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Pondok, Origins of the

Francis R. Bradley
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Pondok, Origins of the

In Malay, pondok means “hut” or “humble abode,” but the word came to refer to the relatively modest living quarters where pondok teachers resided. These pondok became social and cultural centers on the Malay-Thai Peninsula, where students flocked in large numbers, beginning in the nineteenth century, to study Islam. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, a sophisticated network of schools had emerged throughout much of northern Malaya and southern Siam that together were referred to as the pondok.

Significance and Origins

Pondok became central to the process of linking Southeast Asian Muslims with the global ummah, while reinforcing the local and regional flavor of Islamic belief and practice. The pondok represented the first widespread Islamic educational institutions that reached beyond the royal courts and became increasingly accessible to ordinary people. Furthermore, the pondok played a central role in fusing Islamic culture and identity to Malay life throughout the peninsula. Today the pondok, like the pesantren of Indonesia, are sites of social and cultural genesis and central to the maintenance of Islamic traditions and identity in Malaysia and southern Thailand.

It is unclear for how long pondok served as learning centers on the Malay-Thai Peninsula. This is primarily due to the fact that books were not employed in pondok until the nineteenth century, coinciding with Islam’s increasingly textual turn. The earliest sources suggest that the pondok were based upon existing institutions by which knowledge was passed down via oral tradition from generation to generation. These schools had coalesced into a system of knowledge transfer by around 1800, if not earlier, as evidenced by their more visible emergence throughout the peninsula in the century following. In their earliest incarnation, the pondok were probably not explicitly Islamic spaces, but were learning centers where Islamic thought and practice were taught alongside other forms of knowledge, such as popular literature, history, medicine, language, and various ritual practices influenced by the cultural milieu of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism. The presence of other religious or ritual influences in these spaces became a major focus of Islamic reformers in the nineteenth century, though textual evidence suggests the former survived until at least the dawn of the twentieth century in some places.


The decline of political power among the peninsular Malay states, brought on by European colonialism and Siamese imperialism, coincided with an upswing in Muslim religiosity. Pondok were socially vital spaces, particularly in regions where political powers disintegrated most dramatically. Thus the most prominent pondok appeared in the Malay-Thai borderland by the early nineteenth century. The fall of the Patani Sultanate in 1786 created a diaspora numbering at least in the thousands that settled across many of the adjoining states, such as Kelantan, Trengganu, and Kedah, where religious leadership gained an unprecedented measure of autonomy in relation to the old elite. Many of these religious teachers studied in Mecca, where they acquired an increasingly reformist and textual brand of Islam that they spread at the pondok they founded upon their return to the peninsula. Most commonly scholars returned to their hometowns to spread the texts and teachings they had acquired while abroad, though some chose to open schools in other parts of the region. These early pondok, scattered throughout the Malay-Thai borderland, were interconnected via traveling scholars, students, and the circulation of handwritten texts.


Pondok afforded nineteenth-century Malay-speakers of the peninsula an education that tied them into the global Islamic community on an unprecedented scale. These schools became dissemination points for texts and were active centers involved in the various revival and reform movements that had begun at the dawn of the nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth.

Malay Traditions

Despite being drawn increasingly into the global Muslim community, these schools bore a Malay cultural imprint both in terms of the process of knowledge dissemination and the types of information that were valued and passed down. The communities themselves were relatively self-sufficient, affording students a lifestyle of communal living. In addition to study and worship, students also contributed to the growing of crops, the breeding of cattle, and the production of other necessities that allowed the pondok to exist as semi-autonomous social units within broader Malay society.

Centers of Learning

The primary function of the schools was to transmit knowledge and instill moral values within succeeding generations. Students generally came to a school on referral from a local imam or other teacher, and upon proving their ability, remained for a few years studying directly with the main teacher. While each pondok had one chief instructor, large schools often elevated senior students to positions as assistants. A student’s standing within a given school largely depended upon seniority as well as facility in memorizing the Qurʾān and becoming well versed in other doctrines and writings. Teachers generally read texts aloud as attentive students recorded their own written copies based upon those lectures. A hierarchy of schools developed from villages to regional centers, with the most gifted students eventually going to Mecca to study, often relying upon the charity of their teacher or other sponsor. While teachers vied with each other for prestige and the ability to draw students, there is ample evidence for the circulation of students between schools, which in turn facilitated the flow of texts between various centers of learning.


