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INDONESIA. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of Indonesia’s more than 180 million people are followers of Islam, the largest population of Muslims of any country in the world today. They are almost all Sunnis and followers of the Shafi’i school. The remainder of the population are Christian, Hindu, animist, or followers of varying Confucian and Buddhist beliefs.


Historical Development. There is some dispute as to the exact dates of the arrival of Islam in the Indies. There were Arabs in the archipelago before the Hijrah, and Muslim merchants resided in East and Southeast Asia in the succeeding centuries. There is a general consensus that Islam became established within the local population of the Indies in the thirteenth century and expanded markedly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the eighteenth century, the vast majority of the populations of Java and Sumatra had become Muslim. Islam appears to have been transported by Muslims from several countries. The initial sources of Islamic missionary activity apparently were Gujarat and Malabar in Western India, followed by Arabs, especially from the Hadhramaut. The people of the Indies were generally converted to Islam through peaceful means. It was first transmitted through traders who brought with them religious scholars and was further aided by elite conversions and political alliances. From the beginning, state and popular Islam continued to be imbued with a Hindu culture reframed within local traditions that had previously dominated the country. Rather than being obliterated by the new religion, Hindu and other nonMuslim elements became embedded in the character of traditional rule, poetry, dance, and music, and influenced how many converts, particularly on Java, approached Islamic thought and practice.

Early Islam was also greatly influenced by Sufi views, and by the sixteenth century many of the archipelago’s best-known Muslim scholars were from the Sufi orders. In the years that followed, Sufi orders such as the Qadiriyah and Naqshbandiyah attracted many Indonesians into their ranks, and branches were formed in many parts of the islands. Sfifi mysticism and its general tolerance of local traditions further abetted the growth of Islam in the islands. It also helped to frame the syncretic and eclectic nature of Indonesian Islam through the centuries. By the eighteenth century, more orthodox Hadhramaut Arab scholars began to make their views on Islam felt, and external influences on Indonesian Islam began to shift from its former center on the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East. In spite of this, mysticism has remained an important characteristic of Indonesian Islam.

Until the nineteenth century, contact with the rest of the Muslim world was relatively intermittent compared with the burgeoning interaction which was to follow. Muslim scholars from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent continued to be the transmission channels for Islamic ideas, and a small but important group of Indonesians traveled to centers of Muslim learning in the Arab world. Arabs and Turks were also political and religious advisers in local sultanates. However, the number of Indonesians making the arduous journey of the hajj remained small.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a significant increase in Indonesia’s involvement with the rest of the Islamic world. The number of pilgrims to Mecca grew to the point where they were termed the “rice of the Hejaz,” reaching 123,052 in 1926-1927. There was also a significant rise in the number of Indonesian scholars going to the Middle East for religious studies. During the mid-192os there were some two hundred Southeast Asian students (mostly Indonesian) studying in Cairo, and, in spite of a decline in pilgrims during the Great Depression, during World War II there were reportedly more than two thousand residents of Saudi Arabia claiming Indies citizenship. Some of these individuals, the Jawa (as Southeast Asians were called by Arabs), became well-respected scholars in Mecca. Those who returned from Middle Eastern training became the backbone of religious education in the Indies, along with immigrants from Arab states who taught religion and Arabic in the pesantren and madrasahs. [See also Pesantren; Madrasah.]

This was also a period in which new religious ideas, and particularly modernism, made strong inroads into religious thinking in the Indies. The reformers were particularly critical of the syncretic, “non-Islamic” elements of Islam as it had developed in the archipelago and sought to eliminate these “un-Islamic” accretions. They also argued in support of ijtihad (independent judgment) and rejected taghd (adherence to tradition). Initially spread among Arab residents in Jakarta, modernism found a strong base in the Minangkabau area of West Sumatra. It was in Jogjakarta in East Java that the most important modernist organization, the Muhammadiyah, was founded in 1911. Its founder Ahmad Dahlan and other key members were trained in Cairo by followers of Muhammad `Abduh. It became heavily involved in education and social change, although its focus varied according to area. In Sumatra it was more involved in purifying the faith, while on Java there was a greater tendency toward competing with Western challenges.

