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Reforming pesantren

Published: Jul 26, 2007

While reform of Islamic education is necessary, secularisation is not


Since the events of 11 September 2001, and more so since those of 12 October 2002, pesantren (boarding schools for the study of Islamic sciences) in Indonesia have come under intense scrutiny. On the whole, media coverage has been negative and based on limited understanding of the role and importance of pesantren. The focus of concerted research such as that carried out by the International Crisis Group (ICG) has been on only a few of the more than 13,000 pesantren that exist throughout Indonesia’s 26 provinces.

The results of this research have been used by the likes of Mike Keelty to generalise about pesantren more broadly, and call for their closure. Pesantren(are accused of breeding terrorists and jihadists (Islamic fighters). Some, such as Pondok Ngruki in Central Java, have been linked to the extremist movement Jama’ah Islamiyah (JI), which allegedly has links to Al-Qaeda.

It is argued that terrorists are cultivated in Indonesian pesantren where extremist variants of Islam are taught to indoctrinate students. Many Indonesian Muslim leaders such as Hasyim Muzadi, head of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Syafii Maarif, head of the modernist Muhammadiyah, and Azyumardi Azra, Rector of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the consequences for Islamic education of this stereotyping. They nonetheless openly recognise and encourage on-going Islamic education reform.

Critics within and outside the Indonesian Muslim community argue that pesantren are not adequate as education institutions. Yahya Muhaimin, Minister for Education under former president Abdurrahman Wahid, argues that pesantren generally provide sub-standard education, are poorly resourced, and are largely incapable of producing the type of graduates capable of contributing to the much needed reform within Indonesia.

The need for reform

The word ‘pesantren’ stems from the root word ‘santri’. Santri are students who wish to gain a comprehensive understanding of Islamic religious matters by studying in pesantren and other religious education institutions. Pesantrenqhave existed in Indonesia for almost as long as Islam has been in the archipelago, or longer in Hindu variants.

Pesantren are established and managed by kyai (Islamic scholars and community leaders). The high status of kyai in Indonesian society rests upon a complex set of beliefs and values. Kyai are traditionally viewed as religious figures that embody in their advanced learning and modest and devout personal life styles the virtues, wisdom and power of Islam.

Pesantren are seen as one of great Islamic traditions in Indonesia. They have disseminated Islam to Indonesians for centuries, and are considered reservoirs of cultural values and norms, and public and private morality. Pesantren are not only distinctly Islamic, but they are also indigenous Indonesian institutions.

However, as Yahya Muhaimin argues, there has long been a need to reform many of the existing pesantren. Controversially, even some pesantren leaders send their children to state schools instead of sending them to pesantren, a fair indication of the lack of confidence in these schools. It goes without saying that education institutions will lose community support unless they are able to innovate and develop in a way that is perceived to fulfil community needs.

Cultural and social changes have occurred alongside Indonesia’s political and economic development and modernisation, all of which has influenced the education system. While pesantren cannot escape such evolution, they are heavily dependent upon their own willingness to reform.

To some extent, pesantren and other Islamic education institutions have wallowed in nostalgia for the glorious past. This has left them unable to grapple with the many problems facing the Indonesian ummat (community of believers) today. Indeed the greatest threat to indigenous education institutions comes from within them — if these institutions remain stubbornly resistant to modernisation, and remain nostalgic for their glorious historical achievements, undoubtedly, they will become increasingly marginalised and irrelevant to Indonesia’s mainstream.

An issue of relevance

Adopting change is not an easy task. Pesantren must maintain their original mission and character as religious-based education institutions, and at the same time they have to be able to grapple with the changing social climate. Over the years, pesantren have modernised their curricula to provide a mix of religious and non-religious subjects, such as the natural sciences.

To compliment the national education system, some pesantren have established modern education programs in the form of madrasah (graded style primary, junior and senior secondary schools). These Islamic schools follow nationally set curriculum in addition to providing several hours a week of religious education. In Indonesia, the government has accredited madrasah certificates equivalent to those of general schools so that madrasah graduates can access higher education. A possible dilemma of this accommodation is the inevitable influence and interference of the government, and the relative reduction in hours devoted to religious studies. This makes them less relevant as institutions that were established to provide religious education.


