Muslims and Christians in Community: Pluralism in the Philosophies of Bela and Tara Miti Tomi Nuku
Kampung Ilawe is a small village located between the hillside and shore of Mutiara bay, one of district Alor’s in East Nusa Tenggara most popular tourist spots. A kampung is a location on the outskirts of a city that is often inhabited by a group of people with traditional lifestyles. In Kampung Ilawe, there are 178 Muslim families and 53 Christian families living. Muslims tend to be more numerous in Ilawe, yet a culture of tolerance is maintained. Kampung Ilawe received an award from the Indonesian Ministry of Religion in 2016 for successfully establishing and sustaining religious harmony, because the Ilawe people participated in constructing churches and mosques. Uniquely, the names of the church and mosque are derived from the language of each religion. The mosque’s name is “Ishak Mosque,” whereas the church’s name is “Ismail.”
A young researcher from East Nusa Tenggara, Merlin Tiran, asserted that Ilawe’s culture of peace may be traced back to the origin stories of its people: in other words, it is the indigenous wisdom adopted by Christians and Muslims that may negotiate the terms of peace and pluralism in Ilawe. The maintaining of indigenous, local, and/or folk traditions in the Indonesian context is not the exception, even if one converts to Islam or Christianity. In a globalized and pluralistic world, embracing the diversity of local traditions may help foster attitudes of pluralism and peace in other contexts.
The elders tell us the legend of Ilawe begins with water eels and sea fish transformed into people who then intermarry. A traditional oath known as “bela” says, “brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children shall not be furious till the end of the world, lest they die.” Thus, in Ilawe, Muslims and Christians work together to construct places of worship, despite their religious differences. In his research on the Ilawe basis for civic education, Zulkarnain demonstrates that the roles of religious and community leaders are crucial in maintaining religious and social concord. Ilawe residents are organically involved in community work such as sports, helping each other in Islamic-Christian religious activities, establishing cross-religious marriage relationships, maintaining both blood kinship through friendship, tolerance, and using language that respects ethnic differences. Moreover, the Ilawe maintain and preserve shared rituals and culture. Traditional dances and music have been standard at a variety of public events, including weddings, planting ceremonies, and national occasions such as Indonesian Independence Day. In Ilawe, dialogue, action, ritual, and culture are the three primary components of Muslim-Christian relations.
In another study, Thesa Djobo showed that religious harmony in Ilawe is also maintained by the philosophy of life of the Alor people, commonly called tara miti tomi Nuku. Historically, Tara Miti Tomi Nuku (unity in diversity) derives from the Abui language, which embodies the identity and worldview of the people of the Alor Regency as a whole. This indicates that the people of the Alor Regency are truly different in terms of language, culture, and religion, but they are also united in their commitment to equality in diversity. As indigenous wisdom, Tara Miti Tomi Nuku alludes to an attitude of mutual acknowledgment, acceptance, and mutual respect among persons and groups of different religions and beliefs. Tara Miti Tomi Nuku strongly supports cultural and religious plurality.
Using a phrase coined by Nancy Ammerman, I believe that the ideology of Bela and Tara Miti Tomi Nuku has become part of the lived religion for Muslims and Christians in Ilawe. Ilawe Muslims and Christians demonstrate that it is possible to survive by embracing Christianity and Islam while still believing in the indigenous worldview that has been passed down from generation to generation, as indigenous Ilawe belief existed long before Christianity and Islam arrived in Alor. Therefore, the cornerstone of tolerance among the Ilawe is not religious teachings but rather the acceptance of local and traditional diversity.
The practice of tolerance in Ilawe demonstrates that the derogatory terms frequently used by Christians and Muslims (in Indonesia and elsewhere) towards indigenous communities, such as infidels, heathens, and musyrik, are misguided. This is because the Ilawe people demonstrate that indigenous wisdom is not a relic of the past, but rather it is essential to the sustenance of ongoing human life. Christianity and Islam are an aspect of life for Ilaweans, but not the only or even primary language of existence.
In Jeremy Menchik’s account, the lived tolerance of the Ilawe people exceeds the concept of communal tolerance prevalent in Indonesia. According to Menchik, tolerance will succeed elsewhere in Indonesia if the majority and minority groups fulfill their state rights, such as building mosques and churches for Muslims and Christians, respectively. Tolerance is a path to peace, however certain religious groups continue to view themselves as the majority or minority. As for Ilaweans, Islamic and Christian identities cannot exist alone; they must be equal to and couched in Ilawe’s local wisdom and not in competition with them. Therefore, tolerance is a way for the Ilawe to retain and nurture human relationships. Tolerance is an attitude of recognizing identity variations and the indigenous living philosophy that has been passed down through the ages.
The tolerance practiced by the Muslim and Christian communities in Ilawe village is an endeavor to preserve the Bela and Tara Miti Tomi Nuku for the lives of Alor residents and visitors. The people of Kampung Ilawe demonstrate that the diversity of religions and beliefs in Indonesia, such as Christianity, Islam, and indigenous knowledge, can coexist and co-constitute some common grounds for life in Indonesia. Perhaps this model has something to offer to other peoples and places on a globalized planet.
Jear N D K Nenohai is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the center for religion and cross-cultural studies at Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta. Indigenous education and the politics of religious education are his main interests. He has published several articles about indigenous education in Indonesia.Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 1 March 2023.” The views and opinions expressed on this website, in its publications, and in comments made in response to the site and publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated. Counterpoint exists to promote vigorous debate within and across knowledge systems and therefore publishes a wide variety of views and opinions in the interests of open conversation and dialogue.
Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 1 March 2023.” The views and opinions expressed on this website, in its publications, and in comments made in response to the site and publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated. Counterpoint exists to promote vigorous debate within and across knowledge systems and therefore publishes a wide variety of views and opinions in the interests of open conversation and dialogue.
Photo credits: CRCS, UGM. “Kampung Ilawe.”