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Living in a Sacred Cosmos: Indonesia and the Future of Islam.

Bernard T. Adeney-Risakotta, Living in a Sacred Cosmos: Indonesia and the Future of Islam. New Haven: Yale [Southeast Asia Studies 66], 2018, xvii + 406 pp. ISBN: 9780985042974 (cloth), price: USD 39.00, 9780985042967, USD 28.00 (paperback).

Indonesia is one of the world's most religious societies. 99 % of Indonesians say religion is "important" in their daily lives. That is even higher than Saudi Arabia (93%), Pakistan (92%), Turkey (82%), or Iran (73%) (Crabtree 2010). But whereas these countries all have strong theocratic, authoritarian elements in their politics, Indonesia remains a democracy with overwhelmingly secular politics. Substantial non-Islamic minorities, totalling about an eighth of the population, have full citizenship rights.

Why, two and a half millennia after philosophical thought emerged in societies all around the world (Karl Jaspers' "Axial Age", 2010), and three centuries after the Age of Enlightenment, do Indonesians appear to be still so deeply "preaxial?" Why do they still seemingly live in a "sacred cosmos" even while they enjoy the freedoms of modernity? Those are the questions this book addresses. Adeney-Risakotta's answer is that they have the genius to adhere to a uniquely open, tolerant form of religiosity. They practice their religion on a level that places it beyond the reach of philosophical truth claims. It is to them far less a matter of personal theological conviction than of communal ritual. By participating daily in the mimetic bodily movements of Islamic prayer, they signify solidarity with others, and even with the cosmos, which appears to them as sacred. The book is inspired by the communitarian philosophies of Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, and ultimately Emile Durkheim. Religion is the glue that holds a society together.

Berney Adeney-Risakotta calls Indonesia home. He has taught religious studies in Yogyakarta since the early 1990s. His is essentially an anthropology of an educated, religious segment of the population (his colleagues, we might say). He has interviewed a number of prominent Indonesians about their religious views. Several have foreign postgraduate degrees. Most lead religious organizations and are, unsurprisingly, personally religious. He also conducted a survey of over 2,000 educated young Indonesians (the sample selection procedure is not further specified) about religious attitudes. These young people, too, comfortably hold deep religious convictions alongside more secular ideas on how the world works. His conclusion is that this syncretic genius is for the rest of the world a source of hope:
Indonesia is not the savior of Islam or the world. But it is a source
of hope. It is a unique, modern, Islamic civilization made up of people
who live in a sacred cosmos and believe that their future lies in the
hands of God.

p. 299

The irenic participant observer approach evokes sympathy. It is what makes the book a pleasure to read. It offers a heart-warming corrective to the alarming narrative of religious militancy that now dominates foreign news reporting on the country (and not a little scholarly work as well). It reciprocates the welcoming acceptance that this open society radiates towards the world. But 'going native', as this book has done, involves risks as well.

The risk is that one fails to ask awkward questions, which are here bound to be numerous. I do not so much blame Adeney-Risakotta for not interviewing some of the genuine fundamentalists who increasingly press their claim to represent true religion on the body politic in Indonesia. We can go elsewhere for that (Chaplin 2018). Instead, the really serious questions go to the heart of the communitarian approach.

One reviewer wrote of Charles Taylor's influential Sources of the Self (1989) that "Taylor only seems to dwell on the sunny side of the street" (Abbey 2006: 269). Adeney-Risakotta's book, too, does not dwell on the dark side of religious practice in Indonesia. He does not discuss the jailing of atheists today, the lynching of "witches" during the tumultuous 1998 Reformasi, or the murder of "atheist" communists in 1965-66. The key conclusion is rather that people feel no tension between religion, tradition, and modernity. We read in the opening pages:
Many Indonesians... treat modern, religious, and traditional languages
as parallel, ideally complementary symbol systems, that are useful for
different purposes in different contexts.

p. 2

This rather static picture of complementarity, it seems to me, looks away from the dialectical tensions that clearly do exist between the rival modes of living. The evidence for that is strong both in individual accounts of Indonesian lives and in historical sociological ones. The existential clash between tradition and modernity forms a prominent theme in Indonesia's literary classics dating to the formative mid-twentieth century (think of Sitti Nurbaya, SalahPilih, Belenggu, or Atheis). Far from suggesting complementarity within a homogeneous, all-encompassing "social imaginary", the dialectic appears there as a painful field of tension, moreover one not confined to "the religious". Modern, as-good-as-secular views in twentieth century Indonesian fiction have made considerable headway against traditional superstition and hierarchy, as well as against theocracy.

The dialectic has economic origins. The literary classics are associated with the rise of an indigenous middle class in the late colonial years. Its members wished to emancipate themselves from the customary hierarchies prevailing among their poor rural cousins. Indonesia remains today one of the world's poorer societies. Poverty correlates strongly and positively with religiosity around the world. Nearly all countries in the world plot broadly onto a logarithmic curve running between poor-and-religious at one end and rich-and-secular at the other (Gao 2015). The two great outliers are the US (rich-but-religious) and China (poor-but-secular). The modern, cosmopolitan form of religion we read of in this book stands in tension with the much less tolerant practices of the numerous lower middle classes. This has given the populist struggle over fundamentalist religion--up to the present day--a strong class character (Hadiz 2016).

Like the prominent figures in this book, Indonesia's political leaders have on the whole been personally religious but politically secular. The reason for the disconnect is a pragmatic one. Overwhelmingly conservative in orientation, they nurture a salutary fear of how unleashing popular passions could cause the delicate state-building project to unravel entirely (Horowitz 2013). Their response was to offer the religious organizations a corporatist pact. In exchange for relinquishing their autonomy to pursue theocratic instincts politically, the organizations were allowed to spread a view of religion as the great antidote to emancipatory ideologies of liberalism, humanism, secularism, and socialism. The violence of 1965 has ever afterwards been quoted as proof that "Indonesians" reject such ideas. It is, moreover, the very fact that communitarian ritual is state-sanctioned that makes it so much more "authentic" than the privatized religion of secular liberalism (Asad 1993). In short, is it not plausible that the way people live religion today is a product of this hard-fought struggle for hegemony? And would that not lead to an alternative explanation for the tenacity of the "sacred cosmos" in Indonesia?

Gerry van Klinken

University of Amsterdam / KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies


Abbey, Ruth. 2006. "Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity", pp. 268-290 in John Shand (ed), Central Works of Philosophy Volume 5: The Twentieth Century: Quine and After. Chesham: Acumen.

Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity andIslam. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Chaplin, Chris. 2018. "Salafi Islamic piety as civic activism: Wahdah Islamiyah and differentiated citizenship in Indonesia." Journal of Citizenship Studies 22 (2)208-223.

Crabtree, Steve. 2010. "Religiosity Highest in World's Poorest Nations" (

Gao, George. 2015. "How do Americans stand out from the rest of the world?" (

Hadiz, Vedi R. 2016. Islamic populism in Indonesia and the Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horowitz, Donald L. 2013. Constitutional change and democracy in Indonesia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jaspers, Karl. 2010 [orig Germ 1949]. Origin andgoalof history. New York: Routledge.

DOI: 10.1163/22134379-17501002
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Author:van Klinken, Gerry
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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