The postwar era has shown some of the greatest ferment within Islamic circles in Indonesia. Independence, an increasingly educated population, funds for religious development from the Middle East, and the ability to communicate ideas more easily across the Islamic world have brought Indonesia even more firmly into the intellectual and political core of Islam. The number of Indonesian students in the Middle East grew markedly from the hiatus of the Depression, wartime, and independence struggle. In 1987 there were 722 students in Cairo (585 in Al-Azhar University), and 904 in Saudi Arabia. Religious students from these institutions tended to assume lower-level religious educational and technical posts upon their return to Indonesia. Of considerable importance in influencing Islamic thinking in postwar Indonesia were those who did graduate work in North American, British, and Commonwealth universities.

Many of these individuals became the prime transmitters of contemporary revivalist thinking into the archipelago. Arab teachers have also remained important, particularly in language and literature. In i 98o-i 98 i there were twenty-one Egyptian teachers at Indonesian universities.

Religious thought in postwar Indonesia can be characterized by a burgeoning indigenous literature on Islam and the large-scale importation and translation of works by Islamic writers from abroad. More traditional Indonesian religious writers such as Hamka, as well as those considered more current (e.g., Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid), are now well-recognized interpreters of Islamic thought in the islands. There has also been an increase in the number of periodicals emphasizing Islamic issues, including Panji Massyarakat, Dahwah, Kiblat, and Pesantren. Among foreign Muslim writers, those most widely published in Indonesian have been `All Shari’ati, Sayyid Qutb, Abu al-A’15 Mawdudl, al-Ghazali, Hasan al-Banna’, and Muhammad Iqbal. There has also been some penetration of Shl’! ideas. Part of this has been the result of romanticism among youth regarding the Iranian Islamic Revolution, but there has also been an intellectual interest in the more speculative and abstract elements of Shi i thought. A number of Shi i books and tracts have been translated into Indonesian and published in the islands. [Each of the figures named above is the subject of an independent entry. ]

Character of Contemporary Indonesian Islam. While contemporary Indonesian Islam has been characterized as unified by its almost unanimous acceptance of its Sunni roots, it has also been described as pluralistic in terms of belief and practice. At one level, Indonesian Muslims have been described as divided between those “nominal” Muslims who have been more deeply influenced by non-Muslim traditions and those more “orthodox” ones who follow a more universalistic pattern of belief and practice. The former, usually referred to as abangan, have been described as imbued with Hindu and animist elements reinforced by Sufism to create forms of rituals and mysticism peculiar to Indonesia and especially to Java. Within this culture, ritual feasts (slametan), spirit beliefs, traditional medical practices, and Hindu art and ceremonial forms intertwine with Muslim precepts. The latter group, termed santri, have perceived themselves as followers of a “purer” faith, adhering more rigidly to rituals such as prayer and fasting and less contaminated by animistic and mystical beliefs.

The Indonesian government over the past several decades has been more closely attuned to the mystical interpretation of Islam, while many in the minority “orthodox” Muslim community have attacked what they perceive to be un-Islamic tendencies within the national political leadership.

However, this dichotomy is weakened both by the extent to which individuals within both groups may oscillate in belief and practice, and by the development in the postwar era of a more universalistic Islam. As late as i96o the Ministry of Religion argued that only a small minority of Muslims in Indonesia practiced their faith in terms of prayer, zakat (alms), and fasting. In some areas of Java, others reported that Hindu beliefs dominated the religious ways of nominal Muslims, and that elements of belief in spirits infused the faith of individuals in all religions throughout Indonesia. However, greater contact with the rest of the Muslim world and the teaching of Islam to Indonesia’s growing school population have provided a stronger foundation for a more universalistic interpretation of the religion. The teaching of religion in the schools is now compulsory, and though often superficial, it does project a less parochial interpretation of Islam. Recent decades have seen major growth in the number of people attending Friday prayer and adhering more closely to other rituals, such as observing Ramadan. There has also been a greater interest in the hajj, more wearing of Islamic dress by women, and concern over halal products. This closer observance of Islamic practice has been particularly noticeable among educated youth, but it is also to be found in the villages.