Village pondok often retained a strong oral tradition and some used no texts at all. Others based their instruction upon just a few texts. The greater regional centers often had modest libraries of texts that the chief teacher had procured, often in Mecca, and employed as the sources for curricular authority. An individual pondok’s intellectual identity was tied directly to the personality of its teacher. Village pondok often specialized in one particular Islamic science, while others offered a wide variety of subjects. Common fields of study included Arabic grammar, fiqh (jurisprudence) of the Shāfiʿī madhhab (school of law), kalām (theology), Ṣalāt (ritual prayer), taṣawwuf (Sufism), tawḥīd (oneness of God), and uṣūl al-dīn (dogmatic theology). Many texts employed in the pondok were Malay translations of Arabic, Persian, or Turkish originals. Most focused on an aspect of Islam, but a small number of books on mathematics, medicine, and science from the Middle East also appeared in pondok curriculums. There is also evidence that the emerging literary tradition of the pondok facilitated the process of recording in written form, often for the first time, various forms of local knowledge, including folktales, popular Islam, medicinal lore, and divination. Finally pondok also drew texts from other parts of Southeast Asia, primarily Aceh, Banjarmasin, and Trengganu.

Rise of the Pondok

Between 1820 and 1870 the earliest recognizable pondok emerged on the peninsula, primarily in the former Patani Sultanate, the Malay states of Kelantan, Trengganu, and Melaka, and in British Singapore.


By 1821 pondok employing Islamic texts emerged in Patani and Yala, the two most important cities of old Patani. The earliest known teacher was Muḥammad Yūsuf bin ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jāwī Trengganu (fl. 1819–1874), who assembled a library of texts, primarily writings of Patani’s native son, Dāwūd al-Faṭānī, and taught at Kampung Pusing, near Yala. Another important early pondok, Kampung Pauh Bok, near Patani, allegedly founded in the mid-eighteenth century, became an early dissemination point for texts and teachings. The most prestigious pondok on the peninsula, Bendang Daya, may date to the beginning of the nineteenth century, but rose to greater prominence by mid-century, and gained its preeminent position during the final three decades under the stewardship of its great teacher, ʿAbd al-Qādir bin Muṣṭafā bin Muḥammad al-Faṭānī (1818–1895), known as Tok Bendang Daya Muda. His instruction drew extensively from the writings of Dāwūd al-Faṭānī, focusing upon fiqh, taṣawwuf, and tawḥīd. Another prominent teacher, Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn bin Muḥammad al-Faṭānī (ca. 1820–1913), known as Tuan Minal, founded a pondok at Bendang Badang, near Patani, that became one of the most active schools in the region. A fifth center, Canak, today located in Songkhla province, became one of the most active pondok in the region, drawing large numbers of students in the period after 1845. Teachers employed al-Ranīrī’s Sīrat al-Mustaqīm popularized a set of prayer “manuals” drawn from four of Dāwūd al-Faṭānī’s writings on niyya (intention), ṣalāt, and Friday prayer. A sixth center, Kelaba, emerged by 1848 as a pondok of some regard, but achieved greater notoriety around the turn of the twentieth century when its most famed teacher, Muḥammad Ḥusayn bin ʿAbd al-Laṭīf bin ʿAbd al-Muʾmin al-Faṭānī (1863–1948), known as Tok Kelaba, returned from Mecca and taught for many years, drawing upon his own writings and the many books by Dāwūd al-Faṭānī he had collected while abroad. A seventh center, Kampung Bajih, near Yala, emerged in the 1850s as a center for the study of taṣawwuf.


