Review of: Carool Kersten, A History of Islam in Indonesia: Unity in Diversity

Carool Kersten, 2017. A History of Islam in Indonesia: Unity in Diversity, Edinburgh University Press

By Alexander Wain

Although modern-day Indonesia constitutes the world’s largest and most populace Muslim nation, its unique and multi-varied form of Islam has not received the degree of scholarly attention it deserves. Traditionally characterised by scholars as syncretic, as a deviation from perceived Islamic norms, it has often been dismissed as peripheral to an ‘accurate’ understanding of Islam. As essentialized notions of Islam come increasingly under the microscope, however, texts in the mould of the current work by Carool Kersten constitute welcome additions to the literature. Drawing upon his considerable knowledge of the subject, Kersten succeeds in crafting a nuanced (albeit introductory) historical portrait of Indonesian Islam, tracing its ongoing, dynamic and multi-layered contextual development to establish its historical and cultural legitimacy. 

Kersten’s first chapter describes the introduction and initial dissemination of Islam through Indonesia. Focused primarily on thirteenth-century Sumatra, with brief forays into Java over the same period, Kersten attempts to contextualise the rise of Indonesia’s first Islamic kingdoms, positing ‘a more multi-layered reading of the “Arab connection”’ (p. 23) as an acceptably wide-ranging account of Islamisation. From here, Kersten proceeds in his second chapter to consider the sixteenth- to early eighteenth-century integration of Indonesian Islam into the wider Muslim world. He dedicates the bulk of this chapter to a concise sketch of the intellectual networks underpinning early Indonesian Muslim scholarship, stressing how European colonialism re-shaped those networks by restricting travel and radicalising the tone of Islamic discourse. 

Kersten’s third chapter traces the early nineteenth-century politicisation of Indonesian Islam. Focusing on the Padri Wars of Minangkabau (1803-25) and the Java War (1825-30), both framed as proto-nationalist uprisings, Kersten demonstrates their origins in ‘developments in the wider Muslim world’ transmitted into Indonesia by returning pilgrims and ‘ever more invasive intrusions by non-Muslims as European colonialism enter[ed] the age of high imperialism’ (p. 55). Kersten furthers this discussion of Islam and nationhood in his fourth chapter. Focusing on the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, he outlines how advances in communication technology ‘made contacts between Indonesia’s Muslim population and the wider umma more frequent and intensive’, culminating in a greater sense of Indonesians ‘belonging to a Muslim ecumene’ while also being distinctive ‘in terms of language, culture and […] ethnicity’ (p. 92). Going into the early twentieth century, Kersten argues this sense of uniqueness set within a broader Islamic framework further strengthened the fledgling nationalisms of Minangkabau and Java, with each region witnessing the rise of (quietist) Islamic movements embodying, developing and propagating these ideals. 

The book’s final chapter is a confident, detailed and nuanced consideration of how ‘the Islamisation process in Indonesia was forced onto new trajectories’ (p. 131) over the period 1942 to 2015. Beginning with Islam’s role in early postcolonial Indonesia, Kersten traces the history of Partai Majelis Syuro Muslimin Indonesia (Party of the Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations, or Masyumi), charting its early political successes and describing how its opposition to Sukarno during the late 1950s, coupled with the failed Darul Islam secessionist rebellion (1948-62), resulted in the political suppression of Indonesian Islam from 1960 onwards. This suppression effectively ended earlier periods of Islamic political engagement, constraining the religion to more intellectual fields like law and education. Nevertheless, Kersten demonstrates how the broadening of Islamic education (for example) served to strengthened Indonesian Muslim identity, culminating in the eventual appointment of Islamist politician, Abdurahman Wahid, as the first democratically elected president of post-Soeharto Indonesia. Moving into the twenty-first century, Kersten predicts a continuation of these subtle forces of Islamisation, but ends on a cautionary note: Indonesian Islam has begun to evince signs of a ‘conservative turn’ that gives ‘rise to grave concerns regarding the prospects of religious plurality, the rights of minorities, [and] freedom of thought’ (p. 168). 

Overall, Kersten has succeeded in crafting a detailed, broad-ranging and informative introductory text. Handling the multiple threads of Indonesian Islamic history with consummate skill, Kersten successfully weaves a coherent picture from complex material. It is nevertheless regrettable that the text rarely takes the reader beyond Java and Sumatra; while these two regions are undoubtedly central to any understanding of Islam in modern-day Indonesia, other parts of this vast country (frequently dismissed here as the ‘outer islands’) are no less Indonesian, no less Islamic and no less interesting. Their near exclusion is therefore unfortunate, ultimately rendering A History of Islam in Indonesia a competent but less than comprehensive treatment of its subject.