Life Among the Minangkabau of Indonesia
Peggy Reeves Sanday

Nature is our Teacher
The Philosophical Foundation of Minangkabau CultureThe core of Minangkabau adat (cutomary law) is based on the guiding idea that nature must be taken as a teacher. “Because nature surrounds us in all the events of our lives, the rules of adat must be based on nature,” I was told. The most important natural law is growth nurtured by the sun, rain, the mother, or by other forms of physical nurture. This means that the mother must be dominant because she is closest to her children and establishes the character of the generations. Just as the weak becomes strong in nature, the Minangkabau believe that their society will be strong only by providing women and their offspring a transgenerational social tie to the land. Thus, a social system oriented to women’s rights is firmly anchored simultaneously in cultural perceptions of nature and social prescriptions guiding the distribution of property. This interweaving of culture and nature is prominently evident in Minangkabau aesthetics.

Nature and Culture Woven Together


A bamboo sprout in nature.


The bamboo sprout in Minangkabau weaving

Minangkabau proverbs: dictating a way of life
The interweaving of culture and nature is also evident in Minangkabau social thought reflected in a rich oral tradition made up of countless proverbs and pithy sayings comprising the body of customary law and guides for living which the Mnangkabau call “adat.” Unlike Americans who tend to believe that biology determines culture, the Minangkabau make culture rule biology. As one expert explained, “Adat is central to our life, it determines the way we act, and gives us rules for living.”

Like the designs for weaving mirroring growth in nature, adat prescriptions are couched in metaphors alluding to the natural processes of transformation and growth. The most widely cited proverb, which some believe to be at the basis of Minangkabau adat, articulates the necessity of looking to nature as a guide in behavior.

Take the small knife for carving
Panakiak pisau sirauit

Make a staff from the lintabuang tree
Ambiak galah batanag lintabuang

The cover of pinang flowers becomes a winnow
Salodang ambiak ke niru

A drop of water becomes the sea
Nan satitik jadikan lauit

A clump of earth becomes a mountain
Nan sakapa jadikan gunuang

Growth in nature becomes a teacher
Alam takambang jadikan guru

Natural Law and Islam: a Minangkabau balance
The Minangkabau subordinate themselves to the rule of Islam as much as they do to the rule of natural law and matriliny. My days were punctuated by the sound of the call to prayer sent out over the loudspeaker of the village mosque beginning in the predawn hours and by the sight of women praying in the rice fields at mid-day. The Minangkabau see no contradiction between their matrilineal custom and the patrilineal emphasis of Islam. Both are part of their nature-based philosophy. In the words of a well known Minangkabau philosopher “in Al quran God reveals some of His secrets through nature to those who can interpret nature properly.” Matriliny and nature form the fertile soil in which Islam took root and grew strong in West Sumatra. Because it was part of the foundation of Islam, matriliny must be conserved with the same devotion shown for the practice of religion.