Islamic Boarding Schools in Indonesia

Selamat Datang dari Indonesia (Welcome from Indonesia)

During our group’s recent travel to Indonesia’s main island of Java, we learned a lot about one of the most important social institutions in Indonesia: the Pesantren or Islamic boarding school. Nationwide, about 80,000 students live and learn about the Islamic faith while receiving a more western education. Even since many of Indonesia’s influential political organizations were banned from participating in politics, they moved their power and influence into the social sphere. The proliferation of these schools is the result of years of that political banishment. Now, the power has completely flipped and Islamic organizations are only gain more power in the social as well as the political world.

We had ample opportunity to speak with some of the students from both the girl’s and boys’ sections. They were very proud of their chance to explore their relationship with God and become productive Indonesian citizens. For example, during one of my conversations with a student, he mentioned that even as the school was rigorous (similar to catholic schools in America), it was worth all the hardships. He said that while his freedom is restricted now, his education will give him the freedom to pursue any occupation he wants in the future. On average, these students study the Holy Quran about four hours every day, memorizing huge portions and learning Arabic along the way. This results in sleeping an average of 3 – 4 hours a night. But again, it is all worth it for them because of their strong relationship with God and their eventual freedom in the outside world.

Another critical aspect of these schools is their vision of Islam in a western world that is dominated by news about terrorist organizations. During a lecture by a male student and headmaster of the pesantren, they mentioned many times that they were representing a moderate vision of Islam for Indonesia. What they meant by this was Islam should be a way of life defined by balance. A balance must be struck by religious life and family life. Religion teaches them important morals to apply to the rest of their lives and practices like praying five times a day reinforce what is truly important. In their words, this is the actual teaching of Islam that should be proliferated around the country. In this way, the students and staff of the schools aim to change the perception of Islam in Indonesian and eventually the world. Consequently, they believe that the truth of Islam is peace and another of practice is a perversion (hence not really Islam).

In this way, our time spent in the pesantren challenged many of our notions of Islam’s place within Indonesian society and the western view of religious education. In the west, we often gawk at the idea of rigorous religious education. But in Indonesia, it is one of the most coveted opportunities available. All of these students desire to know more about their place in society and the more spiritual world. These schools offer them both opportunities. They can choose any secular career they desire while also receiving spiritual guides as a young and impressionable age. Truly, this was an opportunity to see something truly unique about Indonesian Islamic culture and an educational force that will undoubtedly shape generations to come. These are things that simply can not be learned about in any other setting and for that, I am grateful for our staff at SIT.

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