The faith of Sunda Wiwitan of West Java is based on earlier indigenous Sunda faiths which predate the official religions of Indonesia. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Johannes Nugroho: Narrow Definition of Religion Bedevils Indonesia's Minority Faiths


OCTOBER 18, 2017

A judicial review is currently lodged at the Constitutional Court of a 2006 law which negates the right of Indonesian citizens to have their faith recorded on their official identity cards (KTP) outside the six state-recognized faiths of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. The lawsuit was made by adherents of indigenous earth-based faiths some of which existed well before the introduction of the six recognized religions into the archipelago.

While the constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to adhere to any belief system, in practice this particular freedom is almost never put into practice. The problem lies in the attempt by the Indonesian government to define what constitutes a religion, a power that most democracies in the world have either disavowed or never assumed in the first place.

Take the faith of Sunda Wiwitan of West Java, for example. Although it is by no means ancient, its belief system is based on earlier indigenous Sunda faiths which predate Hindusim. It adherents have been campaigning for official recognition by the state of their religion. The Indonesian government classifies Sunda Wiwitan, along with similar faiths like the Javanese Kejawen and the Bataknese Parmalin, as "animistic faiths" rather than religion. The explanation for this lies in the Islam-centric definition of religion prevalent in Indonesia.

The bias is evident in the comment made recently by the chairman of the Advisory Board to the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), Muhammad Sirajuddin Syamsuddin, who insisted that Sunda Wiwitan did not constitute a religion.


"Empirically, it cannot be said to be a religion as it doesn’t satisfy the criteria for one: possessing divine revelation [with its own prophet], having sacred scriptures and an established liturgy or rites." Syamsuddin refused to consider the possibility of recognizing faiths failing to meet his criteria as religion because "that would be liberty in the extreme and we would then have thousands of religions."

As a result of the narrow definition of religion by the government, thousands of followers of the "animistic" faiths like Sunda Wiwitan frequently face discrimination on a daily basis. Unable to have their true religion recorded on government-issued identity cards, many have gone without one, hobbling their chances in in job searches, opening bank accounts and obtaining healthcare benefits. Those who successfully applied for KTP had to convert to a recognized religion, usually Islam or Christianity.

The prohibitive official definition has also taken its toll on minority groups and faiths in the country, state-recognized or not. A few months ago, a Chinese Confucian temple in the East Javanese town of Tuban found itself embattled by objections by hardline Muslim groups to its newly unveiled 30-meter statue of the Chinese deity Guan Yu on the temple grounds. A few weeks into the controversy, the temple decided to keep the statue out of sight by swathing it with white sheets.

Opponents of the statue fell into two groups: hardline Muslim groups claiming to be affronted by a gargantuan statue of an infidel god and the ultra-nationalists who object to the statue of a Chinese military general standing prominently on Indonesian soil.

However, as Indonesia’s Chinese community pointed out, the claim is flawed on several fronts. Although depicted as a warrior wearing Han-dynasty military regalia, Guan Yu or better known by his Hokkien name of Kwan Kong in the country, represents the virtues of honesty, loyalty and integrity in the Chinese culture.

Based on a real historical figure in the era of the Three Kingdoms (in the second century CE), Guan Yu was a military general serving under the warlord Liu Bei. His posthumous legend grew quickly and by the fifth century, he was already worshiped as a god.

Despite attempts by Indonesian Confucians to explain what Guan Yu stands for in their religion, detractors of the statue maintain that Guan Yu, who was a mere man, could not possibly have become a god. The idea of elevating a mere man to godhood ─ a common practice in ancient civilizations like China and Greece ─ is alien to Indonesia’s ultra-nationalists, and even blasphemous to orthodox Muslims.

To the detriment of the Confucians, the Islam-centric definition of religion and religious precepts was again in its element. It is something the Indonesian Confucians, who regained recognition for their religion in 2000 after the 1967 ban, are all too familiar with.

After the autocratic President Suharto's resignation in 1998, his successor President Abdurrahman Wahid agreed to reinstate Confucianism as a state recognized religion. However, it was to be a long-winded road as the Ministry of Religious Affairs decided to "test" the validity of Confucianism using criteria which included whether it worshiped the One Indivisible God, if it had a prophet who received divine revelation and established rites; all of which are basic Islamic tenets.

It was Hobson's choice for the Confucians. While it is true that folk Confucianism reveres Taoist deities, the core of what Confucius taught had an emphasis on the relations between human beings rather than those of human beings and the divine.

In the end a compromise was reached when the Confucians agreed to identify the Emperor of Heaven (Thian) or the Jade Emperor in Taoist pantheon as the One Indivisible God and that Confucius was the prophet through whom he spoke. Indonesian Confucians today also hold communal services during which hymns are sung and sermon is delivered, clearly adapted from a standard Christian church service.

The same compromises were also imposed on both Buddhism and Hinduism. The former, based on the path of personal enlightenment through one’s own efforts rather than divine worship, was compelled to acknowledge the precept of One Indivisible God by locating him in a sutra describing a primal substance that existed from time immemorial.

The latter, being essentially a polytheist faith, struggled hard to satisfy the inflexibly monotheist requirements. The Hindus eventually had to modify their own mythology to include a hitherto unknown deity called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa or Sang Hyang Tunggal (the Inconceivable Lord) as their One Indivisible God.

Indonesia’s own precepts of religion, anachronistic as they are, are unfortunately embedded in every public discourse on religion in the country. Toeing the line is something that minority groups in Indonesia are used to doing.

To rub along, they frequently have to conform to the expectations of the majority. Yet in doing so they are losing their own identity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, many Sunda Wiwitan adherents decided to convert to either Islam or Christianity ─ at least in name though not necessarily in practice ─ so that they could be better-placed to access their rights as citizens instead of remaining in administrative limbo.

It remains to be seen whether the Constitutional Court will grant greater recognition to the country’s minority faiths by allowing its adherents the right to have their faiths recorded on state documents. Generally speaking, Indonesian judges weigh up matters not only from the perspective of justice alone but also the effects a ruling might have on society.

For many years now, Islamic organizations like MUI have opposed recognition of folk religions like Sunda Wiwitan, Kejawen and Parmalin because most of their adherents have so far opted to identify as Muslims in administrative terms. To open the gate of recognition, in their eyes, would mean allowing mass apostasy to take place. Against such odds, a favorable ruling on the judicial review, if it happens at all, would be extraordinary.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos