Main Points:
  • Adat - traditional animistic beliefs
    This Minangkabau place of worship reflects the Islamic influence.
  • Islam - Sunni sect, influence of the Padri War
  • Matriarchal Society - contrasts typical Islamic societies

The religious practices of the Minangkabau people have evolved over the course of their history. Prior to the introduction of Islam in the sixteenth century, the Minangkabau followed the traditional practices of adat. This religion is still referred to today as the traditional or customary beliefs of the Minangkabau culture (Religion of the Minangkabau). Adat was founded upon the basis of animism, or the belief that multiple “spiritual beings” are directly involved in the functions of human life (Animism). Specifically, the Minangkabau believe that people have a second soul that is susceptible to spiritual possession in addition to their real soul. This second soul is called the semangat and it represents the vitality of life under the adat traditions (Minangkabau). These spirits have considerable power over the Minangkabau people and are believed to have great influence on individual health. According to adat, illness occurs when evil spirits capture the semangat and the illness can only be cured with a sacrificial offering or the assistance of a shaman (Minangkabau). The adat beliefs are still present in modern-day Minangkabau culture, despite the introduction of Islam during the sixteenth century. The relationship between these two distinctly divergent religions and the perseverance of an animistic belief in modern times is one of the most intriguing aspects of Minangkabau culture. The Minangkabau explain their unique religion with the expression, “tradition [adat] founded upon Islamic law, Islamic law founded upon the Qur’an” (Minangkabau).

adat image.jpg
A traditional Minangkabau house of worship under adat styles.

Despite the existence of adat, in many ways, the Minangkabau are very similar to traditional Muslims. The Minangkabau belong to the Sunni sect of Muslims and recognize several Islamic holidays (Religion and expressive culture - Minangkabau). The Islamic faith was introduced to the Minangkabau people through cultural intersections during trading and other interactions (Religion of the Minangkabau). The Minangkabau fast during the month of Ramadan and celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. They loosely follow the five pillars of Islam. These pillars include the confession of faith, the pilgrimage to Mecca, five daily prayers, giving alms, and fasting. Procedures related to death, such as burials, are performed in accordance to Islamic law (Minangkabau). Adherence to these Islamic requirements strengthened during the eighteenth century due to the influence of Padri movement. In opposition to Dutch imperialistic forces, the Padri fought for more The Padri initiated a movement to strengthen and maintain the Islamic religion in Indonesia. Although the Dutch ultimately won the Padri War, the movement had long-term affects on the way the Minangkabau practice Islam (Padri War).

However, the Minangkabau differ in more ways than one from the traditional Muslim culture. In addition to the existence of adat, the Minangkabau are a matriarchal society (Religion of the Minangkabau). This idea exists in contrast to the typical view of women in the Islamic world. It is evident in several Islamic nations around the world that women are treated as inferior members of society, and are certainly not granted excess privileges. In fact, in a Time article Lisa Beyer states, “nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated as equals” (Beyer). The Minangkabau are one of the exceptions to this unfortunate phenomenon evident in Islamic cultures. Not only are women seen as equals, but they are largely in control of the Minangkabau society and its economy. Indeed in Minangkabau, “females are the legitimate successors of land inheritance – which was the main source of income in its traditional agricultural economy” (Minangkabau Society). The Minangkabau have not only managed to preserve their belief in adat, but they have also maintained their fundamental adherence to the matriarchal nature of their society even after the introduction of Islam. Minangkabau religion is extremely complex and cannot be characterized as merely Islamic because it has an overtone of adat beliefs and unique variations on the traditional aspects of Islam.


Beyer, Lisa
2001 The Women of Islam.
Time Magazine, November 25

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