Citation for Abangan

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Shepard, William . "Abangan." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oct 23, 2021. <>.


Shepard, William . "Abangan." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Oct 23, 2021).


The term Abangan is applied to Javanese who identify as Muslims but do not strictly follow the prescribed Islamic practices. They are also called “statistical Muslims.” Clifford Geertz in The Religion of Java (1960) discerned three subtraditions: Priyayi, Santri, and Abangan. The Priyayi descend from the precolonial Javanese nobility and are associated with a “refined” (alus) tradition that includes many Hindu-Buddhist elements. Some also practice what is called “Javanese mysticism” (kebatinan or kejawen). The Santri (or Putihan) are Muslims who follow Islamic prescriptions more strictly. They have tended to be traders or wealthier peasants. The Abangan are generally the mass of peasants and urban workers and servants. Their religious practice focuses on the local spirits and/or magical and curing rituals related to them.

Many scholars would drop the Priyayi category when discussing religion since Priyayi is a matter of social status. In fact some Priyayi do practice Islam strictly and so may be considered Santri, while the others may be considered a form of Abangan.

The word abangan means “red” or “brown,” and its use in the present sense is first attested in the 1850s as a pejorative term applied by Santris, who considered themselves “white” or “pure” (putihan). According to Ricklefs the Priyayi-Santri-Abangan division developed in the later nineteenth century and become hardened and politicized in the twentieth. The Dutch used the Priyayi as administrators and encouraged them to get a Western-style education, thus distancing them to some extent from Islamic culture. Islamic reform efforts sharpened the difference between practicing and nonpracticing people and sometimes provoked anti-Islamic reactions.

The basic Abangan ritual, according to Geertz, is the slametan, a communal feast for neighbors and spirits held on a wide range of occasions. In its simplest form, food is prepared by the women of the house, neighbors (male) are invited and take their place in the room, the host gives a short speech in high Javanese, passages from the Qurʾān and prayers (duʿāʾ) are recited, and the guests eat the food fairly quickly and then leave, taking some with them. The general purpose is to encourage communal solidarity, placate the spirits, and induce a state of slamet (equanimity, emotional balance).

Abangan and Priyayi practices are commonly seen as syncretistic, combining Islamic and pre-Islamic elements, but many scholars rather see them as Javanese forms of Islam. The slametan, for example, not only includes Islamic elements but is done on occasions connected with Islam, such as circumcisions and the Prophet's birthday. In fact, the word slamet is derived from the Arabic salāma(t), meaning “soundness, well-being, safety.” The spirit beliefs and practices can be paralleled elsewhere in the Islamic world, and much that seems Hindu-Buddhist can be seen as derived from Sufism. It also appears that many Abangan increase their Islamic practice as they become older.

The movement for independence from the Dutch was under mainly secular, that is, Priyayi-Abangan, leadership. Sukarno, who led the struggle and became the first president of Indonesia (1950–1967), was of Priyayi background and named his ideology after a peasant, Marhaen, presumably Abangan, whom he had supposedly met. He described his father's religion as a mixture of Islam and Javanese mysticism and his own belief as “pantheistic.” During his presidency the Communist Party (PKI), especially representing Abangans but including some Priyayis, was quite active. A political sect known as Permai combined Marxism with an effort to purify “original” Javanese beliefs and practices of Islamic accretions. Geertz states that “its opposition to Islam is extremely virulent and well worked out” (1960, 114). Santri political parties were active, though one was banned in 1960. In the 1955 national elections Sukarno's Indonesian Nationalist Party received 22.3 percent of the vote, the PKI received 16.4 percent, and three Santri parties received 42.5 percent among them. Violent clashes took place between Santris and Abangans during this period and culminated in the major slaughter of PKI supporters in 1965–1966.

Sukarno's successor, Suharto (1967–1998), was of Abangan background and said to be interested in Javanese mysticism, and the leading figures in his regime were either Abangan or non-Muslim. He suppressed dissent and sidelined the Santris politically for some time. Political parties were controlled and limited to three, one Santri and two Abangan/Priyayi, including Suharto's party, Golkar. The resurgence of Islam from the 1970s, however, meant an increase in the numbers and influence of the Santris. In the 1990s Suharto took a more publicly Islamic stance and drew more Santris into his administration. Of his successors, Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid were Santris, while Megawati and Yudhoyono are of Priyayi background, but their place on the Abangan-Santri spectrum is not so clear. Of the parties that won seats in the 2009 legislative elections, five, including the top three, Democratic Party (PD), Golkar, and Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), are Abangan oriented and received over half of the votes, while four, Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), National Mandate Party (PAN), United Development Party (PPP), and National Awakening Party (PKB), are Santri oriented and received almost a quarter of the votes.

It appears that the Priyayi-Santri-Abangan division has become less marked in recent years, probably because of increased social mobility and education along with Islamic resurgence.


  • Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960.
  • Muhaimin, Abdul Ghoffur. “The Islamic Traditions of Cirebon: Ibadat and Adat among Javanese Muslims.” Ph.D. diss., Australian National University, 1995.
  • Ricklefs, M. C. Polarizing Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions (c. 1830–1930). Singapore: NUS Press, 2007.

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