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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago, consisting of some 17,000 islands (6,000 inhabited) between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia. Home to more than 231 million people, it is the fourth most populous country in the world, behind China, India, and the United States. Almost 90 percent of its inhabitants are Muslim—the largest Muslim population in any country. Indonesia's history and culture have produced a unique form of Islam that includes elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and local animist religions.

    Strategic Location Key to Islam

    Indonesia's location between mainland Asia and Australia is responsible for its complex cultural and religious history. Location also provided Indonesia with an important role in the development of the region.

    A Land of Many Wonders.

    Indonesia's many islands extend over more than 733,000 square miles between Australia and Southeast Asia. Most of its islands are small and low-lying, and many are heavily forested. The largest islands, including Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Sulawesi, have interior mountain ranges. Indonesia's strategic location along major sea lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans has had a profound effect on its history and social structures, due in large part to contact with foreign cultures.

    Indonesia's many natural resources, including petroleum, tin, natural gas, timber, coal, gold, and silver, have made it a prime destination for traders and merchants for centuries. Islam first came to the Indonesian islands in the 1200s with the arrival of Muslim traders from India. Spices drew Europeans to the islands in the early 1500s. Indonesia's rich reserves of oil, natural gas, timber, and rubber also made it valuable to the Japanese army during World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ). These same resources are still among the most abundant in Indonesia.

    A Historical Overview.

    Before the arrival of the Europeans, various Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms held power over Indonesia. Indian merchants brought Islamic culture to the islands in the 1200s and several powerful Muslim states arose in Indonesia after 1400 . By 1509 the Portuguese had established coastal trading posts, but the Dutch had the most significant European influence on Indonesia's history.

    In the early 1600s, the Dutch East India Company took control of what they called the East Indies. The East India Company controlled the region with the cooperation of local leaders until the late 1790s, when France conquered the Netherlands. Indonesia became a part of the French empire in 1810 , but a year later the British occupied Java and quickly forced the surrender of French forces.

    In 1816 Britain returned the islands to the Dutch, who remained in power until Indonesia won its independence in 1949 . President Sukarno , the country's first chief executive, was elected in 1945 and reelected in 1955 . Two years later, he declared martial law and ruled under a military dictatorship until 1965 . President Suharto replaced Sukarno as head of the government in 1965 after an attempted coup by the communist party triggered massive uprisings in east and central Java. Suharto continued military rule until severe economic troubles prompted his resignation in 1998 .

    Today Indonesia is a republic headed by a president who makes the law with the help of an appointed cabinet. A national assembly meets every five years to elect a new president, to review government policies, and to consider changes to the constitution. During elections for the assembly, citizens vote for parties rather than for individual candidates. Each party receives a number of seats in the assembly based on its percentage of the total votes cast. The winning parties then decide which of their members will serve in the assembly.

    Islam's Role in Indonesia

    Indonesia's first large-scale contact with outsiders was with Hindu and Buddhist cultures from India. The customs and beliefs of those civilizations were well established in the archipelago by the time Islam was introduced in Indonesia in the 1200s. Indonesian rulers were tolerant of different religions and cultures, enabling Islam to spread throughout the islands. Islam would eventually grow to dominate Indonesian culture, but it would be an Islam quite different from that which is practiced in the Middle East.

    Indonesia's Islamic Culture.

    Two factors influenced the practice of Islam in Indonesia. The first was Islam's interaction with Buddhism, Hinduism, and local Indonesian religions. Instead of abandoning their traditional beliefs in favor of Islam, Indonesians adapted their practices to fit Islamic observances. A form of Islam known as abangan, a blend of Muslim and non-Muslim elements, resulted. Unlike traditional Islam, abangan places less importance on religious law and rituals. Instead, it combines Muslim beliefs with belief in spirits, ritual feasting, and traditional medicine.

    Sufism, a branch of Islam characterized by mystical beliefs and practices, was another important influence on the development of Islamic practices in Indonesia. By the 1500s, many of the islands' leading Muslim scholars practiced Sufism. Tolerance toward local religious traditions made Sufism very appealing to Indonesians. In addition, Indonesia's limited cultural contact with the rest of the Muslim world enabled Indonesia's Islamic traditions to develop their own unique practices.

    As long-distance travel became easier in the early 1900s, Indonesia's Muslims became less isolated. Before the twentieth century, only a small number of Indonesians made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. By the mid-1920s, however, more than 120,000 people had begun to make the journey from the islands each year. At the same time, the number of Indonesian students in Middle Eastern universities grew substantially. Those who returned to Indonesia brought a new commitment to traditional Islam. They criticized Indonesia's blended form of Islam and called for the adoption of a purer form of the faith.

    Those who support a purer form of Islam are called santri. They reject the acceptance of legal and religious traditions created by Islamic judges over time. The santri believe that the law should be based on the Qur'an, but they also support the use of independent reasoning in interpreting the law. Traditional Islamic practices, such as attendance at Friday prayer services and veiling of women, have increased in recent years. Popular Islamic culture, however, is still strongly influenced by non-Mulsim traditions.

    Islam's Role in Indonesian Politics.

    Because Indonesia is home to so many diverse ethnic groups, Islam has provided a common identity for many who live there. Under Dutch rule, Islam played only a limited role in Indonesian politics. The first large-scale Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, was formed in 1911 as a movement for modernist reform. Sarekat Islam, established in 1912 , emerged after World War I as a more nationalist movement.

