The role of indonesian islamic schools (pesantren) in managing Cultural and religious diversity among young generation

By: Arif Zamhari, P.hd

It is no doubt that indonesian education institutions have playeda an inportant role not only in developing the ability of its citizens and equipping them with particular knowledge needed for their future but also in maintaining cultural and religious diversity. In addition, indonesian education institutions also function to transfer knowledge, cultural and religious values from one generation to the next indonesian generation. Indonesian education institutions like other education institutions elsewhere are an institution where student from different cultural and religious backgarounds meet and interact with each other.

As part of a national education institutions, islamic indonesian education institution also has similar roles with puts its emphasize more on teaching islam, ethics and other konwledge. There are several islamic education institutions found in indonesia including Pesantren (islamic Boarding Schools), Madrasah (Islamic Schools), Islamic school under Muslim Organizations, islamic intergrated schools, Majlis Taklim and Islamic Universities. Each institutions  has its own characteristies and objectives. For the purpuse of this public lecture, I would like to highlight the role of pesantren (islamic boarding schools) in maintaining cultural and religious diversity in indonesia particularly among young generation.

Even though scholars have different view on the origin of pesantren in indonesia, they have agreed that pesantren is the oldest system of islamic learning and education in indonesia. In the 16th centuries, pesantren was the second most important islamic centre after mosque. Pesantren teaches friendly islam and easily accommodates local tradition and culture. Pesantren also plays important role in the islamization process in indonesian archipelago and maintaining islamic tradition. With the emergence of a modern islamic education schools recently, pesantren has survived and mainatained its tradition and at the same time eccommadating some modern education system. In this regards, pesantren should compete with modern seculer education isntitution. In indonesia, we can find a various pesantren which generally function as a centre of learning islam as well as a centre of sufism (islamic sprituality). Pesantren has two types: first type is pesantren salaf (traditional pesantren) which focuses its learning only on islamic knowledge. The second is pesantren khalaf (modern pesantren) which provived its students not only with islamic subjects but also seculer subjects.

General feature of pesantren

An institution of learning islam in indonesia can be called pesantren if it the minimum elements of pesantren. As pointed out by Dhofier (1999), those basic elements of pesantren are the pondok (dormitories), the mosque, the study of classical islamic texts (kitab kuning), the santri (students), and kyai (leader).

The first  element of pesantren is pondok. Pondok is important element of pesantren since it functions as a hostel for student who come from a far region. However, students from the vicnity of pesantren also live in the pondok. The pondok takes the from of permanent buildings divided into rooms each variably inhabited by six to ten students depend to the number of student who live in the pesantren. The house of the leader of pesantren is usually located within the complex of pesantren.

Another important element of pesantren is a moque which is the centre of islamic education in the pesantren. A mosque is also a place where santri perform islamic rituals, lear to read and digest classical books. Some big pesantren in java orginate from the founding of a mosque. The pesantren mosque is not only used by students but also used by community in the vicnity of pesantren for islamic rituals such prayer, zikr and general islamic lecture.

Taraditinally, a pesantren teaches a description of calssical islamic books by the system of sorogan (individual system of learning) and bandongan or wetonan (group system of learning), in Kediri, seculer subject such as math, science and chemistry are also taught and madrasah has been introduced. Even, some pesantren use national curricula for their students. In a pesantren using calssical system, classical islamic texts are given to students in accordance with their level of study from the lower to the higher following particular schedule. In traditional pesantren, particulary those of under Nahdhatul Ulama. Students have to use only calssical texts categorized as Mu’tabarah (recognized or legitimate) which means classical islamic books which are compatible with the doctrine of Ahlussunnah wal Jama’ah.

The participants of the pesantren are called santri. Student who at the pesantren usually age 13-20 years old. Most pesantren cater their students who can be categorized as teenagers. Students of pesantren these days are formally registered and have to pay certain amount of money as a registration fee so that they become students in particular pesantren. In addition, they have to pay tuition fee in every semester or annually. Also in order to be a student of pesantren they must be under particular age. While pesantren usually undertake its class in the morning on the daily basis under the instruction of teachers Kyai.

