of the divine cannot be rationally clarified, i.e. it is neither affirmed nor denied) are beliefs that are difficult to accept in Indonesian society.

Since they violate the first principle of the pancasila, they are not recognized by the government and are not allowed to be entered in the identity card.

blasphemy (hurtful, scornful or similar statement about something sacred, divine) is illegal and is prosecuted, which is felt above all atheists and agnostics.

Disparaging remarks about beliefs or questioning any of the recognized religions can in many cases result in 5 or more years in prison.

The recognized religions in Indonesia

To understand the religious diversity of the country is a small excursion into Indonesian history necessary.

Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese and Dutch have found their way into the archipelago in the last few centuries and have left their mark. Most of the time, the transition between religions was fluid and so different beliefs existed side by side.

However, the political tensions between 1964 and 1965 brought about radical changes in the community.

In order to weaken the Communist Party of Indonesia (Komunis Indonesia PKI), which consisted mainly of atheists, Soekarno passed the law in 1965 that forced all Indonesians to practice an officially recognized religion.

A consequence of that were Mass conversions to Islam (and Christianity). Another was the identification in the identity cards, which the Indonesians have retained to this day.

1 | Islam in Indonesia

Live with a share of almost 90 percent of the Indonesian population more than 207 million Muslims in indonesia what around 13 percent of all Muslims worldwide matters.

About 99 percent of them are Sunni Muslims, only an estimated one to three million followers of the Shiite faith.

Not all Muslims are created equal in Indonesia. Many are strictly religious, read the Koran regularly and visit the mosque frequently. Religion plays an important role in their daily activities. Others, on the other hand, are Muslim based on their ID and family background, but rarely go to the mosque to pray.

The Muslim community also differs in its religious beliefs. As Abangan traditional Muslims are called the Javanese customsthat are heavily influenced by hindu-animist elements are shaped into their practices. They are mainly found in rural areas.

Santri on the other hand are modernist, orthodox muslimswho live in urban areas and are more focused on mosques and the Quran.

Islam in Indonesia is shaped by other traditional influences, depending on the region. Areas with a majority Muslim population include Java, Sumatra, the coastal areas of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Lombok, Sumbawa and the North Moluccas.

Arrival of Islam in Indonesia

Sources show that early on 13th Century a number of indigenous peoples have converted to Islam. Tombstones dating back to 1211 have been found in North Sumatra, indicating the existence of a Muslim kingdom.

At that time came Arab merchants from Gujarat and Persia, India to Indonesia to trade with the islanders. It is very likely that local kingdoms adopted the religion to take advantage of the trade. The King of Demak is considered to be the origin of the strong spread of Islam in Indonesia.

Islam spread from West Sumatra through Java to the east. The influence of existing faiths gave rise to countless varieties across the country. In some places Muslim traders built new cities, other places were too far from the routes and were thus able to prevent the entry of Islam.

Due to the main trade routes, the densely populated western region of Indonesia gathered a larger Muslim population than the east, as they were exposed to greater Islamic influence. Was one of the busiest trade routes in the world the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Although the religion was already known in the region, Islamic kingdoms and sultanates did not become established until the 15th century the dominant political power in the archipelago. By the end of the 15th century 20 Islamic Kingdoms founded, i.a. Demak, Pajang, Mataram and Banten

Islamization process

The process of Islamization in Indonesia was based on events that were closely related to developments in the Islamic world. Social movements (like the Wahabi movement from Arabia early 19th century as well as the Salafi movement from Egypt at the end of the 19th century) increased the spread of the orthodox islam.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that resulted in more Pilgrims to Mecca could travel and get the Relationship between Indonesia and the Middle East deepened.

Even today, closely linked to the Arab world, the process of Islamization in Indonesia is ongoing.

Tensions within the Islamic community

The waves of Islamization did not only bring harmony with them. Not all locals agreed to the arrival of Orthodox Islam and the Split between the Abangan and Santri deepened.

The two most influential Muslim organizations in Indonesia reflect this split. The Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912 by the modernist Islamic (= Orthodox) community and comprises around 50 million members.

In 1926 the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which stands for traditional Javanese Islam, which contains mystical elements. The organization includes around 90 million members and their leaders are usually opposed to other religions more tolerant.

Islam, which was exposed to a wide variety of influencing factors before the 19th century, has gradually lost its diverse character since independence.

