Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.


Religion in Indonesia

One peculiarity of the Indonesian government's stance on (freedom of) religion is that it recognizes six official religions only (which are Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism). Every Indonesian is required to embrace one of these religions as it is mandatory personal data which is mentioned in official documents such as passports and other identification cards. Atheism is not an option and - in fact - constitutes a socially unacceptable ideology in the country. In recent years it has happened that Indonesians who published atheist world views on social networks were threatened by their local community and arrested by the police on charges of blasphemy; charges that can lead to imprisonment.



Source :


Indonesia is a secular democratic country with strong Islamic influences. Since the early political debates on the topic of the ideological foundations of the Indonesian nation, certain strict Islamic groups (including some political parties) have spoken out for favouring the establishment of a Muslim country. However, as Indonesia contains dozens of millions of non-Muslims as well as a majority of nominal Muslims, the establishment of an Islamic country (together with implementation of shariah law) has always been regarded as being a trigger for disunity and calls for separatism. Political parties favouring the Islamic nation have never been able to gain the majority of the popular vote throughout the political history of Indonesia. Based on the elections results during the current Reformation period, the stricter Islamic parties are actually losing ground to the secular parties and therefore it seems unlikely that Indonesia will become a Muslim state in the foreseeable future.

The process of Islamization in Indonesia (or more precise, in the area we now know as Indonesia) has been underway for many centuries and is still continuing today. Islam became an influential force through a series of waves (international trade, the establishment of various influential Muslim Sultanates, and social movements) that are described in more detail below. However, present Indonesian Islam is also characterized by variety as each region experienced its own unique history, tainted by unique and separate influences. From the later 19th century onwards, Indonesia - as a whole - experienced a more general shared history because colonizers (and continued by the Indonesian nationalists) put a national framework on the various regions. This process of unification has also had its impact on Indonesian Islam which - in a slow pace - is losing its variety. But this should be regarded as a logical development within the process of Islamization in the country.

In recent years, media - both national and international - have often reported on attacks on minority religions in Indonesia (such as the Ahmadiyya and Christians). Some radical Muslim groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) use violence (or the threat of violence) to achieve their ideals; also against the Muslim community itself, for example by attacking Muslims that sell food at daytime during the holy fasting month Ramadan. It is worrying that the Indonesian government and the Indonesian judiciary do not stand firm against such radical groups, indicating that the government has a weak monopoly on violence. But it should also be stressed, however, that - by far - the majority of the Indonesian Muslim community is highly supportive of a religious pluralist and harmonious society.

Indonesian islands with a Muslim majority population:

1. Sumatra
2. Java
3. Kalimantan (coastal areas)
4. Sulawesi
5. Lombok
6. Sumbawa
7. North Moluccas

Indonesia is experiencing robust macroeconomic growth: the country's middle class is expanding rapidly as is shown in its steadily rising per capita gross domestic product (meaning people can consume more products and services), and Indonesia's society - as is today's world - is becoming increasingly urbanized(a process that is closely linked to modernization and industrialization). Given that almost 90 percent of Indonesia's total population is Muslim, this community is highly affected by these developments. In the country's bigger cities (in particular on Java, Indonesia's most populous island) this community is showing increasingly consumptive lifestyles. This especially applies to the large moderate Muslim component within this community. They are increasingly living a 'modern' urban lifestyle, equipped with the latest electronic devices and fashion. Important indicators such as car sales and internet or mobile phone penetration have risen fast in recent years, while the young adults of the middle class and elite can frequently be found relaxing in places such as Starbucks in one of the many luxury malls in the bigger cities.  


