Having the largest Muslim population in the world, it is no surprise that Indonesia is a major centre of religious education for members of the faith in Southeast Asia.
Muslim boys from nearby countries are often sent to Islamic boarding schools – known as pondok pesantren – scattered across this sprawling archipelago. Numbering well into the tens of thousands, the pesantrens provide religious knowledge and wisdom, but are more than just classrooms for dry theoretical instruction. There, young Muslim men and women from all strata of society also learn how to lead lives according to the basic tenets of Islam.
In the last few years, however, Indonesia’s Islamic schools have been forced to fight allegations that they are breeding grounds for fanatics who go out and unleash violence in the name of religion. Indeed, many of their foreign students who return home hoping to use what they learned to better their communities have instead found themselves being suspected of being sympathetic to Islamists. Young Muslim Thais who have gone to school in Indonesia, for example, have been looked upon as possible sympathisers of the separatists in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated south.
It’s a situation that is puzzling to many of those who run pondok pesantrens in Indonesia, even as some of them concede that there may be some schools that teach narrower interpretations of Islam. Pesantren administrators, however, point out that such schools are hardly the norm.
K.H. Masykuri Abdurrahman, secretary at Indonesia’s oldest and best-known Islamic school, Pondok Pesantren Sidogiri Salaf, also says, “When it comes to politics, whether domestic or international, Sidogiri takes a neutral stance. We’ve never interfered with politics. Nor have we looked to incite division and have not the slightest intent to play a political role.”
“We do not support anybody who is intent on creating social division whether through mere verbal expression of their thoughts or through action,” he adds. “Sidogiri has never taken part in any protests of any kind and its students do not have any right to go out and partake in any civil action.”
“If we want to express our opinion,” he also says, “we will do it through a letter, a press release or through our school’s newsletter. We will never take part in any action.”
For sure, too, Indonesia’s Islamic schools are not all the same. Categorised according to curriculum, pesantrens are generally either ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’. A pondok pesantren offering Islamic religious studies alone or with a few non-religious subjects is known as a Salaf or traditional while one that also has “mainstream” education subjects is described as Modern.
According to Perhimpunan Pengembangan Pesantren Dan Masyarakat (Association for Pesantren and Social Development), one-fifth of Indonesia’s religious schools are Salaf, an equal proportion are Modern, and 55 percent are a mix of both. Five percent of pondok pesantrens do not fall in any of the first three categories, it says.
Some observers say, however, that there is so much similarity between the two main types that at times it is difficult to tell which school is Salaf and which is Modern. One way of distinguishing one from the other, though, is by looking at how the students are dressed: those in Modern pesantrens wear slacks while those in Salaf must wear sarongs during and even after school hours.
Whatever category it falls under, a pesantren does not put age limits for admission. All pesantren students also spend an average of six years living and studying how to be a true Muslim.
A Salaf steeped in history
Of course there is no mistaking what kind of Islamic school Sidogiri Salaf happens to be. Even without its very descriptive name, the school, located some 700 km east of the capital city of Jakarta, has been adhering to a strict Islamic curriculum since its establishment two centuries ago. It is one of Indonesia’s most revered Islamic theological centres, and many Islamic schools throughout the country follow the courses and methodologies it has developed.
Founded in 1475 while the Dutch had yet to get a real foothold in Indonesia, Sidogiri Salaf is proud of having joined the struggle for the country’s independence centuries later. This led to the development of a system aiming to equip students with knowledge and skills enabling them to help the country break free from the shackles of colonisation and move on the path of progress. Its long history alone makes it well qualified to educate young people about Indonesia’s past and the future direction the country should take, says Abdurrahman. By most indications, this does not include Islamist extremism.
Given its history, Sidogiri Salaf has enjoyed the freedom to design its syllabus. “Our teaching doesn’t have any external parties trying to come in and take control and set down their own rules and regulations for us,” says Abdurrahman.
The school believes it is supporting the state by training young people to lead the true Islamic life with a sound knowledge of the faith and a progressive worldview. In its campus that is surrounded by picturesque rice fields in Sidogiri Kraton, in Pasuruan, east Java, its teachers instill the belief that Indonesia and its people are sacrosanct and plays an important role in the overall scheme of Islam, says the school secretary.
Yet even as it gives attention to Islamic teachings, in particular reading and understanding the Koran, and learning its verses by heart, Sidogiri Salaf is up to date when it comes to teaching aids. Students connect with the rest of the Islamic world through the Internet, widening their religious knowledge beyond what they learn in the school.
“We pay particular attention to Arabic language studies so students can build a high level of proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing,” says Abdurrahman. “At the very least, they will be able to read the many Islamic resources from around the world that are written in Arabic.”
Great importance is given to reading. “Our slogan is ‘smart people are reading people – not one day shall go by without reading’,” he says. “Moreover, we believe that we, as a school have no place in opposing or resisting the changing and developing world outside. We must continuously change with it.”
A source of student teachers
Pondok Pesantran Sidogiri Salaf has more than 4,000 pupils. Those at the higher levels must become Islamic teachers at other religious schools for one year. Fortunately, Sidogiri Salaf’s highly rated pupils are eagerly sought as student teachers by other pondok pesantrans, which actually pay for their services – to Sidogiri Salaf. The student teachers get living allowances.
Sidogiri Salaf sends out more than 600 student teachers every year and the income from their teaching services is an important contribution towards its operational costs. But even with such a large number of students going out to teach, the school cannot meet the growing demand for high quality religious instructors.