Political influence of the hardliners

Although the country is not based on Islamic law, that is political influence of Muslim groups nevertheless noticeable. Conservative Islamic parties and hardliners in particular are in favor of it Establishment of an Islamic state. In doing so, they receive proper resistance from a few million non-Muslims and numerous moderate Muslims.

Even if conservative Islamic parties never received a majority, they were able to indirectly increase their influence on Indonesian politics.

An example of this is the case of the former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (as Ah ok known). As a Christian of Chinese descent, he was an exceptional leader for a Muslim-majority city. At the end of 2016, he made a statement on the Koran - and became accused of blasphemy. Hardliners and conservative camps organized on Jakarta's streets and exerted heavy pressure. A court later sentenced Ahok to two years' imprisonment - a sentence that is still highly controversial to this day.

Another example is the 2019 presidential election. Jokowi (Joko Widodo), known as a reserved Muslim and ally of Ahok, competed against Prabowo Subianto, an ally of various hardliner groups. In order to fend off attacks from conservative camps, Jokowi stood by the conservative Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin as vice-president - with success.

For the first time, a conservative Muslim clergyman was given a high political position - which strengthens hardliners for the future and represents another wave in the Islamization process.

Aceh - autonomous region with Sharia law

Despite its religious diversity, there is one province in Indonesia that is out of the ordinary: the province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra.

Decades of struggles for independence brought Aceh the recognized status of a back in 1959Special region with self-administration of religious affairs and in 2005 finally the partial autonomy of Aceh. The Implementation of Sharia law as a valid legal system was a consequence of that.

The province of Aceh was one of the first provinces to come into contact with Islam as early as the 8th century. The first Islamic kingdom was founded here in the 9th century, Perlak, founded. In addition to the desire for independence, the implementation of Islamic laws was also the aim of the years of fighting between the government and resistance fighters.

AsVeranda of MeccaAs Aceh is also called, the province sets a good example for many radical Islamists.

Read more about Sharia law in Indonesia.


Unfortunately, attacks from radical Muslim camps have increased in recent years.

Discrimination comes mainly from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the conservative Islamic organizations Majlis Tafsir Al Quràn (MTA) and Lembaga Dakwah Islam Indonesia (LDII). Not only those of different faiths are affected, but also Muslims who think differently.

Islamic radicalism is nothing new in Indonesia. The uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s, a plane hijacked in 1981, the bombings in Bali in the 2000s and the bombings in Jakarta have radical Islamic backgrounds.

Attacks on Christian or Buddhist institutions as well as brothels, "casinos" or bars are not uncommon in Indonesia.

2 | Protestantism & Catholicism in Indonesia

With approximately 23 million followers and a share of about 10 percent Christianity is the second largest religion in Indonesia.

The majority make up with almost 7 percent the Protestantswhile just about 3 percent to Catholicism consequences.

Indonesian society distinguishes Christianity from Catholicism because, in their eyes, Christianity is Protestantism and Catholicism is a different religion.

In Western countries, on the other hand, Christianity is an umbrella term for different religious denominations that share the same core doctrine, faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, consequences.

In addition to the traditional Christian faith, there are other movements such as the Adventists or Pentecostal Church.

Christian communities are distributed throughout the country, but primarily in the eastern part of Indonesia: Papua, Flores, Sumba, West Timor, Maluku, North and West Sulawesi, but also Kalimantan and North Sumatra.

Arrival of Christianity in Indonesia

Christianity in Indonesia is a Remnants from the colonial era. Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch left their mark until the declaration of independence in 1945 temporarily prevented further expansion.

after the Portuguese Having conquered Malacca (present-day Malaysia) in 1511, they sailed further east to the Spice Islands, also known as the Moluccas. There they initially lived peacefully with the Muslim population.

Over the years, Catholic priests spread their faith. By the end of the 16th century, a considerable part of the population in the South Moluccas had converted. Flores and Timor were also important locations for the Portuguese at that time. When they finally tried to monopolize the spice trade, there were clashes with the locals and their influence decreased.

In 1607 the Dutch to the Moluccas and with them the Protestantism with Calvinist-Lutheran influences. They too wanted a monopoly on the spice trade - and were more successful than their predecessors.

However, their missionary activities were limited to supporting existing Christian communities. Since at that time only that Dutch Protestant Christianity was allowed in the region, the spread of Catholicism was almost completely stopped.

Climax of Christianity

The climax of Christian influence coincides with the Colonial times in the 18th century together. After the Dutch kingdom became secular, Catholic missionaries also found their way to the Dutch East Indies.

