When we’re traveling, we love to meet locals. We love to chat with them, to listen to their stories, their lives, their worries, their dreams. But in some areas, it is a bit difficult to have a conversation because of language barriers. This was the case in the Indonesian octopus-shaped island of Sulawesi, our home after an amazing time in Raja Ampat. The moment we got off the plane in Makassar, we knew we were in trouble. The locals barely spoke any English. It was difficult to even order food; we always had Google translate next to us. And imagine I was thinking of finding out more about Islam in Indonesia.

Islam in Indonesia

We didn’t need any English translation to understand the joy in this group of girls

When bananas are not called bananas

The funniest was when I asked Vlad to go get some bananas. I wasn’t feeling that great so I waited for him in our cozy room in Makassar. It was pretty late in the evening, but we thought that it would be easy to find some bananas. He came after an hour empty-handed. He said that the street sellers had closed and that in the supermarket they shrugged their shoulders. The next day we went for a walk and obviously spotted bananas at the first fruit seller on the street. We asked how much the bananas were, but got a smile in return. I pointed to the bananas and the seller said “Pisang, pisang!”. That’s when we realized! They didn’t understand us asking for bananas. We hadn’t used the magic word of pisang; that is banana in Bahasa.

The climax was when my iPhone broke, the screen shattered to pieces. So we decided to get it fixed at an electronics mall. It was so difficult to talk to the sellers and ask them for what we needed. Google translate is not always accurate and we were on the verge of losing hope. But all of a sudden, a young lady saved us. She looked at our desperate faces and asked in a beautiful English if we needed any help. She was our knight in shiny armor. So she talked and even negotiated for us to fix my screen.

Islam in Indonesia

Happy rickshaw driver in Makassar

Finally getting to know a Makassareese

While my phone was under repairs, we started talking to her. We found out that she was from Makassar, her name was Irma and that she was a student. I was so happy that we finally got to meet a local with good English. Unfortunately, we were in a hurry as we were leaving Sulawesi and didn’t have enough time to chat. But we exchanged emails and chatted a lot afterward. We had long chats about life, about traveling, and, most importantly, about religion. I love talking and debating about religion. And while heading to Sulawesi I hoped to find out more about Islam in Indonesia.

Some while ago I started studying a bit about all religions, to be able to make a comparison between them. Islam fascinated me because while I was reading about it I realized how many misconceptions there are about it. How wrong a lot of people are for judging Islam as being a violent religion. We need to learn to make a distinction between a religion and its followers. And Irma was my first real interaction with a Muslim woman from Indonesia. So I wanted to see her point of view on some aspects related to Islam in Indonesia. Here is what we talked about:

But who is Irma?

I asked Irma to tell you a bit about herself before getting to our questions and answers about Islam and Islam in Indonesia. And this is who Irma is:

“If you are familiar with the hurricane, you will easily remember my name. My name is Irma Zavitri. But you can call me Irma, Vitri or Zavi, or maybe Ir/Vit. That’s the way we use nicknames here in Indonesia. Currently, I am a student. I am studying for my bachelor degree in International Law and for my master degree in English Language Studies. Many people are telling me that I am wasting my time or that I am insane to do two majors at the same time.

However, I believe that every choice has its own advantages and disadvantages. And yes, I spend a lot of money (thank God that I have a scholarship for my Master degree) but I think it is worth it. I believe that by studying I can have more friends, a lot of stories that can broaden my knowledge and my understanding of the human being, the world, life in general. Moreover, if I can manage to pursue my studies to a higher level I will be able to travel more. This translates into meeting new people, new stories, new lessons and thus make my life more alive and happy. My motto is love freely, live simply and pray daily.”

Islam in Indonesia

Irma Vitri, the kind girl that helped us in Makassar

Talking about Islam

1. What does Islam mean to you?

Islam is a way of living. Islam teaches and guides me on what best to do and don’t.

And there is always a logical reason behind it.

2. How do you practice Islam in Indonesia, your home country? What are the main guidelines which you follow in your daily life?

Hmm, I try to practice Islam as best as I can. I follow the Qur’an and the practice of Prophet Muhammad. I also follow the Five Pillars of Islam (the five obligations that every Muslim must satisfy in order to live a good and responsible life): Syahadah (reciting the Muslim profession of faith), shalat/prayer (five times a day), charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Ka’bah (Hajj).

3. Talking about fasting, how can you manage to abstain yourself during the entire period of fasting? How do you deal with temptations?

There are a couple of reasons behind it. We trust the words of God through Muhammad in the Holy Qu’ran saying that there will be a reward for those who are fasting. And fasting also teaches us not to eat so much since it is not good for our health. It is about a physical benefit as well.

From fasting, we also learn to be grateful and feel empathy towards poor people. Because we know there are many people out there that cannot afford food. Furthermore, fasting is a training to control ourselves from wrongdoing. In the fasting month, we should also give more to charity because it is considered to be the best month.

