The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past

The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past

The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past

The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past


Indonesian Islam is often portrayed as being intrinsically moderate by virtue of the role that mystical Sufism played in shaping its traditions. According to Western observers--from Dutch colonial administrators and orientalist scholars to modern anthropologists such as the late Clifford Geertz--Indonesia's peaceful interpretation of Islam has been perpetually under threat from outside by more violent, intolerant Islamic traditions that were originally imposed by conquering Arab armies.

The Makings of Indonesian Islam challenges this widely accepted narrative, offering a more balanced assessment of the intellectual and cultural history of the most populous Muslim nation on Earth. Michael Laffan traces how the popular image of Indonesian Islam was shaped by encounters between colonial Dutch scholars and reformist Islamic thinkers. He shows how Dutch religious preoccupations sometimes echoed Muslim concerns about the relationship between faith and the state, and how Dutch-Islamic discourse throughout the long centuries of European colonialism helped give rise to Indonesia's distinctive national and religious culture.

The Makings of Indonesian Islam presents Islamic and colonial history as an integrated whole, revealing the ways our understanding of Indonesian Islam, both past and present, came to be.


It was with genuine sadness that Indonesianists and Indonesians alike reflected on the passing of the anthropologist and humanist Clifford Geertz in late October of 2006. Even though he had long since moved beyond Java and Bali and embraced far broader horizons, there was a sense among Indonesianists that, whether we agreed with his ideas or not, he was one of us. Certainly he had given the field a lot to think about. In such contributions as his Agricultural Involution of 1963, Islam Observed of 1968, and Negara of 1980, which all built on the reputation formed by his highly influential Religion of Java of 1960, his ideas were unfailingly stimulating.

In life and in death, though, his legacy has often been contrasted with that of another scholar whose contributions I will argue have been crucial to the ways in which Indonesia continues to be seen. One major Indonesian magazine even named them as two of but eight foreigners in a list of one hundred people to be adjudged “Indonesian figures of the twentieth century.” This second (or rather, first) figure is Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936); Dutch Orientalist, outward Muslim, colonizer. And while Geertz was warmly embraced by his Indonesian biographers in the edition in question, Munawar Khalil declared the Dutchman to have been “the muskrat who slipped among the Muslim community to steal the ‘secrets’ of the people’s resistance towards the colonial government.”

While this book is neither a critique of Geertz nor a defense of Snouck the Dutchman’s key contributions to the making of Indonesian studies will be addressed as it explores its major theme, namely: What are the supposed ingredients of Indonesian Islam? And who can we say has made it? As I shall argue, the process, or rather processes, that laid the foundations for a consensus on these questions have been driven by the long-standing engagement of Southeast Asian Muslims with coreligionists at home and abroad, both prior to and under the Dutch colonialism that made them Indonesians. And far beyond a mere fact of background hegemony, the direct engagement of Orientalist advisors like Snouck, acting on behalf of the colonial state and, ostensibly, for the benefit of Muslims, is a major strand complicating that story.


With the benefit of hindsight one can easily say that Geertz’s amused scepticism about the long-term vitality of the process of Islamization, expressed in . . .

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