Organizations from Europe, a.o. German missionary groups, ensured a strong spread of Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Animistically influenced areas such as Papua, Nusa Tenggara, Moluccas and Kalimantan were successfully converted. Later followed the Toraja in Sulawesi and some parts of Sumatra, including the Batak people.

Missionary activities increased after 1900 when large numbers of Catholics came to the area. North American organizations support Protestant groups in their work. The introduction of a National Christian Council was planned for 1938, but this came to an end with World War II and Indonesia's independence.

Tensions between Muslims and Christians

In isolated cases there are predominantly Christian regions in the country, although they represent a minority. In order not to endanger their weak socio-political position, they usually strive for a harmonious relationship with their Muslim fellow men.

However, violence between Muslims and Christians is not uncommon. That was particularly tragic Moluccas conflict in 1999-2002.

In the rest of the country, too, there are repeated reports of the forced closings of churches, attacks by radical Muslims on Christian institutions and obstacles to attending church services.

The reasons for these attacks are not always clear. Even during the colonial era, Christian elites were given preferential treatment and were given influential positions in politics and business. However, since they were not a real threat as a minority, they were often viewed as allies - especially during the period of Islamic, communist and nationalist uprisings.

When Suharto took a pro-Muslim direction in the 1980s and 1990s to gain more support, Christians lost their political clout.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, religious conflicts increased and the struggle for social, economic and political power began.

3 | Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in Indonesia. Today he is around 1.7 percent and 4 million followers the third largest religion in the archipelago.

Buddhism, which came to the region a short time later and existed parallel to Hinduism, is around today 2 million followersthat mainly Chinese descent are.

Both religions did well in the 2nd and 4th centuries as they fitted almost seamlessly with prevailing indigenous beliefs.

Regional differences in traditional beliefs made for one great diversity in Hinduism. However, much of the Hindu past has disappeared over time due to subsequent conquests.

One exception is Bali, an island where the majority of the population still adheres to the Hindu faith. Here the power of Islam was not strong enough to tear down the strong cultural walls. The island is world famous for its to this day unique Hinduism.

Both religions can still be found in scattered communities around the archipelago, especially in Bali, Central, South and East Sulawesi, Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra.

Book tip: Learning to Understand Bali: A Guide to Balinese Hinduism

Beginnings of Hinduism and Buddhism in Indonesia

Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms ruled the region long before the rise of Islam.

About the Silk road, which linked India with China, arrived Indian traders in the first century AD to Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi and with them the Hindu and Buddhist influence.

The rulers of that time used the new faith to enrich their power and allowed themselves to be worshiped as Hindu gods.

In the 4th century, Hinduism spread throughout Indonesia, particularly Java and Sumatra. Many Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms emerged between the 5th and 13th centuries, such as Kutai, Sriwijaya and Sailendra.

The climax was the golden age of Majapahit (1293-1500), on a Mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and Animist beliefs was built.

The Borobudur Buddhist Temple, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, and the Hindu Prambanan Temple (both near Yogyakarta on Java) were built around the same time around the 8th century.

The arrival of Islam and the fall of the Majapahit kingdom ended the era of flourishing Hinduism in Indonesia. The new, rapidly growing religion caused the majority of the locals to convert to Islam.

Noticeable influence

Even today, the Hindu and Buddhist influences can be felt and seen in the archipelago, especially in the Javanese art and culture.

Examples of this are the shadow theater Wayang Kulit, many words taken from Sanskrit and Kejawen, a Javanese folk belief that combines elements of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Unique Hinduism in Bali

Bali is Indonesia's most popular tourist destination. The reason for this is not only the beautiful natural landscapes, but above all the unique cultural and religious traditions

Before the arrival of Hinduism in Bali, it had already undergone drastic changes in Java. A new form of Hinduism emerged, which differs from Indian Hinduism and is unique in the world.

A feature of Balinese Hinduism is the union of Hinduism and Buddhism. The priest system in Bali includes Hindus as well as Buddhists and Buddhist scriptures play an important role.

Elements of animism form the basis of many rituals. There is a belief in Bali that Natural events are influenced by ghosts. Many offerings from agricultural products should therefore make them good-natured.

Mount Agung is considered the home of gods and ancestors and is very much revered as the mother mountain.

The main symbol is that Sun gear or Swastika, which is also used in Indian Hinduism. In contrast to Indian Hinduism, however, it finds that Caste system in Bali not a strict application.

