History shows that pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) have made a great contribution to the independence of this country; most have also played a significant role in making Indonesian Muslims moderate and tolerant. However, the condition of pesantren, especially in rural areas, is deplorable. Most have been left behind in comparison to other educational institutions in urban areas. One reason is the lack of attention from the government on the development of pesantren.
Thus, the government needs to create an affirmative program to help the schools develop, and to support their surrounding communities to face the influence of globalization. Only about 7 percent of students from rural areas continue their studies to a university level; most cannot study in major cities due to the high living costs.
The affirmative program should include affordable non-religious studies for people in rural areas. Such programs would have a multiplier effect, which would improve their competitiveness. Importantly, these programs would reduce urbanization as well as reducing the gap between urban and rural areas; and they are plausibly a good method of de-radicalization.
Not many understand that the oldest and earliest education in the Indonesian archipelago was Islamic education, particularly in pesantren. Islamic education started in the ninth century in Barus, on the western coast of Sumatra, when many foreigners including Islamic scholars arrived there. Foreigners were particularly attracted to the camphor trees in the area, as their sap can be used to produce kapur barus (camphor).
Historical records suggest that the zenith of Islam in the archipelago occurred from 1400 to 1680. Modern Malay civilization developed the use of Arabic script for writing instead of the Latin alphabet; this became known as the Jawi script. Well-known scholars during this time included Hamzah Fansuri, Syamsuddin Sumatrani, Nuruddin al-Raniri and Abdurrauf al-Singkili.
Anthony Johns considered the Malay people’s conversion into Muslims as a remarkable historical development. Firstly, it happened during the setback of the Islamic imperium in the Middle East. Secondly, the process was relatively rapid, in the absence of political support from any military power. Thirdly, the number of people converting from Hinduism to Islam was more than 89 percent of the population. Indisputably, the key to this phenomenon was the existence of pesantren.
The Walisongo (nine Javanese Islamic saints) were the early figures who spread Islam in the future Indonesia. One of the Walisongo, Maulana Malik Ibrahim, who died in 1419, is known as the grand master of the pesantren tradition. Meanwhile, Java’s oldest pesantren is Tegalsari in Ponorogo, East Java, which was established 300 years ago by Hasan Besari. Ronggowarsito, a great Javanese poet, was one of his students.
Several old pesantren that are still in operation today include: the Sidogiri in Pasuruan, East Java, which was first established in 1745; the Jamsaren in Surakarta, Central Java, established 1750; Miftahul Huda in Malang, East Java, established 1768; the Buntet in Cirebon, established 1785; Darul Ulum in Pamekasan, Madura, East Java, established 1787; and Langitan in Tuban, East Java, established 1830.
Several pesantren which are now well-known were actually established at later times, such as the Tebuireng in Jombang, East Java (established in 1899), Lirboyo in Kediri (established in 1910) and Gontor in Ponorogo, East Java (established in 1926).
In the Minangkabau highlands in West Sumatra, a similar institution to the pesantren exists, called the surau, as does the dayah in Aceh.
Secular educational institutions were established by the Dutch East Indies in the early 1840s at the suggestion of Snouck Hurgronje. The main purpose was to attain more educated employees for the Dutch administration and private companies. However, the development of the secular educational institutions was also believed to challenge the influence of pesantren which had begun to irritate the colonial government.
According to Hurgronje, the culture of the East Indies had to be combined with European culture. The Dutch education system was thus expanded, making many more Indonesians eligible to attend. This education policy, later part of the “ethical policy” toward colonial subjects, was deemed the best political decision to reduce and eventually defeat the influence of Islam in the Dutch East Indies.
In 1919, the Bandung School of Technology was set up, followed by the School of Law in 1924 and the School of Medicine in 1926, the latter two both in Jakarta. Interestingly, even though many students received a western education, they did not lose their identities.
A number of them gathered in Jakarta in October 1928 to hold the second youth congress, which then resulted in Sumpah Pemuda (The Youth Pledge). That moment surely formed the embryo of Indonesian independence. To achieve this vision, the future years saw cooperation and understanding between our founding fathers, who graduated from pesantren and western style education.
In 1950, the religious affairs minister of the time, Wahid Hasyim, and the education minister, Bahder Johan, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to combine Islamic and secular education. Furthermore, the pesantren also contributed to the establishment of the Islamic Indonesian University (UII) as the first private university in Indonesia. The proponents of Islamic higher education further enabled many pesantren alumni to continue their studies in any discipline they chose.
Nowadays, there are some 28,000 pesantren across Indonesia, mostly in East Java. In 1971 there were 4,200 such schools while, in 1998, the figure rose to 8,000, and rose again to 22,000 by 2008. The increasing number of schools shows the public’s appreciation as many citizens choose to send their children to pesantren — which have continued their tradition, over hundreds of years, of educating our society.
The writer is the director of Tebuireng Pesantren, Jombang, East Java.