Indonesia and the Future of Islam

Currently, 62 percent of Muslims live in Asia. Another 32 percent live in Africa. Relatively few of the world’s Muslims actually live in the Middle East. Indonesia is by far the most populous Muslim-majority country on earth; its 202 million Muslims are more than the entire Middle East combined.


Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, Professor of Religion Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Java, presented at a Religions@Deakin Seminar in Melbourne, recently. He told that the center of Islam in the world today is neither Saudi Arabia nor the Middle East. Rather, it is Indonesia. Indonesia is the most important country in the world about which most people know practically nothing. Just as the center of Christianity is no longer in Europe or North America, but has shifted to the Southern Hemisphere, so the center of Islamicate civilization has shifted from the Middle East to Asia.

Evidence for this change is found in population statistics. Currently, 62 percent of Muslims live in Asia. Another 32 percent live in Africa. Relatively few of the world’s Muslims actually live in the Middle East. Indonesia is by far the most populous Muslim-majority country on earth; its 202 million Muslims are more than the entire Middle East combined.

Population is not the whole story, however. Indonesia is also the world’s most dynamic Muslim-majority country, with incredible diversity among different streams of Islam, different ethnic groups and different religious communities, which for the most part live side by side in harmony. Indonesia legally protects the right to different interpretations and practices of Islam. This creates space in which diverse streams and interpretations can grow.

If the center of Islam has moved to Asia, that doesn’t imply that Muslims in Asia are more peaceful and tolerant than Muslims in the Middle East. Many Middle Eastern Muslims are peaceful and tolerant and many Asian Muslims are not. Pakistan is not exactly a model of peaceful tolerance. Indonesia is suffering a sustained attack by a minority of radicals who oppose openness to diverse ideas, and some fear that intolerant forms of Islam are growing in the country.

Time of Change

In considering what is the (baseline norm) Islam, Arabic language and culture are the normative measuring stick of authentic Islam. Many Indonesian Muslims agree But Arabic language and culture are not necessarily the best measures of a successful Islamicate culture. According to many Indonesians, creating a community of justice, safety and peace is closer to the teaching of the Koran than the purity of Arabic culture.

Indonesia has experienced a dramatic renaissance in Islamicate civilization, which has largely gone unnoticed outside of the country. A dramatic flowering of Islamicate ideas, art, architecture, literature, political and economic structures, and civil society organizations is transforming the face of Indonesia. Most of the world remains ignorant of the thousands of books published every year in Indonesia, as they are in Indonesian, not English or Arabic. Indonesia is neither uniform nor static. It is changing at a dizzying speed. Like all large countries, it faces many intractable problems. No one knows what the future will bring, but whatever happens in Indonesia will affect the future of Islam in the modern world.

Indonesia is creating a unique kind of modernity that synthesizes mimetic, mythic, ethical and theoretic imaginations of reality with modern institutions and values. The importance of Indonesia lies not in its similarity to the West (for example, democratic institutions), but rather in its creation of a unique modernity forged out of thousands of years of interaction with the axial civilizations of China, India, the Middle East and Europe. Indonesia is a thoroughly religious, traditional and modern society that is not following the expected paths of Western modernity or Arabic religion.

A key to understanding the importance of Indonesia lies in its distinctive social imaginaries. Social imaginaries include theories that shape our understanding of society, but they are not limited to ideas. They include common feelings, symbols and practices that determine how a society imagines what is real. Social imaginaries make common practices possible. Indonesian social imaginaries are in a dialectical tension between contrasting visions of reality. The outcome of this struggle is not clear, predetermined or uniform.


Statue of reclining Buddha in Java

Statue of reclining Buddha in Java

Renaissance of Islam

The resurgence of public Islamic piety in Indonesia is undeniable. For some Western observers, there is something close to panic that what they love about Indonesia may be passing away. I am not competent to judge whether the kind of Islamization that is happening in Indonesia is a positive or negative trend. How we name things carries normative weight. Instead of naming it “Islamization” or “resurgence of Islam,” we might call it a “renaissance of Islam” in Indonesia, to call attention to the flowering of Islamic art, architecture, intellectual discourse, literature, philosophy, social science, theology, music and so forth. While there has been a decrease in some (Javanese religious) practices, this does not mean that Indonesian Islam has become more narrow and uniform. In fact, the Muslim community in Indonesia is more diverse today than it has ever been. Education and the global circulation of ideas (including radical ideas) have led to far greater diversity in the understanding and practice of Islam in Indonesia than ever before.

As René Magritte, a Belgium surrealist artist, wrote: “Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” The dramatic growth of Islamic piety is an important reality we can see. But it also hides some things. Dramatic religious, political, economic and cultural changes may hide from view the continuities in Indonesian society that are the product of centuries.

Styles of cognition

Robert Bellah’s monumental book on religion in human evolution is premised on Canadian psychologist Merlin Donald’s theory of cognitive evolution from mimetic to mythic to theoretic cognition. According to Bellah, the great axial civilizations of China, India, Israel and Greece gave birth to new powers of scientific, universalizing, analytic, critical, abstract and theoretic thought. Theoretic cognition gave birth to the modern world. It also changed the role of religion in the world.

