6 things you have to know about religion in Indonesia


Are you planning on travelling to Indonesia soon? Well, before going to a new place, you have to gather some information about the local culture. Religions are prominent in Indonesia and integrally makes part of Indonesian daily lives.

1: History and origins


Indonesia has seen waves and waves of immigrants coming to either take control of the country or to find another land to live in. Before that happened, Indonesia was inhabited by prehistoric human beings. In 1890’s, researchers led by Eugène Dubois discovered a Homo erectus also known as the “Java Man” in Central Java located in Sangiran, Indonesia. They found several parts such as a tooth and a skullcap. Sangiran is known for being the source of more than 80 species.


2: A country used to foreign arrival …


The whole migration history started around – 28,000 BC and then went on with the massive arrival of nationals from India, China, Cambodia, Arabic countries, Britain (1800’s), and Dutch (1600’s). Needless to say, Indonesia has faced several cultural shocks throughout the years and got used to the phenomenon of acculturation. Acculturation refers to the adaptation which can go to merging between two ethnic group / person of originally two different cultures. Of course, this acculturation mainly happened on the Indonesian side rather than the migrants.


Indonesian inhabitants history led to the creation of a diverse religion landscape and the cohabitation in the harmony of more than 6 different religions. As you can see on the graph below, Indonesia in mainly a Muslim country with almost 9 out of 10 Indonesian being Muslims. You then have 5% of Christian Protestants, 3% of Roman Catholic, 2% of Hindus, 1% of Buddhists and 1% of other traditional religions.


Source: Pew Research Forum


3: Islam, the main religion in Indonesia


According to Pew’s data, there are 205 million Indonesians who are Muslims which means that Indonesia is actually the biggest (in terms of volume) Muslim country in the world accounting for 13% of the world Muslim community.

International trade has always been a major part of the Indonesian economy. Import/Export activities started with Arabs in the 4th century but it was only business no invasion or takeover. In the 13/14th century, Arab merchants coming from Gujarat in India and Persia came in Indonesia and started to spread Islam across the country.  Geographically speaking, it started in coastal Java (where the trade occurred) to Sumatra and then northern of Central Java. Some kings even decided to convert to Islam such as the King of Demak. The king of Demak was at the origin of the wide propagation of Islam in Indonesia across the kingdoms.  

Two Islamic movements occurred in 1912 and 1926.  It should also be noted that there are two “types” of Islam in Indonesia. The “Traditional Islam” and the “Modernist Islam”, as explained by Martin Lewis, from Geocurrent, “the distinction is entirely different, with “Traditional Islam” meaning the Javanese custom of melding Islam with earlier Hindu and animist ideas and practices, and “Modernist Islam” denoting orthodox expressions of the faith.” Traditional Islam also known as Abangan Islam is predominant in Central and East Java while  Modernist Islam also called “Orthodox Islam” is expanding in urban areas and touches younger people.


Source: Geocurrent


4: Hinduism and Buddhism

Borobudur Temple Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

Borobudur Temple Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

Both religions Hinduism and Buddhism lived simultaneously without really fighting against each other. The Indian Buddhist travellers were the first foreigners to land in Indonesia in the 1st c. AC. In the 4th century, Hinduism started to expand in Indonesia particularly in Java and Sumatra. The temple of Borobudur was founded in the 9th c. and is a worldwide treasure known for its important role in the Indonesian Buddhism culture. Several Hindu and Buddhist festivals are held there.


Traveller Love Borobudur, Discover Why Today


Concerning Buddhism, as you may already know, there are two types of Buddhism: Hinayana and Mahayana. Both were transferred to the Indonesian Culture even though Mahayana is the most famous one in Indonesia. The Indonesian Buddhist Association stated that more than 90 monasteries were built since 1960’s. What about the famous Bali? Bali is mainly an Hindu-Buddhist island.


5: Christianity in Indonesia

church indonesia

Finally, we have Christians. It all started in 1511 when Portuguese started their invasion of Indonesian islands and spread Catholicism. The Spaniards also helped and certain regions such as the Moluccas were mostly converted to Christianity. About 70 years later, Dutch in search of spices to sell to their European neighbors, established in Indonesia and spread Protestantism. Christianity continued its travel in Indonesia until the declaration of Indonesian Independence in 1949 from Dutch colonisers.


6: Tolerance in Religion and Harmony



Unlike some other countries where religions are constantly fighting between one and another, Indonesia is lucky to be one of the tolerant countries in the world.  One advocate of religion tolerance was Gus Dur, former head of the Muslim organisation and president. During his presidency (1999-2001), he declared the Chinese Lunar New Year to be just like any Muslim holidays, an official day. He also undertook several other actions to relieve tensions, bring more harmony and peace to former conflicts.

As you can see the Indonesian landscape is diverse and unique. Visiting Bali or Indonesia, should not only mean going to the beach but also enjoying the multiple wonders left by each religion.

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