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Volume 41, Number 6November/December 1990

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The Pesantren at Surialaya

Written and photographed by Karen Petersen

At four a.m., as the chilly mist cloaks the isolated and fertile valley surrounding Mount Sawal in west central Java, the call to prayer sounds from a lone minaret. From its top, outlined in brilliant neon in the black night blazes the word "Allah" in Arabic script. Here in the small village of Surialaya, nestled among the rice paddies and bamboo groves, is an Indonesian Islamic school known as a pesantern. Over the past hundred years, the pesantren system has played a key role in the Islamization of many Javanese communities.

The Surialaya pesantren is located just off a small country road, its entrance framed by an arching ironwork sign. The natural surroundings are rustic and peaceful; it is an ideal place for study and contemplation. At the center of a group of brick houses is a large mosque surmounted by a 25-meter-high (82-foot) minaret, built in 1970 at a cost of 2.5 million rupiahs - then equivalent to $7350, a large sum in Indonesia. There is also a spacious hall where the kyahi, or leader, receives his guests each day; nearby are basic dormitories and dining rooms for both girls and boys. The style of the place encourages a simple, frugal way of living.

The pesantren of Surialaya is one of the few religious schools in Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim country - that draws many of its followers from different social strata, occupations and regions. Its members are an important social force, in that they have developed there a spirit of cooperation aimed at improving the spiritual lot of the less fortunate. One 23-year-old student, Muhammad Norman Zaidi, is attending the school in order to learn Arabic. But he is no ordinary student: He is the son of the governor of Sarawak, and intends to pursue a career in politics. "I like politics - it's exciting," he says. "Whenever you do something, large or small, good or bad, it's noticed. To be a politician is not only to be an administrator but to involve yourself with the people." Zaidi is particularly impressed by the school's ruling principle of ijtihad, an Arabic word translated as a positive struggle to become better, without fatalism.

The Islamic pesantren system ranges from small local kindergartens to boarding schools at the junior and senior high school and academy levels. Supplementary Islamic instruction is given in the evening to students from local elementary schools. Pesantrens are funded privately, with occasional assistance from the Indonesian government, and tuition varies according to the student's ability to pay. One could conceivably spend 20 years of one's life at a pesantren - from age four (kindergarten) to graduation at age 24 from the academy. The curriculum is largely Islamic, although the school is also required by the state to teach secular courses.

The Indonesian word pesantren, or per-sanlri-en, means "the place where the wise men are," santri being a derivative of the Sanskrit word shastri, "a man learned in the scriptures." The Javanese pesantrens, in Hindu-Buddhist times, were monasteries, the centers of spiritual life and guidance in the villages. Islam took root on a large scale in the 15th and 16th centuries, brought by Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula. Buddhism and its predecessor on the island, Hinduism, were gradually displaced. In the 17th century, as Muslim influences of different kinds increased, the monasteries underwent a gradual transition to become what we would now call village counseling centers. Cross-pollinated by the disciplines of the monk and the mystic, this function remained basically intact for two centuries. A man could go to the kyahi, the cultural and political leader, for religious instruction or for personal help.

In the latter part of the 19th century, in the last century of Indonesia's 350 years of Dutch colonial rule, the economies of the villages began to change. Java was no longer the remote eastern boundary of Islam, thanks to the steamship and the Suez Canal. The pilgrimage to Makkah now took less than a month and was possible for more people. As the pilgrims returned, a purer, less mystical Islam came to Java, and with it the desire for more rigorous religious education. The wealthier village members began to turn the centers into schools for their children - boarding schools that provided Islamic education while still maintaining their role as the spiritual nuclei of the villages. At the turn of this century, the first modern pesantrens emerged from this complex balance among family duties and education, community and school.

Shaykh Abdullah Mubarak,, better known as Abah Sepuh, "the old kyahi," founded one of the. most significant of these pesantrens in Surialaya in 1905, with a starting enrollment of ten students. Today, under the charismatic Abah Anom, Mubarak's son/the school boasts an average yearly enrollment of 1200,; with students and faculty coming from Bandung, Jakarta, Palembang and as far away as Malaysia. The Surialaya pesantren also has branches on other Indonesian islands, and centers throughout Southeast Asia.

Now in his early 70's, Abah Anom is an expert in Islamic law and theology; he speaks fluent Arabic in addition to his national language, Bahasa Indonesia, and one of Indonesia's 300 regional tongues, Sundanese. He has organized a training course for preachers who, once their training is complete, become his deputies in various districts of Indonesia. Abah Anom's teaching emphasizes observance of the law (shari'ah) as revealed in the Qur'an and amplified by the sayings and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad. Although his deputies are not linked by formal ties, they, and the various regions where they preach, are held together by respect for his learning and authority as well as by their common devotions and their shared enthusiasm.

Today's Indonesian society is rapidly changing. Though four out of five Indonesians still make their living on the land, poverty and riches, traditional ways and modern technology rub shoulders in teeming cities like Jakarta. Java, with 100 million inhabitants, is twice as densely populated as Japan; Indonesia's 13,667 islands altogether have a population of more than 188 million, of whom 92 percent are Muslim. These circumstances place ever-renewed demands on religion to remain relevant human needs as these needs change with the times. The harmony that prevails in the Surialaya pesantren today is largely due to Abah Anom's skill at looking beyond apparent conflicts to the lasting relevance of the Islamic revelation, which has permitted, even encouraged, good relations with both civil and military authorities. During the Dutch colonial period and during Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II, many pesantrens were hotbeds of rural protest or political resistance - indeed, during the Surialaya pesantren's first 30 years, until the departure of the Dutch, it was constantly regarded as suspect by the government of the day, and at one time was ordered to close down. Even since Indonesia won its independence in 1949, both local and national government officials have followed all pesantrens closely, aware of their political potential.

One of the pesantren teachers, a young man named Basyar, is heading toward the graveyard where the tomb of the school's founder, Abah Sepuh, is located. Basyar, himself a product of the pesantren system, is dressed traditionally in dark trousers and an elaborate batik kemeja shirt; on his head sits a snug-fitting, woven black hat called a pichi. As he climbs down the winding stone stairway, Basyar suddenly stops and turns toward the courtyard below with an expansive gesture. He seems filled with the power and promise of all youth. "Islam is my life," he says quietly. "I have never even considered another way. I believe that Islam is the right religion for Indonesia today."

Free-lance writer and photographer Karen Petersen is based in New York; her work has appeared in German Geo and National Geographic.

This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the November/December 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1990 images.