Religious Diversity and Islamic Education in Indonesia

Islamic Education in Indonesia has had a long history in the archipelago. Although unsytematic, it has in its various iterations, served Muslims communities since the early coming of Islam to the area. According to Saefuddin, Islamic education in Indonesia started from a forum of Islamic instructions (pengajian) held by the carrier and preacher of Islam in citizens’ houses mosques. The forum was then consolidated into pesantren and madrasah (Saefuddin, 1995: 237). The Pillars of Islamic Education Seen from its stakeholders, at least five pillars of Islamic education in Indonesia can be listed: Pesantren, Madrasah, Islamic schools under Muslim organizations, Islamic Integrated Schools, and Majelis Taklim . Before the twentieth century, pesantren were the only formal institutions of Islamic education in the archipelago, mainly on Java Island (Lukens-Bull, 2004: 299).

Pesantren were identified as an Islamic education system whose sole focus was on Islamic curricula. In pesantren santri (students) from various backgrounds studied Islamic values and teachings from the Kyai (teacher). Like the pesantren, madrasah were also know for their core focus on center for the instruction of Islamic teaching and Arabic language. But unlike the pesantren, where the Kyai is the one who has the authority to teach students and determine the curricula, madrasah were usually managed by a group of Muslims, and one who delivered Islamic teaching, called guru or Ustadz. “Secular sciences” such as natural sciences, math, and other social and humanistic sciences were not taught in Indonesia until the Dutch government introduced school on the basis of the “Western educational system.”

Responding to the fact that only a few native Indonesians were able to study in Dutch schools, a number of nationalist and Muslim organizations endeavoured to transfer and combine the Dutch educational system with an Islamic and cultural-based one. From a Javanese-nationalist front, Ki Hajar Dewantara established Taman Siswa, and from Islamic groups, K.H. Ahmad Dahlan founded Muhammadiyah, by which the classical system was introduced to the Muslim community. After the independence of Indonesia, the Dutch system was adopted by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MOEC), currently Ministry of National Education (MONE), under a system called public schools, and the madrasah was developed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA). MONE administers public education from the six years of primary education called SD, the three years of junior secondary called SMP, the three years of senior secondary known as SMU, to the higher education such as Universities and Polytechnical schools MORA administers Madrasah from primary to higher MI (six years elementary), MTs (three years junior secondary), MA (three years senior secondary), and STAIN/IAIN/UIN (four to five year universities). The difference between the public schools and the madrasah in terms of Islamic education is that the former provide no less more? than 2 hours of religious (Islamic) education per week, whereas the latter trying to combine both religious and secular sciences, provide their students almost 30% Islamic teaching and 70% “secular” sciences. Some programs even provide 70% Islamic teaching and 30% secular sciences. Unlike the pesantren, public schools, and the madrasah, Islamic schools run by Muslim organizations, such as Muhammadiyah, Al Ma’arif of Nahdhatul Ulama, PIRI of Ahmadiyah, and many others, are private schools based on the “secular system” of the public schools only with more elements of Islamic teachings. The quantity and quality of their Islamic educations is however still less than in pesantren and madrasah.

Such schools also refer to MONE policy and administration. In addition, the schools do not try to integrate Islamic values in their secular sciences as in the madrasah. As noted by Azra (1999), MORA tried to gather Muslim experts in order to develop curricula that integrated Islamic values in all secular sciences. The policy was implemented as part of a strategy to internalize Islamic values in madrasah, so Islamic teaching would function not only as a symbol as in many Islamic Schools. The coming of reformation in 1998 unlocked the public aspiration of Muslim groups that previously walked under ground in the New Order era.

A number of young Muslims who were dissatisfied with both the schools under MONE and MORA as well as the pesantren, most of them Tarbiyah activists, introduced Islamic integrated schools, called TKIT, SDIT, SMPIT, and SMAIT. These schools combine Islamic and secular systems in a more systematic way. For example, the schools reject Darwin’s theory of evolution and prefer creationism in their Biology classrooms. Unlike previous schools that are private and public, all Islamic integrated schools are private and introduce a full-day school system that meets the needs of new urban Muslim societies who are overwhelmed by their daily business and work.