Part of this change is the result of missionary (dahwah; Ar., da’wah) activities by organizations seeking to “make Muslims better Muslims” or to “islamize Muslims.” The postwar era has seen a proliferation of Muslim organizations, tracts, magazines, study groups, and lectures seeking to bring Indonesians a better understanding of Islam. An Indonesian Islamic Dahwah Council was formed in 1967, led by former Masjumi leader Mohammad Natsir, and there has been considerable recent cooperation among individual Muslims from disparate organizations such as the Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama. [See also Da’wah. ]

It would also be an oversimplification to divide Indonesian Islam sharply between modernists and traditionalists. There is general agreement that the principle of shari `ah is the foundation for all Muslims and that Islam should regulate personal and state actions. A core issue that has divided the adherents of these two views has been somewhat resolved by a gradual closing of the gap on the question of ijtihad. While there has not been any significant official change in interpretation of the problem by traditional organizations such as Nahdatul Ulama, individual leaders have displayed greater flexibility. Even with this growing consensus among Indonesian Muslims, however, there still exist significant variations in belief and practice throughout the archipelago, not only in terms of adherence to the core of universal Islamic patterns, but also in the manner in which local cultural influences frame perception and maintenance of the religion.

Islam and Politics. Islam has played an important role in twentieth-century Indonesian politics. The first mass nationalist organization was Sarekat Islam, formed in 1912 and the dominant political organization of the colony for more than a decade. Given the great ethnic and linguistic diversity across the archipelago, Islam provided the one common thread for the vast majority of the population. It differentiated the Indonesians from their Christian masters and gave them a sense of identity with a universal cause. This seeking to be part of the wider community (ummah) was reflected in the large number of Indonesians making the hajj and the interest of many Indonesian nationalists in such international Islamic issues as the Caliphate question and the Pan-Islamic movement. Sarekat Islam also had an economic agenda that reinforced its religious platform. From the beginning it criticized un-Islamic (particularly Chinese) economic power in the islands and later attacked Dutch capitalism. For its part, the Dutch colonial administration tended to see Islam as a danger to domestic peace and order and expressed suspicion of returning pilgrims and students who had studied in foreign Muslim educational institutions. It was especially disturbed by what administrators saw as loyalties to authority outside the colony.

In the decades preceding World War II and during the Japanese occupation, Islam’s role in domestic politics was weakened, first by the challenge of more secular nationalism and Dutch repression and later by Japanese suspicions of Muslim political loyalty. In the first instance, Sarekat Islam began to break up in the 192os because of poor internal administration and competition from radical (especially communist) elements; it was ultimately overshadowed by more secular nationalist parties. Through these years Islamic political power was further fractured by religious differences among Muslims who formed competing parties. In 1926 Nahdatul Ulama was founded as a traditionalist counter to the reformist aspects of Sarekat Islam and to what its founders saw as an undermining of the power of the `ulama’. However, as in the postwar era when Islamic parties were again restricted, this vacuum gave rise to an increased role for nonpolitical groups like the Muhammadiyah; the 193os have been described as the years of prominence for that organization. [See also Sarekat Islam.]

When Japan occupied the Indies during World War II, it assumed a somewhat ambivalent position regarding Islam. On one hand, it sought to foster public support by championing Islam against the Christian Dutch. Once in control, however, Japan’s main focus was an attempt to direct Indonesian loyalties away from the Middle East and toward an East Asian community. The concept of the unity of Muslims did not fit the Japanese effort to emphasize the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Leadership of the wartime nationalist movement tended to fall to secular forces, and Islam did not enter the independence years as a united political force.

