Acehnese Religion

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ACEHNESE RELIGION . Aceh, a province of Indonesia on the northern tip of Sumatra, is a predominantly Muslim region. More than 90 percent of the people are Acehnese speaking; other languages include Gayo, the language of people living in the central mountains, and Alas, a Batak dialect spoken by a people living south of the Gayo. Most Acehnese are currently bilingual, also speaking Indonesian, the national language. Malay was spoken by some in the coastal areas in the nineteenth century and was also the language of the Acehnese court and of the literature produced there. Acehnese, however, was both the everyday and the literary language of the countryside; religious texts are found in both Acehnese and Malay.

Aceh was once an Islamic kingdom. When Ibn Baūah visited Pasè, on the east coast, in 1345 ce he found Islam well established. Aceh served as a source of Islamic conversion for other parts of the Indonesian archipelago. It was also host to visiting Islamic scholars from India, Syria, and Egypt.

Aceh's early history shows marked influences from the Indian subcontinent. This, perhaps, is the source of the heterodox mysticism expounded by amzah Fanūrī and his successor Shams al-Dīn al-Samatrāʾ (d. 1630). Shams al-Dīn won the favor of Aceh's greatest ruler, Iskandar Muda, whose posthumous name was Makota ʿlam (r. 16071636). It has been suggested that Shams al-Dīn's teachings may not have been as heterodox as they were made out to be by succeeding Islamic teachers. Whatever the case, under the next king, Iskandar Thānī (r. 16361641), the followers of these mystics were banished from the court and their books burned. This was done after the arrival at court of the Gujarati Islamic scholar Nūr al-Dīn al-Rānīrī in 1637, presumably with the aid of another scholar, ʿAbd al-Raʾūf al-Sinkilī.

Since that time Acehnese Islam has remained in the orthodox tradition. Mystical movements have not been as strong there as in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago. When they did arise, however, they frequently took unique forms rather than becoming part of the standard tarekat (Arab., āriqah ) orders, despite the fact that, particularly in the nineteenth century, many Acehnese in Mecca joined such orders, most commonly the Qādirīyah or Naqshbandīyah.

The Acehnese countryside was only nominally ruled by the court. Local nobility (uleebelangs ) administered law with and often without the help of kali (judges). Their administration was frequently vigorously opposed by the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) who ran religious boarding schools known as rangkang s.

In the villages there are two locations of religious practices. The first is the meunasah. Today, as in the nineteenth century, the meunasah is a dormitory for adolescent boys and often for some adult men as well. During the fasting month it is the site of the recitation of the voluntary prayers known as traweh and of the men's recitation of the Qurʾān. In the nineteenth century the official in charge of the meunasah, the teungku meunasah, collected the religious taxes (zakāt and fitrah ); currently a committee of village members does this. In 1906 Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje reported that the tenungku meunasah lived off the zakāt and fitrah he collected as well as from the proceeds from arrangements of marriages and burial fees. Today, the zakāt and fitrah are distributed to the village poor while the local branch of the National Office of Religious Affairs is in charge of the registration of marriages. The meunasah is often the site of elementary instruction in Qurʾanic recitation, though this also takes place in the homes of teachers.

Curing rituals and rites of passage take place at the other site of religious practice, the house. A series of rituals governs the stages of life beginning with pregnancy. Snouck Hurgronje described these as practiced in the late nineteenth century; they persist today, but now as then the formalities of the rituals are unexplicated.

Such rituals nonetheless serve important functions that can best be seen by tracing the life patterns of men and women. Born into the house owned by his mother, at adolescence a boy moves into the meunasah to sleep. In later adolescence he is likely to leave the village altogether, moving to distant parts suitable for the growing of cash crops or offering opportunities for trade. Even after marriage he is unlikely to return home for any length of time. The house his family lives in is owned by his in-laws and later given to his wife, who is also likely to receive rice land for her maintenance. He is expected to provide money earned away from home for the care of his children. This pattern is most rigorously followed in the region of Pidie on the east coast and perhaps least prevalent on the west coast where cash crops are grown in the villages.

For the male, rites of passage mark many transition points of his movement out of his mother's house and his uneasy return to his wife's house. The negative quality of these rituals, by which is meant that they move men out of the households they are born into but never fully reestablish them in new ones, is partly responsible for the lack of Acehnese exegesis of the rituals. The male self is defined through them by movement away from women. The rituals sever connections that are to be reestablished not through ritual but through economic means. A man becomes fully a husband and father only when he provides money for his family. Even the wedding ceremony itself centers not on his relation to his wife but on his parents' relation to the parents of the bride. These ceremonies involve the negation of the signs that signify the boy's past rather than being the opportunity for their explication.

The Islamization of Aceh can best be placed within this context. Snouck Hurgronje described the religious schools ordinarily found away from the villages. The ʿulamāʾ, or teachers, who ran these schools were sometimes the leaders of reform movements that stressed the need for observance of the daily prayers and the fasting month, and for the combating of immoral practices. Popular response to such movements was enthusiastic but reform was never lasting. Paradoxically, the Acehnese adhered to Islam to the point, even, of willingness to die for it, as was proven by the long-lasting Acehnese War (18731914?), but only sporadically observed its major tenets. However the avidity for dying in a war against unbelievers, so often attested to by the Dutch who attempted to "pacify" the Acehnese, takes on a certain sense in the context of their rites of passage. The constitution of the self through the negation of its own history culminated in death in the holy war.

