Pesantren and Global Integration

How does pesantren education offer students help for future integration into ’s democratizing society and prepare them to live in a pluralist world? In light of an increasingly heated public debate that sees developments within the Muslim educational scene worldwide with much concern as a move to intolerance and militancy, this question does not allow for an easy answer. ’s pesantren are not spared similar accusations. Recent media coverage has been marked by a heightened sense that the pesantren constitute a “problem” globally as much as for Indonesia’s fledgling democracy to the extent that the German Geo declared the pesantren and their kiai “die vielleicht größte Gefahr für das Land” (Ger.; possibly the country’s gravest danger).[i] Accusations of a Saudi encouragement of radicalism there also feature prominently in articles. One reads of allegations that militant Muslim organizations exert control over a growing number of pesantren that generate “countless young militants schooled in jihad.”[ii]

Regardless of how one thinks about the alleged connection between Muslim radicalism and pesantren education, problems and challenges for the pesantren tradition have long been identified by both western and Indonesian educationalists when reflecting upon the schools’ potentials to prepare students for life in ’s modernizing society. Some have criticized the quality of education offered by pesantren as substandard; financial difficulties and insufficient qualifications of the teaching staff exacerbate the situation. Moreover, the religious nature of the curriculum and instructional techniques such as rote learning and memorization are deemed inadequate to the task of educating critical thinkers who will aid the process of social transformation upon which the country has embarked.

The alleged inability to prepare children adequately for the needs of the modern world is at the heart of the criticism. The modern world is generally characterized by a rational and secular outlook on life, which allows for the accommodation of scientific and technological developments as well as the pluralization and democratization of public life. In this perspective, secular institutions, which include secular systems of education, are deemed most able to prepare students for life in modern, pluralistic and democratic societies. In contrast, Muslim educational institutions appear unable either to accommodate modern scientific and technological change or to incorporate or support the pluralization and democratization of public life. In what follows I will argue that traditional Islamic education can and does prepare students for life in the modern world. More specifically, many of ’s pesantren exhibit a quite forward looking approach to balancing religious and formal education and make significant contributions to the empowerment of civil society by promoting an open attitude towards pluralism and democratic civility. Why might this be difficult to understand for someone trained in the western social sciences?

It has been common in western social theory to assume that in industrialized, highly educated, professionally specialized, and technologically advanced societies, religion will inevitably and progressively decline. Notwithstanding more recent challenges to the universality and inevitability of secularization, secular conceptions of modernity for a long time have shaped understandings of religion’s role in society. The projected retreat of religion from the public into the private realm, often coupled with the idea of religion’s subsequent marginalization and decline, set hurdles to any attempt to reflect on religion’s desirable contributions in the public sphere. In fact, a religion which does not accept it allocated space in the private sphere and seeks to assert itself publicly all too often is understood to be anti-modern, prone to extremism and fanaticism, and thus a potential threat. Education is undoubtedly a public matter whether it occurs in public schools or in private institutions. What happens in the educational institutions of a society ultimately concerns all citizens as it impinges on all facets of public life. It is not surprising then that recent discussions about religion’s role in education are located in the broader context of the debate about religion in the public sphere. Much of the current criticisms and stereotyping of Islamic educational institutions is motivated by a general suspicion of religion’s involvement in a public affair such as education.

Islamic Education in

Despite being a Muslim-majority nation, is not an Islamic state. Neither is Islam the official state religion. On the other hand, to consider secular would be mistaken. Constitutionally, the country is based on the Pancasila which acknowledges the religiously plural makeup of the Indonesian populace. This, however, does not indicate the state’s lack of support for Islam. An Islamic court system regulating matters of Islamic family law exists alongside the civil court system. A similar situation exists in the education system where the state maintains Islamic primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions of learning. Alongside the state system of education there thus exist a number of private educational networks on the levels of primary, secondary, and higher education. These institutions are mostly affiliated with religious organizations. Muhammadiyah maintains its own private universities with more than thirty campuses throughout the country, as well as a network of madrasah type schools. The latter is an Islamic day school that operates on a graded class system and employs a curriculum that combines general and religious subjects sanctioned by the Department of Religious Affairs. While the number of colleges and universities affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama is smaller, the majorities of ’s Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) have strong cultural affiliations with Nahdlatul Ulama and have traditionally been independent of the government system.

