Abangan Beliefs in Indonesia – Part One

Abangan (Javanese “red”) is a term popularized by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (b. 1926) to describe the rural Javanese Muslims whose Islam is blended syncretistically with older animist and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs. The term has entered Indonesian usage and is now considered pejorative, implying laxness in belief. The complex of beliefs that Geertz described are now more commonly called Kejawen (“Javanism”). Abangan belief centers on spirits, magic, and the ceremonial feast or slametan. Most spirits are malicious beings who intervene in human affairs on their own initiative, whereas magic involves the direct control of supernatural forces by a sorcerer or dukun. The skills of a dukun include treating disease, preventing accidents or injury, controlling natural phenomena, and both casting and lifting spells. The slametan is a feast offered to the immediate (male) community and accompanied by incense and prayer to mark a special occasion, to placate the spirits, and to confer on participants and their families a state of being slamet, or healthy and calm. Geertz distinguished abangan beliefs from the similarly syncretistic Javanese aristocratic priyayi tradition, but most observers now use the term priyayi to indicate aristocratic status and culture in general and regard it as part of the broader abangan or Kejawen category.

The abangan stand in contrast to the santri, considered more pious Muslims, and both are referred to as aliran (streams) in Javanese society. They became one of the bases for political organization after Indonesian independence, the Partai Nasional Indonesia initially having a strong abangan base. During the 1950s, the Partai Komunis Indonesia won increasing abangan support, because the party espoused the interests of the rural poor. Many abangan were therefore among the victims of the anti-Communist massacres of 1965–1966, in which perhaps half a million people died. Ironically, however, President Suharto (b. 1921, reigned 1967–1998) was abangan in upbringing and strongly supported abangan beliefs in his early years in office. Abangan belief was the responsibility of the powerful Department of Education and Culture and in the early 1980s came close to receiving recognition as “belief” distinct from “religion.”

Since 1950, the Indonesian state had provided massive support for religion by constructing places of worship, maintaining Islamic universities, and paying the salaries of religious officials. The Department of Religion was generally dominated by orthodox Muslims who regarded abangan belief as heterodox and lax and therefore ensured that no funds went to abangan purposes. A passage in the Indonesian constitution, which refers to religion and belief as if they were separate phenomena, however, gave the government a legal basis for regarding belief as part of culture and therefore for supporting it through the Department of Education and Culture, in which abangan Javanese tended to be more influential. Nevertheless, from the late 1980s, official support for abangan practice weakened as Suharto’s New Order began to cultivate orthodox Islam.

Traditionally, abangan belief was not at all organized, but from the late colonial period formal organizations began to emerge, generally centered on mystical practice (kebatinan, “innerness”). The largest of these, including Pangestu and Subud, also have a following outside Java.


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