Pesantren such as Gontor, Tebuireng, Darun Najah, Darul Falah, and As-Salam are indicative of Islamic boarding schools that have undergone, and continue to undergo, reform. Tebuireng opened a grade-system madrasah in 1916. Three years later, Tebuireng included general or non-religious subjects in its curriculum.

Additionally, the education and social needs of women have been addressed by some pesantren, which have opened madrasah within the pesantren grounds that cater specifically for female santri. These include pesantren Putri Aniesah, Jember, which was established in 1981, and Pesantren Gontor Puteri Mantingan, Ngawi, which opened in 1991.

Imperialism and secularisation

Indigenous cultures have been destroyed and damaged by Western imperialism for centuries. This is no less true in Indonesia, which has been subject to political, economic, cultural, and other forms of Western imperialism. Direct colonisation has left a patchwork of unresolved conflicts within former colonial countries, and communities across the globe continue to struggle to overcome this legacy. They each, in their own way, seek solutions.

The latest wave of Western imperialism has come in the form of globalisation. Globalisation is widely seen as a project through which wealthy capitalist countries develop at the expense of poorer nations. Since its negative impacts are also cultural, social, and economic, globalisation can be seen as a stage of re-colonisation of peoples.

Globalisation has been pejoratively dubbed the creation of ‘McWorld’, shorthand for Western-oriented global monoculture. The Western world is largely secular in outlook and practice in that it allows private practice of religion but does not accept revealed truths as the basis for understanding and organising society. Religion has been left behind and marginalised in Western definitions of progress. Revelation has been replaced by rationalism as the source of all truth, and the God-centred view of the world has been replaced by an anthropomorphic view of a world where man creates ever changing and conflicting values and norms by which to live.

Reforming Islamic education

It is often stated by Western analysts such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington that Muslims view Western style cultural modernity as either a cultural threat that has to be opposed, or as a political challenge that has to be fought. This is a rather simplistic view of Muslim objections to Westernisation, and the debate on pesantren reform is indicative of this simplification.

Religion has always played a pivotal role in defining identity in Indonesia. Pesantren were established to foster and bolster the Islamic identity. They facilitate various Islamic currents and attitudes, transmitting Islamic knowledge, maintaining the Islamic traditions, and ensuring the production of the next generation of ulama (Islamic scholar-clerics). esantren act as protectors of what is important to the Islamic community, and as centres for the spread of the Islamic faith.

Pesantren in Java are also patrons of local culture. They nurture Islamic discourse specific to Java, and they preserve the Arabic Jawi tradition (Javanese or Malay language written in Arabic script). Institutions such as pesantren are developed to revive community religious values.

Although secular education institutions may seem more ubiquitous, pesantren still have wide appeal, and provide affordable eduction to tens of millions of Indonesians. Their successful adaptation to changes in communal behaviour and outlook stem at least in part from their philosophical commitment to: ‘maintaining the old values that are good and still relevant, and adopting the newer ones that are better’.

Islam is not necessarily anti-globalisation. Islam is indeed a universal religion. It is the secularist form of globalisation that is objectionable to most Muslims. Globalisation requires spiritual vision, not simply rational materialism. Dismantling the very spiritual basis of life is to neglect the deepest meaning of life for Muslims.

Islam provides a holistic approach to human society in which economic growth and material advancement are dubbed essential, but are framed by Islamic humanitarianism and an Islamic sense of social justice. Education is crucial in preparing young Indonesian to contribute constructively to a global future. This is no less true of Islamic forms of education, as evidenced in pesantren that have shown their capacity to move with the times without sacrificing their souls and foregoing their Islamic identity.

Suparto (Suparto71@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta, and is a PhD Candidate with the Faculty of Education, at Monash University in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 77: Jan - Mar 2004

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