Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Starting early

Starting early
Published: Oct 14, 2007

New programs of compulsory religious education for Muslim children in West Sumatra have received little publicity outside that province. Is this a new phase in the Islamisation of Indonesia?

Virginia Hooker and Yasrul Huda

 Islamic education starts early

 Although it is still dark, the mosque is filling with primary school-aged children hurrying to be seated on the floor before 6am. It is the last Sunday in the month and the turn of Baitul Haadi mosque, Kampong Baru, Padang, to host the other four groups which form its neighbourhood cluster for ‘didikan subuh’ (dawn schooling). A student in his twenties from Padang’s Imam Bonjol State Islamic Institute (IAIN) welcomes the children. He then hands the microphone to the 11 year old boy who will be the master of ceremonies for the next hour. There is a slight commotion as the last group of children file into the mosque and take their places.

The only adults present are a few mothers and grandmothers at the back of the mosque and the young male teachers, some smoking clove cigarettes, at the front. The atmosphere is informal, but all the children wear a uniform of white tops and green trousers or long skirts, with caps for the boys and white head-coverings for the girls. At these children’s meetings no screen separates girls from boys, but all the boys are in the front rows.

Led by the young master of ceremonies, the children recite the first words of the Qur’an, the Bismillah (In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate), slowly and firmly. This is followed by another boy giving a powerful recitation of a short passage from the Qur’an, delivered with great professionalism into a hand-held microphone. Linked to a public address system, his ornamented and rhythmic recitation is relayed to the whole neighbourhood. One of his fellows then reads an Indonesian translation: didikan subuh aims to teach children to understand the meaning of the Arabic verses they recite.

The master of ceremonies invites the children to stand and repeat the didikan subuh pledge and sing their special song which describes the unity and equality all the children feel as they join together to strengthen their religion. The 99 names of Allah are sung by a quartet of boys. A girl and boy each recite the six principles of Islam (belief in the unity of God, the angels, the prophets, the revealed books from God, and the hereafter). Another boy takes the microphone, pauses with closed eyes and hand held to ear to deliver, with ringing accuracy, the call to prayer. After more religious songs, a 12 year old girl presents a well-structured, five-minute talk about the dangers of drugs.

The final section of the meeting begins with one of the older men sitting with the boys at the front of the mosque asking the children the purpose of didikan subuh. Sensing the end of their session, the children are restless, but listen politely. The mayor, he explains to them, wants all in Padang to have strong akhlak (ethics, morals) and it is didikan subuh which helps children develop Islamic values. Didikan subuh, he continues, builds a sense of community and the monthly meeting brings different groups together. Although from different mosques and prayer-halls, he emphasises, they are all didikan subuh children. And the pre-dawn prayer (subuh) is healthy because it is performed in the coolest part of the day. Performing it helps make today better than yesterday. After sharing plates of biscuits and glasses of water the children leave the mosque and return to their homes. It is just after 7am.

The mayor’s vision

The central government in Jakarta has enacted legislation for Muslims which covers family law, wealth tax (zakat), Islamic banking, and conduct of the pilgrimage to Mecca (haj). This is the limit of officially sanctioned syariah law. The regional autonomy laws enacted in 2000 have provided a legal basis for locally drafted regional regulations. Although authority over religion is specifically retained by the central government, local politicians in several provinces (West Java, South Kalimantan, Gorontalo) have bypassed this restriction and issued syariah-inspired local regulations to control the public behaviour of Muslim residents.

In West Sumatra, each of the 14 districts in the province has passed a range of local regulations. Those concerned with Islam fall into four categories: prevention and elimination of immorality; Islamic dress for men and women; payment of religious tax; and Qur’anic education. Padang, a municipality, has the power to formulate its own regulations and its mayor may also enact mayoral decrees.

The current mayor of Padang is Fauzi Bahar. He was appointed to the position by the provincial legislature in 2004, before direct elections for local leaders were implemented. The mayor, a former sports teacher and naval officer, is extremely energetic and a strong orator. His vision is to make the City of Padang the leading economic centre and trade gateway for western Indonesia by 2008. In his speeches he emphasises that the traditional Minangkabau world view is central to Padang’s socio-economic progress. This ‘Minangkabau philosophy’ is summed up in the saying: Adat basandi syarak dan syarak basandi Kitabullah (traditions are founded on Islamic law and Islamic law is founded on God’s Book), usually abbreviated to ABS-SBK. It is repeatedly referred to in all aspects of public life in West Sumatra. Although the saying has been around for at least a century, regional autonomy has given it a new lease of life. In its current wording, ABS-SBK clearly identifies the Qur’an as the basis not only of Islamic law, but also of Minangkabau traditions and customs. Local leaders - political, religious and traditional - support the philosophy as an expression of ethnic as well as religious identity. No-one (including the tiny non-Muslim minority) has publicly contested or suggested an alternative to ABS-SBK as the symbol for Minangkabau-ness.

As the mayor states in a glossy book published in 2007 to celebrate the last three years of his leadership of Padang, the philosophy is not just ‘sweet words’. He has introduced compulsory wealth tax (zakat) payments for all civil servants in Padang (2.5 per cent is deducted from their monthly salaries at source). He has persuaded branches of Bank Nagari (which is owned by the local government) to program their ATMs to receive zakat deposits. The collected zakat is used to assist the needy in Padang as identified by neighbourhood leaders. The mayor also funds a program to build and upgrade mosques and prayer-halls so that they can be used as centres for community religious activity. And he has personally initiated a series of special religious education programs for all school-aged children.