Although the tuition fee of the these schools is more expensive than the others, for the new urban Muslims, sending their children to a full-day Islamic Integrated school makes them feel safe from the huge mass of information and rumors of juvenile delinquencies found in many regular schools. In addition to the formal Islamic education run by the pesantren, the madrasah, and other Islamic schools, there is another pillar of Islamic education which is community-based and more informal than the other. This kind of Islamic educations called Majelis Ta’lim. Majelis Ta’lim differs from previous Islamic education systems that focus on student cohorts; the audience and participants of the Majlis Ta’lim are mostly women from mother cohorts.

Religious Diversity in Indonesia Indonesia is an archipelago known for its cultural and social diversity. With more than 200,000 islands, fewer than 30% of which are inhabited, and more than 300 different ethnicities all with their own cultural practices and traditions, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago and the fourth most populated nation. Politically, although Indonesia is neither a secular nor a theocratic state, the government of the state has a significant power to control religious life through its apparatus. The latest Indonesian census shows that among its 220 million people, 88 percent are Muslim.

Other religious groups include Protestants 5%, Roman Catholics 3%, Hindus 2%, Buddhists 1%, and others 1% (Boyle and Sheen, 2001: 200-208). Although Muslims are the majority, their distribution is not evenly spread. Some regions, mainly in eastern Indonesia, have almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, such as in Maluku, Manado, and many others. Some parts even have Christian majorities, such as in Nusa Tenggara Timur and Papua, and, of course, the island of Bali which is over 90% Hindu. Responses of Islamic Education to the Religious Diversity in Indonesia Theologically, non Muslims were seen as the “other” by Muslims, based on the classical construction of Islamic teaching.

The construction of fiqh and ilmu kalam on non-Muslims, for example, denotes them as musyrik or kafir. The problem is how Muslim, should deal with the “other” in their every day lives. Should Muslims regard non-Muslims as their enemy to be defeated or as those who should be converted to Islam? The Qur’an actually appreciates religious diversity on earth. Some Qur’anic verses clearly describe that Allah SWT does not intend to create people in a single identity, as stated in QS 10: 99 and 2: 256 below: And if thy Lord had pleased, all those who are in earth would have believed, all of them. Wilt thou then force men till they are believers? There is no compulsion in religion–the right way is indeed clearly distinc from error. So whoever disbelieves in the devil and believes in Allah, he indeed lays hold on the firmest handle which shall never break. And Allah is hearing knowing.

The Qur’an even recognizes religious pluralism, as stated in QS 2: 62 Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward with their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. Although the Qur’an definitely describes the availability of religious pluralism, different interpretations of the verses appear among various Muslim groups, including Islamic education stake holders. A number of Muslim groups appreciates the verses and develops an inclusive, even pluralist, point of view; but some other groups interpret the verses differently and develop exclusive perspectives.

Different interpretations would then lead them to have distinct points view and attitudes toward non- Muslims and the reality of religious diversity. Briefly speaking, considering the fact that Indonesia is full of diversity, religious and otherwise, each pillar of Islamic education has come up with different responses. Some of them definitely understand that diversity is part of sunnatullah, so they develop educational systems curricula and content to teach their students in order to be ready to live together in a plural society. Such an opinion mostly holds true for madrasah under the auspices of MORA and the pesantrens. For example, one of the subject being studied in the religious program of Madrasah Aliyah is Comparative Religion.

In the State Institutes of Islamic Studies as well as State Islamic University, Comparative Religion is even a Department under the faculty of Ushuluddin. Some pesantren have also developed programs in interreligious dialogue and their Kyai actively engage in interfaith institutions as in Pesantren Nurul Ummahat Kota Gede Yogyakarta. In addition, a number of pesantren alumni are not hesitant to become involved in Non-Governmental Organizations working on interfaith activities and promoting toleration among religions. It should be noted, however, that not all pesantren have developed an inclusive point of view toward non-Muslims. Some of them, mainly the pesantren under the influences of the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and connected to ideological Salafis, have tended to develop exclusive perspectives.