The postwar era saw the rise of three political faces of Islam. At the party level, two major political organizations sought to dominate the Muslim majority in the new republic; both groups reflected the historic division among Muslims. Nahdatul Ulama supported more traditional non-modernist views, and Masjumi was formed as a modernist Islamic socialist party. They vied to lead Indonesians who were interested in a government based on Muslim values and expressed strong opposition to secular and particularly communist influences. Although it was believed that the majority of Indonesians supported the Muslim cause, in the country’s first election in 1955 the Masjumi and Nahdatul Ulama each received approximately twenty percent of the national vote, and other Muslim parties obtained only a small percentage; the remainder went to primarily secular parties. The combined vote for all Muslim parties was 43.5 percent. The Masjumi became increasingly frustrated with its inability to influence the growing secularism of Indonesian politics, and in i96o the party was outlawed for supporting dissident elements fighting the central government. This left the more traditional Nahdatul Ulama and small splinter parties to act as the legal voices of Islam at the national level. [See also Masjumi and Nahdatul Ulama.]

During this period Muslim political leaders were particularly concerned to establish Islam firmly within the Indonesian constitutional framework. An original agreement among nationalist factions in 1945 would have obliged Muslims to practice shari `ah law and would have required that the head of state be Muslim. However, a compromise altered the charter to reflect a more secular and pluralist view of the role of religion in the state. A new national ideology, the Pancasila (Five Principles), proclaimed as one of its five principles “belief in God” but did not describe this within a Muslim context, allowing Indonesians freely to choose their own religious expression. President Sukarno originally explained the concept as quite pluralist in nature:

The principle of Belief in God: Not only should the Indonesian people believe in God, but every Indonesian should believe in his own God. The Christian should worship God according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Moslems according to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, Buddhists should perform their religious ceremonies in accordance with the books they have. But let us all believe in God. The Indonesian State shall be a state where every person can worship his God as he likes. The whole of the people should worship God in a cultured way, that is, without religious egoism.

The 1945 constitution and provisional constitutions in 1949 and 195o did not change this interpretation, and when President Sukarno reestablished the 1945 constitution in 1959 he gave strong support to the pluralist definition of the Pancasila. This issue of the place of Islam within the national ideology has remained a core source of Muslim dissatisfaction in the postwar era.

The third thread of Islam in the early years was characterized by the activities of radical Muslim military units such as Darul Islam, a Muslim militant group originally formed in West Java in 1948. In part, Darul Islam rationalized its war against the Indonesian Republic on the grounds that secularist forces had rejected Islam as the basis of the state. Through much of the 1950s the Darul Islam forces caused considerable destruction in West Java, and government units appeared incapable of controlling its activities as Darul Islam spread its influence into East Indonesia. During this period other Muslim groups in Sumatra and Sulawesi also prepared to employ force to defend Islam against what they saw as a secular regime in Jakarta. It was not until 1959 that negotiations largely brought an end to this period of conflict. However, the leader of Darul Islam was not captured and executed until 1962, and the Sulawesi rebellion did not collapse until 1965. [See also Darul Islam.]

Following an attempted coup in 1965 in which the Indonesian Communist Party became involved, some Muslim youth groups were particularly active in killing large numbers of communists (perhaps 400,000 or more died in the months after the failed coup). Communists were considered enemies of Islam both because of their perceived atheistic views and, to a lesser degree, because many landowners were members of religiously powerful families. These events led to the fall of the Sukarno regime; the military-dominated government of General, later President, Suharto has held power in Indonesia since then. It was initially hoped that the military would work closely with Muslim political organizations, and there was even a strong faction in the armed forces that sought to make Islam the unifying spiritual cement within the military. However, in the ensuing years important cleavages have developed between elements of the Muslim community and the Suharto regime. While the factors responsible for these differences are complex, they have centered upon three core issues: government efforts to establish secular bases for centrally important areas of interest to Muslims, such as education and marriage; attempts to emasculate Muslim political power; and the reimplementation of the Pancasila as the national ideology.

In the first instance, elements of the Muslim community were antagonized by such government efforts as the formulation of regulations that divorced the school calendar from Ramadan and discouraged Islamic dress for girls in public schools. The most incendiary issue arose over the marriage bill of 1973, when the Suharto regime attempted to give precedence to civil authority in cases of marriage and divorce. This policy was promulgated without consultation with Muslim leaders or organizations. Muslims were particularly affronted by requirements in the bill for civil permission for marriage, divorce, and polygamous marriage, and by the provision that religious differences were not to be an obstacle to marriage. This bill was considered by many Muslims to be a direct attack on Muslim law and religious authority, and the depth of opposition expressed led the government to withdraw the bill. Islamic codes still remain the foundation for family law in the country.