The didikan subuh program is one of three compulsory out of school religious activities for the Muslim children and teenagers of Padang. The mayor and other Minangkabau leaders claim that young people need protection from the temptations of modern life. They are the future of the nation and of Padang and the mayor’s three programs, he states, are designed to equip them for life with the values of Islam. The second program is wirid remaja (Qur’an reading for teens). Teenagers have to attend sessions on the first and third Thursday of each month between about 6.30am and 7.30am in their local mosque or prayer-hall. Sections in local Padang newspapers feature reports of wirid remaja meetings where teenagers discuss the benefits of meeting their friends in a religious setting. They learn to recite zikir (chanting phrases containing the names of God) and practise presenting talks at a more advanced level than the primary school children of didikan subuh.

The third component of the mayor’s program is pesantren Ramadan (religious schooling during the fasting month). In 2005, he made attendance at pesantren Ramadan compulsory for all Muslim children in Padang. The mayor says he was inspired to implement this program after visiting Cambodia and seeing that Buddhist men must spend one year as novices in a monastery before marrying. Although Padang children do not get one unbroken year of intensive religious study like the Buddhists of Cambodia, they do get 60 hours every Ramadan during each year of their school careers. The mayor estimates that over their 12 years of schooling, the children will spend a total of 720 hours of intensive study of Islam. According to him, this is equivalent to the Buddhist experience in a monastery.

Legislating against social ills

Regional autonomy has given local leaders and politicians in West Sumatra (as elsewhere in Indonesia) the opportunity to express socio-economic concerns in local terms. Freed from the development rhetoric of the New Order, leaders in West Sumatra have mined the rich oral traditions of Minangkabau culture for terms in which to express anxiety about the future of that culture. The Minangkabau philosophy, ABS-SBK, is the phrase which has the widest currency. It is used like a talisman against the evils brought by western influences which reach Minangkabau children and teenagers through the media and the internet. In public speeches and the local press, senior figures make the case that ‘social ills’, which range from immoral behaviour, gambling, consuming alcohol and watching pornography, are assailing the young and can only be cured by strong Islamic values. The mayor of Padang claims that his programs were developed in response to these community concerns. He has implemented them through two mayoral decrees of 2004 and 2005.

In 2007 a new regulation on compulsory Qur’anic education, sponsored by the governor of West Sumatra, was passed by the provincial legislature. Applicable to the whole province, the regulation (No. 7 of 2007) aims to ensure that all Muslim schoolchildren and tertiary level students will be able to read and recite the Qur’an and understand its meaning. The regulation outlines the targets children and university students must achieve and the certificates they will need to move through the various levels of schooling. Applicants for civil service positions must pass a test in Qur’anic recitation and if they fail must agree to undertake six months study. Funding for Qur’an education programs is the responsibility of the regional government and society, with further details on the budget to be forthcoming from the governor.

Islam as instrument

Many citizens of West Sumatra are dismayed that their province, which produced so many outstanding nationalists, writers and religious scholars, seems now to have ‘fallen behind’. One of the causes, they feel, is the breakdown of the traditional system of religious learning which used to be practised in every village and provided Minangkabau children with a proper sense of morality. Other citizens believe that the ‘decline’ can be attributed to socio-economic factors, but they dare not argue against programs to strengthen Islamic values. The power of the ABS-SBK mantra, which interweaves religion, ethnicity and Minangkabau traditions, remains paramount. Minangkabau-ness rests on ‘Kitabullah’ (God’s Book) which underpins Minangkabau tradition. And God’s Book provides the values which form pious individuals who in turn build strong and stable societies. This is the line of reasoning promoted by the mayor and built into his programmes for Qur’anic education.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that in the preamble to the governor’s recent law concerning Quranic education (No. 7 of 2007), immediately following the ABS-SBK rationale for Qur’an education, a second rationale is given. It reads: ‘Qur’anic education is part of basic human rights whereby every human being has the right to protection for individual development, to have an education, to develop their intellect, and improve their quality of life so they have [Islamic] faith, are pious, responsible, have noble morals and are happy and secure.’ The aims of the mayor’s decrees and of the governor’s regulations are unobjectionable – to produce better Minangkabau citizens and individuals whose right to religious education is protected. From the doctrinal point of view, however, the effect of these regulations is to reduce Islam to a tool for social and personal development; it is not to glorify Allah and attempt to understand the magnitude of His omnipotence. Nor are the regulations framed in terms of an Islamic state.

The regulations do make Qur’anic education compulsory for Muslim children with testing and documentation needed to prove progress and attainment of set goals. This is indeed ‘Islamising’ children born to Muslim parents. The compulsory nature of Qur’anic learning is new, as are the stated aims of the regulations. There is no mention of an Islamic state or syariah law or special powers for religious scholars. In its present form, the Qur’anic education regulations and programs in West Sumatra focus on increasing knowledge of the Qur’an to learn its values, and in so doing, to strengthen traditional Minangkabau values.

Regional autonomy provides a new context for Islam. It has enabled a new form of Islamisation. Ostensibly it promotes greater religiosity expressed in local ethnic (Minangkabau) terms. At the same time, it allows the present leaders and politicians to dictate ‘an Islam’ which meets the needs of their time and place. The results of this instrumentalist approach to Islam - that is, the adult attitudes and behaviour of the didikan subuh children - will be seen over the next decade. The self-confident youngsters conducting their own Sunday school programmes will develop their own ideas about their ethnic identity and their personal piety which they can express through the ballot box.   ii

Virginia Hooker (Virginia.Hooker@anu.edu.au) retired as professor of Indonesian and Malay early in 2007 and is now a visiting fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University.
Yasrul Huda MA (yasrulhuda@yahoo.com) is deputy dean of the Faculty of Syariah, IAIN Imam Bonjol, West Sumatra. Their research (together with that of MB Hooker) into the implementation of Islamic law is funded by an Australian Research Council grant.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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