The leader of pesantren is commonly known as kyai, while the leader of majlis taklim can be an independent kyai, or Habib. In the past, the title of kyai was commoly inherited (Turmudhi: 2006) especially kyai who runs pesantren. However, currently the concept of kyai in Java has changed. The title  of kyai is no longer inherited genealogically. One can be a kyai as long as the member of society recognize him as a kyai by virtue of his mastering higher Islamic knowledge and his influential role in Islamic preaching among community. Therefore, it is not unusual that some prominent kyai is not similar to that of priest, monk and cleric as in Cristian or in Buddhist tradition. There is no a particular Muslim institution in Indonesia that approves and authorize kyai. Similarly, there is no Muslim organization that can remove kyai from his position. Currently it is no unusual for big pesantren to have more than on kyai. This happens usually when the founder of pesantren dies and has several sons who have religios knowledge that allows them to be a kyai. They run collaboratively their family pesantren. The best example of this kind of leadership is pesantren modern gontor in ponorogo, East Java. After the demise of the founder, the pesantren now is led by three kyais.

Pesantren: nurturing religious and cultural diversity

The role of pesantren in nurturing cultural and religious diversity can be seen from two things. The first one in seen from the teaching of islam taught n pesantren and the second one is seen from attitudes of pesantren community.

In term of teaching of islam, pesantren teaches its students with the concept of brotherhood. The teaching on brotherhood applied in pesantren the teaching that is prevalent among members or followers of Nahdhatul Ulama or NU (Resurgence of Ulemas).  The teaching advocates three levels of brotherhood that need to be uplifted in pursuing peaceful coexistence of all humankind. First, is brotherhood among Muslims (ukhuwah islamiyah); second, is brotherhood among people of the same nation (ukhuwah wathoniyah); and third, brotherhood among all human beings (ukhuwah basyariah) regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. This teaching is actually taken from the teaching of islam as derived from Qur’an (O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one anther. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who is pious. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware (Qs. Al-Hujurat: 13)). This verse is not just aimed at brotherhood between Muslims, but rather to all humankind. This teaching is given to pesantren students who are around 16-20 years of age. With this teaching, the students are equipped with theological basis to live and interact with people from different religion and culture.

Another aspect of Islamic teaching delivered in pesantren is the balance n teaching Islamic legal aspects (fikih) and the spirituality (Sufism). This approach can be traced back to derive from the nine saints (walisongo) who spread islam on the island of Java peacefully. This spiritually dimension of teaching is taught in pesantren so as to avoid standing in a binary position: right/wrong, halal/haram, me/the other, heaven/hell, etc. as a result, this teaching will produce a tolerant and pluralistic people who can express the beauty and inner meaning of the religion: peace, tolerance, respet, love and care for others, and other esoteric and humanitarian traits.

The role of pesantren in nurturing religious diversity can be seen from the fact that most leaders of pesantren has practiced tolerant value tuword other people from different religion. Some of them actively engage in interfaith dialog activities involving ither religious leaders. Even, their pesantren is provided as a venue for the dialogue and live in activity for interfaith events. The tolerant attitudes of the leader tuword other religious leaders obviously will become a good example to follow for their students. Moreover, facilitated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Religious Affairs those pesantren are usually involved to host multi-faith delegations from overseas and allow their students to participate interfaith dialogue held in the pesantren. The dialogue between the delegation and the santris was warm, open and sometimes filled with bursts of laughter. The santris enjoyed not only stories about far away life especially among its teenagers, but also the opportunity to practice their English.

In addition, graduates of pesantren also play important role in nurturing religious and cultural diversity in Indonesia. Most od NGO’s which are concerned with interfaith dialog are supported by graduates of pesantren. These graduates involve in the interfaith dialogue due to the fact that they have learned the importance of tolerance among other religious bilievers since the time they study in theirs pesantren.

Nurturing cultural diversity and multiculturalism is not a new thing among pesantren in fact it has been applied since its establishment of pesantren. Despite their similar religious backgrounds, students who study in most Indonesian pesantren come from different cultural backgrounds. In this respect, pesantren can function as a melting pot for its students. To promote multiculturalism and cultural diversity pesantren usually hold cultural events involving students from different ethnicities. As a result, students of the pesantren get used to respect people from different cultural backgrounds since the beginning of their life before living in their society.

This paper is presented on public lecture for students of faculty of theology, Santiago,Chile 30 May 2012.


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