Although it is difficult to reconstruct the exact development of early Islamization in the archipelago (due to a lack of sources), it seems certain that international trade played a crucial factor. There probably were foreign Muslim traders in maritime Southeast Asia from early on in the Islamic era. The first sources that inform us about indigenous people adhering to Islam originate from the early 13th century; gravestones indicate the existence of a Muslim kingdom in North Sumatra around 1211. Perhaps indigenous kingdoms adopted the new faith because it entailed certain advantages in trade as the majority of traders were Muslim. It remains unclear, however, why indigenous conversion to Islam seems to have taken place centuries after the region became acquainted with this religion. Only from the 15th century onwards Islamic kingdoms and sultanates became dominant political powers in the archipelago, although these powers were to be undermined by the European newcomers (Portuguese and Dutch) starting from the 16th and 17th century.


The arrival of Islam to the archipelago had different impacts on local communities depending on the historical and social context of the area where it arrived. In some parts of the archipelago towns emerged as a result of foreign Muslim traders settling there. In other parts Islam never became the majority-religion, probably due to the distance from the important trade routes (such as eastern Indonesia). In parts where there was a strong presence of animism or Hindu-Buddhist culture, Islam met profound cultural barriers (such as on the island of Bali which is still dominated by Hindu culture today) or it became blended with the pre-existing (animist) belief-systems (examples of which can still be found in Central Java).

Since the publication of Clifford Geertz's authoritative book 'The Religion of Java' (published in 1960) scholars tend to divide Indonesia's Javanese Muslim community (the largest Muslim community of Indonesia) in two groups:

 Abangan; these are traditional Muslims in the sense that they still apply traditional Javanese dogmatic; blending Islam with Hinduism, Buddhism and animist traditions. Members of this group generally have rural backgrounds.

 Santri; these can be labeled as orthodox Muslims. They are mainly from urban backgrounds and are more oriented towards the mosque and the Quran.

Geertz actually also recognized a third class, the priyayi (the traditional bureaucracy), but as it constitutes a social class rather than a religious one, it is not included above.

The spread of Islam in Indonesia should not be seen as a quick process stemming from one origin or source but rather as multiple waves of Islamization in coherence with international developments in the Islamic world, a process that is still continuing until today (as described above, Muslim traders coming to the archipelago in the first centuries of the Islamic era can be regarded as the first wave). Two important reform waves aiming for the return to the pure Islam - as it was during the days of prophet Mohammed - were the Wahhabist and the Salafi movements. Wahhabism originates from Arabia and arrived in the archipelago early in the 19th century. The Salafi movement came from Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Both these waves had a big impact on the spread of orthodox Islam in the archipelago. Another important development for Islamization in Indonesia was the opening of the Suez-Canal in 1869 because it - as it made traveling to Mecca easier - implied a larger amount of pilgrims between Indonesia and Mecca. This consequently intensified contacts with the religious centers in the Middle East.

However, these waves of Islamization have also been cause of tensions and disunity within the Indonesian Islamic community as not everyone agreed with the arrival of an orthodox stream of Islam. For instance, the distinction between modernist (santri) and traditional (abangan) communities on Java are actually the result of the traditionalists' reaction against the reform movement in the 19th century. This division is still visible in the two most influential Islamic organizations in the country today. The Muhammadiyah, a social organization founded in 1912 on Java, represents the modernist Muslim stream that disapproves of the mystical (traditional) Javanese Islam. Currently this organization has around 20 million members. As reaction to the establishment of the Muhammadiyah, traditional Javanese leaders founded the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1926. Members of the NU are influenced by mystical streams or pre-Islamic elements. Its leadership is also characterized by being more tolerant towards other religions. Its number of members is currently around 35 million.  


During the last two decades Islam has become more visible on the streets in Indonesia and has begun to play a more important role in the daily affairs of the Muslims. For example, the number of Indonesian women that wear the headscarf (jilbab) has increased significantly, and it has become more common to visit the mosque. However, it is important to underline that this development of Islamization should not be mistaken for Islamic radicalism. By far most Indonesian Muslims are tolerant towards other religions or other streams within the Islam. Only a very small fraction of Indonesian society agrees with and/or participates in radical or terrorist activities. Although Muslim radicalism in Indonesia has been given much attention since the 9/11 attacks in New York (particularly after the Bali and Jakarta bombings in the 2000s), it is not a new phenomenon to the country. Incidences which involved Islamic radicalism have been witnessed before, such as the Darul Islam rebellions in the 1950s, regional rebellions in the late 1950s, the massacres of communists in 1965-1966, an airplane hijacking in 1981, multiple attacks on Christian churches and Buddhist monuments, as well as multiple actions against brothels, bars and casino's in recent decades.


