Abangan Beliefs in Indonesia – Part Two

“Hindus” or local Muslims?

In the mid-20th century, American social scientists made the now classic dichotomy of santri (more or less strictly practising Muslims) and abangan (nominal Muslims with syncretistic beliefs and practices) cultural patterns, in Geertz’ schema complemented with an elite variant of the latter, priyayi.

Following his reformist Muslim informants, no doubt, Geertz described many abangan (and priyayi) practices as non-Islamic and occasionally referred to them as Hindu. Ancestor cults and spirit beliefs with sacrificial meals as the chief form of ritual, magic and forms of mysticism that emphasised the ultimate unity of God and humanity, ascetic exercises in isolated places: all this seemed alien to Islam and closer to Hinduism or “spiritism”.

The beliefs and rituals of the abangan, to be sure, are very much at variance with those of learned, scripturalist Islam, and especially with the textbook presentations of it. Few of the observers of Indonesian Islam who pontificated about its being so different from Arab Islam, however, had ever been to another Muslim country. What they compared was a living practice on the one hand and an abstraction devoid of social basis on the other. In fact, many of the practices typical of abangan Islam are also found in other parts of the Muslim world. It is instructive to compare Geertz’ description of abangan religion with the observations on everyday life of the Egyptian peasantry in the early 19th century made in another classic study, Lane’s Manners and customs of the modern Egyptians. Some of the least Islamic looking Javanese practices appear to have been known to the Egyptians too.

As an example, take the following type of divination practised by certain magical specialists (dukun) in Java after a theft or burglary in order to establish the identity of the perpetrator. The thumbnail of a young girl, who acts as the dukun’s assistant, is blackened with ink and she has to stare into it until she sees the features of a person. This is believed to be the perpetrator, and it is said that persons apprehended on the grounds of the girl’s description usually admit their crimes. This practice would strike most Indonesianists as typically Indonesian, but the very same practice is also described in Lane’s book.

Some of the magical practices that reformist Muslims frown upon as un-Islamic originate even more unambiguously from the Muslim heartlands. Much of the contents of the popular compendia of magic and divination, known as primbon or (in their more Islamicised form) mujarrabat booklets, derives directly from the works of the 12th-13th century North African Muslim writer, Shaykh Ahmad al-Buni.

Many apparently local beliefs and practices thus appear to be part of a global cultural complex that one can hardly call anything but Muslim or “Islamicate”. Many contemporary Indonesian Muslims refuse to recognise them as Islamic because they conflict with modern conceptions of (universal) Islam. In many cases, however, they came to Indonesia as part of Muslim civilisation, even if they did not perhaps belong to the core of Muslim religion. They represent an earlier wave of Islamisation. It is misleading to speak of Islamisation as if this ever were a one-time event; it is a process that started, for Indonesia, some time in the 13th to 15th centuries and that is not completed (and probably never will be). The pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj, has played, until relatively recently, a crucial role in this process. Islam was first brought to Indonesia by Muslims of various regional and ethnic origins (the entire coastline from South Arabia to southern China appears to be represented). Once significant numbers of Indonesians had started making the pilgrimage, however, it was predominantly returning pilgrims and students who steered the process of Islamisation.

Santri and abangan: inherently antagonistic?

Relations between santri and abangan have not always been as antagonistic as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, one wonders whether the apparent existence of the three patterns santri, abangan and priyayi was not simply an artefact of the political struggle between the Muslim parties (Masyumi, NU), the Communist Party and the nationalist PNI of those years. A few decades earlier, the first political mass movement of the Indies, Sarekat Islam, had mobilised santri as well as abangan.

The polarisation of the 1960s ended in the mass politicide of 1965-66. The following two decades witnessed a remarkable Islamisation of the nominal Muslims (“abangan” and “priyayi”), a process that Indonesians sometimes refer to as “santrinisation”. One contributing factor to this process was the political situation. The fear of being accused of atheism and therefore communism made many abangan turn to Christianity or Hinduism and, in the end in larger numbers, to Islam. In the beginning perhaps a formality only, the conversion led in due time to a wholesale change in religious attitude; even formerly leftist political prisoners became practising Muslims.