Sidigori Salaf earns most of its income, however, from an internal cooperative based on the model used by nearly all pondok pesantrens in the country. The cooperative distributes food, school equipment, and basic living supplies. The cooperative system generates an internal transaction of over $175.2 million every year. The school itself has never had any reason to seek government support.
The annual tuition fee ranges from 240,000 rupiah ($ 24) to 300,000 rupiah ($30), depending on the student’s learning level. This does not cover food and school uniforms. Pupils eat in the school canteen, cook their own meals in kitchens provided by the school, or buy food from the local community. All meals must be eaten within the school premises.
As the country’s oldest religious school, Sidogiri Salaf has graduated hundreds of classes. It has no intention of becoming a Modern school and does not think it will ever start a secular vocational education programme.
“We have no goal to produce a ‘workforce’,” says Abdurrahman. “There are no vocational studies to enable our students to enter the normal workforce. We stress on the importance of religion, understanding Islamic teachings and the correct way of seeing the world and our community. Being a perfect person means being one whose heart is there for our brothers and sisters in the community.”
The school’s graduates can pursue higher religious studies according to aptitude. “If we understand that knowledge is like a building’s foundation,” argues Abdurrahman, “having this deep a level of religious knowledge means that we will always have a very strong foundation as well as the right attitude when it comes to solving problems that exist outside our walls.”
A ‘new’ Modern
Far away in the opposite direction from Sidogiri is an example of an Islamic school that combines religious with modern secular instruction: Pondok Pesantren Al Hamadiyah, located in western Java on JI Raya Depok, Sawangan.
The school, set up by K.H. Almad Sjaichu, a former member of Indonesia’s Parliament, opened on 17 January1988. Several government officials attended the inaugural ceremony, enhancing the school’s credibility in the eyes of parents. Starting with just 70 pupils, the school now has 1,500 students, 700 of them boarders.
After teaching the regular pondok pesantren syllabus for many years, Al Hamadiyah started pre-school and primary classes in 2002. High school students must live in school dormitories, but pre- and primary students go home after classes.
According to school director K.H. Zainuddin Ma’shum, Al Hamadiyah was intentionally established as a Modern school to enable students to pursue non-religious careers besides deepening their knowledge of Islam. It argues that students of the traditional Salaf school system cannot compete in the job market with graduates of institutions offering mainstream along with religious education.
“Having taken a good look at today’s society,” says Ma’shum, “we decided to establish this modern model of pesantren so that students could keep up with all the new knowledge and changes in the world.”
Although graduates of the system based solely on religious instruction would be considered elite Islamic teachers, their employment options are ultimately limited to being an ustadz (religious teacher) or an imam, he points out. Or they may open their own school, but the chances of that actually happening are relatively slim.
Al Hamadiyah’s stance makes the school quite different from a traditional pondok pesantren and those that adapt their curricula only slightly in order to be called Modern, says Ma’shum. But he says equipping its students with wider knowledge, skills, and worldview would enable them to take up many types of employment. This also means they can take their religious knowledge back into mainstream society to help build a stronger community, he says.
Al Hamadiyah’s curriculum was designed with government support. The Ministry of Education helped with mainstream courses and the Ministry of Religious Affairs with religious subjects. But like many pondok pesantrens, the school does not rely on government funding and uses a cooperative system.
Studying at Al Hamadiyah is relatively inexpensive with tuition, boarding, and food charges for the entire term being about 400,000 rupiah (around $40). Poor parents are exempted from tuition fees. Teachers are paid on a par with the private sector – about one million rupiah ($100) per month, aside from get free accommodation.
Admission seekers, however, must pass English and Arabic language examinations or take supplementary language lessons in case of failure in these tests. This is because besides reading, rote-learning, and understanding the teachings of the Koran, students have to study English and Arabic up to a high level of proficiency.
The school says while knowledge of English enables them to communicate internationally, fluency in Arabic gives students access to external self-learning resources, widening their intellectual perspective. Al Hamadiyah also has science and computer labs.
The traditional touch
Yet like other pesantrens, its students have to follow rigid routines. They wake up at four a.m., pray, read the Koran and have breakfast two hours later. Classes run from seven a.m. to four p.m. with a one-hour break for lunch and prayers. An hour of asar prayer after classes is followed by physical education, including team games like football. Evening prayers start at six p.m. and are followed by dinner ending one hour later. There is an hour of post-dinner study of the Koran and an additional hour of rote learning of English and Arabic words. Students go to sleep by 10.00 p.m.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there are extra-curricular activities including music and sports like football, badminton and the Indonesian/Malay martial art of pencak silat. Every Friday, students rehearse prayers. Religious debating competitions are held in both English and Arabic.
Boarding students can visit their homes one day every month. On Sundays, students are allowed to go to the local shopping mall or places outside the school for an hour.
Although called “modern”, the school hands out strict punishment for breaking the rigid rules and regulations. This includes whipping, shaving the head, and even suspension or expulsion. Many erring students get punished every week.
Still, the fact that it has established itself as a school suited to present-day conditions has increased the popularity of Al Hamadiyah, leading to many more branches being opened in both Java and Sumatra, says the school director.
“We need to expand not just because we want to create more opportunities for students to get a regular education, but also because we see the need in society for the pondok system of education,” he adds.
“The pondok has a burden that is extremely important to Islam as a whole – to teach correct religious practice in its purest form,” says Ma’shum.
Knowledge of Islamic law, he says, enables the faith to thrive and move forward the way it was supposed to be practised from the very beginning. And truly, there is nothing “extremist” about that.
Reporter from iTV, a private television station in Bangkok.
M. Asrori Ardiansyah, M.Ed
Teacher in Malang Indonesia