The majority of the Indonesian Christians are Protestant. Out of the 23.5 million of total Indonesian Christians, approximately 16.5 million adhere to the Protestant stream, while the remaining seven million are Catholic. These Christian communities are spread unevenly throughout the country. But, as can be seen on the map below, most of these communities are located in the less populous eastern part of Indonesia.

Locations with substantial Christian communities are:

1. North Sumatra 
2. Kalimantan 
3. North Sulawesi 
4. West Sulawesi
5. Moluccas
6. Papua
7. Flores
8. Sumba
9. West Timor


The first known source of Christian presence in the archipelago can be found in the encyclopedic work of Abu Salih Al-Armini, an Egyptian Christian who lived in the 12th century. According to his writings there were a number of Nestorian churches in West Sumatra around that time, located close to a place where camphor wood was produced. However, later scholars have argued that Al-Armini might have confused this location with a town in present-day India.

After the Portuguese conquered Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) in 1511, they sailed further eastwards to find the desired spice-heartland of the Moluccas where the Sultanate of Ternate ruled. Here, the Portuguese established a small settlement. At first relations between the Catholic Portuguese and the Muslim people of Ternate were harmonious because both sides were aware of the advantages of good cooperation in trade. From 1534 onwards Portuguese priests began to become active in converting locals to Catholicism and by the end of the 16th century approximately 20 percent of the inhabitants of the Southern Moluccas were classified as Catholic. Two other locations, both in eastern Indonesia, where the Portuguese established small Catholic settlements were in Larantuka (on the island of Flores) and Dili (on the island of Timor). However, a fall out between the Portuguese (who wanted to establish a monopoly on the spice trade) and the people of Ternate seriously undermined the former's position in the Moluccas.

The Calvinist-Protestant Dutch established their first settlement in Ternate in 1607. They also were eager to monopolize the spice trade but would become far more successful than the Portuguese in accomplishing their ambition. During the next two centuries the Sultanate of Ternate gradually lost its authority, while the absence of Portuguese influence entailed consequences for the spread of Christianity in the area. Initially the Dutch had little interest in spreading their word of God. In some parts of its territory the Dutch United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, abbreviated VOC) did support missionary activities but in most of these cases it restricted itself to pastoral care for the (already) Christian communities which mostly contained Europeans. No large-scale indigenous conversions were supported in areas under Dutch control. However, one policy was rather clear: when it came to Christianity, only Dutch Calvinist Protestantism was allowed. Catholic priests previously converting locals to Catholicism were dismissed, thus one can conclude that the process of Christianization, which was started by the Portuguese, had come to a (near) complete standstill when the Dutch were in control during the VOC period (1602-1798).


During the 19th century when the Dutch crown received control over the area previously under the rule of the VOC, missionary activities were still not stimulated by the colonial authorities. The Netherlands Reformed Church was a government agency focused on serving the religious needs of the (already) Protestant subjects only. However, a small part of its members took an interest in propagating the Protestant faith and established churches and schools in the Dutch Indies. But the real large-scale incentives for indigenous conversion came from a number of newly arrived organizations from Europe in the second half of the 18th century and the 19th century. Institutions such as the Netherlands Missionary Society (Nederlandsch Zendeling Genootschap) and the Rhenish Missionary Society (Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft) from Germany were allowed to spread their message through the Dutch Indies. And as the Dutch state in Europe had begun to become secular, it could not prevent Catholic missions from activities in the Indies too. The separation of church and state meant that the latter took a neutral stance in religious matters, thus missionary activities were left to the private sector. 

