Muslims and Matriarchs by Jeffrey Hadler by Jeffrey Hadler - Read Online

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Muslims and Matriarchs - Jeffrey Hadler

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Culture of Paradox

A student of Indonesia could be forgiven for thinking that the two great cultures of the archipelago are the Javanese and the Minangkabau. When we count the names in the history books or tally the individuals who shaped the national culture, these two ethnic groups stand out. Dutch colonial scholars posited the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra—supposedly dynamic, outward-looking, and pious—as a counterweight to the feudal, involuted, and religiously syncretic Javanese.

During the revolution (1945–1949), Indonesians coined the term Dwitunggal to refer to the two-in-one leadership of the Javanese president Sukarno and the Minangkabau vice president Mohammad Hatta. This duumvirate signified a balance between Java and the outer islands, and the split between the leaders in 1956 created a national rift that remains unhealed today.¹ Minangkabau intellectuals of the early twentieth century were central in nationalist and Islamic movements, and they defined Indonesian literature and culture.

The street map of any Indonesian city includes boulevards named after Haji Agus Salim (born 1884), statesman and foreign minister; Mohammad Hatta (b. 1902), first vice president; Muhammad Yamin (b. 1903), nationalist philosopher; Muhammad Natsir (b. 1908), Islamic politician; Hamka (b. 1908), theologian; Sutan Sjahrir (b. 1909), socialist and first prime minister; Rasuna Said (b. 1910), revolutionary leader and politician; and, where Soeharto’s censorship lapsed, Tan Malaka (b. 1896), communist revolutionary philosopher. The Minangkabau people take great pride in this first generation of leaders and in the scores of Minangkabau politicians, theologians, and literati who are less well known but who also had defining roles in Indonesian history. It is striking, then, that in 1930 the Javanese represented 47 percent of the population of the Netherlands East Indies. Add to this the Sundanese people of West Java and the Madurese people—three ethnic groups that, combined, were viewed by the state as its cultural heart—and we have almost 70 percent of the population. At that time, the Minangkabau were just 3.36 percent of the Indies population, fewer than 2 million people.²

Given this Javanese hegemony, it is perplexing that the people of Minangkabau, a small and marginal region in a huge archipelago, loom so large in the national history. The Minangkabau preponderance in the roster of Indonesian luminaries has never been adequately explained. In analyzing Minangkabau modernity, the historian Taufik Abdullah points to the tradition of merantau (male out-migration) as a key to Minangkabau openness and dynamism. In accordance with custom, Minangkabau men must leave their villages and travel into the expanded world—the rantau—seeking wealth, education, or whatever might make them of value before they can return home and appeal to the family of a potential bride. Taufik argues that this Minangkabau male custom of merantau contributes to a spiraling rhythm of history that makes Minangkabau people more open to exotic ideas.³ But here his usually incisive analysis hangs on cultural idealizations and lacks real historical determination. After all, other Indonesian ethnic groups migrate with greater frequency than the Minangkabau do.⁴ And the rantau is traditionally a completely male province.

It is a mistake to eliminate women from cultural formulae, especially for Minangkabau culture, whose defining feature is that it is the world’s largest matrilineal Muslim society. Current ethnographic literature relies on Taufik for his historical authority and moves on to contemplate Minangkabau matriliny as one of the sturdier fundamentals of the culture. That a matriarchate has survived in West Sumatra is chalked up to the admirable resilience of Minangkabau tradition. Little attention is given to the historical processes that have defined the matriarchate. And, in fact, it is the dynamic tension between Islamic reformism and the matriarchate that not only has preserved the matriarchate in the face of colonialism but has made West Sumatra the incubator for that extraordinary generation of fin-de-siècle Indonesian leaders.

In Muslims and Matriarchs, I address two central questions of Indonesian history. First, why did the Minangkabau culture in the highlands of West Sumatra produce so many dynamic and ideologically diverse first-generation Indonesian leaders? And, second, how did a matriarchate survive in West Sumatra when elsewhere in Asia it was undermined by colonial and national state policies? The answers are linked and relate directly to the tension in Minangkabau culture between Islam and the customs of the matriarchate.


Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world, the westernmost island in the archipelagic nation of Indonesia. Roughly the size of California, it covers an area of 183,000 square miles, is 1,100 miles long, and at its widest point is 270 miles across, running on a northwest-southeast axis and bisected by the equator. The mountainous western coast borders the Indian Ocean, and in the eastern plain silty rivers empty into the Straits of Malacca. Historically, these straits were the natural site for an entrepot established for sailors following the monsoon winds. The Sumatran climate is governed by the monsoons. Rainfall is heaviest between October and April and lightest in June and July. As important to local climate as the monsoon, the Barisan Mountain range runs down the spine of Sumatra, close to the western coast, and acts as an enormous catchment zone. Clouds pushed in from the Indian Ocean pile up against these peaks, and rainfall is much heavier on the western coast and the highlands than on the broad eastern plain. The west coast and hills can receive as much as 236 inches of rain annually, whereas the east receives half that. The Minangkabau highland valleys in the west, where volcanic soils and dependable rainfall allow for extensive wet rice agriculture, have historically supported large populations.

Sumatra, like any island, has seductively clear borders. But there is no pan-Sumatran identity. Along the Straits of Malacca, traditional seafaring cultures—the Malay, Bugis, and Acehnese—followed trade winds; sought alignments with Arab, Indian, and Chinese merchants; and envisioned an expanded world of the Indian Ocean and the eastern Indonesian archipelago.⁵ Hill people—the various Batak cultures in the north and the other hinterland minorities in the south—farmed and harvested forest products, directing goods down a network of rivers to the straits.⁶ English and Dutch trading companies and imperial states interfered with these systems in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, destroying local fleets, monopolizing ports, and redirecting trade.

The Minangkabau had a hybrid culture. In turn they acted like an inland hill culture, sending gambier, camphor, rattan, and then pepper down from the forests. But they also had a maritime tradition, with ports along the western coast and a poetic sensibility that sang of wanderers, merchants, sailors, and men far from home. Unlike those of an island, the boundaries of such a society are far harder to map. Although the Minangkabau are now associated with the province of West Sumatra, this is arbitrary and a shadow of colonial partitioning. The first record of the name Minangkabau is in a 1365 list of the main Malay suzerains of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, and it appears again in the Ming Chronicles in 1405.⁷ So, it has been a recognized highland polity for over six hundred years. Minangkabau is defined by a handful of customs and rough linguistic commonalities, spreading out centrifugally from a heartland of highland villages called the darek and into the expanding rantau. In the east of Sumatra, Minangkabau culture mixes with the world of the coastal Malays. In the south, the Minangkabau people interact with the inhabitants of Bengkulu and Jambi, shaping local politics and customs.⁸ The northern frontier, where Minangkabau abuts the Mandailing Batak culture, has for the past two centuries been the site of the most intensive interaction. Mandailing was the focus of a ferocious proselytizing jihad from Minangkabau in the early nineteenth century; then, the two societies were, until the early twentieth century, jointly administered as a single colonial unit. In colonial schools and in the coastal city Padang, Mandailing people were key players in the definition of West Sumatran modernity.

Like Java, West Sumatra was one of the few regions of Indonesia to experience intensive colonialism in the nineteenth century. But even before the Dutch reinforced Javanese feudalism through a cultivation system of agricultural labor taxes, Java had been turning inward, away from its northern coast and toward inland kingdoms.⁹ West Sumatra, located on the Indian Ocean and linked to ancient trading systems in the Straits of Malacca, had a reputation for outward-looking dynamism. The port of Padang was the first stop for ships crossing the Bay of Bengal. Through trade and travel, the Minangkabau people were part of an expansive Indian Ocean world. They took a lively part in intellectual developments in South Asia and the Middle East, and Minangkabau activists transmitted new ideas to their compatriots in the East Indies and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The tension between the local matriarchate and Islamic reformism has lasted a long time. Since the late eighteenth century, Minangkabau has experienced a sustained debate between Muslim reformists and preservers of culture. The tensions began with violence. The reformist Padri War, the protracted and bloody conflict in the early nineteenth century, sought to replace the matriarchate with a society modeled on that of the prophet Muhammad. The capitulation of the Padri and the formulation of an uneasy truce that sought to find a balance between Islamic law and local custom ushered in an ongoing dialog. With the incorporation of West Sumatra into the nascent Dutch empire in the aftermath of the Padri War, this became a three-way critical dialectic among Muslim reformists, cultural traditionalists, and the colonial state.

