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Pesantren

By:
Howard M. Federspiel
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Pesantren

A type of school in Southeast Asia offering second-level training in Islamic subjects. The term is pesantren on Java, surau on Sumatra, pondok on the Malay Peninsula and Cambodia, and madrasah in the Philippines and Singapore. Pesantren derives from the sixteenth century, when learning centers were established, known as a place of learning for the Islamic faithful (santris). Surau was a place for worship in early Southeast Asia, while pondok derives from the travelers’ inns (Ar., funduq) of the Middle East. Madrasah is the generic name for such schools throughout the Islamic world.

Pesantren are private ventures by scholars called kyai on Java, guru on the Malay Peninsula and Brunei, ustadz in the Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand, and ʿalim in most places—usually with the assistance of their families. Many schools do not survive the founder, but others continue several generations, with sons and sons-in-law succeeding to control and ownership. Prestige is gained by scholars with good contacts with other scholarly families, some in Arabia, and also through learners who establish new pesantren recognizing the original scholars as progenitors.

By the seventeenth century the pesantren on Java had become alternate centers of authority to the princely courts. The courts stressed elaborate lifestyles based on old Javanese values of refinement, while the pesantren stressed pious conduct and the hereafter. In Minangkabau the surau, likewise, was a center of authority outside the traditional communal units of society. In other places there seems to have been less social division between the court and the learning centers than in Java and Minangkabau.

In earlier times, the pesantren, surau, pondok and madrasah schools were a rural phenomenon, interacting with local communities. Scholars provided education, gave advice to villagers, and legitimized local ceremonies. Some scholars were regarded as “blessed” and consulted for cures and supernatural assistance during their lives and by cults at their tombs. Villagers supported such schools with food and assistance; in some places the poor tax, alms, and pious endowments were also given. In Malaysia support networks of parents provided assistance and, in all places, learners often worked in the agricultural fields of the school since fees were seldom taken for learning per se. Currently some pesantren are located in urban areas, and many rely on fees.

Students in earlier times remained at a pesantren until they felt they had learned enough and then returned to society. Committed students, often sons of scholars (gus), moved among schools whose scholars had reputations for special knowledge. A good number traveled to Mecca to study there under noted scholars as the culmination of their education. Today, students usually stay at a particular school for the full education, but sometimes additional training is obtained elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but more often in South Asia or in the Middle East, such as al-Azhar University in Egypt. See AL-AZHAR.

Learning was traditionally based on the “old books” (kitāb kuning) of prominent scholars from the Muslim Middle Period (ca. 1250–1850), usually from the Shāfiʿī school of legal scholarship. Study always included Arabic grammar (naḥw) and conjugation (ṣarf), Qurʿānic recitation (qirāʿah), Qurʿānic exegesis (tafsīr), theology (tawḥīd), jurisprudence (fiqh), ethics (akhlāq), logic (manṭiq), history (tārīkh) and mysticism (taṣawwūf). Malay and other local languages were used as the base language of the schools, making them accessible to the local population, which has always made the system popular. The weton or ḥalqah system was used, in which students sat in a semicircle before a seated scholar, who called on them in turn for recitation.

Historically, the intense education and worship schedule led to deep involvement of learners with their scholar, which produced strong loyalties and respect. In school and after departing, scholars could rely on their learners to answer a summons for aid, a factor of political importance at particular moments in history. In the Second Javanese War (1826–1830), the Acehnese War (1873–1903), and the Battle of Surabaya (1946) during the Indonesian Revolution, scholars led their santris into armed conflict against enemies they believed threatened the Muslim community.

In the twentieth century pesantren came under pressure from society and governments to adopt different teaching techniques and to include nonreligious subjects, and many responded favorably. In Indonesia the Modern Pesantren at Gontor, for example, expanded to include training from elementary grades to the university level with a mixed curriculum. Other pesantren converted to sekolah within the Indonesian education system. Still others offered specialized training in agriculture, crafts, and business alongside traditional religious subjects. In Singapore the government insisted on schools adopting much of the regular curriculum found in the national school system. In Brunei the schools were used to supplement the national school system.

In the early twenty-first century there were about 2,000 such schools in the Philippines, nearly 1,600 in Thailand, about 13,000 in Indonesia, 500 in Malaysia, several hundred in Cambodia, and only six in Singapore. Continuing attempts were made by governments throughout the Southeast Asian region to integrate these schools into standard government systems, with considerable success in this effort in Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, but with much less success in the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia.

In Thailand and the Philippines these schools have been used where national schools do not exist or where language difficulties make them a popular alternative to national schools. Charges have been made that some of those schools, operating outside of government control, have come under the influence of militant forms of Islamic teachings, most notably Wahhabism and al-Qaʿida, but the extent of such influence is difficult to measure.

While the value-oriented education of the pesantren remains respected by Southeast Asian Muslims, still this type of school appears to be fading in countries where a national education system is strong. When there is a choice, Muslims increasingly feel compelled to send their children to government schools with modern curricula, believing they will be better prepared for the job market. Even children of scholars, who earlier formed the cadre of young scholars and their wives, are drawn by nonreligious education, so that fewer qualified scholars are being trained.

See also EDUCATION, subentries onEDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS and RELIGIOUS EDUCATION; and MADRASAH.

Bibliography

  • Azra, Asyumardi. Rise and Decline of the Minangkabau Surau: A Traditional Islamic Educational Institution in West Sumatra during the Dutch Colonial Period. Ciputat: Logos Wacana Ilmu dan Pemikira, 2003. The context of the surau in changing Minangkabau society.
  • Bengsli, Bjorn. “Trends in the Islamic Community.”Phnom Penh Post, 12, 12 (June 6–19, 2003): 16. The place of religious education in the Islamic community of Cambodia.
  • Dhofier, Zamarkhsyari. The Pesantren Tradition: The Role of the Kyai in the Maintenance of Traditional Islam in Java. Tempe: Monograph Series Press, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, Arizona State University, 1999. A basic description of life in a pesantren; for the general reader.
  • Mucha-Shin, Quiling Arguiza, “Philippine Ethnic and Muslim Minorities: Educating Children the Traditional Way.”Mountain Research and Development26, no. 1 (February 2006): 24–27.
  • Pitsuwan, Surin. Islam and Malay Nationalism: A Case Study of Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand, pp. 175–204. Bangkok: Thai Khadi Research Institute, Thammasat University, 1985. The transformation of the pondoks undertaken by the Thai government to integrate Muslim society into Thai culture.
  • Roff, William. “Pondoks, Madrasas and the Production of ʿUlamāʿ in Malaysia.”Studia Islamica11, no. 1 (2004): 1–21. The changing life of religious schools in recent times.
  • Steenbrink, K. A.Pesantren, Madrasah, Sekolah. Jakarta: Lembaga Penelitian, Pendidikan dan Penerangan Ekonomi dan Sosial, 1986. The development of Islamic education in twentieth-century Indonesia with emphasis on the Islamic associations that were responsible for the principal changes.
  • Suparto. “While Reform of Islamic Education is Necessary, Secularization is Not.”Inside Indonesia77 (January–March 2005), 22–23. The changing role of the pesantren in Indonesian national life.
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