Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

A new educational movement

A new educational movement
Published: Sep 18, 2011

A market for Islamic schools has opened up among Indonesia’s growing middle class

   First grade Al-Azhar students performing prayers in class
Karen Bryner

Karen Bryner

Integrated Islamic schools are one of the fastest growing trends in Islamic education in post-Suharto Indonesia. As a result of expanded religious freedoms and local fervour for the global revival of Islam, a new market for Islamic schooling – largely among the middle and upper-middle classes – has emerged. It is estimated that there are now over 1000 of these primary and secondary integrated Islamic schools in Indonesia and nearly as many integrated preschools and kindergartens. The majority of these schools have been  established in the last fifteen years.

In the past, Muslim parents of higher socio-economic status generally sent their children to the top public schools, international schools, or even Catholic schools that maintained high academic standards. But integrated Islamic schools now are among the top performing schools in their communities. These integrated schools provide academic excellence – perceived to be generally lacking in other kinds of Islamic schools such as pesantren, madrasah and Muhammadiyah schools – and robust religious instruction, which is legally restricted in state-run general schools. They aim to provide students with the Islamic character and intellectual skills needed to navigate the modern world, equipping them to participate successfully in the global economy while avoiding the perceived pitfalls of western culture.

The name, ‘Integrated Islamic Schools’ highlights the movement’s driving ideology, namely to address what the movement believes is an unnatural separation of secular and religious knowledge. Secular subjects are taught within an Islamic framework and the Qur'an is used as the ultimate source of knowledge. For example, in science class the theory of evolution is taught according to the national curriculum and then the creation of Adam and Eve, as related in the Qur'an, is presented as the true genesis of humankind. Arabic and reading of the Qur’an are taught in addition to general religious instruction classes. Students are expected to not only understand but also internalise Islamic values, becoming pious and committed Muslims. Islam is extolled as a way of life, not simply a subject to study or a set of rituals and practices.

Genesis of a movement

For the past century, Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the two largest Muslim organisations in Indonesia, have dominated the field of Islamic schooling and Islamic thought. A range of smaller foundations, networks and franchises comprises the integrated schools movement. The leadership of these organisations is, more often than not, made up of white-collar professionals with little or no formal religious training. Integrated school leaders emphasise their independence from the ideological influence of Nahdatul Ulama or Muhammadiyah. One school bureaucrat stated: ‘We want to deliver an education system that is labelled Islamic but in demand by the whole of society, by committed Muslims and nominal Muslims alike … Then we are not pigeonholed by Islamic organisations … Muhammadiyah members are reluctant to send their children to NU madrasahs and vice versa, although both are Islamic schools. We want to present Islamic schools that are not fragmented by such considerations.’ Another explained the emphasis on universalism in this way: ‘As we see it, true Islam is not an issue of groups … Islam should not be trapped within any organisation.’

The Network of Integrated Islamic Schools (JSIT), the largest of these groups with over 550 primary and secondary schools, has played an important role in popularising the movement as a whole. JSIT is linked to the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as both were founded by the same group of people and work closely together to refine their united vision of the role of Islamic education. The JSIT network is an association of local foundation-run schools that adhere to JSIT concepts concerning the integrated nature of religious and secular knowledge and follow the JSIT curriculum for religion classes. They do not, however, produce standard textbooks for member schools to use. The schools are given great latitude in how they run their programs. While PKS members fill the leadership positions of the JSIT, individual school leadership varies according to its ties with the party. Children of middle class families generally attend these schools. Another important group is the Network of Integral Hidayatullah Schools, which numbers over 130 primary and secondary schools. This network of schools is part of the larger Hidayatullah political movement. While the schools function in much the same way as JSIT, they target poorer or lower-middle class families.

In contrast, the Al-Azhar Islamic School group operates as a franchise and treats its campuses as branches. Although its numbers are smaller than those of JSIT, with 65 primary and secondary schools, Al-Azhar is considered to be an elite schooling institution, and attracts students from the upper middle class. A Memorandum of Understanding is signed between Al-Azhar headquarters in Jakarta and each school’s local sponsoring foundation. All schools are required to use religious textbooks prepared and produced by headquarters. The various campuses employ similar programs as Al –Azhar leaders want to preserve the reputation associated with the brand name.

Some smaller networks and independent schools throughout the archipelago are also participating in the trend. These are sponsored by local foundations and often use the term ‘integrated Islamic school’ in their names to identify themselves as part of the new movement, despite not being members of JSIT. This could well be a marketing technique since the ‘integrated’ brand name is generally considered to be associated with better quality education than other Islamic schools. There is no consistency in the curricula of these independent schools, as each is determined by the school board, but additional religion classes are always provided. Some of these schools cater to wealthier families while others attract middle class students.