The existing tension between Islam and the matriarchate allowed the matriarchate to survive attacks from the colonial state and colonial progressives. And the ferment generated by the trinity of oppositions created social conditions that gave rise to numerous innovative leaders.


Matriarchate is the English equivalent of the Dutch word matriarchaat. Today, ethnographically informed Minangkabau use the term matriarchaat to gloss the institutions of matrilineal descent and inheritance and matrilocal residence that are essential components of their culture. According to Minangkabau adat (custom), a person’s principal affiliation is to the longhouse and village of a maternal clan. Men marry into an extended family, but remain attached to their mothers’ houses. They return to that house daily to work the fields, convalesce there in times of sickness, and are eventually buried in the maternal family graveyard. A husband and father is an evanescent figure. In the words of a Minangkabau aphorism, "The urang sumando is like a horsefly on the tail of a buffalo, or like ashes on a burned tree trunk. [When a little wind blows, it is gone.]"¹⁰ A colonial official described the dawn ballet of men returning to their mothers’ houses after nights with wives as a chassez-croissez through the village.¹¹ And according to tradition, it is the mamak (maternal uncle) who provides male authority in the lives of children. Minangkabau culture has been termed matrifocal because, although men can be part of the lives of their wives and children, it is mother-centeredness that grounds the family.¹²

To outside observers, this Minangkabau family life seemed peculiar, perhaps atavistic or even immoral, and certainly deserving of research. Ever since George Wilken called attention to Minangkabau custom in the 1880s, the culture (in Sumatra and in Malaysia) has become an important case study for ideas of kinship.¹³ The Minangkabau case has always disturbed universalistic assumptions about women’s place in the world.¹⁴ The first colonial efforts to define Minangkabau culture generated a stock of images that continued to inform ethnography through the twentieth century.¹⁵ Clichés of Minangkabau culture, convoluted kinship charts, and diagrams of inheritance patterns bear witness to this muddled project. In a discussion of matrilineal kinship practices observed in the 1990s, Evelyn Blackwood describes not an easy set of rules but a matrix of matrilineal practices that provide the basic framework for acting in the world.¹⁶ This is usefully vague. Another ethnography of the Minangkabau makes the case that a matriarchy would be expected to exhibit a high degree of gender egalitarianism and would not be the men-oppressing mirror image of patriarchy.¹⁷ I agree that this is the sort of society we find in highland West Sumatra. On the other hand, I am not prepared to dismiss patriarchal political and religious movements in West Sumatra as un-Minangkabau. Islam aside, Minangkabau culture contains male-dominated elements. And so I use the archaic term matriarchate as both a nod to local terminology and an acknowledgment that matriarchy is often more a utopian ideal than an ethnographic reality.

