On the emergence of 'religion' in Halmahera

This research is a cooperation between German and French scientists supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR).


This project addresses the question to what extent the introduction of Christianity to societies in Halmahera (North Moluccas) has deprived the local exchange systems of their originally communal cosmological foundations, so as to result in the emergence of mutually exclusive socio-political identities conceptualised in terms of Christian and Islamic ‘religion’.
For many centuries Ternate and Tidore had been Islamic sultanates, yet the legitimacy of their political institutions was only partly conceptualised in Islamic representations. Although in Ternate Island the sultan was acknowledged as “Lord of the believers” (Arabic amir-ul-mu'minin), the political rituals expressing his sovereignty were grounded a diararchical model of non-Islamic origin, contrasting a ruler of foreign (mythical) origin with the local Houses of noble descent.

The relations with Ternate’s dependencies in Halmahera were conceptualised accordingly. Subscribing to locally specific socio-cosmologies the Halmaheran societies of Tobelo, Galela, Tobaru and Sahu were encapsulated in exchange relations with the sultanate, paying tribute in kind and persons and receiving titles and objects charged the sultans’ renown in return. The contrast between the Islamic centre and the non-Islamic dependencies was thus encompassed by a set of shared non-Islamic values of both cosmological and political nature, expressed and reproduced in these exchange processes.

Dutch colonial interventions radically altered this. From the late 19th Century onwards, missionaries introduced Reformed Protestantism as a ‘religion’ (Dutch godsdienst), the ‘universal truth’ of which would justify the rejection of all obligatory exchanges – whether made in local rituals or in the tribute paid to the sultan. Simultaneously taxes paid to the colonial State were to replace the tribute due to the sultan. Both the colonial government and the Christian mission thus endeavoured to deprive the local social structures embedded in the sultanate’s political order of their culturally specific cosmological foundations.

In these developments the categorical distinctions between ‘religion’, ‘law’ and ‘tradition’ (denoted by the loan words agama, hukum and adat) prevailing nowadays among the local Halmahera societies, appear to be rooted. ‘Religion’ was propagated as a distinct category of values dissociated from those in which the ritual reproduction of social relationships was grounded. And whereas previously all local societies had identified their social distinctions (in hoana/soa ‘domains’ and tau ‘houses’) in shared socio-cosmological discourses, now these distinctions began to be identified in terms of adherence to Christianity and Islam as mutually exclusive ‘religions’.

The post-independence Indonesian State has accelerated this process by legitimising – as agama - scriptural world religions only and discrediting the local socio-cosmologies as politically subversive ‘animistic’ beliefs. As a result, the competition for political power and economic resources, erupting in the North Moluccas in the wake of the Post-Suharto administrative reforms in the late 1990s, assumed the form of violent conflicts between Christian and Muslim communities.

This project aims to examine the historical processes from the mid-19th to the late 20th Century that have led to the emergence of the category of ‘religion’ in the North Moluccas, and to analyse the impact of these processes on the cosmological foundations of the exchange systems, in which the social structures of the local societies were reproduced and the transformations, which have resulted in the conceptualisation of socio-political identity in Christian respectively Islamic terms.


Professor Dr. Josephus D. M. Platenkamp
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Institut für Ethnologie
Studtstraße 21
48149 Münster
Tel.: 0251 - 83-27311
Fax: 0251 - 83-27313