The Uniqueness of Islam in Indonesia: Part One

By Indonesian Abigail Love

Islam in the Indonesian context:

Did you know that Indonesia – an archipelago of over 17,000 islands – is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation? Roughly 88% of 250 million Indonesians are Muslims, which is about 13% of the world’s Muslim population. However, Indonesia is not an Islamic country. Indonesian constitution is not governed by Islamic Law. It acknowledges Pancasila, which is a set of five inseparable, interrelated principles that promote equality and freedom of religion, and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is the principle of unity in diversity that encourages about 300 Indonesian ethnic groups to live in harmony with one another. Under Pancasila, every Indonesian citizen must choose one of the six religions acknowledged by the government: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism.

Pancasila and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika contribute to the uniqueness of Islam in Indonesia. Since the Indonesian National Independence on August 17th, 1945, Islam in Indonesia has been known to be tolerant toward other religions. Most Indonesian Muslims favor peace and harmony; they do not generally adhere to terrorism. There are a few extremist groups who want to “purify Islam” in Indonesia and to turn Indonesia into an Islamic country, but they are in the minority.

Due to the uniqueness of Islam in Indonesia, other Islamic countries, especially those in the Middle East, consider Indonesian Islam to be “less conservative.” Not all Indonesian Muslim women wear headscarves and full-body Muslim coverings like Middle Eastern women. In Indonesia, many Muslim women still wear western-style outfits like t-shirts, jeans, short skirts, etc. Likewise, many Indonesian Muslim men do not wear Muslim attire, except when they go to the mosque for Friday prayer. However, during Idul Fitri (Feast after Ramadan), all Muslim men and women wear the customary Muslim attire throughout the day. If a Muslim woman decides to wear a Muslim headscarf (hijab) daily, she is declaring to the public that from now on, she desires to be a more devout Muslim and will never again take off her hijab while in public.

Another aspect that makes Islam in Indonesia unique is the government’s tolerance towards religious conversion. For example, when a Muslim converts to Christianity, he/she may request the government to officially endorse his conversion by approving his request to change his religion affiliation on his ID card. Indonesian ID cards list the religion of the card holder. Even though a Muslim-Background Believer (MBB) may suffer persecution from family members for converting, the persecution will usually lessen as the new believer lives a life of faith that manifests the love of Christ to his/her family members. Although harsh persecutions do occur in Indonesia, the nationals’ beliefs in Pancasila and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika contribute to an overall less intense level of persecution.

While Islam in Indonesia is unique, it has some similarities to Islam in, for instance, the Middle East, particularly in terms of doctrines. One similarity would be that Indonesian Muslims, like all mainstream Muslims, believe and practice the Five Pillars of Islam. Another similarity is the mosque architecture. The building and architecture style of Indonesian mosques often resemble those in the Middle East with Arabic writing. The round dome tops with minarets are prominent landmarks of any city in Indonesia.

Tips in Witnessing to Indonesian Muslims:

Many foreigners think it is hard to witness to Indonesian Muslims. The truth is, Indonesian Muslims are some of the most open people with whom Christians can easily have religious conversations; many are eager to hear about Jesus Christ. Millions of people in Indonesia, such as villagers, homemakers, and students, have never heard the name of Jesus. Yet, they are often very familiar with western pop cultural characters or public figures. Should this not compel us to be joyfully zealous in sharing about our Lord Jesus Christ to them? Here are some helpful tips when witnessing to Indonesian Muslims:

  1. Sincerity is one of the most appreciated traits by Indonesian Muslims. Many Indonesian Muslims have been living under deceit and/or have been victims of dishonest conducts, they appreciate sincere friendship. In Indonesia, close friendship should only be formed between same genders. This also means one should avoid sharing the Gospel to an opposite gender in a one-on-one setting.
  2. Passing out tracts on the side of the road or doing open-air preaching is not allowed nor recommended. The best way in engaging Indonesian Muslims in spiritual conversation is chatting with them at local coffee shops, or any shops that sell snacks and beverages. Indonesian Muslims enjoy a relaxed atmosphere while chatting. They consider it an honor when greeted by others (even strangers) who show genuine interest in them. Another effective approach to sharing the Gospel is visiting a home of a Muslim, upon their invitation. Muslims are some of the most hospitable people.
  3. Many Muslims in Indonesia have never read the Quran in a language they can understand. As a result, there are different beliefs of Islam even among Muslims in Indonesia. This is important for witnessing. Christians do not need to know everything about Islam before they reach out to Indonesian Muslims. The key to witnessing is a readiness to learn and to ask good questions. The good news is there are many things Muslims believe in that can be used as bridges to the Gospel. However, Christians must be sure to explain all the theological terms they use as clearly as possible. When discussing these bridges, one should avoid dwelling on issues that will cause debate, but instead should focus on the agreed truth in order to move forward to the Gospel.
  4. When engaging Muslims in spiritual conversation, it is commendable to use the Arabic words of the terms so that Indonesian Muslims feel more familiar with the terms. Many Indonesian words, even those used in Indonesian Bible, have an Arabic origin.

Note:

For more helpful tips in sharing the good news with Indonesian Muslims (or Muslims in any countries), read Mike Shipman’s Any 3: Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime.

Sources:

Ardiansyah, Yulian. “Is Islam in Indonesia Different than It Is in Other Majority Muslim Nations? If so, How?,” Quora.com, November 26, 2015. Accessed November 13, 2017. https://www.quora.com/Is-Islam-in-Indonesia-different-than-it-is-in-other-majority-Muslim-nations-If-so-how.

Jacob Hicks, e-mail message to author, September 18, 2017.

Pew Research Center, “Muslim Population of Indonesia.” Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life. Last modified November 4, 2010. http://www.pewforum.org /2010/11/04/ muslim-population-of-indonesia.

University of Washington, “Indonesian.” University of Washington: Asian Languages and Literature.” Accessed November 13, 2017. https://asian.washington.edu/fields/indonesian.


Abigail Love was born and raised in Indonesia and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While at Seminary, Love has enjoyed connecting with godly people who have a heart for Muslims and Indonesia. Love occasionally visits Indonesia where she usually joins and learns from others in ministering to her countrymen, including her non-Muslim family members.

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