A type of school in Southeast Asia offering second‐level training in Islamic subjects is termed pesantren on Java, surau on Sumatra, pondok on the Malay Peninsula, and pandita (“school”) in the Philippines. Pesantren derives from the sixteenth century, when learning centers known as the “place of learning for the Islamic faithful (santris),” were established. Surau was a place for worship in early Southeast Asia, while pondok derives from the travelers’ inns (Ar., funduq) of the Middle East. Pandita was the local term for a holy man in the Philippines.
By the seventeenth century the pesantren on Java had become alternate centers of authority to the princely courts. The courts stressed elaborate lifestyles based on Old Javanese values of refinement, while the pesantren stressed pious conduct and the hereafter. Each rival, however, usually recognized the legitimacy and societal role of the other. In Minangkabau the surau was likewise a center of authority outside the traditional communal units of society. In other places there seems to have been less social division between the court and the learning centers than existed in Java and Minangkabau.
In earlier times the pesantren, surau, pondok, and pandita schools were a rural phenomenon, interacting with local communities. Scholars provided education, gave advice to villagers, and legitimized local ceremonies. Some scholars were regarded as “blessed” and were consulted for cures and supernatural assistance during their lives and after death by cults at their tombs. Villagers supported pesantren with food and labor; in some places a poor tax, alms, and pious endowments were also given. In Malaysia support networks of parents provided assistance, and in all places learners often worked in the fields of the pesantren, since fees were seldom taken for learning per se. Today some pesantren are located in urban areas, and many rely on fees.
Pesantren are private ventures by scholars—called kyai on Java, guru on the Malay Peninsula, pandita in the southern Philippines, and ʿalīm in most other places—usually with the assistance of their families. Many schools do not survive the founder, but others continue through several generations, with sons and sons‐in‐law succeeding to control and ownership. Prestige is gained by scholars through good contacts with other scholar families, some in Arabia, and also through pupils who establish new pesantren recognizing the original scholars as progenitors.
Learners in earlier times remained at a pesantren until they felt they had learned enough and then returned to society. Committed learners, often sons of scholars (gus), moved among pesantren whose scholars had reputations for special knowledge. Such travel allowed a learner the opportunity to marry a daughter of an established scholar, ensuring himself a place to teach and perhaps to succeed the older scholar. Today, additional training is obtained in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, often at Al‐Azhar University in Egypt .
Historically, the intense education and worship schedule led to deep involvement of learners with their scholar, which produced strong loyalties and respect. In school and after departing, scholars could rely on their learners to answer a summons for aid, a factor of political importance at certain moments in history. In the Second Javanese War (1826–1830), the Acehnese War (1873–1903), and the Battle of Surabaya (1946) during the Indonesian revolution, scholars led their santris into armed conflict against enemies who they believed threatened the Muslim community. Contemporary Indonesian Muslim intellectuals have lauded the anti‐Dutch stance of the pesantren scholars, recognizing them as preservers of Indonesian and Islamic values during the colonial period.
Learning in pesantren is based on the “old books” (kitab kuning) of prominent scholars from the Muslim Middle Period (ca. 1250 to 1850), usually from the Shāfiʿī school of legal scholarship. Study has always included Arabic grammar (naḥw) and conjugation (ṣarf), Qur’ānic recitation (qirā’ah), Qur’ānic exegesis (tafsīr), theology (tawḥīd), jurisprudence (fiqh), ethics (akhlāq), logic (manṭiq), history (tārīkh) and mysticism (taṣawwuf). The weton or ḥalaqah system was used, in which learners sat in a semicircle before a seated scholar who called on them in turn for recitation. Learners at all levels of competence sat together, and the more accomplished assisted the less learned with their readings.
Change occurred slowly. Some learners studied in Mecca before becoming scholars and were influenced by thinking there. In this way the Naqshabandīyah order, with its balance between mysticism and legalism, became popular in nineteenth‐century Southeast Asia. Wahhābī purism was introduced through the Minangkabau suraus in the early nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth century some schools came under the modernizing and spiritual reform of the Manār school of Egypt. There was locally induced change as well, for example in the reforms of Hasyim Asy’ari (d. 1947), who introduced new techniques for the study of Arabic.
In the twentieth century pesantren came under pressure from society and governments to adopt current teaching techniques and to include nonreligious subjects; many responded favorably. In Indonesia the Modern Pesantren at Gontor, for example, expanded to include training from elementary grades to the university level, with a mixed curriculum. Other pesantren converted to madrasahs or sekolahs within the Indonesian education system. Still others offered specialized training in agriculture, crafts, and business alongside traditional religious subjects.
In the southern Philippines the pandita schools gave way to more organized madrasahs promoted by Egyptian religious teachers in the 1950s. In Thailand in the 1960s, the pondok schools were united into a state‐run system with a mixed curriculum. Losing pupils to government schools, pondoks in Malaysia sought accommodation with revivalist (daʿwah) activists in the 1970s to renew interest in Muslim education.
Although the value‐oriented education of the pesantren remains respected by Southeast Asian Muslims, the pesantren still appears to be waning as an educational choice. Muslims increasingly feel compelled to send their children to government schools with modern curricula, believing they will be better prepared for the job market. Even children of scholars, who earlier formed the cadre of young scholars and their wives, are drawn by nonreligious education, so that fewer scholars are being trained, and there is a long‐term decrease in the number of pesantren.
M. Asrori Ardiansyah, M.Ed
Teacher in Malang Indonesia