4.  How do you see the relation between Islam and the other predominant religions of the world?

I believe that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are derived from the same teaching, that is the oneness of God (Tauhid), brought by the prophets (the messengers of God). The next messenger comes because there is a misconception in the previous religion.

For example, Jews always believe that they are the chosen race which actually is not valid anymore since they betrayed their agreement with God. The Christians believe that Jesus (Isa Al-Masih) is the son of God. This is something which we Muslims believe is a misconception created by the Church and the believers. Because of this misconception, Muhammad came and taught us to practice the true religion, Islam. The essence of Islam is the oneness of God. In Islam, Jesus (Isa Al-Masih) is the messenger of God similar to Moses and Muhammad.

5. As is the case for Christianity, Islam is divided between several sects. What is your opinion on the numerous conflicts that arise between Muslims belonging to different sects? 

The issue with the different sects started even from the era of Prophet Muhammad so if it still happens in today’s context, it is normal. It happens because different people have different perceptions about religion and of course a different way of thinking. Conflicts arise when each people believe that they are the righteous ones. And from this, there is only a short step to violence and to using the Holy Qur’an and Muhammad to legitimate their actions.

But yes, this is one world issue that I am also concerned about.

6. How can an “outsider” perceive Islam as a peaceful religion when there are so many conflicts even among its own adherents?

Oh, yes, you can say that again!

Peaceful here means if we all would really practice the Qu’ran and teachings of Muhammad. I believe that if more Muslims would practice Islam in the way Muhammad taught us how to, we would live in harmony in peace. I believe this is the responsibility of young Muslims nowadays, to spread the truth about Islam as a peaceful religion.

7. I know that as a Muslim you are expected to give money to charity. Is this something that nowadays all Muslims do? Can you choose where to direct the money?

Yes. All Muslims should do that. It is one of the five pillars of Islam (giving to charity).

We have various kinds of charity, we call them zakat, sedekah, hibah etc. They can be in the form of money or things (food, clothes, public facilities etc). We can send it through an institution (a private or a governmental institution) or through individuals.

Some charities have their own rigid amount/number/and calculation and so we need to give as such. But some others charities are quite flexible.

8. I assume you are aware that nowadays a lot of people associate Islam with terrorism. If you were given the chance to contradict them, what would your arguments be?

A lot of arguments are presented by the profound Islamic scholars about the terrorism issue.

But one thing that I do believe is that the prophet Muhammad was a very kind-hearted person. There a lot of stories in history books even written by non-Muslim authors, that tell so and that have nothing in common with the present terrorism.

9. Have you ever been the victim of religious discriminating acts? Could you give me an example that you feel it was the worst?

Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God)! Never so far!

10. A lot of people don’t know that wearing the hijab is not something mandatory and it reflects the woman’s choice of doing so. Why do you choose to wear it? What does wearing it mean to you?

Because I feel comfortable and safe when I wear it. For me, wearing the hijab actually means respect and dignity. You can still work and go outside with the hijab. I believe it is also about identifying ourselves as Muslim women and be proud of it.

Islam in Indonesia

Irma with her friends

11. Furthermore, people tend to think that Muslim women are not allowed to do anything, are not allowed to be involved in the public life, to have a job, to be educated etc. Why do you think that this misconception is so widespread?

Because, unfortunately, people tend to see the wrong examples. I feel sad about it because even in the Qu’ran we have two special surat (chapters) about women. This means that women are considered to have an important role. These are Chapter Annisa and Maryam. Some verses in the Qu’ran also state that people are not differentiated by race, sex, but only by taqwa (obedience to God).

12. Based on the Islam in Indonesia, are you allowed to marry freely? Can you marry a person that is not a Muslim?

Oh, yes for sure we are allowed to marry freely, without any oppression.

Literally speaking, I can’t marry Non-Muslims, but there might be certain cases where an exception can be made. We have to consider it very carefully and thoroughly.

13. Being an Indonesian, are there any particularities of Islam in Indonesia?

Islam in Indonesia is called Islam Nusantara.

It is a moderate and democratic form of Islam.

14. Would you say that Islam in Indonesia is different than the Islamic faith practiced in other countries/regions?

Yes, Islam in Indonesia has different practices than other countries such as the ones in the Middle East or even the neighboring Malaysia and Brunei. Even if Islam is the major religion in Indonesia, the country does also accept other religious practices. I consider that we are more varied and flexible in the way we interpret and practice the religion here.

15. The last one – as a Muslim woman, do you feel that the world should do more in order to combat Islamophobia?

Of course! We Muslims also hate terrorism and totally disapprove it. But we need to work hand in hand in order to fight this. Islamophobia is definitely not the right way.

Violence, massive killings are not what our religion really teaches and it is not the message of the Prophet. Yes, we accept war for defense. But it has rules and for sure it has nothing to do with how the terrorists act nowadays.

Islam in Indonesia

Kids enjoying a day in a park nearby Makassar