Indonesian madrassah in 1906
About 30 percent of students attended schools that are categorized as Islamic overall and about 90 per cent of Islamic institutions at all levels are private, with the rest managed and funded by the state. According to Religious Affairs Ministry there are 37,362 madrasahs with 5.6 million in Indonesia (2002). Of these only 2,336 (8.6 percent), with 1 million students, are run by the state. The remaining 34,136 (91.4 percent), with 4.6 million students, are private. Pesantren (Islamic religious boarding schools) doubled in number between 1980 and 1996 and enrolled more than twice the number of students, which in 1996 amounted to 1.9 million.

In Indonesia, there are basically two types of Muslim schools: 1) boarding schools known as “pesantren” and 2) Islamic day schools known as madrassahs (or madrasas) (confusingly for Westerners, who associate the term “madrassah” with the boarding schools of the Middle East and South Asia). Pesantren began as are informal religious school. Madrassahs began by offer a more formalized religious education. But today sometimes the situation is reversed.

And on another level there are two types of madrassah and pesantren: 1) ones authorized by the Religious Affairs Ministry of the Indonesian government and run under the leadership of tolerant leaders; and 2) private ones run conservative Islamic clerics. The first type tend to offer a fairly liberal curriculum while the second type focuses on radical Islamic indoctrination.

“Santri” are found in all social classes but have traditionally been associated with the merchant classes. They follow the five pillars of Islam. In Java, santri not only refers to a person who is consciously and exclusively Muslim, but also describes persons who have removed themselves from the secular world to concentrate on devotional activities in Islamic schools called pesantren— literally, the place of the santri, but meaning Islamic school. Although these religious boarding schools, typically headed by a charismatic kiai (Muslim religious scholar), provide education for only a minority of Indonesian children (less than 10 percent), they remain an important symbol of Muslim piety, particularly in rural areas. [Source: Library of Congress]

Angel Rabasa of the Rand Corporation wrote: “One of the most striking characteristics of Southeast Asian Islam as a whole is the relative absence, until the latter part of the twentieth century, of extremist Salafi or Wahhabi variants of the religion. Moreover, Southeast Asian Islam remains extraordinarily diverse—a reflection of the fact that the majority of Muslims throughout the region incorporate local cultural, ethnic, and linguistic traditions into their practice of Islam. This tendency—which is referred to as “traditionalism” in Indonesia—is quite removed in spirit and practice from Wahhabi severity and intolerance, and is especially strong on the Indonesian island of Java, particularly East Java. For the most part, traditionalist Muslims in Southeast Asia adhere to the Syafi’i (in Arabic, Shafi’i) mazhab (school of jurisprudence). [Source: Angel Rabasa, Senior Policy Analyst, Rand Corporation, September 12, 2005 ^|^]

The secular and nationalist emphasis in public schools has been resisted by some of the Muslim majority. A distinct and vocal minority of these Muslims prefer to place their children to conservative Islamic schools. In order for students to adapt to life in the modern nation-state, in the 1970s the Muslim-dominated Department of Religion (now the Department of Religious Affairs) advocated the spread of a newer variety of Muslim school, the madrassa. This kind of school integrates religious subjects from the pesantren with secular subjects from the Western-style public-education system. Although in general the public believes that Islamic schools offer lower-quality education, among Islamic schools a madrassa is ranked lower than a pesantren. [Source: Library of Congress]


“Pesantren” are traditional Islamic rural schools. Essentially the same thing as madrassahs, they have a long history and were set up in part to bring education to the rural poor and even today poor students often only have the choice of going to a pesantren or no school at all.

Pesantren are closely linked to the indigenous form of Islam found in Indonesia. The word pesantren is derived from the Sanskrit word “sastri”, which means literate, or the Javanese word “cantrik”, which means a student who follows his teacher wherever he goes. Each pesantren has three primary components: 1) the “santri” (students); 2) the “pondok” (boarding facilities); and 3) “kiyai” (teachers). The kiyai have traditionally been more than just teachers. They also been respected scholars and community leaders.