There is a tension between this matriarchate (often glossed as adat, the Arabic and Indonesian word for local custom) and Islamic law, shariah. Inheritance customs whereby daughters receive all immovable property and ideas of an appropriate cohabiting family wherein a wife might find herself alone with a cousin’s husband are anathema to the basic tenets of Islamic law.¹⁸ Since the eighteenth century, foreign observers and Muslim reformists have predicted that the scriptural authority of Islam would overwhelm the fluid power of the matriarchate. This has not happened. Scholars and travelers have regularly pointed to the existence of single-family households and property acquired through individual male initiative (harato pencarian) as signs of the fragility and decay of tradition. Yet male acquisitiveness and even temporary patrilocal residence patterns are parts of a long-standing mechanism by which new property is incorporated into the holdings (harato pusako) of an extended matrilineal family.¹⁹ Minangkabauist scholarship makes much of an essential clash, a bloody dispute between adat and Islam, especially over the issue of inheritance.²⁰ Although debates framed as "adat versus Islam" occur perpetually in West Sumatra, their essence is not universal and they lack a transhistorical theme. Not only is the tension between custom and Islamic law always rooted in particular historical dynamics, but it is almost always resolved dialogically and peacefully. Local tradition is not fragile; it is resilient and dynamic. The matriarchate changes, but it has survived a neo-Wahhabi war, intrusions by the colonial state after the Dutch used that war as a pretext to incorporate West Sumatra into their empire, attacks from Mecca-based reformists and their disciples in the late nineteenth century, the Muslim modernist and Eurocentric progressive movements of the 1910s and 1920s, and the police state imposed in the aftermath of a communist uprising in 1926.

The central question of this book—Why does matriarchy persist?—has been dodged by scores of researchers who have been lured to Minangkabau by the seeming paradox of a matrilineal Muslim society. These scholars have relied on customary guidebooks and have attempted to gauge the degradation or survival of matrilineal traditions in one particular village or another. Here, however, the answer comes not from case studies but in a comparative approach to the histories of matrilineal societies under colonial regimes, in particular the matrilineal traditions found in Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia and Kerala in India.²¹ Both of these traditions were dismantled by the colonial state. New legal concepts, and a persistent discourse of progress (called kemajuan) and modernity that situated the matriarchate in a shameful and primitive past, encouraged people to scrap their atavistic customs.²²

In West Sumatra, the Dutch colonial state implemented exactly the same sorts of policies that elsewhere proved pernicious. But there is one fundamental difference in the history of Minangkabau. There the Padri assault on matrilineal inheritance and matrilocal residence had forced the traditionalists to articulate a defense of custom. It prepared them for future Islamic reformist attacks from the Mecca-based Minangkabau Ahmad Khatib and his local disciples in the late nineteenth century. And it readied the traditionalists for the universalist critiques of progressives and modernists who dreamed of Europe, Cairo, and Indonesian nationalisms in the twentieth century. The interactions between the Padris and the traditionalists forced the traditionalists to defend their ideological position. Elsewhere, traditional societies gave way to a universal notion of modernity, a notion that described matriarchy as particularly anachronistic. But in West Sumatra the Padri experience had armed the traditionalists for a defense of their matriarchate from the colonial state and the progressive critics.

The Padri War was a violent neo-Wahhabi jihad. The Padri leaders attacked the institutions of the matriarchate, burning longhouses, killing traditionalist leaders, and murdering clan matriarchs. They demanded strict adherence to what they interpreted as a way of life prescribed in the Quran. Padri villages followed Islamic law, the men wore white robes and turbans and grew beards, and the women were required to wear burkas that covered all but their eyes. The conventional historiography states that the Padri were stopped only by Dutch military intervention on behalf of the traditionalists, that the Minangkabau chose between the destruction of their culture at the hands of Islamic puritans and subservience to a colonial state. But this was not the case. Padri capitulation was not a result of Dutch pressure but, rather, a response to ideological shifts in Mecca and a remorseful desire of a Padri leader to find a compromise between Islam and the customs of the matriarchate.

It is instructive that an ideologically narrow and politically violent Islamic movement was capable of introspection and self-correction with no need for foreign military intervention. And it is paradoxical, perhaps, that in countering the Padri the Minangkabau traditionalists were forced to articulate the most heretical aspect of their culture, their matriarchate, in a manner that allowed these traditions to survive another two centuries of attacks and critiques. In analyzing the place of Islam in the Sumatran matriarchate, it becomes clear that in the case of the Minangkabau the transformative force of colonialism is overstated. Local culture may have been redefined by colonialism, but through the sustained debate with reformist Islam it also proves fundamentally resilient. And most striking, ever since the Padri War Islamic reformists have realized that occasionally they must compromise and adapt in order to succeed in Southeast Asia.