Book tip: Learning to Understand Bali: A Guide to Balinese Hinduism

4 | Confucianism

over Chinese traders Confucianism came to the region early on. In contrast to other religions, however, it lived mainly from individual followers rather than a fixed institution.

Through a Influx of Chinese immigrants in the 18th century Confucianism received socio-political attention.

Only officially recognized as a religion in 1965, it was hit particularly hard between 1966 and 1998. The Anti-china policy the previous one Dictator Suhartus led to one temporary prohibition of faith.

Today Confucianism is mainly from Chinese-born Indonesians practiced, their share of the total population is less than one percent.

Confucianism is a type Hierarchy system with code of conduct and influences daily life through spiritual practices. In addition to Buddhism and Taoism, he is one of the great "three lessons" of China.

Religion in Indonesia: (Intolerance

Indonesia - a country that is known for its diversity and tolerance, unfortunately makes the headlines again and again when it comes to the Discrimination and persecution of religious minorities and those who think differently goes.

Above all, Aceh, the autonomous region of Sumatra, shows itself to be less tolerant: Closing and demolition of churches, setting fire to, the entire eviction of Christian communities and forced shop closings during Ramadan.

But minorities also face major hurdles in the rest of the country. An example of this are followers of the Bahá`í, a religion originating in Iran. Public relations work is prohibited and Bahá`ís meetings are only allowed within the community. The community website has been blocked repeatedly.

Another example is the Ahmadiyya community, which is regularly pressured and discriminated against by hardline groups. Forced closure of mosques and hindrance to religious service are forcing many communities to flee.

The Shiite Muslim religious leader Tajul Muluk was expelled from his village in East Java and imprisoned for alleged blasphemy.

The civil servant and atheist Alexander Aan has been arrested for posting on Facebook and is subject to ongoing discrimination.

Report by the human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide

The Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a human rights organization with Focus on religious freedom. It supports not only Christians, but all people who are persecuted or discriminated against because of their belief or non-belief.

A report with the title “Pluralism in Danger”, which was published in 2014, makes the increasing intolerance in Indonesia attentive, which affects all religious communities equally: Shiite and Sunni Muslims, progressive pluralistically-minded Muslims, Protestant and Catholic Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Bahá`ís, followers of traditional beliefs and people without religious affiliation.

Attacks are not limited to individual regions, but can now be felt across the country. The growing extremism is even noticeable to the outside world: In 2012 Lady Gaga had to cancel a concert in Jakarta because she received threats from radical Islamists.

The Christian Solidarity Worldwide gives the following reasons for the increasing intolerance:

  1. The spread of extremist ideologies from outside Indonesia, funded by Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Middle Eastern countries and supported by organizations in the country.
  2. The inaction and complicity of local, regional and national authorities, including senior politicians, who have made discriminatory statements.
  3. Implementing discriminatory laws and regulations.
  4. The weak prosecution by the police and judiciary in cases where religious minorities are the victims.
  5. The unwillingness of Muslims to speak out against intolerance.

Even if it no major interreligious conflicts As there is more in the Moluccas and Sulawesi, intolerance now seems to be deeper rooted.

The passive behavior of the largely tolerant population has resulted in widespread acceptance of discrimination, persecution and violence.

The Christian Solidarity Worldwide According to the government, it is primarily up to the government to take a clear stand against intolerance rather than inciting further violence with its absence.

Changing discriminatory laws, like the Blasphemy Act, the up to 5 years behind bars provides, as well as the Deletion of the religion column in the identity card would be first steps to restore religious tolerance.

Religion in Indonesia: Tolerance - every single one is asked

Indonesia: diverse, colorful and tolerant - at least on the outside. But if you look closely, you can feel it every now and then: mosques that turn up the volume of their loudspeakers on Sundays, Adventists who do not utter a good word about Christians, or Muslim-labeled warungs and shops that give people of different faiths an unwelcome feeling.

It is not only up to the government to send a clear signal, but also to the individual to let go of prejudices and to meet at eye level. Because under our skin we have the same organs, the same muscles and the same heart - and we all agree on that!

What is your experience of religion in Indonesia like? Have you had positive or maybe even negative experiences? We look forward to your comment!

about the author:

Gunda with husband Hartono

Gunda comes from the diving and tourism industry and was traveling in Southeast Asia for several years before she lost her heart to Indonesia. Here she not only found her new home, but also her great love. After managing a diving resort in Raja Ampat, the idea for their website was born. She now lives as a freelance copywriter