Spirits and mystics in Indonesia

Cultural Insights — By on January 29, 2008 at 4:29 pm

There was a fascinating article a few days ago in the NY Times, just prior to the death of former Indonesian President Suharto, which discussed the power of local beliefs in spirits and black magic. The story focused on mystical explanations as to why Suharto was clinging to life, but in the process it also illuminated the role that mysticism plays in the daily lives of many Indonesians and contemplated how animist beliefs have managed to hang on in a contemporary Muslim society.

The diagnosis among believers here in Solo, the heart of Javanese culture, is that powerful occult forces in (Suharto’s) body will not let him go, that certain rituals that would cleanse his spirit have not yet been performed or that nature has not yet signaled that it is ready to receive him…

Indonesia is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, the most populous in the world, with 240 million people. But the version of Islam practiced by most people here is mixed with the Hinduism, Buddhism and especially animism that were present before Muslim traders brought their religion to the country in the 12th century.

Animist beliefs and superstitions color everyday life for many people, and occult explanations, including the power of curses and black magic, are sometimes given for everyday events.

“Indonesian Islam is what I call accommodative,” said Azyumardi Azra, director of the graduate school at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. “Most Indonesian Muslims accept local tradition even though the local tradition could not be accepted by, say, Wahhabi-minded people,” he said, referring to followers of a strict Islamic sect.

When a reporter expressed skepticism about the existence of spirits, a local mystic responded this way:

“It’s just because you don’t understand, just the way I can’t understand you when you speak English.” … “It’s not mysticism,” he insisted, as if trying to break through a language barrier. “It’s reality.”

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