Heroes of the Nation

The mystique of that first generation of Minangkabau leaders intrigues Indonesians, who long for political idealism untarnished by political reality. And students of Indonesia are equally curious: What was going on in West Sumatran villages and schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that shaped these thinkers? This fin-de-siecle generation was politically diverse and dynamic because it came of age in a world where every sacred truth was being questioned. In even the smallest village, the idea of a house, of a family, of parental authority, and of education was being challenged by Islamic reformists and the colonial state. More than anywhere else in Indonesia, in West Sumatra nothing could be taken for granted—not ideas of family, of house, of village, of religion, or of language.

The Padri War gave the Dutch an excuse to establish an intensive and early presence in highland Sumatra. A cultivation system for the forced delivery of coffee required local bureaucrats, and so the colonial school system was inclusive and populist, training not feudal leaders but clerks and bean-counters. Islam in Minangkabau was particularly factional, and it was outward-looking and adaptive. Networks of competing Islamic schools used new pedagogies and provided often divergent educational alternatives. The tradition of merantau (outmigration) encouraged exposure to new ideas. All these factors contributed to an environment that produced many fiercely individualistic leaders.

But most important, and the reason West Sumatra spawned so many national luminaries, were changes within the Minangkabau home. These changes, driven by the long-running tension between reformist Islam and the customs of the matriarchate, were further influenced by the interventions of the colonial state. The resilient matriarchate brought scrutiny from Muslim reformists and colonial progressives to the intimate details of Minangkabau culture. The house, the family, the village, and the concept of childhood—all were being aggressively challenged and transformed. In their daily lives, the Minangkabau were forced to question received and seemingly elemental cultural definitions. It was this condition of fundamental and inescapable change that made Minangkabau unique and dynamic. The people born in West Sumatra in these years had no easy truths on which they could plant a pivot foot. Off-balance, they were capable of envisioning new possibilities and fighting to make them real.

Victorious Buffaloes

Since the early twentieth century, books about Minangkabau have all featured a cute but clichéd etymology: the name Minangkabau comes from the legend of a victorious (menang) buffalo (kerbau). The story goes that in the haze of prehistory an invading army appeared in the highlands of West Sumatra and demanded submission from the local people. The locals suggested that, rather than suffer a long war, the two sides should stage a buffalo fight. The defeat of an army’s buffalo would mean the defeat of that army. The invaders agreed and produced a massive bull. The locals sharpened the horns of a starving calf. When released, the calf raced out to suckle and eviscerated the bull.

This trickster’s tale of victory, and supposedly the source of the name Minangkabau, is seen as evidence of a stubborn will to survive in the face of invasions from the Dutch or the Javanese colonial state.²³ Similar tales exist in Thailand, with Ayudhya fending off a Burmese invasion, and Marsden collected the etymology when he was in Bengkulu in the late 1700s.²⁴ But in no nineteenth-century Minangkabau or Dutch account from West Sumatra do we find the story. I had assumed, therefore, that the etymology had been cooked up by the colonial tourism board in the 1910s to promote the highlands as a hill station.²⁵ But the story appears far earlier, in a perversely violent account set down by the would-be conquerors from Java.

This unusual text was preserved in the court libraries of east Java. The Chronicle of the Kings of Pasai describes events in Sumatra between 1280 and 1400: the introduction of Islam to the sultanate of Samudra-Pasai on the northeast coast, the travails of the ruling family there, and finally the expansion of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit as it incorporated the western archipelago into its empire. At the end of this catalog of victories—it is the Majapahit version of the story, after all—there is a strange and unexpected conclusion.