A theory of axial civilizations was first proposed by the German-Swiss psychiatrist Karl Jaspers at the end of World War II. Jaspers had an ethical agenda and opposed the common Western assumption that the modern world was a Western invention, rooted in Greek thought and Christian theology. He disagreed with German philosopher Georg Hegel’s thesis that the axis of history was the life of Jesus Christ. According to Hegel (and Max Weber), modernity is a Christian, Western invention. On the contrary, Jaspers suggested that modernity came from multiple sources.

Bellah took up Jasper’s theory that human evolution was working in similar ways in different places, most notably between 800-200 BCE, to make possible the modern world. There were similar cognitive breakthroughs during the Axial Age when China (Confucius, Lao Tze), India (Vedas, Upanishads, Buddha), the Middle East (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos) and Greece (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) all gave birth to theoretic culture. If there are multiple axial civilizations that may help explain why there are multiple modernities. The development of theoretic cognition gave rise to different philosophies, practices and religions in China, India, the Middle East and Greece. There is more than one path to modernity.

Prominent theologian José Casanova suggests that “pre-axial” religions were premised on a single, unified cosmos of meaning with two parts: the sacred and the profane. Pre-axial, mimetic religions are focused on rituals, which imitate (mimic) or reproduce the sacred order (cf, Durkheim, 1915). Since these rituals are located in sacred time and space, they enable the practitioners to reconnect the sacred and the profane and find their proper place within one cosmos.

Pre-axial, mimetic consciousness founded on experience of a unified cosmos is a part of Indonesian practices of Islam, as well as of other religions. The call to prayer (sholat) five times a day is a mimetic ritual that intends to reproduce a proper order between humankind and God, between the creature and the Creator, between the micro-cosmos and the macro-cosmos. It recreates order through sacred space in the midst of the disorder of everyday (profane) life.


Indonesians at prayer


According to Donald’s theory of cognitive evolution, mimetic cognition led to mythic cognition. Mythic cognition also began in the pre-axial age and shaped consciousness of reality through narratives, which explored depths of meaning that were not available through mimetic rituals. Myth did not eliminate mimetic consciousness (sacred rituals), but carried it forward into the Axial Age. Stories are still the primary means of making sense of reality in Indonesia. Whether it is ancient Indian stories (Ramayana, Mahabharata) used in the all-night shadow puppet plays (wayang kulit), nationalist narratives of Majapahit glory, sacred stories of the trials of the Prophet, tragic tales of modern Indonesian film, New Order myths of progress and development, or postmodern novels about changing sexual identities in an urban jungle, Indonesians make sense of their lives by stories.

Indonesia is different from the West, not primarily because Indonesia is still dominated by pre-axial, mimetic cosmic rituals and axial myths. Western cultures are also saturated with rituals and myths. Even the most technologically advanced societies cannot live without mimetic rituals and mythical narratives. Indonesia is different because of how the country fuses pre-axial cosmic traditions and rituals with religious experiences of transcendence and modern ideas, institutions and structures. Bellah’s book suggests that Indonesia is simultaneously pre-axial, axial and post-axial. Unlike most people in the West, who imagine that they are a speck in the universe, most Indonesians still imagine that they live in a sacred cosmos. In the West, religion and ethics are (ideally) separated from the public sphere. Not so in Indonesia.

Secularization and disenchantment

In Indonesia, religions are not meant to be relegated to the private sphere, as if they had no relevance to politics, economics, social relations or law. Most Indonesian Muslims believe that religion is the basis not only for private morality, but for public morality as well. Even in the hard sciences, many Muslims have an a priori conviction that true religion will never come into conflict with the findings of science. Religion should be part of all serious thinking about anything and everything. Public national universities are not described as secular, but rather as multireligious or religiously neutral.

Few scholars still defend the theory that secularization is an inevitable partner of increasing rationality and modernity (cf, Berger, ed, 1999). Most of the world, including the United States, is more religious now than it was 100 years ago. Indeed, there is some evidence that religion is one of the most powerful agents of rationalization and modernization. Less obvious is the question of whether or not increasing rationalization and modernization, while not leading to a decline in religion, does lead to the progressive “disenchantment” (Weber) of the world.

In an enchanted world, human beings are surrounded by unseen powers. Does rapid social, political, economic and technological change, along with higher education, weaken belief in magic and a unified moral cosmos? In most Western countries, magic is consigned to fantasy and superstition. Is that also happening in Indonesia? My research suggests that most Indonesians still live in a sacred cosmos and experience an unseen world of spirits and powers.

An “enchanted” Islamic social imagination shapes different kinds of modernity than were constructed in the West. Indonesian Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists integrate mimetic, mythic, ethical and theoretic styles of cognition to structure their modern lives. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the late Canadian professor of comparative religion, commented that if you only know one religion, you don’t know any religion. If you learn about other religions, you will end up understanding your own religion much better. The same is true of Western modernity.

Why is modernity in Indonesia so different from modernity in the West, the Middle East, India and China? Is it possible to live in a pre-axial sacred cosmos while following an axial religion and living within post-axial modern institutional structures? How might Islamicate culture in Indonesia contribute to a more just and peaceful world order in the years ahead? There is indeed a “clash of civilizations” in Indonesia, but it is not between Muslims and the West. Nor is it between Muslims and non-Muslims. Rather, it is between different imaginations of reality that occur within different communities and, as often as not, also within a single human heart.

Bernard Adeney-Risakotta is a professor of religion and social science at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, central Java. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Living in a Sacred Cosmos: Indonesia and the Future of Islam.



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