Principles of Pesantren Education

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Tulisan ini telah diterjemahkan ke dalam tulisan yang berjudul: Prinsip-Prinsip Pendidikan Pesantren

Oleh: K.H. Abdurrahman Wahid

Technically, a pesantren is “a place where santri live”. This phrase denotes the most important feature of the pesantren, i.e. a total education environment in the fullest sense. A pesantren is similar to a military academy or a cloister in the sense that those taking part in it experience an exposure to a totality. Compared to the partial educational environment offered by the present-day Indonesian public school system, which acts as the ‘general education structure’ of the nation, the pesantren is a unique culture in itself. I refer to that uniqueness as a sub-culture of the Indonesian society in the sense that, dispersed through more than 5000 of Indonesia’s 68,000 villages, it can aptly be referred to as such. In previous writing, I have referred to three main elements that build the pesantren sub-culture: its own leadership pattern outside the village government’s leadership, its universal literature which has been nurtured through the centuries, and its own value system quite apart from the value system adhered to by the outside community at large. Based on those three elements, each pesantren develops its curricula and establishes its own educational institutions, responding to challenges from outside. A general pattern of that response is discernible, which provides the historical context for the pesantren in contemporary Indonesia.

A close examination of that historical context yields some interesting possibilities of developing the pesantren into a more fascinating institution. This paper does not pretend to cover those points extensively, but a complete treatment is needed after so many piecemeal approaches to pesantren writing in the past decade. To stress only one, or a few aspects would merely augment the imbalances suffered by pesantren in the contemporary situation. A current field search on Indonesian Ulama’s Weltanschaung indicates a particular pattern of world views and attitudes is the background to pesantren education. This shows the real need for a fuller treatment of pesantren that is available today. The Kyai’s leadership in the pesantren is unique in the sense that it maintains pre-modern characteristics such as a leader-follower relationship based on a belief system rather than the patron-client relationship prevalent in the community at large. Santri accept their kyai’s leadership because of belief is the concept of barakah which is based on the Sufi doctrine of emanation. It is not, however, the only source for this kind of acceptance. It is also found in the pre-Islamic, Hindu/Buddhist guru-santri relationship. However, the unpublished findings of a research done by Sidney Jones in Kediri several years ago reveals that, outside the pesantren, Kyai leadership develops into a fully fledged patronclient relationship, with the powerful kyai of the ‘mother pesantren’ gaining a province-wide acceptance of his authority on the part of government officials, political leaders and the rich. He delegates through a complex division of labour (different authority to different deputies wakil-wakil dirinya) to deal with different community sectors. The result is different types of kyai servicing the same pesantren, with the old kyai as the ultimate leader.

This aspect of kyai leadership is important as it shows how the kyai maintains a peer relationship with both the community leadership and other kyai, but this falls outside the scope of this paper. What we should examine here is the educational function of the kyai’s leadership. In this respect, one very important fact emerges, i.e. the preservation of the Islamic tradition that it is the ulama who is the keeper of religious science par excellence. This role cannot be delegated to other groups in the Islamic community because of the belief that ‘the ulamas are the inheritors of the prophets’, as is made explicit by a hadith (or Prophetic) saying. The Ulama is the only true interpreter of the two basic sources of Islam: the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition of Sunnah. This role of being the validating power of religious teaching is the basis on which a kyai’s knowledge is transferred from generation to generation in the pesantren. Difficulties abound in preserving this transmission of the “right religious sciences” (compared to those disseminated by the ‘heretical’-and/or innovative-bid’ah groups) to the younger generation, since the attainment of a high standard of religious science knowledge in the part of the kyai is an important imperative from the past. As shown by Zamakhayari Dhofier in his “Pesantren Tradition”, the unique emergence of the “wandering santri’ is one part of this tradition of attaining the highest standard possible in acquiring religious science knowledge. Paedogogically, this means the most important facet of education is achieved: a strong sense of direction is provided by the kyai for the santri. Just as military cadets all aspire to be generals, so do santri aspire to become kyai in spite of the great physical and financial sacrifices involved. That only one or two can actually attain that goal does not mean the whole system fails in its task. It is the kyai’s leadership itself which provides the framework for santri to carry out the obligation of preserving the religious sciences. This very important aspect of the kyai’s role is often overlooked in current efforts to modernize pesantren, so this too must be a focus of future studies on the pesantren.