There were, however, other factors as well that led to the decline of abangan practices as well as kebatinan movements and the rise of scripturalist Islam. Most important among them was the social and economic transformation of Indonesian society that took place during those years. Communities that had been relatively closed were opened up, mobility increased, numerous people migrated to the cities (even if only temporarily in many cases). The country was opened up to foreign capital and tourism and to diverse cultural influences, many but by no means all of them Western. Mass education widened people’s horizons and gave unprecedented numbers access to written texts. One effect was the acceleration of secularisation, but at the same time these developments also strengthened scripturalist Islam. As a Muslim, a person could feel himself a participant in modern urban civilisation in a way an abangan never could.

Indonesia’s New Order, globalisation and Islamic Indonesianness

Under Indonesia’s New Order, brought about by General Suharto and his closest advisers, the country’s relative economic and cultural isolation from the West came to an end. Great foreign-assisted investments in infrastructure (schools, roads, telecommunication) under the supervision of the World Bank and the IMF led to significant economic growth and firmly integrated the Indonesian economy into the capitalist world system. The country also became much more open to foreign cultural influences that it had been until then, due to increased foreign travel, study abroad, the presence of large expatriate communities, and of course radio and television. The process of globalisation had, as elsewhere, superficially the form of Westernisation or, more precisely, Americanisation, and in fact much of the middle class that emerged in this period deliberately adopted what it perceived as Western lifestyles. In reality, however, cultural flows were much more complex; Japan, Singapore, India and the newly affluent Arab Gulf countries exerted a much greater influence on Indonesian economy and culture than is apparent at first sight.

The ongoing Islamisation was part and parcel of this complex globalisation process. By this time, Islamising influences no longer reached Indonesia from a single centre, as had long been the case. Besides Mecca (where traditionalist learning was precariously surviving under Wahhabi rule), Cairo had from the early 20th century on become a source of great influence, where increasing numbers of Indonesians studied at al-Azhar or one of the other universities. It was especially reformist inclined persons who went to Cairo, attracted by the fame of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida. By the 1970s, however, al-Azhar had become a highly conservative institution, which many Indonesians found more backward than their own pesantren. They were also in contact, however, with more radical Islamic thought such as that of the Muslim Brothers. The works of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, translated into Indonesian and widely distributed, became extremely influential.

The number of centres of Islamic dissemination impacting on Indonesia multiplied. An early centre was British India; the Ahmadiyah movement sent its first missionaries to Indonesia in the mid-1920s, and these had some success in spreading modernist Islam among Java’s traditional elite. Indonesia’s present Ahmadiyah communities maintain contacts with the centres at Lahore and Qadian. The Lucknow-based traditionalist education centre Nadwatul ‘Ulama regularly attracts a number of Indonesian students (and the works of the leading ulama of this centre are widely available in Indonesian translations). After the Islamic revolution, Iran made a significant impact (although the first contacts with its modern Shi’i thinkers were made through English and Arabic translations).

The centre-periphery model, in which the periphery, i.c. Indonesia, evolves under the influence of a dominant centre, was long an adequate model to explain the process of ongoing Islamisation. By the 1970s, however, there were not only more centres, but the influences had also become more diffuse, and a network model represents the flow of influences more adequately. One did not have to go to Mecca or Cairo to find stimulating Islamic ideas. Students of medicine or political science at an American university were as likely to emphasise their Muslim identities and to encounter fascinating new Islamic thought. Journals and books, in such international languages as English and Arabic or in Indonesian translations, became the major vehicles of Islamic dissemination.