Many of the early pondok in Kelantan were founded by Patani diaspora teachers. One such figure, ʿAbd al-Ṣamad bin ʿAbd Allāh bin Hāshim (ca. 1792–1873), known as Tok Pulai Condong, founded schools at Kampung Laut, Kampung Bilai Talib, and Pulai Condong, near Kota Bharu, where he employed Dāwūd al-Faṭānī’s writings on fiqh. Another figure, Ḥasan bin Isḥāq al-Jāwī al-Faṭānī (d. 1863), founded pondok at Besut and Kampung Palembang under royal patronage from the sultan. He mainly taught ḥadīth and Malay translations of al-Ghazālī (1058–1111). Another early teacher, Jamāl al-Dīn bin Muḥammad (d. 1886), known as Tok Ayah Jamāl, founded an influential pondok at Peringat, near Kota Bharu in the mid-nineteenth century.


Like Kelantan, many of the early Trengganu pondok bore strong influence from Patani. Two of the influential early schools, at Bukit Bayas and Kampung Paya Bunga, were founded by ʿAbd al-Qādir bin ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Tarkānū (ca. 1790–1864), known as Tuan Bukit Bayas, who relocated to the state after the Patani-Siam war of 1831–1832. His teachings focused primarily upon fiqh, drawn from his own writings.


Singapore became a common transit point for scholars traveling to and from the Ḥaramayn as early as 1819, but also developed learning centers of its own. Kampung Gelam, the most important and influential center, emerged by 1864.


Pondok appeared in Melaka and exhibited less influence from Patani than in other regions. One scholar of Ḥaḍramī origins, Sayyid Muḥammad bin Sayyid Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn al-ʿAydarūs (1795–1878), known as Tokku Melaka, spread his own texts and teachings at schools in the region. An important pondok emerged at Tanjung Kaling by 1850, which served as a center for studying fiqh.


By the 1870s the earliest pondok on the Malay-Thai Peninsula were well established, with a strong network of schools particularly in the borderland regions of Patani, Kelantan, and Trengganu. Other centers were located near major points of international traffic, spurred on by burgeoning shipping lanes, the relative ease of commerce between Mecca and Southeast Asia, and the influx of a large number of handwritten texts.

Print Culture

From 1870 most of the key texts used in the pondok began to shift to printed forms, first in Singapore, then at publishing centers in Bombay by 1880, Mecca by 1884, and Istanbul after 1886. Of these, the Ottoman press in Mecca emerged as the most prominent under the leadership of Aḥmad bin Muḥammad Zayn bin Muṣṭafā al-Faṭānī (1856–1908), supplying returning hājjīs with texts that they often taught upon their return to the peninsula. Publishing later shifted to Cairo after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and ultimately back to Singapore and Pulau Pinang (Penang) in the late 1930s.

Further Proliferation

Pondok continued to spread throughout Malaya even as the British consolidated political power in the region. Despite the pondok having taken a recognizable form only by the early to mid-nineteenth century, the British often viewed them as “traditional” schools, a theme that later Malay nationalists would employ to promote the pondok as sites of “authentic” or “pure” Malay culture.


In the period 1880–1910, three major centers emerged in Kelantan at Pasir Mas, Tumpat, and Kota Bharu, which benefited from the influx of Patani teachers and texts. The state also had a number of smaller schools along the coast, with a few teachers moving into the interior to extend education into those regions.


Kedah also experienced a surge in the number of pondok, built primarily by dislocated Patani migrants bearing esteemed credentials from having studied at some of the premier pondok on the peninsula as well as with scholars in Mecca.

Other Malay States.

Further to the south, pondok continued to proliferate in Trengganu, but less so in other states such as Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, and Selangor. Later Malayan models for education were based upon these foundations.

Southern Siam/Thailand.

Pondok in southern Siam retained an exalted reputation, though they experienced increasing marginalization brought about after the demise of Patani’s raja (king), a source of consistent patronage, when Siam restructured its provincial organization in 1902. Nevertheless, by the turn of the twentieth century, the region possessed approximately three dozen pondok linking together the old sultanate of Patani. The forging of the present-day border between Malaysia and Thailand via the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 caused further friction in the border region, drove numerous prominent Muslim teachers to flee into Malaya, and set the stage for continued cultural and political conflict. The pondok remained vital sites for cultural genesis within Malay-speaking communities in southern Thailand into the twenty-first century.


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