The second basic element, the universal literature nurtured and transmitted from generation to generation, is directly linked to the unique concept of kyai leadership. The antiquated (seen from the modern perspective) text books provide the continuation of the “right tradition” in preserving the religious sciences as handed down to the Islamic society by the great Imams of the past. It is the only way to maintain the highest standards for the future, and only in this way is the Islamic community able to preserve the purity of its religion’s teachings: thus the dominant position of the ahlussunah concept in pesantren until the present. According to this concept, only the ulamas have the authority to interpret the two basic sources of Islam. Inherent in this claim is that only the Islamic community is endowed with the task of leading society at large. In other words, the pesantren is the basic model of the pursuit of knowledge for the Islamic community, and, in its turn, that very community is the model to be followed by society at large in pursuing knowledge. This two-tiered model envisages the binding role of religious sciences for society as a whole. Only this way can the ulamas perpetuate Islamic teachings as society’s social ethics since the breakdown of the political concept of the “right Islamic community” (ummah) in past centuries. Educationally, the role of the antiquated text books (referred to generally as the ‘kitab kuning’ or the ‘yellow books’) is to provide santri with access, not only to the past’s legacy of jurisprudence or the enlightened path to the final esoteric awareness of one’s ‘slave status’ (ubudiyyah) in God’s sight, but also to indicate future roles in the life of society and provide for its safety.

Of course this ‘applicative’ concept of pursuing and mastering religious sciences is not the only function of the texts; also,there is, for example, the fountain from which Sufi pilgrims derive nourishment for their souls’ insatiable thirst for the Ultimate Truth. But, as far as pesantren education is concerned, the dual roles of preserving past heritage and legitimizing society’s future life are the most evident, since they entwine preserving knowledge and applying it to life at the same time. This very concept of knowledge dissemination based on strict adherence in practice to the contents is now challenged by the fact that religious knowledge can be obtained by different modes of learning (including direct translation into national or local languages) which threaten the kyai’s barakah or grace-giving role. Lost also in the process is the kyai’s role as the guardian of the “right religious sciences”, since the proliferation of books also means the dissemination of diversified ideas about life. Further studies should be made of the impact of such developments on the very characteristics of the pesantren.

The third basic element is the pesantren’s unique value system. Based on literal adherence to Islamic teaching in actual practice, the value system is inseparable from the other basic elements, kyai leadership and the universal literature. The enactment of Islamic teaching in the daily life of both kyai and santri legitimizes both of these – the literature as the source of derivation of values and the kyai’s leadership as the model for implementation in real life – as the mainstay of this value system. The value system plays an important role in shaping the societal frameworks pesantren people desire for the society at large. Piety, for example, is one value often employed by kyai to promote solidarity among different social strata, as shown by the diligence used to convert major ex “abangan” (non- practicing muslims) personalities to the santri way of life. For example, as king them to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and then, based on their new Hajji status, to take care of the administrative and/or financial management of the village mosque, is one of many ways employed to develop “sociological picty. A current study by Bambang Pranowo on how pesantren in Magelang use this call to a “cross-boundary” type of piety promises to yield a wealth of information when this very process is put in the wider context of reconversion of the local population to the santri way of life by the diffusion of local cultural expression and forms of art previously seen as Islamic through formal, pesantren-organized, religious events.

As with all holistic systems, the values esteemed by the pesantren are based on formal religious teachings developed over the centuries. Santri must emulate their kyai’s religious observances meticulously, undergoing initiation periods involving the sacrifice of physical comfort (tirakat), executing whatever task the Kyai orders and being unceasingly loyal to him. This total obedience to the wishes of the master, originating in Middle Eastern mystical practices as well as the indigenous pre- Islamic guru-aspirant relationship, finds its culmination in the peculiarly Indonesian doctrine of sainthood (wallyy– plural awliya). While the Middle Eastern concept of sainthood denotes a pious, self-annihilating rejection of worldly life, the Indonesian (or, more aptly, Javanese) concept of sainthood retains a certain worldy function for holy men (many of whom had distinguished public service records) who were then retained in an advisory capacity by kings and princes. This indicates a strong indigenous pre-Islamic influence on the pesantren value system, since the begawan tradition of earlier times shows similar traits to the old statesmanship stage of a public servant.