During the Sukarno years, Islamic discourse and action in Indonesia had been dominated by the large Muslim political parties, Masyumi and NU. Under Suharto, the dominant discourse — dominant at least to some extent because of official sponsorship — was that of the so-called “renewal” (pembaharuan) movement that emerged from the Muslim students’ association HMI, with Nurcholish Madjid as its most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. This movement distinguished itself by its rejection of primordial Muslim politics — famously summed up in the slogan “Islam yes, partai Islam no!” — and by its tolerance towards other religions, which it did not see (at least Christianity) as erring but as valid alternative ways of worshipping God. Impatient with the externalities of religion, the pembaharuan group emphasised that Muslims had to seek the essence of God’s message to the Prophet and not content themselves with a formal and literal reading of scripture. This inevitably necessitated sensitivity to context — the context of revelation as well as the context where the message had to be put into practice. Nurcholish’ thought was initially influenced by American sociology of religion and liberal theology, later he did a doctorate in Islamic Studies in Chicago under the Pakistani neo-modernist scholar Fazlur Rahman.

More explicitly than other Indonesian Muslims, the pembaharuan movement saw “Indonesian-ness” as a legitimate dimension of their own Muslim identities. The concept of a genuinely Indonesian Islam, which was anathema to most modernist Muslims (who insisted on Islam’s universality), strongly appealed to them. Although Nurcholish and his friends took care to distance themselves from kebatinan, which most Muslim modernists considered as un- or even anti-Islamic, they held a positive view of Pancasila, which they associated with the idea of an authentically Indonesian Islam.

In the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the pembaharuan group managed to gradually entrench themselves within the professional, bureaucratic and business elites. Their ideas received generous press coverage and patronage because they gave an Islamic legitimisation to the New Order development effort. This group constituted the core of an emerging Muslim middle class, both self-consciously middle class and self-consciously Muslim.

Very similar religious ideas, if not even more liberal, were developed by Abdurrahman Wahid and his circle. Wahid never belonged to the pembaharuan group, although he often met with them. He had a very different background, not coming from a Muslim modernist family but from the elite of the traditionalist Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and combining a modern secular education with a traditional Islamic one. Staying close to traditionalist discourse on the one hand, he formulated even more daring ideas about equal rights for women and religious minorities, secularism, national integration and democratisation than the pembaharuan group did. Since becoming NU’s chairman in 1984 he has stimulated unprecedented intellectual activity in traditionalist circles.

Another person deserving special mention is Munawir Syadzali, who was Minister of Religious Affairs from 1983 to 1993. Though not a member of the pembaharuan group, he was close to their ideas and acted as their protector. Moreover, he had the courage to formulate ideas that few Indonesian Muslims had dared to say aloud before. He toured the Islamic universities of the country with a lecture about “verses of the Qur’an that are no longer relevant” and radical proposals for a contextual interpretation of the Qur’an (with an interesting remark about women’s share in inheritance). Munawir also spoke of the need to formulate a specifically Indonesian fiqh — a very daring affirmation of the local as a creative adaptation of the global. He presided over efforts to codify Muslim law and jurisprudence.

It is interesting, though not really surprising, to note that it was precisely the most cosmopolitan and intellectually sophisticated Muslims who spoke out in defence of an Indonesian Islam. The most uncompromising rejection of this concept and identification of true Islam with that of the global networks was to be found among those Islamic modernists who were (at least until the late 1980s) disaffected with Suharto’s rule and the New Order.

Source: http://www.let.uu.nl/~martin.vanbruinessen/personal/publications/global_and_local_in_indonesian.htm


2 Responses to Abangan Beliefs in Indonesia – Part Two

  1. Dr Sobree says:

    I am impressed with the articles about Islam in Indonesia.

    Sadly i disagree with the writer’s comment on 3 patterns of beliefs in Indonesia realted to : santri, abangan and priyayi. The writer myabe has been influenced by historian George Mc Turner Kahin.

    As an ex-History student from University of Malaya and a pure Muslim I think is ignorant about Islam. There is no such thing as abangan or santri neither priyayi. You intend to be preaching Karl Max ideas about bourgeous, and proletrariat.