The second point of contention has been Suharto’s efforts to contain the political power of Islam. After the 1965 coup, the outlawed Masjumi party was not allowed to reform in its original form, and in 1973 all Muslim parties were forced to unite into a single organization, the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan or PPP). In the i97os the Muslim parties became the most noteworthy legal opposition to the government’s party, Golkar. The majority of Golkar’s membership reflects abangan religious views, but there have been elements within the party that have been critical of specific government policies such as the opening of schools during Ramadan. Although both the PPP and Golkar employed Islam as campaign tools-for example, having candidates participate publicly in Muslim rituals-in the ensuing years further attempts were made to emasculate the political power of Islam. Faced with the effective containment policies of the government, Muslim organizations were unable to launch successful political challenges to the central authorities in the r 97os and i98os. The Jakarta government has sought to ensure that religion does not become the source of political ideology in contemporary Indonesia; a policy similar to that of the Dutch colonial regime. [See also Partai Persatuan Pembangunan.]

During the later 1970s and the i98os, small radical elements in the Muslim community turned to violence to express their opposition to what they perceived to be an un-Islamic government; they demanded the formation of an Islamic state and the elimination of “yellow culture.” An organization called Kommando Jihad was accused of conspiring to overthrow the government; another, the Islamic Youth Movement, allegedly attacked shopping centers in the name of Islam; and the Indonesian Islamic Revolution Board was charged with seeking Iranian support to eliminate Suharto’s regime. There were isolated acts of airplane hijacking, arson, and store bombings, and the famous Buddhist monument the Borobudur was also bombed. There were largely unproven charges that seditious organizations were being aided by certain Middle Eastern governments, particularly Iran and Libya. Islamic religious spokesmen also released cassette recordings criticizing what they perceived as the corrupt and anti-Islamic activities of the Suharto administration. The government forcefully repressed these activities and used the incidents as further proof of the need to take religion out of politics.

This move to deemphasize Islam in politics reached its zenith with the demand by the Suharto government that all mass organizations affirm that the Pancasila was their only ideology. The government had previously emphasized the need proclaimed by Sukarno that all Indonesians should believe in God: to do otherwise would bring down suspicion of communist tendencies. Initially Muslim groups were strongly opposed to the state policy on ideology on the twin grounds that, first, the principle of “Belief in God” proclaimed in the Pancasila was at best agnosticism, and second, that the acceptance of that ideology as their sole foundation refuted their own religious bases. There was also fear that the Pancasila would become the official religion of Indonesia. After strong criticism from the Muhammadiyah, President Sukarno personally guaranteed that it would not become a religion. Under the Suharto regime those expressing public opposition to the Pancasila, as well as some Muslim religious leaders who attacked the government in the name of Islam, found themselves faced with long prison sentences. However, ultimately Nahdatul Ulama and other organs of the PPP capitulated and accepted the Pancasila as their sole ideological commitment. On its part, the government began to display greater willingness to meet Muslim requests in areas such as religious education.

This process has made it necessary for organizations such as Nahdatul Ulama to seek new directions. Given the weakening of Islam as a focal point of ideology, there have been questions as to the maintenance of their constituencies. Some have called for the formerly Muslim parties to withdraw totally from politics and concern themselves with development and education until conditions change in the Republic. There has been a major emphasis on Muslim alternatives to nationally directed development policies. At an organizational level at this time, however, Islam remains a relatively weak player in Indonesian national politics.

Finally, Muslim organizations have expressed increasing antagonism over what they see as the growing power of Christianity in the islands. There has been an almost threefold growth in the percentage of Christians in the population since the prewar years and a major increase since Suharto came to power. Rhetorical attacks have been made on Christians by a variety of Muslim organizations, including the Muhammadiyah, and there has been violence against Christians on Java and Sulawesi in particular. There have been accusations that the government is pro-Christian. Some Muslims also see this growth in conversions to Christianity as a result of the pluralism expressed in the Pancasila, although the government has argued that the Pancasila is a means of alleviating religious tensions.