Within the above institutions is an ongoing debate over the proper forms and meanings of Muslim education that exhibits elements well ahead of corresponding debates in other South and Southeast Asian countries. However, answers to questions of the nature and function of Islamic education and of the relationship between religious and general education are, of course, anything but homogenous. In the wake of continuing decentralization, local governments have changed educational policies in their school districts, have begun to demand traditional Islamic garb for female students of state schools, and have added supplementary religious instruction to the curriculum. Moreover, there have been sporadic reports that instructors on all levels of education use the mandatory courses on religion to subject students to a rigid, anti-pluralist interpretation of Islam. Finally, increased proselytizing activities by dakwah groups on campuses within the state system have raised concern that these are a source of Islamic intolerance and militancy.

The foregoing indicates the centrality of educational institutions for the religious socialization of ’s youth. Notwithstanding the perception of Muslim institutions of education as promoting religious exclusivism, the Indonesian Muslim educational scene is generally characterized by an emphasis on moderation. Although the decentralization of education has had negative results in some cases, in other instances it has also freed Islamic institutions from the limiting control of the state and granted them autonomy to develop more progressive curriculum materials than their non-Islamic counterparts. On the tertiary level, the IAIN as well as the Muhammadiyah systems have implemented a progressive civic education program which includes such issues as gender equality, democracy, and human rights but also pays attention to teacher training and instructional methods that foster participatory learning and critical thinking. The materials developed for these programs have replaced the earlier courses in civic education that were required under the New Order and are well ahead of comparable programs in other institutions of higher education. Observations such as the foregoing have led Merle Ricklefs in a recent public lecture to describe the state system of Islamic higher education and its nationwide network of campuses as “bastion of tolerant, liberal, pluralistic Islam.”[iii] A similar reputation for advancing Islamic understandings of democracy has been earned by some of Muhammadiyah’s universities such as the Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang (UMM).

The importance of the Islamic educational scene for this moderate branch of Indonesian Islam is further underscored by the fact that many of the Muslim intellectuals and activists found in the network of “civil Islam” are graduates from Islamic higher educational institutions such as the IAIN. Besides continuing their higher education at Islamic universities in the Middle East such as Cairo’s al-Azhar, it has become increasingly common for graduates from these programs to enter graduate programs at secular universities in Europe, , the , and . As a consequence, it has become more common that to find young Muslims among the ranks of students at these institutions who in addition to their traditional religious formation have participated in religious studies programs at Western universities and are well versed in the social sciences. Many of the leading contemporary advocates of a civil pluralist Islam in such as Azumardi Azra and Amin Abdullah are institutionally affiliated with the state system of Islamic higher education. The former is the rector of the UIN Jakarta whereas the latter maintains a position as professor in the Fakultas Ushuluddin (Faculty of Comparative Study of Religions) at the IAIN Yogyakarta.

The Pesantren Tradition

A similar creative energy and progressive thought is visible in many of ’s pesantren.[iv] The pesantren are traditionally providers of private, non-formal (religious) education and do not issue state-recognized certificates for these educational activities. They range from local Qur’an schools, in which students are instructed in the system of Qur’an recitation, to religious colleges akin to those found in the Middle East . Some have only a few regular students, a single teacher and perhaps some small agricultural fields, whereas others instruct upwards of three thousand students. Compared to state schools, the educational standards of many pesantren are considered lower. This is often the result of financial difficulties to fund the expansion of educational programs to include high-quality formal education. Nevertheless, over the past decades a growing integration of the pesantren into the national system of education can be perceived. Many pesantren have begun to teach a government-accredited curriculum in addition to traditional religious subjects while others have fully incorporated madrasah or sekolah-type schools. In the wake of such changes, some of these pesantren have become very large educational institutions, and many are increasingly integrated in the state-controlled education system.[v] Other pesantren have rejected the enhanced state control and interference in their educational routines that are part of adopting state-sanctioned curricula. Consequently, there remain numerous pesantren opting to stay outside the national system. Yet many of these have incorporated additional subjects such as English, journalism, computer science, and economics.[vi] Training in applied skills is equally prevalent. Drawing on ideas of critical pedagogy as expressed in the writings of such thinkers as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, many activists promoted the pesantren as model institutions for community development in the 1970’s, offering specialized training in agriculture, crafts, and business alongside traditional religious subjects.[vii] Still other pesantren have developed special programs that are connected to some of the functions the pesantren and their kiai have traditionally fulfilled. These include the provision of basic medical training as well as therapeutic programs such as psychotherapy or drug rehabilitation based on mystical practices.

Through their varied educational programs the pesantren contribute to a strengthening of the social fabric. They provide comparatively affordable education and, in some cases, are the only educational institutions available to families who otherwise could not send their children to school. No less important is the role that pesantren have played in the realm of community development: many pesantren are key institutions in the empowerment of civil society down to the grass-roots level. In their efforts at community development, many pesantren co-operate with the growing number of NGOs in this field. The mushrooming NGO activity in and around the pesantren tradition was one of the most remarkable features of the 1970s and 1980s. A number of these newly-emerging NGOs was affiliated with and supported by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) for which development work had become a major focus in the 1980s.[viii] Among the most prominent contemporary NGOs are the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development (Perhimpunan Pengembangan Pesantren dan Masyarakat or P3M). The main goal of Jakarta-based P3M is to promote community development with a particular focus on pluralism and democracy. In its work P3M often utilizes the extensive network of ’s pesantren, which are both agents for and targets of community development programs. With the changing political climate in the 1990’s, some pesantren have begun to see their educational and socio-religious activities intimately connected with support for democratic civil society and seek to raise a critical political awareness among a wide spectrum of society for issues such as human rights, pluralism, political and social justice, democracy, and interfaith tolerance. Using classical Islamic texts, these institutions have geared their educational activities towards the affirmation of thought and praxis on anti-violence, civility, justice, and pluralism. Here Muslim organizations not only are involved in the theoretical and intellectual dimensions of building a pluralist society in a Muslim majority country, but also they are preparing their students to live as Muslims in diversity by empowering them in very concrete ways to participate in this process of social transformation.

As the result of these efforts within the pesantren scene, a network of Islamic scholars and activists affiliated with the pesantren has evolved that advances and supports democratic processes, civil society, pluralism, gender justice, and human rights within the framework of traditional Islamic scholarship and teaching. Through their role in community development and democracy building these pesantren are an integral part of the network of “civil Islam.”[ix] Although it may seem surprising to some that traditional religious institutions such as the pesantren are involved in forging an understanding of democracy and pluralism in an Islamic context, the educational activities in a variety of these schools exemplify such a trend. Pondok Pesantren Al-Muayyad Windan in Solo, Central Java is one such pesantren which explicitly seeks to prepare students to participate in transforming ’s society. In its efforts Al-Muayyad Windan cooperates with numerous NGOs, thereby utilizing as well as reinforcing the creative endeavors occurring on this level of society. Some of the highly visible and widely known organizations with which Al-Muayyad Windan collaborates include the aforementioned P3M and LKiS, Rahima (The Center for Education and Information on Islam and Women’s Rights Issues), CePDeS (Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies), Interfidei (Institut Dialog Antar Iman), FPUB (Yogyakarta Interfaith Forum), and Percik (Institute for Social Research, Democracy, and Social Justice). Other pesantren such as Darul Tawhid in Cirebon have gained a widespread reputation for their work on issues of gender and women’s rights. Kiai Hussein was instrumental in the foundation of the pesantren-based NGO Fahmina which hence has had remarkable success engaging the support of numerous kiyai and pesantren in the region promoting women’s rights on the local level.