Even after the end of organized hostilities against the Dutch, what might be called an individual form of the holy war continued. The Dutch named the sudden and often suicidal attack on Europeans that Acehnese believed would result in their immediate entry into paradise "Acehnese murder." Such attacks occurred from the end of the Acehnese War through the 1930s. During the 1930s, however, they became considerably less frequent, probably as a result of the popular success of the Islamic reform movement. Under the leadership of the Acehnese religious scholar Daud Beureuʾeh, religious schools based on European models were established. These schools taught both religious and secular subjects and produced the leaders of Aceh during the Japanese and revolutionary periods. The other success of this reform movement was the institutionalization of ʿibadah (religious ritual), particularly the daily prayers.

As a result of the world economic depression during the 1930s, Acehnese men became unable to provide cash for their households as was incumbent upon them to do. It was in that context that the reform movement took permanent hold. The movement promised the construction of a new society if only men followed religious ritual. Prayer in particular was thought to put men into a state of rationality (akal) in which their passionate nature (hawā nafsu ) would be contained and channeled into religiously sanctioned ends.

Reform brought with it a new interpretation of the male life pattern, according to which movement out of the household was associated with the proper channeling of hawā nafsu. With that came an institutionalization of Islamic belief and practice that colored the everyday relationships of men both with other men in the market and domestically with their wives and mothers.

In the lives of women also, ritual served not to integrate individuals into their roles so much as it did to separate them from influences that would prevent them from fulfilling their expected functions. In the nineteenth century, beliefs about spirits similar to those found in Java were common in Aceh. Spirits, particularly those called burong, which seemed to represent unfulfilled desires, were thought to disrupt life. Like curing rites, women's rites of passage prevented or ameliorated the actions of these spirits.

With the success of reformist Islam, belief in these spirits has become unimportant for men. Even for women belief in spirits has been muted by the criticism of the reformers. However, these beliefs still play an important role for women in a somewhat disguised form. Spirits are believed to bring dreams. Women, remembering their dreams, remember too that they have been visited by spirits who have, however, left them. Being free of spirits, they feel a certain competence and authority in their domestic roles.

The Acehnese War gave the ʿulamāʾ an importance that they had not previously attained. With the end of the war, their influence was confined to what the Dutch defined as religious matters and they were presumably depoliticized. The greatest success of the ʿulamāʾ, however, came with the popular acceptance of religious reform, which laid the basis for further political activity. Youth groups composed of former students of the modernist schools were the leaders of the 19451946 revolution, which resulted in the elimination of the Acehnese nobility. Daud Beureuʾeh himself became military governor of the province during the revolution and spent his time further consolidating modernist religious achievements. From 1953 till 1961, however, he led a rebellion against the central government; one demand of that rebellion was the acceptance of Islamic law as the law of the province. That demand was not met, and attempts to institutionalize Islamic law in the province continue as it seeks political independence from the Republic of Indonesia in a conflict that has brought great suffering and hardship to the region.

Today Aceh is the site of an Islamic university, but the form that Islam should take continues to be a major concern. The success of the reformist movement itself has aroused opposition. Mystical movements have sprung up in areas where the tendency of men to leave their villages in pursuit of a living was not so pronounced because of the possibility of raising market crops locally. The Naqshbandī tarekat, members of which were mainly older villagers, had great popular success in the 1950s and 1960s on the west coast of Aceh and has spread to other areas. During the 1970s, numerous heterodox mystical sects arose that have been met with vigorous opposition by the ʿulamāʾ.

See Also

Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia.


The best account of nineteenth-century Acehnese life remains Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje's The Achehnese, 2 vols., translated by A. W. S. O'Sullivan (Leiden, 1906). My own The Rope of God (Berkeley, Calif., 1969) and Shadow and Sound: The Historical Thought of a Sumatran People (Chicago, 1979) further trace the evolution of Acehnese religious life. M. Nur El Ibrahimy's Teungku Muhammad Daud Beureueh (Jakarta, 1982) is the most important source for the reform movement. An account of Acehnese textual studies can be found in Petrus J. Voorhoeve's Critical Survey of Studies on the Languages of Sumatra (The Hague, 1955).

New Sources

Andaya, Leonard. "The Seventeenth-Century Acehnese Model of Malay Society." In Reading Asia: New Research in Asian Studies, edited by Frans Husken and Dick van der Meij, pp. 83109. Richmond, 2001.

Kraus, Werner. "Transformations of a Religious Community: The Shattariyya Sufi Brotherhood in Aceh." In Nationalism and Cultural Revival in Southeast Asia: Perspectives from the Centre and Region, edited by Sri Kuhnt-Saptodewo, Volker Grabowsky, and Martin Groheim, pp. 169189. Wiesbaden, 1997.

Robinson, Kathryn. "Gender, Islam and Culture in Indonesia." In Love, Sex and Power: Women in Southeast Asia, edited by Susan Blackburn, pp. 1730. Clayton, Australia, 2001.

Smith, Holly. Aceh: Art and Culture. Kuala Lumpur and New York, 1997.

Wieringa, Edwin. "The Drama of the King and the Holy War against the Dutch: The Koteuah of the Acehnese Epic Hikayat Prang Gompeuni." Bulletin of the School of Oriental & African Studies 61, no. 2 (1998): 298308.

James T. Siegel (1987)

Revised Bibliography