In the Majapahit story, the emperor launches an expedition to subjugate the island of Sumatra. Five hundred Javanese warships set sail, carrying ministers, commanders, 200,000 troops, and an enormous buffalo the size of a bull elephant. The fleet sails unhindered to Jambi and then heads upstream along the deep rivers of the east Sumatran plain, pushing into the highlands and finally arriving in a country called Pariangan. (According to the tambo, the traditional history of Minangkabau, Pariangan is the original Minangkabau nagari.) Following their plan, the Javanese propose to the local leaders, Patih Suatang and Patih Ketemenggungan (legendary figures also found in the tambo as Datuk Perpatih nan Sabatang and Datuk Ketemanggungan), that the battle be waged symbolically by champion buffaloes. The loser’s army must surrender to the victor’s. The locals agree. The chronicle then recounts the final battle of the empire in Sumatra, a terrible defeat that marks the end of Majapahit’s westward expansion.

So the great buffalo was set loose by the people of Majapahit, and he tramped across the field like a lion spoiling for a fight. Then the buffalo calf was released by Patih Suatang. It was starving, and like lightning it hurled itself beneath the great buffalo and began to suckle on his testicles. The great buffalo bucked and twisted until he was exhausted, but the calf held fast. The great buffalo tried to gore the calf with his horns but could not reach it below his own flanks. The great buffalo ran back and forth on the field but could not shake the calf loose from his testicles. At last the great buffalo fell, wailing, writhing on the ground.

The soldiers of Majapahit, defeated, prepared to leave. But Patih Suatang and Patih Ketemenggungan graciously stopped them, insisting that they share in a feast before returning home. Hundreds of animals were slaughtered—buffaloes, oxen, goats, ducks and chickens. And many hundreds of jars of liquor and fermented rice cakes were prepared. All the various drinks were poured into thousands of sections of bamboo that had been fashioned into long cups. The lips of the cups had been sharpened into points. Patih Suatang then instructed his soldiers to serve the Javanese their food and drink. When the Javanese tried to receive the long cups, the Sumatrans explained that it was local custom for honored guests to be hand-fed by their hosts, and that the Sumatrans would pour the liquor into their mouths for them. At the sound of a drum the Sumatrans rammed the bamboo cups down the mouths of the Javanese, spearing their throats. Half of the Javanese army dropped dead. The rest fled, trampling the morinda trees that to this day still bend toward the east. The rotting corpses of the Javanese soldiers gave that place the name Padang Sibusuk (Stinking Field) and ever since the buffalo fight the country has been known as Minangkabau.

With sorrow and regret the survivors fled back to Majapahit, escaping through Jambi and sailing back to their own country. After some time at sea they arrived in Majapahit and went ashore, and in the presence of the Emperor related all that had occurred from beginning to end, saying This, your Majesty, is what happened. The Emperor spoke no more, disappointed by his champions and ministers in whom he had placed so much hope.²⁶

Jane Drakard has argued that precolonial Minangkabau authority hinged on the production of texts rather than on military muscle.²⁷ And Leonard Andaya demonstrates that a sense of Minangkabau greatness was tied to the idea that the society was the direct political descendant of the kingdom of Srivijaya.²⁸ It is certainly true that through the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries people from Minangkabau operated with great confidence in their cultural legitimacy and that being political and acting were often indistinguishable from speaking and, especially, from writing. Minangkabau women and men generated letters, debates, polemics, and stories of all sorts—the circulation of these texts described an expanding Minangkabau realm. In this way, the Dutch press restrictions and arrests of the 1930s were a cruel blow to Minangkabau activists in particular, forcing their discourse away from open debate and toward fiction and fantasy, preventing real historical and political analysis in a way that crippled Minangkabau intellectual discourse until the 1970s. It is not a coincidence that in the twentieth century we see the return of a diluted version of the victorious buffalo story to West Sumatra.

In the etymological legend, the people are clever and aggressive in a manner that recalls the violent political actions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the Padri War and its aftershocks, the 1908 Anti-Tax Rebellion, and finally the communist Silungkang uprising of 1926–1927. In each of these actions, the Minangkabau were defeated. The Padri War had shifted from internecine conflict between Muslim reformists and adat traditionalists, becoming a war against colonial