The Largest Muslim Country Is Not in the Middle East

Gates. They’re everywhere in this city, in literal form within nearly every building and in art form on embroidered souvenir purses. The purpose of their presence is difficult to miss: the region of Aceh is the gateway to Mecca—only this “gate” is five thousand miles away from Islam’s most holy city.

Aceh is a port city in northernmost Indonesia, a distinction it’s had for millennia. And it’s there that Islam first made its entry into Indonesia and would eventually make the country of scattered islands the world’s greatest concentration of Muslims.

Indonesia’s Introduction to Islam

How could a belief system that started in the desert of Saudi Arabia take such a hold on a country so far away? Islam crept its way into Indonesia slowly, piecemeal, as Muslim traders from India, China, and the Middle East discovered the wealth of resources available in the archipelago now known as Indonesia.

History isn’t clear on exact dates, names, or even ethnicity of the first people to bring Islam to Indonesia. In fact, school children are taught many theories regarding dates and origins, but all of them revolve around trade and intermarriage with other cultures who brought Islam with them.

Muslim women in Jakarta, Indonesia, gather for daily prayer in a mosque. Photo by Luke In.

We do know that from the time Islam entered Indonesia around the seventh century until the fifteenth century, the spread of Islam was slow and confined largely to the trade ports. The indigenous people near ports in Sumatra, Java, and Sulawesi realized quickly that shared religion with the foreign traders would be a way to curry favor and turn a higher profit. Chinese Muslim traders came to several ports in Java, while Indian and Arab Muslim traders went to North Sumatra.

Some sources claim that Arab husbands were a hot commodity, and the local women all hoped to marry the traders who came to port. Non-Muslim tradition indicates that the marriage was less than consensual. Either way, intermarriage produced generational Muslims near the ports as trade continued to grow in the archipelago.

The Muslim Mystics

In the fifteenth century, the wali songo (also called wali sanga) entered the picture. The wali songo are nine Islamic saints whose ancestry can be traced back to the Middle East, India, and China. Several of these saints came from Aceh, in North Sumatra. All are buried in Indonesia, and some Muslims consider their graves to be sacred sites where they can worship and pray.

Even though all nine never worked together at one time, their goal was to spread Islam to the masses of Java. They also brought an element of mysticism with their missionary efforts. Many of the wali songo were thought to have spiritual powers. According to legend, they demonstrated this power by building a mosque in one day, though some believe it was built over time with contributions from all nine wali songo.

The wali songo’s mission took off as they offered free health care and schools, boarding houses that raised poor children, and other community enrichment activities in an effort to win over the people they helped and convert them to Islam. Another method of educating the general population was through puppet shows that depicted various Islamic teachings, accompanied by Islamic songs to cement the teaching. A majority of Indonesian Muslims still follow the teachings of the wali songo more than six hundred years later.

Islam with an Indonesian Flair

Today, nearly 1,100 years after the introduction of Islam, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, with more than 220 million followers. For most Indonesian Muslims, however, their practice is vastly different from that of those who brought it to the island shores.

Before Islam came to the archipelago, the main religion was animism with a veneer of Hinduism and Buddhism. When Islam introduced a monotheistic worldview to Indonesia, many people retained their animistic roots to address everyday matters such as safety, evil spirits, health, and success.

“They like to get along, saying, “You have your beliefs and I have mine. We’re all taking different roads to the same destination.”

Indonesian Muslims pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and live devout, distinctively Muslim lives. However, they also visit witch doctors to address a variety of problems ranging from staving off rain for a child’s soccer game to demon exorcism. On one remote island, mothers smear cow dung on their newborn’s umbilical cord to scare the spirits away, though they know the practice is dangerous to the baby’s health.

Orthodox Muslims from the Middle East would likely be shocked to see the intermingling of animism with Islam, but in Indonesia, it’s the only way they know. Their deep craving for peace drives them to do things that defy traditional Islam.

Religious scholars refer to the type of Islam practiced in Indonesia as “folk Islam.” However, most Indonesian Muslims would take offense to that term. They recognize that Islam is practiced differently in Indonesia than in the Middle East and other Muslim countries, but they are happy with their particular brand of Islam. They view it as culture intermingled with religion, all woven together to help them navigate life. Indonesians like to get along, saying, “You have your beliefs and I have mine. We’re all taking different roads to the same destination.”

The Common Denominator

Indonesians are in a constant search for peace. They know they should be able to find it in God, but they are left unfulfilled by what Islam has to offer. Often, they refuse to consider any other options than Islam because they are afraid of repercussions for them or their families. Some people put their faith in Christ after a dream or a vision leads them to open their minds to the possibility of salvation in Jesus, while others believe after hearing the gospel for the first time from a Christian.

The common denominator in every conversion is prayer, and that’s something Christians can do whether they are in Indonesia or in America. Here are two main ways you can pray for Muslims in Indonesia.

  • Pray for Muslims in Indonesia to find the only road Jesus said is the way of salvation. Aceh may have offered an entry point for Islam into Indonesia, but Christ still stands as the only gateway to a true relationship with the Father. As more people pray and point toward the true Gate, may the millions of Muslims in Indonesia find rest and refuge in him.
  • The Christian church in Indonesia struggles with sharing the gospel among their Muslim friends. Many Christians fear the response or stigmatization from those they share with. Pray that Indonesian believers will be bold to share with their friends, family, and coworkers.

Rosemary Brackey serves with her family in Southeast Asia.