    The Dutch saw Islam as a danger to established peace and order so they followed a policy known as the Reception Theory, by which local customs and laws would be followed in most places on the islands. Islamic law would be enforced only if it agreed with local laws. The Dutch eventually established separate religious courts to oversee matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

    In the years before World War II, secular organizations such as the communist party became more important in domestic politics than Islamic groups. In 1926 Nahdatul Ulama, a traditional Muslim party, replaced Sarekat Islam as the most influential Muslim party. Secular parties, however, continued to lead the drive for independence.

    By the time Indonesia gained legal independence from the Dutch in 1949 , Islamic political power was divided among three groups. Nahdatul Ulama supported traditional views, while Masjumi represented those who supported a modern Islamic socialist party. Both competed for the support of Indonesians who wanted a government based on Muslim values and who were opposed to communist influences. The third group in Indonesian politics consisted of radical Muslim military units, such as Darul Islam, that violently opposed the secular government. Conflict among these groups lasted throughout the 1950s. Although S. M. Kartowuwirjo , leader of Darul Islam, was captured and imprisoned in 1962 , other militant Islamic groups continued to fight the government.

    Islam's Influence on Indonesia's Government.

    During the early years of Indonesia's independence, Muslim leaders pushed to make Islam a part of the national constitution. The original agreement, drawn up in 1945 , subjected all Muslims to Islamic law and required that Indonesia's head of state be a Muslim. Concern about the rights of other religious groups led to President Sukarno's declaration of a new ideology called the Pancasila, or Five Principles. This doctrine stated that Indonesians should believe in God; to do otherwise would call attention to one's communist tendencies. Muslim groups initially opposed this state policy, fearing that by accepting Pancasila, they would be betraying their faith. They also feared that Pancasila would become the official religion of Indonesia. President Sukarno promised this would not happen.

    The attempted coup in 1965 by the communist party briefly united the government and elements of the Muslim community. After learning that the Indonesian communist party had played a role in the failed takeover, groups of Muslim young people attacked and killed many communists. When President Suharto came to power after the coup attempt, some segments of the military wanted Islam to become the unifying spiritual connection for members of the armed forces. Muslim political organizations hoped this connection would bring closer cooperation with the military. President Suharto, however, reduced Muslim control over education and marriage and strongly supported the Pancasila.

    In other moves to limit Muslim political influence, Suharto outlawed the Masjumi party and would not allow members to regroup. In 1973 Suharto forced all Muslim parties to unite into a single party known as the United Development Party (PPP). His tactics led to the rise of small radical Muslim groups opposed to the Suharto regime. During the 1970s and 1980s, youth groups such as Kommando Jihad and the Islamic Youth Movement carried out kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings to protest government policies.

    President Suharto demanded that all organizations accept the Pancasila as their guiding ideology. Many who expressed public opposition to it were imprisoned. Nahdatul Ulama and the PPP eventually accepted the Pancasila. In return, Suharto granted more of their requests, such as greater control over religious education. With the Pancasila as the official government policy, many Muslim groups abandoned politics, concentrating instead on local issues such as economic development and education.

    This chart shows the percentage of Muslims living in countries throughout the world. Muslims populations in the United States, Canada, Central America, South America, and most portions of Europe are currently less than 5%.

    Percentage of Muslim Population Country
    86–100 Afghanistan Iraq Somalia
    Algeria Jordan Syria
    Azerbaijan Libya Tunisia
    Bahrain Mali Turkey
    Bangladesh Mauritania Turkmenistan
    Comoros Morocco United Arab Emirates
    Djibouti Pakistan Uzbekistan
    Egypt Qatar Western Sahara
    Gambia Saudi Arabia Yemen
    Indonesia Senegal
    66–85 Albania Niger
    Guinea Oman
    Kuwait Sudan
    Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan
    36–65 Bosnia and Herzegovina Ivory Coast
    Brunei Kazakhstan
    Burkina Faso Malaysia
    Chad Nigeria
    Ethiopia Sierra Leone
    16–35 Cyprus Mauritius
    Eritrea Mozambique
    Ghana Suriname
    Liberia Tanzania
    Macedonia Uganda
    Malawi Yugoslavia
    5–15 Benin India
    Bulgaria Israel
    Cameroon Kenya
    Central African Republic Madagascar
    Congo Philippines
    Georgia Sri Lanka
    Ghana Togo

    Suharto's resignation in 1998 weakened Indonesia's central government as well as the power of the Pancasila. Separatist groups calling for local independence sprang up in many of the outer islands. A succession of government leaders did little to stabilize the situation. East Timor, a country occupying the eastern portion of the island of Timor, won independence from Portugal in 1999 and was recognized as a sovereign state three years later. At the same time, Muslim militant groups attacked symbols of non-Muslim influence, and organizations such as the Star Moon Party called for the government to give Muslims special rights over foreigners, such as the Chinese. Religious violence between Christians and Muslims has also increased in recent years. As of 2003 , President Megawati Sukarnoputri led the nation, but with growing concern over terrorist attacks, Western governments increased pressure on Sukarnoputri to keep tighter control over militant Muslim organizations. See also Modernism; Southeast Asia.

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