Although by 1900 missionary activities had been established throughout the colony (except for Muslim regions such as Aceh and West Sumatra), the number of Christians had hardly increased compared to one hundred years before. Only two regions showed a major increase in the number of indigenous Protestants, to wit the Minahasa (North Sulawesi) and Tapanuli (North Sumatra). The general 'failure' to convert locals to Christianity on a large-scale basis was mainly due to the lack of financial means, limited manpower and the inadequacy of the methods used. After 1900 this situation changed due to a new political approach of the Dutch government. Not long after 1900 territorial expansion had largely been achieved and the ethical policy (aimed at raising the living standards of the indigenous people) was introduced. This new policy implied a more direct impact on indigenous society which - among other things - resulted in the arrival of (especially) many Catholics from the Netherlands. With more manpower and financial means at hand the Catholic missionary activities moved into new territories and the number of indigenous Catholics rose accordingly. The Protestants were supported by a number of North American organizations that came to the Dutch Indies in the first half of the 20th century. Generally, the missionary approach in the Dutch colony was quite fragmented, however. In 1938 steps were taken to set up a National Christian Council but World War II and Indonesia's subsequent independence put an end to that attempt.


Although there are a number of regions in Indonesia that contain a clear Christian-majority community (see map above), taken as a whole, Christianity only forms a minority religion in Indonesia. As such, Christians - thus - have a rather weak political and social position in the country, with the exception of those few regions with a Christian majority (in these regions Muslims sometimes actually have to face discriminatory actions). This general weak position makes most Indonesian Christians conscious of their minority-position and thus eager to maintain good relations with the Muslim community. Nonetheless, with regard to the Indonesian nation, Christians have just as genuine nationalist pride as the majority of Indonesian Muslims and are highly supportive of maintaining the unified Indonesian state.

In recent decades there have been many known cases of radical Muslims attacking churches and Christians, thereby instilling fear into Indonesia's Christian community. These incidents mainly occur on the island of Java where Christians form the minority. Sadly, this situation is likely to continue. However, these attacks should be explained as acts of fear and frustration on behalf of the perpetrators as Indonesia has experienced a process of (perceived) 'Christianization' after Independence. And - in fact - the roots of the problem go deeper in history as a relatively large Christian elite (equipped with better education and economic means) was nurtured by the Dutch during the colonial days. After Indonesia reached Independence, the Christian elite kept constituting an influential force in the country's politics (including the army) and economy during both Soekarno's and (the first half of) Suharto's reign. The main reason for this paradoxical situation was that Christians - being a minority only - did not form a major threat to society. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the struggles for power between the nationalists, communists and Islamicists, while after Suharto came to power in 1966 (and the communists eliminated), it still took great effort for the government to successfully curb the role of Islam within Indonesian society. In these chaotic and distrustful decades, Christians were regarded as ally's, having no hidden agenda, against the opposing forces in society. This situation changed in the late 1980s and 1990s when not only the stricter segments of Islam rejected the government but also the moderate Islamic streams began to criticize the government and started demanding democracy. To gain more popular support, Suharto (a nominal Muslim) decided to implement more pro-Muslim policies, which included more Muslims in top government positions (including the army). This implied a declining influence of Christians on national politics.

In Indonesian society, most Muslim and Christian communities live in social harmony. Between 1997 and 2004 (around and after the fall of Suharto) a number of regions in Indonesia saw horrifying incidences of violence that were labelled as 'religious conflicts'. However, it is wrong to regard these conflicts as being religious only. The fall of Suharto's New Order had opened up fierce competition for political, economic and social power within the regions; and also among groups sharing the same religion. In combination with a disorganized and weak central government (including the national army) due to the Asian Crisis, these conflicts were able to intensify and linger on. There are also reports that claim the Indonesian army actually stimulated the continuation of these conflicts in order to create chaos in the country as that would give them more political power.