All the integrated schools profess to adhere strictly to the Qur'an and Hadith for their religious curricula. However, the claim to promote ‘universal Islam’ is problematic given the differences in the institutions’ cultural frames and the ideological perspectives on which the schools are built. Variations in doctrinal interpretation mean different schools expect different basic moral standards in behaviour from students, such as the appropriateness of shaking hands with the opposite sex, dating and dress code. These variations, which serve to define much of the schools’ culture, highlight the differences between the groups of schools involved in this movement. Both JSIT and the Hidayatullah network have ideological roots in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Their approach is quite different from that of the Al-Azhar schools, which are headed by an apolitical educational foundation that embraces a more lenient Islam. An easily identifiable difference in school culture is the acceptable size and style of a woman’s headscarf. At JSIT and Hidayatullah schools, female teachers and staff wear long, wide headscarves, whereas at Al-Azhar, smaller, more form-fitting headscarves are frequently worn.

An ethical and a practical choice

Government and other non-boarding religious schools generally release students by midday. The school day is very different at an integrated school. Covering the national curriculum, additional religion classes and multiple daily group prayers at school results in an extended program from 7.30 in the morning until three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Quality schooling and extended school hours demand high tuition fees. But many middle-class families with two working parents welcome the longer school hours – and they can afford to pay for them.

While the founders, administrators and teachers of these schools are motivated by ideology, the convenience of an extended school day is a significant factor in the schools’ popularity among parents. According to one JSIT school father, these schools are akin to a ‘one-stop shop’.  As he sees it, an extended school day provides his child with wholesome activities throughout the afternoon – an arrangement that is much more convenient than having to arrange transportation for his child to after school classes. An afternoon at school is also more desirable than his child simply passing the time in front of the television in the care of  a maid at home. Additionally, the focus on religion at school eliminates the need for religion classes at the mosque or private lessons outside of school.

   Qura'nic reading instruction at a JSIT primary school
Karen Bryner

Another motivation is that of providing a quality religious education. The majority of parents, raised during the heyday of Suharto’s secular New Order policies, have become interested in Islam only as adults. As another JSIT father explained, Indonesian Muslims want their children to be better off than their parents in terms of education, welfare and religious education: ‘Islam has become so important in life that we want it applied well to our children. So if the father and mother only read the Qur’an, their children must be better with a lot of memorising verses from the Qur’an.’

Parents frequently take example from their children’s piety, becoming more religiously minded and observant themselves. This secondary influence on the larger community is another principle of integrated schools, namely the Islamisation of society. But some parents feel the need to re-define for their children particular concepts learned at school. One JSIT school mother explained that her fifth grade son disagreed with her with regard to dating, citing his teacher, who had said that dating is not allowed. This same child objected to his mother’s removal of the headscarf and the wearing of short-sleeved shirts when alone with the family at home. On another occasion, he informed his mother that women were forbidden to wear trousers, which his mother frequently did. Unwilling to accept these decrees, she explained to him that veiling was not necessary in the privacy of her own home. She also pointed out the impracticality of women wearing skirts when riding scooters or motorbikes, the main form transportation for most Indonesians. As she sees it, ‘If we do what the religion teaches us and we keep in line with our local customs, then we aren't sinning.’

A universal Islam of the future?

While this new and innovative educational movement is still comparatively small, it is a significant presence among Indonesia’s urban Islamic schools, the growth of which shows no signs of slowing. Despite clear variations in the different groups’ school cultures, their shared ‘universal Islam’ approach to religion does not instil allegiance to Nahdatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah or other mainstream religious organisations.

Given the middle and upper-middle class clientele of the majority of integrated schools, their graduates are very likely to become some of Indonesia’s future political leaders, social activists, academics and business-people. Trained in ‘universal Islam’ and an integrated understanding of secular and religious knowledge, such figures have the potential to reshape Indonesia’s current religious, political, and social cultures steeped in decades of influence from mainstream Islamic organisations.

Karen Bryner ( is a PhD candidate in Comparative International Education at Teachers College, Columbia University of New York City. As Fulbright-Hays and SYLFF fellow she conducted 14 months of research in Yogyakarta where the integrated Islamic school students’ fascination with Michael Jackson led her to sing ‘Heal the World’ with fourth grade boys during recess, demonstrate the moonwalk for third graders, and struggle to answer the question: ‘Miss, what does “Just beat it!” mean?’

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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