2.2 The Pesantren Tradition

A pesantren is usually run by a kiai assisted by a number of his senior santri or other family members. The pesantren is an important part of the kiai's life, since it is a medium through which he expands his preaching and influence through teaching. In the pesantren system, there are several interconnected elements. The first is the kiai, the main factor through whom the pesantren system is established. He is the person who underpins the system. Secondly, there are the santri, that is the students who learn Islamic knowledge from the kiai. This element is also of great importance, since without the santri the kiai would be like a king without subjects. The santri are human resources, who not only support the existence of the pesantren but also sustain kiai influence in society. It is nonetheless common that some kiai have neither santri nor pesantren. The third element is the pondok [3], a dormitory system provided by the kiai to accommodate his students. Pondok is usually a simple form of accommodation and has fewer facilities than halls or colleges in Western universities. While a college or hall provides a student with a room, the pondok usually consists of shared rooms, each of which may be occupied by five to ten santri. The pesantren, therefore, comprises a complex of housing, which includes the houses of the kiai and his family, some pondok, and teaching buildings, including a mosque.

As discussed by Dhofier (1982), the pesantren usually uses a traditional system of learning. There are various techniques of teaching, but the most commonly used are bandongan and sorogan. Bandongan is a kind of religious instruction conducted by either the kiai or his senior santri. It is like a lecture attended by a large number of santri. In a big pesantren, such as the Pesantren Tebuireng, attendance at bandongan can vary from about 5 to 200 santri (Dhofier, 1982). Santri attendance does not depend on either their level of knowledge or their age. The system in this sense is just to provide the santri with regular daily learning, in which the kiai or senior santri read certain works written (in Arabic) by previous ‘ulama, translating it into local languages, and giving some explanation about it.

In a pesantren there should be some bandongan sessions which teach kitab [4] at various levels, from the lowest to the highest. Such sessions reflect the standard of teaching in any single pesantren. As each session just discusses one section of the kitab, learning the entire kitab will take a couple of weeks or even months. The bandongan system differs from the sorogan system. If in the bandongan, santri knowledge of grammar and Arabic language is assumed, the sessions are held for those who have already attained a basic understanding of the Arabic language and the Qur'an. In contrast, sorogan is provided either for beginner santri or those who want to have more explanation of the problems discussed in the kitab. The sorogan session is usually attended by only two to five santri, and is provided by any senior santri who has knowledge and ability in certain subjects. This system aims to give special training to santri to assist them to develop certain knowledge and skills.

The pesantren in Indonesia has become a centre of learning and da‘wa. It has played an important role in Indonesia because it is the oldest system of learning and education. Before the modern education system was introduced by the Dutch, the pesantren was the only educational institution available in Indonesia. It should be noted of course that the pesantren in Indonesia still plays its role as an education centre, but it has also to compete with modern secular educational institutions[5].

Socially, the pesantren has played an important role in the spread of Islam in Indonesia. It has become a means of formal socialisation through which Islamic belief, norms and values are transmitted and inculcated through teaching. It also constitutes a medium for developing Islamic precepts and maintaining orthodoxy. The pesantren is but one example of the scholarly tradition and the traditional schools of Islam in Indonesia today. But it should be noted that the pesantren maintains the oldest scholarly tradition that has ever existed in Indonesia and other Malay regions.

Madrasa is another system of Islamic learning. It literally means school. However, the madrasa system in Indonesia is rather different from that in other Islamic countries. It also differs from the pesantren system. The student of a madrasa [6] needs to pass in one grade to ascend to a higher grade in the same way as in a public school. The students at madrasa usually learn Islamic subjects, but the modernised madrasa system provides the student with a variety of material on Islam and secular subjects which should be mastered within a certain number of years. The pesantren system, on the other hand, specialises in Islamic teaching and has no time limitation. Due to its wider coverage of the subjects under study, the madrasa system does not produce or push the student to become an ‘ulama in the way the pesantren does. It is recognised that the contemporary madrasa system is a product of efforts to modernise the traditional system of learning and teaching. However, it should also be realised that the present madrasa system is not designed to produce ‘ulama. It is a medium to provide Muslims with basic Islamic teaching, which can be formally established at every district level. Also at a tertiary level, the madrasa system, like IAIN (State Insitutes of Islamic Studies), cannot produce knowledgable ‘ulama. Those students who want to get a higher educational attainment in Islam must go to the pesantren.

In the pesantren and madrasa training system “though ritual accuracy and rote learning may be important, understanding and scholarship are never incidental; they are the most valued goal to be attained” (Fisher, 1980:33). The practical importance of this is that the pesantren and madrasa system of the Islamic world are “not merely a place of preparation for a ritual leader” (Fisher, 1980:33), but also a place that provides the umma (Muslim society) with more general leadership. Since the pesantren develops Islamic scriptural thoughts, it should be seen as a means of production of religious scholars, who may develop Islam or withstand all outside negative effects. However, as evidenced throughout Indonesian history, the pesantren has not only created village religious elites, who guard the Islamic tradition and its orthodox theology, but also national political elites who aggregate and articulate Muslim interests in their pursuit of an ideal world by accommodating or making reality compatible with the ideals of Islam.

Despite their similarities, there are some differences between the pesantren system in Indonesia and the madrasa system in other Islamic countries, especially Iran. The madrasa system in Iran has really been the source of Islamic strength. It has become a source of authority which competed with the authority of the royal court. The madrasa system in Iran could thus be considered a kind of legislature and judiciary (Fisher, 1980:33). The pesantren system, on the other hand, does not have such strong authority and position. It is just a medium by which Islamic learning is developed and Islamic belief and norms are maintained. Moreover, the pesantren does not show itself in a fashionable manner as a center for the development of Islamic thought in Indonesia in the way the  madrasa in Iran does[7]. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that the kiai as individuals often have some concerns in regard to the problems of Muslim society in general; and a few of them have expressed their thoughts on Islam by writing books or papers.

Another aspect of pesantren life which needs to be mentioned is the practice of tarekat (sufi orders). It should be noted that only a few pesantren formally practice the tarekat. As its character is to emphasise the exercise of batin, the tarekat movement in the pesantren has become part of their objective to maintain Islam. Of the four large pesantren in Jombang, only kiai of the Pesantren Darul Ulum formally practice the tarekat. As I will discuss in the next chapter, tarekat is a practice of approaching Allah by performing a certain ritual, and reciting certain wird (formulae, mostly derived from the Qur'an). It is different from tasawwuf (sufism) which is taught in almost all pesantren.