The question has been asked: Are Indonesia’s Islamic schools a breeding ground for radicalism or are they humble pesantrens teaching the Koran along with some math, computers, geography and English? "Pesantrens are part of our identity, part of a long-standing Indonesian tradition," Religious Affairs Minister Muhammad Maftuh Basyuni told Reuters. "They have different principles. They chose to withdraw from the mainstream way of life because they denounce anything Western, which they associate with the colonial powers they fought in the past." [Source: Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga, Reuters, August 5, 2007]

By one count there are around 13,000 pesantren, about half of which are run by Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim organization. Most have a few hundred students, boarding facilities for boys and girls and few materials other than Korans and a few other books. They teach the Koran and Arabic religious text.

Usually located in rural areas and directed by a Muslim scholar, pesantren are attended by young people seeking a detailed understanding of the Quran, the Arabic language, the sharia, and Muslim traditions and history, as well as more modern subjects such as English, mathematics, and geography. Students can enter and leave the pesantren any time of the year, and the studies are not organized as a progression of courses leading to graduation. Although the chief aim of pesantren is to produce good Muslims, they do not share a single stance toward Islam or a position on secularism. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Some pesantren emphasize the autonomy of modern students to think for themselves and to interpret scripture and modern knowledge in a way that is consistent with the teachings of Islam. Others are more traditional and stress the importance of following the wisdom of elders, including their teachings on science, religion, and family life. Although the terrorist bombings in Kuta, Bali, in 2002 raised suspicions about whether pesantren promote extremist views, the majority of these schools in Indonesia are theologically moderate, reflecting the views of the Indonesian population as a whole. For those who opt for a pesantren education, a sixth-grade equivalency certificate is available after successful completion of a state test. *

Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga of Reuters wrote: “While pesantren enrolment makes up a small portion of Indonesia's school population, numbers have grown fast in recent years, partly in line with greater attention to Islamic values. More than three million students are registered in Indonesia's pesantrens, which also form the backbone of the 40-million member Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's biggest moderate Muslim group that accounts for 12,000 of the registered pesantrens. [Source: Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga, Reuters, August 5, 2007]

Typical Muslim Schools in Indonesia

Islamic schools and colleges were often located in poorer areas, and were valued because they were in people’s own villages, and generally cheap, some even accepting farm produce in place of fees. “The Muslim community also feels safer enrolling their daughters there, believing their virtue will be better protected,” Jamhari Makruf, who is deputy rector of State Islamic University, Jakarta, told the Australian. “Teaching in pesantren, especially private ones, depends heavily on the kind of beliefs held by the people who run them. The books used also vary between institutions.” [Source: Rowan Callick, The Australian, June 18, 2014]

A typical school in Indonesia was launched in the 1980s and began as a mosque made from bamboo and wood. On land donated by relatives or supporters the school grew and now has a campus with three mosques, some computers and cramped but clean dormitories for 300 boys and girls, who study together in the same classroom but sit separately and who play together on the playground but pray in separate in the mosque. The schools are led by Muslim scholars known as “kyais”. Teachers are referred to as Ustadz.

A typical Muslim school offers seven hours of religious education compared to two hours at state-run schools. There are classes in the Islamic faith, morality, law and history. Each day begins at 6:45 with a 15-minute prayer sessions with boys sitting in the front and girls sitting in the back of the boys. Late arrivals have to do extra prayer time. Another prayer session is held around lunch time.

Otherwise the school follows government curriculum in science, history , literature, Indonesian language, computers and Arabic and English languages. Extra-curricular activities include theater and dance. In recent years some schools have become more conservative, in some cases requiring girls that used to be able to wear knee length skirts to cover their heads and wear long-sleeve garments that hand down to their ankles.

Elite Islamic Schools

Langitan pesantren is one of Indonesia’s best-known schools Among its alumni are the late president of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid. Gotor is regarded as the most prestigious pesantren in Indonesia. Although it is a high school it sometimes called the Harvard of Indonesia.