    In Islam there is no such thing as the 3 patterns. Islam is a “syumul” a complete way of life. I Islam the 5 guiding principles are: wajib (obligatory) sunnat (complementary), makruh (non-encourages), mubah/harus (dual selections either to act or not to act) and haram (not permissible/forbidden).

    In islam we have the arkanul Islam (Islam Principles) and Rukun Iman (Pillrs of beliefs).

    The 3 main processes towards God-Fearing is Syariah (Islamic Jurisprudence), Tariqat (Ways and Means Towards Getting Blessing From Allah) , Haqiqat ( Internal Tranquility) and Makrifat (Real Meaning as a Servant to Allah).

    We began with the basic process Syariat comprise of :(1) Fiqh -Syadahah (declaration, solely Allah as a God and Muhammad saw as the prophet ), solat (prayers), puasa (fasting in Ramadhan), Zakat (payment to the needful), Haji (pilgrimage to Mecca). (2) Tasawauf- sole cleansing Mahmudah wal Mazmumah (characteristics that are good Muslim and coherents to evil attitudes) (3) Tauhid -the oneness of Allah and Nabi Muhammad as Rasulullah.

    From the above concept of syariah, so it is ,just simple to conclude about the belief of the Indonesians. Be he/her a abangan, or santri or elite and intellectual priyayiif they PRACTICE THE SYARIAH- FIQH, USULUDDIN AND TASAWAUF- THEY ARE CONSIDERED AS A MUSLIM AS long they do not commit SYIRIK (openly disregard the Onness opf Allah) examples; prayers to other than Allah,leaders and nation practicing SECULRISM, denial the omnipotence of Allah, belief that the future of an executive in an organisation depends on the hands and recommendations of the bossess in the performance appraisals for REZKI (future salaries, and placements and promotions in a company, belief that the Conventional (Riba Banking) is better than Islamic banking etc. these are examples of syirik.

    In this case maybe a santri is considered as “lemah iman” (LOW BELIEVERS LEVEL as compared to abangan or even a priyayi. For example as Taslimah and Redha and Tawakkal (surrender to Allah’s fate-taqdir after a persistance sruggle to achieve the endeavour) may be an abangan is better than a santri. Let say he/she faced a trouble in life: start a business then collapse with debt of USD500,000. The person maybe strongly practice the RITUALS but lose sight and iman when facing this scenario. he feels frustated and even tempting to commit suicide (not actually committed suicide but has a feeling to do so) so if he is a santri he is not a real Muslim. On the other hand, if the priyayi and even an abangan faced the problem with open minded-redha and struggle to succeedd with persistance then he/she is better of than the santri.

    In short the actual Muslim is a TAQWA (GOD-FEARING) not accorading to your connation of santri, abangan and priyayi. You concept is PURELY A SOCIOLOGIST AND SOCIAL OBSERVER.

    You are not a Muslim neither you have full understanding about Islam. I would like to caution you to be CAREFUL WHEN WRITING ABOUT ISLAM. You cannot be a JUDGE (HAKIM) OR MUFTI (AUTHORISED JUDGE IN ISLAM) and you merely cannot make A FATWA (making decisona about hukum Islamic Laws).

    For example you have wrongly wrote about abangan’s disciple and level of beleive. You said they are hinduism and buddhism and maybe animative. You are wrong. In Islam once they utter the kalimah SYAHADAH” ASHADUANLAILAH HAILLLAH WASHAHDUANNNAMUHAMMADARRASULULLAH – THEY ARE ALWAYS MUSLIM FOR FOREVER- Please to iqrar, yaqin and amal about Syahadah. Please do some homework about Islam-you incline to be Snouck Houngronje of the 21st century -only the stupid and fool belief you-the intellectual won’t be so.

    Please rewrite your articles with more comprehensive references about Islam. this is not DARK AGES of Islam. Islam is an Addeen.

    Hopefully my comments is for betterment of the hsitorians in the world.

    Dr Sobree PhD (USA) MA (Univ Malaya) BA (Hons) (UM) Dip Training Management (ITD,London)

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