Islam and Foreign Policy. Historically, Islam has not been a major factor in Indonesian foreign policy. The one period when it did play a positive role was during Indonesia’s postwar effort to seek allies in its fight for independence from the Dutch. At that time it made major efforts to gain the support of Arab leaders, and the Arab League recommended that all its members recognize the new republic. It was in this period that Indonesia first initiated diplomatic relations with Arab states.

In the succeeding years the Indonesian government has tended to downplay Islam as a primary basis for foreign policy decisions, partially reflecting the more secular viewpoint of the country’s leadership and partly the government’s wish not to reinforce religious loyalties at home. Thus, although Indonesia criticized Israel’s actions against the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it did so more in the name of Third World solidarity and not of Islam. Jakarta has also tended to be cautious about becoming involved in disputes among other Muslim countries, calling for peaceful solutions but not actively engaging in efforts to end these conflicts.

Although President Sukarno did support the AfricaAsia Islamic Conference in 1964 (in part to gain support for his confrontation with Malaysia), Indonesia did not formally participate in the Rabat and Jeddah meetings that formed the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It did not attend the meeting that promulgated the OIC Charter in 1972 and did not become a signatory to it. It was argued that by joining the organization Indonesia would have to accept the OIC’s Islamic principles and declare itself an Islamic state. Since that time, Indonesia has worked more closely with the OIC and has become involved in a number of economically oriented Islamic international organizations. Indonesians in their private capacities have also been very active in many nongovernmental Islamic groups, such as the World Islamic League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

Islam and the Courts. During most of the period of Dutch rule from the end of the nineteenth century the colonial government followed the “Reception Theory.” This view held that adat (Ar., `adat; native customary) law was the legal framework within which the indigenous population was to be ruled, and that Islamic law was only to be enforced to the degree that it was accepted by adat. From 1882 to 1937, so-called Priestraad (Religious Court, later termed Penghulu Court) on Java and Madura had general jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, alms, and inheritance. In 1937 inheritance was officially taken from the religious courts, although they continued to rule on such issues.

During the Japanese occupation a Department of Religion (Syumubu) was established, and in 1946 the new Indonesian Republic formed a Ministry of Religion to govern all the nation’s faiths. This ministry has not always been considered a friend of Islam by Muslim leaders and organizations, particularly after 1971 when it came under the control of less traditional ministers. While the ministry has directorates for other faiths, its main activities focus on Islam. It supervises religious education in both Muslim and state schools, the organization of the pilgrimage, Muslim foundations, Islamic marriage laws, and religious courts, and it supports Muslim places of worship.

Initially the new government maintained the former Dutch system of courts. In 1957 Penadilan Agama (Courts of Religious justice) were formed for all the islands except the district of Banjarmasin on Kalimantan. The first-instance court is called the Mahkamah Syariah and the appeals court the Makkamah Syariah Propinsi. These courts cover marriage, divorce, child support, charity, and religious foundations. Inheritance is not included, and in certain regions adat law holds precedence. It is the general view of Muslim legal scholars that the “Reception Theory” is no longer valid and that Islamic law is equal to adat and Western law. All things considered, however, the religious courts in Indonesia have a quite restricted role. [See also Adat.]

Many Indonesian Muslims would like to see a greater infusion of Islamic principles into the juridical system, but there is no unanimity of agreement on how shad `ah is to be implemented. Groups and individuals disagree as to whether to accept only the Shafi’i school of law, as well as on the role of ijtihad, the rights of non-Muslims, the place of adat, and the meaning of an “Islamic State.”

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia and the Pacific; Muhammadiyah.]


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Boland, B. J. The Struggle of Islam in Modern Indonesia. The Hague, 1971.

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Noer, Deliar. The Modernist Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1942. London, 1973

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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/indonesia/

  • writerPosted On: April 28, 2014
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