Some of the best funded schools are supported by money from Saudi Arabia. They offer free education in new buildings and promises of an all-expenses-paid continued higher education in Saudi Arabia. The conditions at the schools can be harsh and students study under Saudi teachers who speak in Arabic. One student at the Saudi-funded Educational Institution of Indonesia told the New York Times, “There were too many forbidden things. You were not allowed to join any other student organization. Jeans were out, and they preferred that you wear a beard and long Arabic clothes.”

Many elite Muslim families send their children to Christian schools because they offer a better well-rounded education.

Moderate Islamic Schools

The the vast majority of the 14,000 pesantrens are moderate and venerated, having educated much of the nation's Muslim elite. "Pesantrens teach true jihad in the right way. Maybe two percent of the pesantrens have a wrong perception of Islam," Sofwan Manaf, principal of the Darunnajah Islamic boarding school in Jakarta, told Reuters. "Modern pesantrens have a curriculum mixed between Islamic and non-religious teaching." [Source: Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga, Reuters, August 5, 2007]

The students who board at moderate Islamic schools often are not that different from Western kids their own age. They have posters of European soccer stars and Metallica and Avril Lavigne on the walls their rooms next to picture of their favorite clerics. Some schools have classes on woman’s rights and publish newspapers which question arguments made by Muslim extremists. Some have lobbied against Muslim law and sent militia members to guard Christian churches.

After the Bali bombing, students and teachers at the more moderate schools were shocked that Muslims in Indonesia could be behind such an act and that many participants were graduates of Islamic schools. Meetings were held to discuss the matter and figure out ways to keep Muslim extremism and militancy from entering their schools and society as a whole

Many young people attend Islamic school because they want to, dutifully praying and memorizing the Koran and wearing traditionally Muslim clothes. They often also use the Internet, speak better English than Arabic, enjoy Western pop music and even have a beer now and then.

Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga of Reuters wrote: “In large parts of Asia, free board and education sometimes lure poverty stricken families to send their children to Islamic schools, many of them in rural areas that often lack other affordable education. In a typical Islamic boarding school, students follow a regimented programme from dawn to dusk with tough rules. But in Indonesia, pesantren students often defy stereotypes. Some years ago, a band of veiled girls from a moderate Islamic school welcomed a former U.S. ambassador with a rendition of rock anthem "Stairway to Heaven". [Source: Sugita Katyal and Adhityani Arga, Reuters, August 5, 2007 +++]

“Some clerics such as the turban-clad but leather-jacketed Abdullah Gymnastiar, the head of a pesantren in Bandung, also don't fit the stereotype. Gymnnastiar, a household name in Indonesia because of his relaxed and chatty sermons on Islam that strike a chord with ordinary people, is best known for his moderate tone, use of hi-technology and hobbies such as riding Harley Davidsons. At the Darunajjah pesantren, a sprawling campus with computers and basketball courts at the end of a narrow road crammed with roadside stalls or warungs, students say they disagree with the Bali bombers. "I agree with jihad, jihad to defend Islam, but not like what they did," said Achmad Syaefuddin, a 17-year-old graduating from Darunajjah. +++

Islamic Universities

Angel Rabasa of Rand Corporation wrote: “ The most extensive and sophisticated system of university-level Islamic education in Southeast Asia—and perhaps in the entire world—is in Indonesia. The Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University, formerly the Institut Agama Islam Negeri (IAIN) or State Institute for Islamic Studies, is comprised of 47 colleges and universities with over 100,000 students. The IAIN system draws many of its students from the pesantren since, until recently, a pesantren education did not provide access to other universities. [Source:Angel Rabasa, Senior Policy Analyst, Rand Corporation, September 12, 2005 ^|^]

“The university’s overarching aim is to produce tolerant graduates with a modern, “rational Islam” outlook.26 The university has nine faculties, including a Faculty of Theology (Fakultas Ushuluddin), which includes a Department of Comparative Religion, a Faculty of Sharia (Fakultas Syari’ah) and a Center for Women’s Studies. Perspectives of comparative religion have been included in Islamic studies at IAIN, together with interfaith, human rights and gender issues. The IAIN also publishes two noteworthy academic journals, Studia Islamika and Kultur, which publish articles by Indonesian and Western Islamic scholars. According to Amin Abdullah, the rector of IAIN in Yogyakarta, IAIN has long been at the forefront of issues such as interfaith dialogue and at improving overall relations between Islam and the West (“we must explain to the Saudis that they misunderstand the West”). ^|^

