Islam came to Indonesia by way of Malabar and Coromandel, the respectively south-western and south-eastern coasts of India, along the age-old trade routes.
Both regions were important centres of trade, staging posts so to speak, connecting the eastern Asian regions with the Middle East and Europe. Malabar was not only important as a transhipment place, but also as a producer of pepper, a sought-after spice. Coromandel, on the other hand, had no produce of importance as it falls in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats mountains, and receives little rainfall during the southwest monsoon. The town of Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is one of the driest places in India.
Similar to the spread of Hinduism, which several centuries previously had been brought to Indonesia along the same trade routes, Islam was introduced to the archipelago by traders from the Indian subcontinent. Conversions must have taken place at a fairly brisk pace, as in the early years of the 16th century the east Java Hindu Empire of Majapahit was replaced by the Islamic kingdom of Mataram. In the western part of Java, Cirebon and Banten became the main Islamic centres.
The Population Census of 1905 estimates the total population of the archipelago at 37 million, of which some 35 million, or just under 95%, were Muslims—29.6m on Java and 5.4m on the outer islands.
Given that Islam did not come to Indonesia directly from Arabia, but followed the circuitous route via Persia and the southern coasts of India, this has led historians to conclude that the original version, as propagated by the Prophet, had been strongly influenced and impacted by the many peoples and cultures encountered on its way to Java. It is, for instance, reported that for the first four centuries after its introduction, from around 1200 to 1600 AD, the strict observance of religious duties, especially of the daily prayers, among the indigenous populations, was rather perfunctory. Believers were, however, highly tolerant and far from fanatic.
And probably as a result of the Indian influence, the early version of the religion contained a heavy dose of pantheistic philosophy, which did, however, fit well into the existing culture of Java with its mysticism and superstitions. But the same source does also note that two aspects of religious observance were particularly strong among the converted masses: one is their religious conviction, or adherence to the first of the Five Pillars of Islam—belief in Allah and in Muhammad as his Prophet, and the second one, circumcision. Many a Christian missionary has experienced the nearly insurmountable difficulty of establishing a foothold in Muslim communities.
It is only after the connection with Arabia, in the 17th century, became more significant, that the influence of the pure, undiluted Islam grew. This more orthodox version was brought back to Indonesia by pilgrims. In those days they would usually stay there for a fairly long time, studying the devotional scripts and acquiring sacral knowledge and learning. Upon their return to Java they would then teach the beliefs and concepts gained in Mecca, thereby gradually changing the earlier “Indian” version of the religion. In Mecca these pilgrims were known as the Java Colony.
These observations, dating from 1917, conclude with the remark that the reverse side of this change was that intolerance grew and religious strife became more common. This, in turn, strengthened the lingering anxiety among the European section of the population and the colonial government. Returning hajjis were suspected of plotting against the political system and sowing intolerance and fanaticism.
In the early 1800s the colonial authorities reacted to this, what they called, “unfortunate development”, by trying to curtail the number of pilgrims. The decree issued to this end stated that before embarking on the hajj, a pilgrim needed a passport. At 110 guilders (this would nowadays be the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars) the hajj was priced out of reach of many intending pilgrims.
A large number of pilgrims, of course, made the hajj anyway, but without the passport. The authorities responded to this by issuing Decree 26 March 1831 / 24, which put the fine for having gone on a hajj without the required passport at 220 guilders. As both decrees had not been published in the law gazette, the Supreme Court overturned the fine imposed on a hajji for not obtaining the passport. The Governor-General consequently decided to annul the decrees. That was in 1852. Various methods to control and regulate both the hajj and the hajjis were subsequently initiated by the authorities, until, towards the end of the century, it dawned on them that mistrust of hajjis had been unfounded.
Whereas in 1859, the yearly number of pilgrims was estimated to be 2,000, the corresponding figure in 1886 was 5,000, increasing to some 7,000 during the following decade. In 1914 the number of pilgrims from the archipelago had increased to 28,000, and the 2012 number was over 200,000.
As steamers took over the service between Indonesia and Mecca, not only was travelling time reduced, but also the length of time the pilgrims stayed away. In contrast to previous centuries the pilgrims would typically stay for a month or two, which did not leave much time for the study of devotional scripts. Moreover, the majority of pilgrims would not have been able to speak Arabic and had in a relatively short time been exposed to a completely different environment and culture. It can thus be surmised that they would have returned to Indonesia in the same frame of mind as when they departed. When we agree that it was not the increasing number of returning hajjis who caused the growing intolerance and fanaticism, it would be interesting to identify another cause, or causes, for these developments that unfortunately are even more noticeable today.