Evaluating Pesantren Education: Ambivalences
An evaluation of these developments will have to concede that ambivalences remain. Among the many noteworthy aspects of pesantren education is the integration of theory with religious praxis. The emphasis of pesantren education on character formation has most recently been pointed out by Lukens-Bull who described values such as keikhlasan (selflessness), kesederhanaan (simplicity), and kemandirian (self-sufficiency) as central to pesantren life. He notes, “By providing secular education, religious instruction, and training aimed at character development, pesantren are creating a new type of modern Indonesian… They are redefining modernity in an Islamic mode.”[x] Moreover, most pesantren have become co-operative institutions within the national system of education. What consequences the integration into the state system has for pesantren, however, is a topic of debate within the tradition itself. Some are confident that the integration will result in a well-balanced education that provides both religious and general training and allows graduates to continue their studies in state institutions of higher education. In my conversations with them, many kiai and santri signaled an awareness of the possible and at times very real dilemma for the pesantren posed by the integration of formal learning, namely that students at times conceive of traditional religious education only as secondary. Contributing to these developments are economic constraints and the perceived necessity of state-certified education in order to ensure employment opportunities in the public sector upon completion of one’s education. The question thus remains whether the pesantren have achieved a truly integrated concept of education or whether a dualism between religious and formal learning remains. Formidable problems of infrastructure such as a lack of financial resources, facilities, equipment, textbooks, as well as a scarcity of qualified teaching staff exacerbate the difficult situation.

A similar ambiguity is presented by the vertical structure of authority in the pesantren which is at odds with civic notions of democratic participation. At the same time it must be acknowledged that not all verticalism is bad. In some cases vertical structures can preserve social harmony and reinstate peaceful relations among communities and thereby actually strengthen a public culture of civility and participation.[xi] The role of the kiai in the process of peace building constitutes the focus of a recent study by LP3ES. In their function as “cultural brokers,” to use Geertz’s term, the report sees the kiai centrally involved in peace building initiatives and as mediators of social and political problems in local communities.[xii]

Finally, it cannot be denied that there are pesantren that promote a highly exclusive interpretation of Islam—one that narrowly focuses on a fixed canon of knowledge, opposes the process of democratization and pluralization, and thereby closes down the space in which a strong civil society might otherwise grow. In addition to Pesantren Al-Mukmin, better known as Pesantren Ngruki, in Solo, Central Java mentioned earlier, several other pesantren have been implicated with ties to militant Muslim organizations in Southeast Asia in research undertaken by the International Crisis Group (ICG). These include Al-Muttaqien in Jepara, Central Java , Dar us-Syahadah in Boyolali, Central Java , Pesantren al-Islam in Lamongan, East Java , as well as the pesantren of the Hidayatullah network.[xiii] The existence of such institutions within the pesantren tradition, however, does not contradict a broader point, namely that the majority of pesantren show a strong commitment to values of civility and many among them have become leading institutions in the fields of peace building, conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue, and the empowerment of women. Notes Robin Bush, “Over several years of holding training workshops for pesantren leaders, women’s activists, and Muslim youth organizations, gradually a network of pesantren, of ulama, and of Muslim intellectuals became grounded in arguments in favor of civil society, democratic institutions, and pluralism that were deeply rooted in Islamic teachings and perspectives.”[xiv]

It is this latter aspect which is truly remarkable about the pesantren tradition at present and its potential to remain relevant in a pluralistic world. The pesantren remind us that religious education can help students find their way amid pluralism in a time when many see relativism as the greatest moral danger. On one of my several visits to pesantren I was asked to discuss an article by Hans Küng that one of the santri had found in the library. There, Küng had eloquently written about the tension between theological steadfastness and the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue. For Küng, it was not a shallow or compromising tolerance that made real civility possible. Instead, respect for the rights of others comes form someone with deep and profound commitments. “The cure for intolerance,” Thiessen reminds us, “is not found in relativistic elimination of convictions, but in a liberal education which combines teaching for commitment with the encouragement of respect for others.”[xv] Education, as many pesantren exemplify, can take religion seriously and still welcome diversity and pluralism. Such a context does well to prepare students for participating in a global world of differences while simultaneously showing them that they can hold on to their particular faith.


[1] Short paper presented at TICI Yogyakarta on April 29, 2006.

