Guest Post: Indonesia and Islam

Today, I’m featuring a post written by a very special blogger. Here’s a brief introduction in her own words:

Amanda is an Australian blogger, anthropologist, writer and adventurer who lives in the Australian Outback. Her blog, Desert Book Chick, offers resources for book bloggers, articles on book culture and an eclectic selection of book reviews. She has a monthly newsletter and has recently started a podcast.

Right now, she’s also doing a theme month, about reading the classics. If you haven’t already, check Amanda’s blog out!

Like many Australians, I visit Indonesia every year – it’s only two and a half hour’s plane flight from Darwin (in Australia’s north) to Bali. However in 1996, I was a university student in Yogyakarta (pronounced JOG-ja-karta) in Central Java for a semester during Ramadan.

In this post, I’m going to introduce you to Islam in Indonesia, share my experiences as a westerner living in Java during Ramadan, and point you in the direction of two well known Indonesian writers whose books are available in English.

Click to see full-size map.

For many Australians, a trip to Indonesia is the equivalent of Americans going to Costa Rica or Mexico. I suspect, however, that many people don’t know much about Indonesia, despite its size and population, and its political and economic importance in South East Asia.

Indonesia is an archipelago comprising over 11,000 islands. It’s located on the equator, in the north of the Indian Ocean.

More than 200 million people call Indonesia home. Over 180 million Indonesians are Muslims, making Indonesia the largest Muslim nation in the world.

Islam in Indonesia

The form of Islam practiced by most Indonesians, and especially those living on Java, is different from that practiced in places like Saudi Arabia. It’s much more relaxed and tolerant. Islam in Indonesia is a mix of Sunni Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and traditional beliefs.

This reflects the nation’s history. Indian traders had brought their Hindu and Buddhist beliefs to Sumatera (yes, the place that the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami devastated), Java and Bali before the year 1000. These mixed with local animist religions and customs and created culturally distinct versions of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.

In the 15th Century, Sunni Muslims from India brought Islam to the archipelago. Over the next four centuries the practices of the Sunni Muslim traders, heavily influenced by Sufism (a gentle and mystical form of Islam, often associated with poetry, dance and altered states), intermixed with Buddhism, Hinduism and beliefs in ancestor and spirit worship.

This has created a very moderate and liberal form of Islam practiced in Indonesia today.  I found one of the most fascinating things about Islam in Java was its focus on mysticism –on belief involving spirits, traditional healers, Javanese astrology and the notions of soul.

There is no strict enforcement of women wearing Hijab, nor are women prevented from holding jobs, going to university or driving cars! Women are everywhere in Javanese public life: on reality TV shows as hosts, on the nightly news, in politics.

My experience of Java was of a rapidly Westernising nation whose citizens were liberally religious, very keen to learn English and know more about the world. If you’d like to learn more about Islam in Indonesia, I recommend listening to this podcast.


I loved being in Yogyakarta during Ramadan in 1996. Most Muslims observed the daytime fasting rule. As a Westerner I encountered no difficulty with this. People just accepted that I was not Muslim and was exempt from the fast. No one took any notice of me – even when I was eating in shopping malls- unless they wanted to ask where I was from and strike up a conversation!

However, I also found that many high school and university students found excuses to not fast, and joked with me about this. If we went on a journey anywhere, everyone broke their fast. If you were sick, pregnant, old or had your period, you could break your fast and not be frowned upon.

You were expected to make up the time you’d missed at the end of Ramadan, but I’m not sure that most people did!

The end of Ramadan is called Idl Fitri in Indonesian. My experience of this festival was that it was much like Christmas in Australia. The shops were decorated with Christmas-like decorations and people travelled long distances to visit relatives or went to Bali for vacation.

There was of course a feast. We had one where I was living to celebrate the end of the fast, and there was lots of gift giving. In fact, I found many similarities between Idl Fitri and Christmas –and in case you’re wondering, people do celebrate Christmas as well, but in a much smaller way.

Two Indonesian Writers You Might Like to Read

Indonesia has a long history of writers and literature, but I’m going to introduce you to only two writers, whose works have been translated into English.

Ayu Utami is young contemporary writer who writes about feminism in Indonesia. Her best known novel is Saman, which has been translated into English.

Saman tells the story Indonesia’s feminist awakening and resistance to the policies that devastated farmers and villagers during the Suharto era. Its main character, Laila, is a journalist who has fallen in love with Sihar, an already-married oil rig worker. Laila witnesses a tragic accident on the rig caused by the negligence and becomes caught up in Sihar’s quest for justice.

  • Saman – 1998
  • Larung – 2002
  • Si Parasit Lajang (an essay compilation) – 2003
  • Bilangan Fu – 2008

Pramoedya Ananta Toer was perhaps Indonesia’s best known writer. He wrote many essays, short stories and novels over a long writing career, spanning Indonesia’s colonial period (Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 1947), its occupation during WWII and the regimes of Sukarno and Suharto.

Pramoedya was arrested after a military coup in 1965 and imprisioned on Buru

Island. Although many prisoners died due to the harsh conditions, Pramoedya survived by telling stories to his fellow prisoners. Here, he composed a number of his most famous novels.

He spent a total of 15 years in prison, and following a campaign by Amnesty International, was released in 1979, but spent another 13 years under house arrest.

Pramoedya’s most famous works are the Buru Quartet. The Buru Quartet tells the story of a young Javanese man, Minke and shadows his coming of age in an Indonesia struggling for independence from Dutch colonial power, as well as offering a commentary on terrorism, colonialism and corruption.

It was banned for many years within Indonesia.

  • Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) – 1980
  • Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations) – 1980
  • Jejak Langkah (Footsteps) – 1985
  • Rumah Kaca (House of Glass) -1988

This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Indonesia and Islam”

  1. Hi Amanda! What you said that Islam practitioners in South East Asia is more relaxed and tolerant. I live in Malaysia and it is somewhat a bit similar to Java to. That is so nice to hear your experience. =)

  2. What a great post! It sounds like the Muslim beliefs in Indonesia are very different than those in Saudi- Arabia, and it’s interesting to think about the things that are similar and the things that vary. Thanks for sharing this post with us, it was very informative!

  3. Great to hear more about other countries. I had heard that Indonesia and other countries in the area were much more relaxed, but nice to get confirmation 🙂 If only it was the group we were funding right! 😛

  4. Hi Darlyn,

    Sorry I’ve taken a few days to get around to replying. I’ve been sick with a very bad migraine headache (including a day spent in hospital).

    I haven’t visited Malaysia (my daughter is going to visit in January next year), but I understand that it’s like Indonesia – very tolerant. I do want to visit Malaysia (I can speak Bahasa Indonesia), and we may have the opportunity to do so later next year.

  5. Hey Zibilee,

    Yes, I visit Indonesia every year, and I can say that it’s incredibly tolerant and very surprising. For example, yoga is HUGE in Jakarta, as are reality TV shows just like those we see in Australia or the US, and there’s heaps of celebrity gossip magazines.

    I’ve heard Javanese people say that gossiping is their favourite past time, although I would say that shopping -especially clothes shopping- is many Javanese women’s favourite past times.

  6. Hi Amy,

    Yes, Indonesia absolutely is relaxed and tolerant. I had such a wonderful time at university in Yogyakarta, that I go back to Indonesia every year (usually Bali or Lombok because it’s only 2.5 hrs flight away from Darwin in Australia).

  7. It sounds like the Muslim beliefs in Indonesia are very different than those in Saudi- Arabia, and it’s interesting to think about the things that are similar and the things that vary. Thanks for sharing this post with us, it was very informative!

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