Papua is one of a few predominantly Christian provinces in Indonesia, with a large majority (69.54%) of the population following Protestantism, according to data accessed from Katada.co.id. Meanwhile, the Muslim population made up 15.71% of the population, making Islam the largest minority group in Papua.
Among the Muslim population in Papua and West Papua, mostly are not indigenous Papuans. Most of the indigenous tribe follows either Christianity, both Catholic and Protestantism, or the indigenous belief system. In this article, we will take a closer look at the presence of Islam in the Baliem Valley.
Islamic Presence in Papua
Islam has been present in Papua, especially around the Bird’s Head Peninsula, West Papua, and the surrounding islands, since at least the 16th century. The religion was thought to have entered Papua through the port city of Fakfak in present-day West Papua, where South-East Asian and even Arabian Muslim merchants have long-established trade deals with its inhabitant. They brought along their belief system and fulfilled their spiritual duties during their time docking in the region.
The religious system has also been spread through political means. The western part of the island once fell under the rule of the Tidore Sultanate from 1570 to 1583 under the reign of Sultan Babullah. The 36th monarch of Tidore Sultanate, Sultan Zainal Abidin “Alting” Syah, stated that the main sovereignty of Tidore Kingdom covers two large areas—Nyili Gam and Nyili Papua.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of the Tidore Sultanate’s influence in spreading Islam along the west coast of Papua is the existence of Raja Ampat itself. Raja Ampat, which translates to ‘Four Kings’, was named that due to the existence of four vassal kingdoms of Tidore: Waigeo, Salawati, Misool, and Batanta. These vassal kingdoms were ruled by four kings appointed by and reports to the central Sultanate.
Being the vassal kingdoms of a Sultanate, the kings introduced and implemented Islamic laws and customs in their own respective territories. This implementation may sound repressive at first, but the high level of interfaith tolerance and kinship among the people in this region today means that the general public at the time obeyed their ruler out of respect and veneration, not because of excessive use of force.
Islam in Baliem Valley
Baliem Valley is a highland area in the central part of New Guinea (Papua) island. The predominant tribe inhabiting this partly isolated highlands is the Dani or Ndani tribe, one of the most open tribal communities in Papua. They are also the best-known ethnic groups of Papua due to the popularity of their homeland among tourists. Interestingly, the Dani people themselves were not used to referring to themselves as “Dani”—rather, the “Dani” or “Ndani” was given by the Moni people to refer to the inhabitants of this valley.
As far as religious beliefs go, most Dani tribesmen still follow their traditional animistic customs. Christianity was introduced to the tribe during the Dutch colonial administration, while Muslim volunteers were sent by President Soekarno as a part of the Pelopor Pembangunan Irian Barat (PPIB) program in prior to the 1969 referendum. The volunteers then teach the people about Islamic teachings and customs.
Inter-religious Life between the People
The highest concentration of Muslims in Baliem Valley is in Walesi District, where a mosque and pesantren are present. About 200 meters from the pesantren, there is a church and Catholic Elementary School. The presence of these two religious institutions in such close proximity is a sign that inter-religious kinship and tolerance among the residents are strong.
Even though a huge chunk of the population practices Christianity and Islam, respectively, some people still practice their indigenous customs and traditions. One of these traditions is stone burning feast or barapen. This tradition is usually held to celebrate religious holidays like the coming of Ramadhan month, Christmas, or other holidays. Barapen can also be held to celebrate weddings or other events in the community.
Among the people, barapen is viewed as the moment where both Christian and Muslim family members gather and feast. On such occasions, two fire pits are prepared—one for cooking pork and the other for cooking halal meats like chicken or lamb. This arrangement was made so that everyone could join in on the celebration without feeling left out.
Islam in Papua and West Papua has a long history spanning hundreds of years. From merchants to monarchs to scholars to government volunteers, each has contributed to the integration of Islamic values and teachings to Papuans.
In the context of Islam in Baliem Valley, even though their first contact with the religion is quite new, the Muslim community has grown and thrived in the mountainous region. Not only that, the kinship and interfaith tolerance among the people are inspiring. The Dani people and their inter-religious fraternity have taught us what it means to be Indonesian—to be united in diversity.