[i] “Unterwegs auf Heisser Erde,” Geo (May 2004).
[ii] Andrew Marshall, “The Threat of Jaffar,” New York Times (March 10, 2002). More than any other pesantren, Pondok Pesantren Al-Mukmin in Ngruki, which is close to the Central Javanese city of Solo , has been mentioned repeatedly in the international press and was also implicated by an International Crisis Group (ICG) report as the center for a network of militant Muslims in with suspected links to al-Qaeda. See International Crisis Group, “Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia : The Case of the ‘Ngruki’ Network in ,” ICG Briefing (Jakarta/Brussels, August 2002). Available at Merle C. Ricklefs, “Islamizing Indonesia: Religion and Politics in ’s Giant Neighbour,” Public Lecture at the Asian Civilizations Museum , Singapore (September, 23 2004).
Available at
[iv] In 2001, the Ministry of Religious Affairs reported about 14,000 pesantren throughout the archipelago. Due to the internal diversity and independent status of many pesantren, their exact number is difficult to gauge and could considerably exceed the figures presented by the ministry.
[v] A particularly notable effort at reform was the establishment of Gontor Pondok Moderen at Gontor Ponorogo in East Java in 1926. Inspired by reforms at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Syanggit in North Africa, as well as by the Anglo-Muslim college of Aligarh and Santiniketan University in India, Gontor sought to modernize its methods of teaching and broaden the scope of subjects taught. Over the years Gontor expanded its educational program that now includes training from elementary grades to the university level. Arabic and English are the languages of instruction, and Gontor’s achievements with respect to foreign language study have been noted even outside of Indonesia. As the certificate offered by Gontor is recognized by Al-Azhar, the pesantren sends a significant number of students to Cairo. Other examples of pesantren that have undergone and continue to undergo similar reforms to those at Gontor include Pondok Pesantren Modern Islam Assalaam Surakarta, Darun Najah, Darul Falah, and Tebuireng.
[vi] An example of a well known, large pesantren is Pondok Pesantren Sidogiri in Pasuruan, East Java. In addition to religious training, Sidogiri has earned a reputation for its efforts and achievements with respect to economic development. Particularly celebrated is the Koperasi Pondok Pesantren (Kopontren) Sidogiri. Founded in 1961, the cooperative includes various businesses, for example, a cafeteria, grocery and clothing stores, and a bank inside the pesantren complex, as well as in the surrounding community.
[vii] Pondok Pesantren Pabelan in Muntilan, Central Java is a particularly prominent example. The pesantren trains santri to assist the surrounding villages in their economic development. In addition to the general education, the santri, together with people from the wider community, receive agricultural and medical training as well as training in building construction.
[viii] See Martin van Bruinessen, NU: Tradisi, Relasi-Relasi Kuasa, Pencarian Wacana Baru (Yogyakarta: LKiS, 1994).
[ix] A similar point is made in a recent study by the Jakarta-based research institute LP3ES, Laporan Penelitian: The Role of Pesantren to Support Community Network and to Develop Peaceful Co-existence in Indonesia ( Jakarta: LP3ES, 2005).
[x] Ronald Lukens-Bull, “Teaching Morality: Javanese Islamic Education in a Globalizing Era,” Journal of Arab and Islamic Studies 3 (2000): 26-48, 42.
[xi] Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam. Muslims and Democratization in ( Princeton and Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2000), 25.
[xii] This point is made in a recent study by the Jakarta-based research institute LP3ES, Laporan Penelitian: The Role of Pesantren to Support Community Network and to Develop Peaceful Co-existence in Indonesia ( Jakarta: LP3ES, 2005).
[xiii] See International Crisis Group, “Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous,” ICG Asia Report no. 63 (International Crisis Group, Jakarta/Brussels, August 26, 2003). Available at
[xiv] Robin Bush, “Islam and Civil Society in ,” paper presented at the CSID Sixth Annual Conference on Democracy and Development: Challenges for the Islamic World, Washington, DC – April 22 – 23, 2005.
[xv] Elmer John Thiessen, In Defense of Religious Schools and Colleges ( Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 52.

Written By: Florian Pohl
(Ph.D Student of Temple University)

Adopted from:

Published by:
M. Asrori Ardiansyah, M.Ed
Teacher in Malang Indonesia


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