Islamic Studies Sarekat Islam
Fred von der Mehden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0071


Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union, or SI) was the largest pre-independence Muslim political organization in the Dutch East Indies and the colony’s first mass nationalist movement. It started in 1911 as a small anti-Chinese commercial organization called Sarekat Dagang Islam (Islamic Commercial Union), which was dominated by merchants in the batik industry. By the end of World War I, it had expanded greatly and changed its name to Sarekat Islam. By the early 1920s, total membership was variously reported to be between 350,000 and 800,000 (SI itself claimed two million members). In 1921 it became the Partai Sarekat Islam, symbolizing the organization’s more political agenda. The leadership favored social, economic, and political reform and was influenced by Modernist Islam, which had entered the Indies at the turn of the century. The membership was more attuned to traditional mysticism, local grievances, Islam, and, later, social justice and economic inequalities. Sarekat Islam was loosely organized and its branches had considerable autonomy. This organizational weakness and the adoption of more radical policies allowed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to infiltrate local branches and fostered dissension and fragmentation. Disputes within Sarekat Islam and government pressure eroded its base by the mid-1920s, and by the 1930s there were less than 50,000 members. The party lasted into the independence era, but its power and influence were already severely diminished and in the 1955 general elections its successor, the PSII (Party Sarekat Islam Indonesia), gained less than 3 percent of the popular vote. The coming of the military-dominated “New Order” led it to a forced amalgamation with other religious parties in 1973, creating the Partai Persatuan Pembangunan Indonesia (PPP, or United Development Party).

Political and Social Context

It is important to recognize the environment that framed the development of Sarekat Islam, including attitudes towards local Chinese, social and economic inequalities, and new religious ideas. Blumberger 1931 and Furnivall 1939 are considered classics in detailing political, social, and economic conditions in the colony.

  • Blumberger, John Theodor Petrus. De Nationalistische Beweging in Nederlandsch Indie. Haarlem, The Netherlands: Willink and Zoon, 1931.

    Written by a former colonial administrator, this description of the first decades of the nationalist movement in the colony (title translates as “The nationalist movement in The Netherlands Indies”) has been widely cited in scholarly books and articles. It includes a major contribution to our understanding of Sarekat Islam.

  • Chandra, Siddarth. “Race, Inequality, and Anti-Chinese Violence in The Netherlands Indies.” Explorations in Economic History 39, no. 1 (2002): 88–112.

    DOI: 10.1006/exeh.2001.0777

    An exploration of wage differentials in the Indies from 1908 to 1917, including an analysis of how inequalities related to the rise of Sarekat Islam. Available online from Scientific Commons and other providers.

  • Furnivall, J. S. Netherlands India: A Study of a Plural Economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1939.

    While this book does not address Sarekat Islam, it is a very good encyclopedic source for social and economic information of the Indies in the interwar period.

  • Noer, Deliar. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900–1942. Singapore: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973.

    Provides an in-depth understanding of the place of Modernism in Indonesia in the first half of the twentieth century and a good analysis of the rise and decline of Sarekat Islam.

  • Ricklefs, M. C. Polarizing Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions (c. 1830–1930). Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press. 2007.

    An excellent analysis of different religious visions in Java over a century, including a discussion on the role of Sarekat Islam in this environment.

  • van Dijk, Kees. The Netherlands Indies and the Great War 1914–1918. Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV Press, 2007.

    Offers a detailed analysis of the economic and social conditions in the colony during the years when Sarekat Islam was expanding into a mass movement.

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