“Another major system of Islamic university education is associated with the Muhammadiyah. The Muhammadiyah model of university education is based on the Dutch system, and includes the teaching of religious subjects that reflect, naturally, Muhammadiyah’s modernist beliefs and principles. A third Islamic university is the Islamic University of Indonesia. Both the IAIN and Muhammadiyah universities subscribe to democratic and pluralistic values.After the downfall of President Suharto’s government in 1998, IAIN developed a civic education course to replace the previously mandatory state ideology courses with a new curriculum designed to teach democracy in an Islamic context. This course has been made mandatory for all students in the IAIN system and has proven so successful that the Muhammadiyah network also developed its own mandatory democratic civic education course. ^|^

National Bureaucracy for Islamic Schools in Indonesia

Rowan Callick wrote in The Australian, “ Conventional education, from primary to tertiary levels, is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Culture, while Islamic education is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This derives from competing ideals at the time of independence from 1945-49, “with one camp wanting to base the state on Islam, while the other aspired to a secular nation.” Islamic family law has been brought within the Indonesian ―national legal system, under the authority of the secular Supreme Court, and many believe the same should happen with Islamic education, Jamhari Makruf, who is deputy rector of State Islamic University, Jakarta, said. “Those who oppose this are numerous, however, claiming that the religious content of Islamic education requires more specialised supervision.” [Source: Rowan Callick, The Australian, June 18, 2014 /=]

“The political impact of this division has become more pronounced in recent years, he said, with Islamic educational institutions receiving disproportionately low budgets. A dozen years ago, spending on all 52 Islamic tertiary education institutions equalled that of the University of Indonesia, which comes under the Education Ministry, and similarly small budgets were provided to Islamic primary and secondary schools. /=\

“While the Ministry of Religious Affairs is responsible for Islamic education, it has limited ability to control what is taught: “There is no single standard ―applied from one Islamic school to the next.” Minimal government funding has led many Islamic education administrators to seek funds from the Middle East, having an impact on the content of textbooks. Before 9/11, such support came primarily from Saudi Arabia and countries around the Gulf, with a thrust to project salafist ideology. /=\

“Since then, regulations on fund transfers have been tightened, Dr Jamhari said. Most Islamic schools, were “basically regular schools that are not much different from state public schools” except for the addition of a few hours on Islamic studies. The reluctance of aid donors to help Islamic education institutions “only served to strengthen the assumption of cultural hostility,” while big money from the Gulf region “reinforced the message that their ideology should be followed”. /=\

“A decade ago, a new education law was passed requiring at least 20 per cent of the state budget to be allocated for education, a provision also in the constitution: this was “a big opportunity for reform of the system”. The law also entitled Islamic education to access government programs, and to a much bigger share of the budget. And now, if the government increases the welfare of teachers and lecturers, Islamic education institutions will also receive those benefits. Beyond that, Islamic education now has the same budgetary rights as conventional education. Since then, he said, both the infrastructure and the quality of teaching had improved sharply in Islamic institutions.” /=\

Curriculum in Islamic Schools in Indonesia

Angel Rabasa of Rand Corporation wrote: “In Indonesia, most pesantren and madrasas include instruction in secular subjects in their curricula. Nevertheless, these institutions have a religious purpose to teach Islam through the reading and rote memorization of the Quran. Successful students are those who are able to recite passages from the Quran in Arabic without mistakes, even though many of these students do not fully understand in Arabic. [Source: Angel Rabasa, Senior Policy Analyst, Rand Corporation, September 12, 2005 ^|^]

