August 5, 2021

Balancing faith and tradition: Indonesia’s Chinese Muslims mark CNY in their own ways

5 min read

JAKARTA: Like other Chinese Indonesians, Mr Naga Kurniadi looks forward to spending time with his family this Chinese New Year, as well as participating in some of the customs and traditions associated with the celebrations.

While his family gathers for reunion dinner and hands out red packets – monetary gifts given to children and unmarried relatives – there are some rituals and beliefs which he does not participate in. There are also some dishes he avoids.

Mr Kurniadi is a Muslim and is married to a Javanese Muslim woman. But he always brings his wife and their two children along for the Chinese New Year festivities at his parents’ home in Tangerang, just west of Jakarta.

(ni) Muslim CNY 02
Mr Naga Kurniadi, 44, posing inside the Lautze Mosque in Central Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

“For me (Chinese New Year) is a time to strengthen bonds with the family. I want to show that even though I have converted (to Islam), I can still show respect to my family, my tradition and my heritage,” the 44-year-old told CNA.

“There are also values (associated with Chinese New Year) like togetherness, respect for the elders and generosity, which I want to show to my children.”

There are more than 150,000 Chinese Muslims in Indonesia, who mark their tradition and heritage in their own ways.

Another Chinese Muslim, Mr Fauzan Priyanto said he celebrates Chinese New Year with his Catholic parents and two Christian brothers at his parents’ home in Cipinang, East Jakarta.

READ: 10 restaurants to head to for abundant Lunar New Year family feasting

“Me, my wife and my children will wear red. We wear Chinese outfits. My wife wears a red hijab. I hand out red money envelopes to my nephews and nieces. My children also receive money envelopes from their grandparents and uncles,” Mr Priyanto told CNA.

“It feels just like lebaran (the Indonesian word for Eid). That’s why people call (Chinese New Year) Chinese lebaran.”


How do Chinese Muslims reconcile the differences between Chinese traditional beliefs and Islam?

Mr Kurniadi said it is important to respect the traditions and beliefs observed by other people, even though not all traditions and beliefs are in line with hs religion.

Chinese New Year Indonesia
Balinese people wearing traditional outfits arrive at a Chinese temple to pray on the first day of the Lunar New Year in Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of island on February 5, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka)

For a start, he doesn’t light up firecrackers that are believed to chase away evil spirits, although he and his children like to watch them. However, he likes to help his family put up the decorations.

Traditionally, people pray to their ancestors during Chinese New Year. 

“In my family, the prayers are only performed by the senior members of our family. The younger generations don’t want to do it,” he said.

“Once, I saw my grandmother performing the ritual all on her own. I felt sorry and decided to accompany her and help her burn joss paper. But I didn’t recite any prayer,” he recounted.

Mr Rustiadi Tanoto, 66, who converted to Islam in 1982 said he would patiently wait while his siblings perform prayers and rituals at reunion dinner time.  

(ni) Muslim CNY 03
Mr Rustiadi Tanoto, 66, a Chinese Indonesian who converted to Islam in 1982. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“Even though my family is Catholic, they still pray and make offerings to ancestors. They summon the spirits of our dead parents and offer our parents their favourite food. We are supposed to wait until the ritual is done before we can start our dinner,” Mr Tanoto said.

“I don’t participate and my siblings respect that. Just as I respect them for performing the rituals.”

Under Suharto, Chinese New Year celebrations were confined to temples and private homes. 

When Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was in office, he allowed Chinese Indonesians to celebrate their important days and freely express their culture.

Chinese New Year Indonesia
A lion dance team performs in front of a temple to mark the Lunar New Year in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Feb 5, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin)


Islamic cleric Yusman Iriansyah believes that it is acceptable for Muslims to participate in Chinese New Year celebrations.

“Islam encourages visiting relatives and maintaining close ties with their families even if they are not Muslim,” Mr Iriansyah told CNA.

“Chinese New Year is a product of culture and tradition. Islam celebrates the diversity of cultures as long as they are not in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam.”

Mr Iriansyah is one of the caretakers of the Lautze Mosque, a place of worship for the Chinese Muslim community in the predominantly Chinese neighbourhood of Sawah Besar, Central Jakarta.

(ni) Mulsim CNY 04
Exterior of the Lautze Mosque, a house of worship for the Chinese Muslim community in Central Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

And Chinese traditions are observed at the mosque, adorned in the auspicious colours of red and yellow.

The mosque’s exterior, converted from a four-storeyed shop, bears a slight resemblance to a traditional Chinese house. Inside, the walls are adorned with words of the Quran but written in Chinese-style calligraphy.

“This is another example of how Islam celebrates diversity and can accommodate different cultures and traditions,” Mr Iriansyah said.

According to a 2010 census – the last time Indonesians were asked to identify their ethnicity – 1.2 per cent (around 2.8 million people) of Indonesia’s 242 million population identified themselves as being of Chinese heritage.

Out of Indonesia’s Chinese population, 5.4 per cent were Muslims (around 153,000).


For Chinese Indonesians who convert to Islam, some undergo a period of adjustment as they navigate new identities.

Mr Priyanto said it took him quite a while to overcome the awkward feeling of being both the only Chinese at a mosque and the only Muslim in his family.

“I used to be afraid of going into a mosque because I felt like people would stare at me for being different,” Mr Priyanto, who converted to Islam in 2009, recounted.

(ni) Muslim CNY 01
Muslims pray inside the Lautze Mosque in Sawah Besar, Central Jakarta. The mosque, built in 1991, is run by the Chinese Muslim community. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)  

“At first, my family couldn’t accept me converting to Islam. But eventually, they saw how I remained the same person. Particularly, how I still came to celebrate Chinese New Year with them.”

Mr Kurniadi said he once considered avoiding family gatherings, including those during Chinese New Year, particularly in the first few years after he converted in 2002.

READ: How to keep the kilos off during reunion dinner or when visiting during CNY

He said it was very tough during his first Chinese New Year reunion dinner after he converted, as his family asked why he didn’t eat his favourite dishes made with pork.

Over time, his family’s attitude changed, especially after he got married and had children. 

“Now, whenever I come for a reunion dinner, my mother would inform me which dishes are safe (halal) for me and my family to eat,” he said.