Religion and Ritual:
Religious Diversity in Indonesia

Indonesia has been influenced by a number of major religions over the centuries. These have largely replaced older beliefs and practices. Islam has had the most profound influence, and today Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with over 87 per cent of the 180 million strong population professing the faith. However, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism are all practiced, and a very small percentage still adhere to ancient beliefs and practices.

religious leaders
A Buddhist monk, Bali Hindu priest, Catholic priest, Protestant father and Muslim mufti flank Indonesian Minister for Religious Affairs Dr H Tarmizi Taher. Photo by Beck Tohir / Setneg

The first religious influences to reach the Indonesian Archipelago were those of Hinduism and Buddhism which were introduced from India by the 5th century AD. The main area of impact was in Java and Sumatra, where the two religions fused to form the composite Hindu-Buddhist religion.

As early as the 12th century, Muslim merchants began settling, in Sumatra where Islam quickly took hold. The religion of Muhammad began to move southeast, and became firmly established in the north coast ports of Java, and by the 15th century it had filtered into the Javanese interior, and had begun moving into eastern Indonesia.

Christianity was first introduced by the Portuguese during the 15th century, but it was only in the 19th century that it began to make significant inroads in eastern Indonesia. Today, the breakdown of religious affiliation in Indonesia is as follows: Islam, 87.2 per cent; Protestantism, 6 per cent; Catholicism, 3.5 per cent; Hinduism, 2 per cent; Buddhism, 1 per cent; and other beliefs, 0.3 per cent.

The harmonious relationship that exists between the different religions in Indonesia is largely due to a national ideology of religious tolerance. The national Pancasila creed stipulates a belief in One Supreme God. This God is regarded as being the same whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, and despite the difficulty of nominating a single supreme Buddhist or Hindu God.

Another important factor in the peaceful coexistence of the religions lies in their historical roots. In all cases the introduction of these world religions to Indonesia was brought about by peaceful means rather than coercion. The success of Islam, for example, lies in the fact that it was introduced first by merchants, some of whom settled and married local wives, and by Sufis, Islamic teachers who preached a form of Islam that could be readily accepted by the people of the Archipelago. These new ideas took root among a people who already held traditional and cultural values that encouraged them to avoid conflict.

by Sian Jay

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