How about Islamic education in private and public schools under MONE? Due to their limited hours for Islamic education in public schools, only 2 hours a week, it is difficult to classify which perspective developed in the schools. Nevertheless, because the curricula developed in the school is “controlled” by the state, it is easy to assume that Islamic education in public schools promotes national unity and appreciates differences. In addition, the mixed gender and religious background of student in every class is a good media to teach students how to behave with each other regardless of their religious background. The schools, then, can be plural landscapes providing students good opportunities to deal with people from various religious backgrounds. The climate of religious diversity is difficult to find in Islamic Schools administrated by certain Muslim organizations, especially those that admit and educate only Muslim students, such as Islamic Integrated Schools.

Facing the Future: What should Islamic Education do in the era of religious diversity? Faced with the era of multiculturalism and the problem of religious diversity, Islamic education should: first, introduce contemporary issues that the Muslim community deals with every day in addition to the explanation of classical Islamic teaching. The students of Islamic education, therefore, should also be introduced to a social and humanistic approach, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Psychological knowledge would make students empathetic to other people’s problems. Sociological perspectives could lead students to be sympathetic toward minority groups. And anthropological approaches could introduce students to the issue of interaction between culture and religion.

Second, the goal of Islamic teaching should be directed to problem solving on the basis of human-to-human relations. In this light, the historical dimension of Islamic teaching should be emphasized to students instead of merely the doctrinal one. Emphasizing the historical dimension of Islamic teaching would lead Muslim students to appreciate the differences, noting that Islam lives among various religions and beliefs. In this regard, it is imperative to emphasize the importance of religious sensibility to the students. Amidst the high tension of discourse on the prophet caricature as well as the Pope’s controversial speech as, the students of Islamic education should able to respond to the issues wisely and strategically.

Instead of angery judging western society as barbaric, telling the publishers or the editor of the news/paper that they have humiliated Muslims would have been an effective strategy. In the case of the Pope’s speech, in my opinion, giving him forgiveness would strengthen the impression that Islam is religion of peace. After massive Muslim protests around the world to the publication of the Prophet caricatures by the Jlllands Posten of Denmark and the Pope’s refusal to ask for forgiveness for his blunder, it’s clear that the lack of “feeling of other people” or religious sensibility is not only the problem of Islamic education and community but also the problem of people around the world.

Third, Islamic teaching that was previously dominated by deductive narration, which is more textual, should be contextualized with what Muslim communities face in the contemporary world in terms of society, politic, economy, culture, and so forth. Islamic education, therefore, should develop the possibility of integration and interconnection among the tradition of text (Nash), science, and philosophy.

Fourth, Islamic education that is currently criticized for its emphasis on the cognitive dimension should also focus on other aspects of students affective and psychomotor dimensions. This means that Islamic education should not only strive to increase students intelligence but should drive them to be spiritually and morally healthy. In the context of religious diversity and other multicultural aspects, Islamic education should not only dedicate its vision and mission to spread “individual morality” but also “public morality”. The latter type of morality seems to be more important considering that it is connected to the structural reality of social, economic, cultural, and political life.

In sum, Islamic education should actively engage in contemporary issues, should deal with social and humanistic sciences, should be able to contextualize its normative teaching, should be directed to problem-solving on the basis of mutual human relationships, and should broaden its vision to spread public morality.


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Azra, Azumardi. “The Rise of Muslim Elite Schools: A New Pattern of “Santrinization” in Indonesia”, Al Jami’ah. Journal of Islamic Studies, No: 64/XII/1999.

Boyle, Kevin, and Juliet Sheen, (eds.). Freedom of Religious Belief: A Word Report. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.

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A paper presented in the Open Forum held by USINDO, Washington, November, 21, 2006.

Professor of Islamic Studies in The State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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