“Senior students at these institutions are taught more complicated Islamic doctrines—for example, Islamic theology, law, and ethics. Since textbooks are largely only available in Arabic, learning the Arabic language and how to translate those textbooks into the local dialect constitutes a major part of the teaching process and is carried out by the teacher with every student individually.In the Indonesian pesantren, students do not have a time limit for completing their education, and they can leave a school when they feel their knowledge of Islam is sufficient. ^|^

“Indonesia’s pesantren are run and often owned by an individual religious teacher. The students are bound in a personal relationship with their headmaster or teacher, who may promote a particular ideology or interpretation of Islam. Many contemporary pesantren are now providing both traditional Islamic education and modern national education. In addition to the general curriculum, many kiai have found it useful to offer extra courses—(English and computer science are the most popular)—as well as vocational training in skills such as driving, automobile repair, sewing, small business management, and welding. In part, this is in response to government programs designed to encourage the improvement of human resources. In part, it is a reflection of the fact that skills-training is a time-honored part of pesantren education. Traditionally, students did not pay for their education or lodging but worked for the kiai in exchange for their expenses. ^|^

“Even with the addition of secular and technical subjects, the main purpose of the pesantren education, as noted above, is to spread Islam. Pesantren values define a modernity quite different from that practiced in the West. The values of Islamic brotherhood and selflessness are seen as safeguards against heartless Western capitalism, and “self-sufficiency” is taught as the ground of individual and the nation continued independence. For individuals, this means that a person should exercise the entrepreneurship that development requires, but controlled by Islamic values. These values are by no means inconsistent with democracy. Over the past decade, more thanone thousand pesantren have participated in programs aimed at promoting the values of pluralism and tolerance, and at bolstering civil society. In one such program, the pesantren students are taught to run issue-based political campaigns, to conduct elections for student leadership, and to represent their constituency both with pesantren leaders and the local community. ^|^

State of Islamic Schools in Indonesia: Poor But Improving

In 2014, the State Islamic University conducted a survey of Islamic education. Among the question it asked were: is it true that such institutions in Indonesia teach ―religious radicalism? Have they become breeding grounds for radical behaviour leading to religious violence in the world’s largest ―Islamic country, where more than 80 per cent are Muslims?” Rowan Callick wrote in The Australian, “The survey’s three core linked findings were that conservatism among students in high schools was on the rise, that the teaching of Islamic subjects at these schools was still based on outdated, unrevised learning materials, and that religion teachers were widely regarded as the most uninspiring of all teachers. [Source: Rowan Callick, The Australian, June 18, 2014 /=]

“Almost no support had been provided to these teachers to improve their skills. They had been ignored for decades. A program of change is under way, but it must continue, Jamhari Makruf, deputy rector of State Islamic University, Jakarta, said, or the institutions “could indeed find themselves mired in conservatism and radicalism” — which grew as a result of neglect. The older texts that have for long been the only books available in such institutions, he said, “give the impression that in a black and white world, Muslims are pitted against others, a world of either victory or defeat … a foundation for hatred of the West.” /=\

“Islamic schools have begun to adopt more modern management systems, and were trying to catch up on developments in science and technology. “Institutions such as madrasah, pesantren, and Islamic universities are no longer marginal but are starting to move into the mainstream,” he said. “As more and more Indonesians move to the cities, so Islamic education institutions have become an increasingly urban phenomenon, with some schools even becoming favourites for the Muslim middle class.” /=\

“A tug of war persisted between conservative and progressive groups, he said, but “Islamic education institutions must be able to produce Muslims who comprehend modern religious teachings, grasping Indonesian characteristics along with a global perspective. “Building links with modern issues such as democracy, civic values, civil society and good governance will be of vital importance, as we work to create a new Islamic education system in Indonesia.” /=\

“When Dr Jamhari’s own university began, it had five faculties — all specifically religious. This year, though, it has 12 faculties, including the economy and business, science and technology, psychology, medicine and health sciences, social and political sciences, and natural resources and the environment — transforming it “from a purely religious institution to a genuinely modern and multidisciplinary one.” Seven other Islamic institutions had followed this course too, becoming part of the Indonesian university network — though only after “hot debates in senate ―meetings, generally centred on what would become of religious departments.” /=\

