Religion in Indonesia

Ladders in Pura Lempuyang Luhur temple on Bali, Indonesia
Lempuyang Temple, Indonesia. dmf87 / Getty Images

Indonesia’s main religion is Islam, though the government officially recognizes six distinct faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Few of these are practiced anywhere in Indonesia in a traditional form, as they have been heavily influenced by the presence of other world religions, indigenous beliefs, and cultural practices.

Fast Facts: Religion in Indonesia

  • Indonesia is 87% Muslim, but the government recognizes Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism as official religions.
  • Buddhism and Hinduism arrived from India and Confucianism came from China as early as the second century A.D.
  • Islam is the most widely practiced religion in Indonesia, and it played a major role in the independence movement in the 20th Century.
  • The Portuguese and, later, the Dutch brought Christianity to Indonesia through colonization.

Every citizen of Indonesia is required to keep and carry an identity card with one of the six officially recognized religions indicated in a specific space, though citizens are permitted to leave the section blank if they choose. However, citizens cannot list atheism or agnosticism, as the state does not recognize either, and blasphemy is illegal and punishable by law.

Religions in Indonesia developed regionally rather than nationally because modern day Indonesia was neither unified nor independent until 1949. The country’s regions, including Java, Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, and more, all feature similar but distinct religious histories. Indonesia’s national motto, “Unity in Diversity,” is a reflection of the differences in religion and culture. For ease of understanding, this article uses the term “Indonesia” to refer to the geographical region that has historically been home to a multitude of nations and civilizations.

Islam

Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world, with over 87% of the population identifying as Muslim. Of this group of people, more than 99% identify as Sunnis rather than Shias.

Eid Celebrations Marks The End Of Ramadan
Indonesian muslims perform Eid Al-Fitr prayer on 'sea of sands' at Parangkusumo beach on July 6, 2016 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Eid Al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, during which Muslims in countries around the world spend time with family, offer gifts and often give to charity. Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

The earliest recorded evidence of Islamic presence in Indonesia dates back to the eighth century, within a hundred years of the establishment of Islam as a religion. By the 13th century, Islam was firmly rooted in strong Muslim kingdoms, the first of which was located in northern Sumatra. Islam developed separately in the regions of Java and Sumatra but followed a similar pattern, unifying coastal communities before slowly spreading inland.

In Sumatra, the spread of Islam was orchestrated mostly by elite merchants as a result of the booming pepper trade, while Java attributes the spread of Islam to the presence of the Wali Sanga (the nine saints or apostles), made of up Arab, Chinese, Indian, and Javanese people. The tombs of the Wali Sanga became a place of pilgrimage for believers, although it should be noted that the veneration of tombs is not a condoned Sunni practice, which demonstrates the influence of outside religions and indigenous systems of belief.

By the 14th century, the merchants and sultans that made up the upper class in Indonesia were almost entirely Muslim. Elite families would send young boys to be educated in the Quran, as well as husbandry and trade. Students would travel from one school to the next, along a line of religious leaders, which created a strong social network. The families within this network would often intermarry to maintain the ties within the community.

Over the centuries, Indonesian Muslims would complete the Haj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, and many of these pilgrims began to travel to Egypt to be further educated. These religious pilgrimages strengthened the bonds between Indonesia and the Middle East.

A reemergence of Islam in Indonesia played a major role in the independence movement during the first four decades of the 20th century. Political activists, merchants, and religious leaders found common ground in shared beliefs, which they used as a platform for independence and autonomy after the Second World War.

The presence of Islam in modern Indonesia is evident, as an overwhelming majority of the population identify as Muslim. This majority manifests in public affairs and government, as well as social and private life. Historically, Islam was a powerful unifying force for the people, and it continues to influence modern political and social life. 

Confucianism

Though less than 1% of Indonesians identify as followers of Confucianism, it is still recognized as a state-sanctioned religion. In other parts of the world, Confucianism is regarded as a code of conduct and a system of hierarchies rather than a religion, but daily life and other religious practices are heavily influenced by Confucianism, which came to Indonesia through China around the third century A.D.

Chinese New Year Celebrations In Indonesia
Indonesian Chinese pray during Chinese New Year celebrations at Dharma Bhakti Temple on February 8, 2016 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Oscar Siagian / Getty Images

The ancient maritime empire of Srivijaya, in what is now Indonesia and parts of Malaysia, developed a strong economic and political relationship with China by trading herbs and spices for porcelain and silk, and religious practice was traded as a byproduct.