Source :



Prior to the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism, the indigenous population of the archipelago practiced forms of animism. But when Hinduism arrived in the western part of the archipelago through a trade network stretching from China to India in the first century of the Common Era, local rulers regarded this new religion as an asset to their power as they could start to represent themselves as Hindu deities, thereby increasing their status. The pre-existing animistic beliefs are thought to have become blended with Hinduism, resulting in the forming of new hybrid-types of Hinduism which contained specific features of its own, thus making it rather different from Indian Hinduism. The caste system, for example, was never rigidly applied throughout the history of the archipelago.

A number of important Hindu empires were established in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Java between the 5th and the 13th century; some of which had also absorbed Buddhist influences. The archipelago's last major empire, Majapahit (± 1293-1500), showed an interesting blend between Hinduism, Buddhism and animist beliefs. But after Islam had established itself in the archipelago as a socio-political force starting from the 13th century, Hinduism gradually lost ground to this quickly expanding religion. The only exception being Bali, where the ruler of Majapahit (originating from East Java) sought refuge from the conquest of Islamic forces.


As indicated in the map above, relatively large Indonesian Hindu communities are located on the islands of Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra (and smaller pockets of Hindu villages can be found in East Java). Hinduism was placed as a layer on top of pre-existing variational animist traditions and therefore the resulting outcome of Hinduism differs in the various regions. In fact, on the small island of Bali one can discern an interesting level of variety across the different regions on the island. And in some cases, particularly in East and Central Java, Hinduism became blended with Islamic traditions.

However, not every Indonesian citizen that is categorized as a Hindu today actually ís a Hindu. According to government law only six major world religions are recognized as being official religions in the country. These are IslamChristianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Moreover, all Indonesian citizens are obliged to choose one of these six religions as their sole religion (mandatory data that is documented in identification papers). For the group of Indonesians that still practice animist beliefs this constitutes a serious problem because animism is not an option provided by the Indonesian government. These communities thus tend to select Hinduism as their religion because Hinduism is more flexible compared to other religions to include animist elements. Several animist communities such as the Tana Toraja of Sulawesi, the Dayak of Kalimantan and the Karo-Batak of Sumatra are such examples.

Javanese art and culture is highly influenced by its historic Hindu-Buddhist chapter. Today, these influences are still visible and preserved through the famous wayang performances, the survival of many beautiful temples (of which the Borobudur and Prambanan are best known), the large amount of Sanskrit loanwords in regional languages (as well as in standard Indonesian), and folk traditions that uphold both Hindu and pre-Hindu beliefs among part of the Javanese communities, in particular in Central and East Java. These Javanese traditions are known as Kejawen.


Bali, one of Indonesia's major tourist attractions, is not only famous for its beautiful beaches, landscape and rice fields but also for its unique cultural tradition: a Balinese Hindu tradition that mainly consists of art and ritual. This religion is rather different from Hinduism as practiced in India because - before Hinduism arrived in Bali - it underwent some radical changes on the island of Java. One important feature of this change being the union between Hinduism (or more specific Shivaism) and Buddhism. This feature is still visible today as, for example, some Buddhist religious writings still play an important role in Balinese Hinduism and the island has a priesthood which contains both Hindus and Buddhists.

The theological basis for Balinese Hinduism stems from Indian philosophy while indigenous beliefs form the backbone of the rituals. An important belief of the Balinese Hindus is that elements of nature are influenced by spirit. Therefore, offerings (sesajen) made from agriculture products are offered to this spirit. It is believed that Mount Agung (the highest mountain on Bali) is the house of the gods and ancestors. As such, this mountain is referred to as the 'mother mountain' and is highly sacred to the Balinese. The main symbol of Balinese Hinduism is the Swastika or 'wheel of the sun', an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles. This Swastika symbol is also widely used in Indian religions and is believed to evoke 'shakti' or the sacred force of empowerment.