“In fact, he said, “it is precisely through this process of opening the general faculties to attract a greater portion of the community that the universities will have an opportunity of teaching religious studies to more members of the community. “The supporters of change also argue that since the birth of Islam, there has never been any real division between Islamic studies and general studies … This approach is not so much one of Islamising science, but of integrating the two sources of knowledge, taking as fact that science is based on God’s creation.” Sixty per cent of the students at the State Islamic University are women.” /=\

Nahdlatul Ulama and Islamic Schools

Angel Rabasa of Rand Corporation wrote: “ Indonesian traditionalists are represented by the Nahdlatul Ulama (Awakening of the Ulama—NU), the largest social welfare organization in the Muslim world with a claimed membership of over 40 million. The organization was founded in 1926 by a group of kiai (traditional Islamic teachers), who were alarmed by the inroads made by modernists. NU seeks to conserve the Javanese tradition in the organization’s religious beliefs and practices—for instance, the practice of ziarah kubur (the visiting of graves), in which contact is established with the spirit of the deceased. [Source: Angel Rabasa, Senior Policy Analyst, Rand Corporation, September 12, 2005 ^|^]

“NU’s original constitution committed it to a range of religious, social and economic activities, but first and foremost was the promotion of religious education.The authority of the ulama and the strength of the organization are rooted in thousands of NU-affiliated pesantren (religious boarding schools). Although representing traditionalist Islam, the NU leadership has endeavored to adapt to modern conditions. Under the chairmanship of Abdurrahman Wahid in the 1980s and 1990s, the curriculum in the NU pesantren was reformed significantly, and secular subjects were taught in conjunction with traditional religious subjects. The NU leadership also worked through associated foundations and research institutes to promote a democratic civil society and to reconcile Islam with Indonesian nationalism and democracy. ^|^

“The majority of the Indonesia’s pesantren are affiliated with the traditionalist NU organization, as shown in the table below. A smaller number adhere to the modernist doctrines of the Muhammadiyah and Persis organizations, and only a very small minority teaches extremist interpretations of Islam. ^|^

Modernist Trend in Islamic Education in Indonesia

Angel Rabasa of Rand Corporation wrote: “ The second important tendency within Southeast Asian Islam is modernism.In Indonesia, modernism is part of a movement that began at the turn of the 20th century. It was influenced by the ideas of such thinkers as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh and aimed to purify Indonesian Islam of what was considered to be heterodox practices. The founders of Muhammadiyah, established in 1912 as the institutional expression of the Indonesian modernist movement, wanted to banish the “superstition” associated with some of the practices of traditionalist Indonesian Islam, and also to counterbalance the development of Catholic and Protestant missions. Today, Muhammadiyah is heavily involved in education, health care, orphanages, and other social services with Islam as its ideological and moral basis. [Source: Angel Rabasa, Senior Policy Analyst, Rand Corporation, September 12, 2005 ^|^]

“Unlike conservative Salafis, Indonesian modernists believe in adjusting syariat law (in Arabic, sharia) to the contemporary world. In the view of Muhammadiyah chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif, Islamic law needs to be reformed, since in many cases it is no longer contextual to modern conditions. In recent years there has been a convergence, at least at the level of the elites, of NU and Muhammadiyah attitudes and religious practices. Some NU members who studied in Middle Eastern universities have become more receptive to the principle of ijtihad (independent reasoning), which is central to modernist Islam. The new discourse on gender equality has also gained greater acceptance within NU, and rejection of polygamy is now very strong among the younger generation. The Muhammadiyah, too, has undergone some significant transformation. In the past, it was opposed to Sufi practices.Today, however, increasing numbers of Muhammadiyah members practice Sufism. ^|^

“Despite this convergence, important differences between the two groups remain, especially between their respective modes of political engagement: The Muhammadiyah focuses on promoting religious renewal through education and social services, while Nahdlatul Ulama is focused more on traditional education and practices.” ^|^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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