The Chinese believed that the empire of China was the Middle Kingdom, around which everything else was constructed, and much the success of the Chinese empire was attributed to Confucian values. By contrast, the southern empires were chaotic and unorganized, in need of a system of hierarchies to declutter the mess.

China brought Confucianism to the region early, but growing trade relations and the establishment of Jakarta as a main trading port in Southeast Asia perpetuated Confucianism’s presence over the centuries. This perpetuation was fueled, in part, by the influx of Chinese immigrants to Jakarta during the 18th century.

Confucianism was not recognized by the Indonesian government (or the Dutch, who kept Indonesia under colonial rule under after World War II) until 1965, as a result of the efforts of a small, Chinese minority. 

Hinduism and Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism are the two oldest religions in Indonesia, and both are still practiced in scattered communities around the archipelago. Nearly 2% of the population, over 4 million people, identify as Hindu, while less than 1% identify as Buddhist. Both are recognized as official religions by the government of Indonesia.

Overlook Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The Prambanan Hindu temples are the largest temple complex in Indonesia. They were built in the 9th century A.D and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. simonlong / Getty Images

Hinduism arrived on the archipelago first, via Indian merchants and traders between the second and third centuries A.D. Notably, Hinduism in Indonesia did not generate any strict caste system, as it did in India. Buddhism arrived in Indonesia slightly later, around the fifth century A.D., though both religions became dominant within various kingdoms over time. Hinduism and Buddhism are thought to have thrived in Indonesia because they fit comfortably within the context of the dominant indigenous beliefs.

Hindu and Buddhist monuments, statues, and temples still stand in Indonesia, centuries after their initial construction. Prambanan and Borobudur, for example, are the largest Hindu and Buddhist temples in southeast Asia, respectively. Built around the ninth century A.D., both temples are recognized UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

Christianity

Both Catholicism and Protestantism are recognized as official religions in Indonesia, and both are practiced mainly in eastern Indonesia and parts of Java. Catholics make up about 3% of the population, or 7.5 million people, while Protestants make up more than 7% of the population, or 16.9 million people.

Though the two state-sanctioned religions are Catholicism and Protestantism, there are increasing numbers of Evangelicals and Pentecostals.

Indonesian Catholics Celebrate Ash Wednesday
Priest Stefanus I Kadek Adi Subratha, SVD draws a cross on Indonesian Catholic man at Roh Kudus Church on March 5, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robertus Pudyanto / Getty Images

Like many Christians in India and parts of southeast Asia, Indonesians can trace their Christian origins to the Apostle Thomas, who is thought to have traveled through Egypt, into Palestine, and onward to India. From there, Christianity would have likely spread to the Indonesian archipelago as a result of trade.

The religion gained prominence in the 16th century, after the arrival of the Portuguese and, subsequently, the Dutch on the hunt for spices. Catholicism arrived first with the Dutch and the Portuguese, though by the early 17th century, the Protestant Reformation had swept across Europe, and more Protestant missionaries began to travel to Indonesia and Southeast Asia as a whole.

The European influence was dramatic along coastal ports, but colonization and Christianization is thought to not have reached the inland-most parts of Indonesia until the late 19th century. 

Believers of the Faith

Indonesia is home to more than 245 distinct indigenous religions that have historically influenced the practice of other major religions in the country. For example, Muslim sultans of the Javanese kingdom of Mataram were often believed to be sacred or divine. The influence of indigenous beliefs gave the sultans an air of mysticism and infallible godliness.

In 1965, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, identified the six main religions of Indonesia, but the list excluded the indigenous faiths. For decades, followers of these religions were discriminated against and even prosecuted for blasphemy.

As of 2017, the Indonesian government now identifies followers of any of these religions under the blanket term “Believers of the Faith,” a denomination that can be written in on their identity cards. However, followers of minority religions still face social and even legal discrimination under the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

Sources

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Singapore. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • Renaldi, Adi. “Indonesia Has Hundreds of Indigenous Religions. So Why Are They Only Being Recognized Now?” Vice, VICE, 9 Nov. 2017.
  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.
  • “The World Factbook: Indonesia.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018.
  • Winowatan, Michelle. “Indonesia's Blasphemy Law Survives Court Challenge.” Human Rights Watch, 27 July 2018.
  • Winzeler, Robert L. Popular Religion in Southeast Asia. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.