The unlikely marriage of Islam and matriarchy!

The story of how the Minangkabau culture merged with Islam to create a female friendly society – strangely has the Dutch colonialists to thank for!

On our journey through West Sumatra the big question was always: How did the Muslim religion and the matrilineal culture of Minangkabau, where women inherit property and keep the family name, become friends?


We were told by numerous people that the culture is simply based on Islam, but found this difficult to comprehend, because the Minangkabau culture was around long before Islam arrived. We had to do some deeper research.

What follows is an intriguing tale of betrayal and compromise that shows even the most hardened religions can be worked with to create a better society for both men and women…

  • AD500, the Minangkabau migrated from Southeast Asia and settled in West Sumatra. They traded in gold with Arabia, Indian and China sailors.
  • 1347, the Javanese occupied the region and introduced Tantric Buddhism.
  • 16C, the Acehnese from North Sumatra invaded and brought the Islamic faith.
  • 17C, the Dutch East India Company arrived.


Slowly, tension mounted in Minangkabau society between those who followed Minang Adat (Minangkabau matrilineal traditions) and those who followed fundamental Islam. By 1803, it was the cause of a civil war: the Padri War.

The Padris were pushing to install a radical interpretation of Sharia law, while the Minang Adat traditionalists stood firmly against them. The Padris saw the matrilineal system as the biggest threat to their ideology, so they declared a jihad against the traditionalists. They burnt Minang longhouses and killed Adat leaders, including the Minangkabau royal family!

In retaliation, the Adat traditionalists joined forces with the Dutch colonialists, and launched a major offensive against the Padris. This counterattack also happened to coincide with the Padri leader learning that the particular Islamic ideology of his campaign had suddenly become invalid in Mecca, forcing him to rethink his position.

After some reflection, the Padris sort an uneasy truce with the traditionalists. Some say this dialogue was key to preserving Minangkabau culture and the matrilineal system.

What happened next took the Dutch totally by surprise.

Both the Padris and the traditionalists united and turned on their colonial oppressors. After several decades of fighting, however, their combined efforts were still not enough to drive out the Dutch, and the revolt was eventually suppressed in 1836.


The unification of the Islamic Padris and the Adat traditionalists, though, created a long lasting understanding between the two groups. They realised that for both to exist, they each needed to make compromises. So it was decided that the two ideologies would be equal in power, with Minang Adat presiding over matters of the clan and family, and Islam over matters of religion.

The phrase that coined the agreement was: ‘Minang Adat is based on Sharia – Sharia is based on Minang Adat.’

During the next one hundred years, however, Islam began to gain the upper hand, and by the second half of the twentieth century, after Indonesian independence, the phrase had changed to: ‘Minang Adat is based on Sharia – Sharia is based on the Quran.’

Nowadays, it is accepted that to be Minangkabau also means you are Muslim, and when you cease to be Muslim you cease to be Minangkabau.

This may explain why many Minangkabau people now see their culture as based on Islam.

The real encouraging part of this story, though, is that until today the Minangkabau are officially recognised the largest matrilineal society on the planet, which means the Islamic faith is not trying to take over completely, but is keeping its agreement to respect cultural traditions, even though they go against much of what Islam stands for.

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