The three basic elements of the pesantren seem to be so intertwined as to be unravelable, but challenges from outside the pesantren’s confined circle are bringing this about by exposing each element to certain changes in its own pattern. The value system has now to incorporate written diplomas issued by the government as ‘proof of competence’. The universal literature now has to compete with new and more simplified teaching materials provided for state religious schools in pesantren, as well as general religious literature in the modern mass-media. The kyai’s leadership is now subject to institutionalization schemes imposed from both outside and within the pesantren itself which will unavoidably affect the nature, scope and style of that leadership.

The pesantren has successfully responded to external challenges in the past in Indonesia. While the pondok system (derived from the Sufi lodging place- zawiiyah) are few in number in Malaysia today and languish in the southern provinces of souther Thailand (where they are the stronghold of strictly non- school muslim religious instruction) under an incessant and relentless onslaught from the westernized school system, in Indonesia the pesantren displays a unique capability to respond in a more complex manner than simple rejection of school-style education. During the twenties pesantren began to experiment with exclusively religious schooling. The thirties saw the beginning of mixed curricula in those schools, culminating in the establishment of state religious schools in pesantren during the sixties and seventies. At the same time, isolated experiments in different pesantren to establish non-religious schools in their vicinity, with religious instruction given on a purely extra-curricular basis resulted in an ever-widening network of such schools in several regions of Java. For example, in south Banyumas in Central Java, many religious schools with mixed curricula have transformed themselves into fully-fledged non- religious schools due to a popular demand for this type of schooling. The future effects of this situation on religious education in Indonesia warrants further serious study.

On the other hand, tinkering with the possibility of encouraging pesantren to establish themselves as “bases for rural and community development” begun in the early seventies has blossomed now into a massive endeavour for social transformation, begun by the pesantren itself. It is still too early to decide whether this assumption is naive or merely ambitious; whichever, the emergence and widespread acceptance of such a notion brings its own impact and implications for the future. Such a role as the promoter of social transformation necessitates an in-depth examination of the feasibility of the idea itself, as well as of the changes it brings to the pesantren’s own existence. Is not kyai leadership too elitist to be able to bend to the needs of participatory leadership involved in genuine social transformation? How far can the pesantren as an education system play a role in liberating the community from its age-old bondage, while at the same time having to cater to the demands of that very community which depends for its existence on external factors outside the pesantren’s reach? How can an educational institution provide the ideological tools for fundamental change in public philosophy in the absence of a coherent alternative political ideology. Would not that very endeavour destroy the fabric of the pesantren, rendering it a mere “cultural institution” rather than a political one? Recognizing the limitations of the pesantren’s role in a comprehensive and fundamental social change is very important in terms of what will happen not only in but also to the pesantren. Too much stress laid on one possible development would invite neglect on the utmost import of awareness that the pesantren exists mainly as an educational institution. The need for this warning is evident from the fact that present pesantren activities rarely attempt to address the improvement of the pesantren as an educational institution, apart from patchwork attempts to improve mathematics and language teaching in several pesantren. A coherent and comprehensive study of the pesantren educational system is needed before we can proceed with developing the pesantren in other ways, and before grand tasks such as effecting social transformation in rural areas can be assigned to the pesantren.

The question of how to develop the three basic elements of the pesantren without basically changing its cultural properties proven to be beneficial, into new elements of progress commensurate with the pesantren’s future, is a crucial one. Should we continue to let pesantren use antiquated text books as an anomaly to the changing situation? But what do we put in their place, considering that the old text books provide a cultural background for the value system developed later? If the latter-day ‘pesantren planners’ could agree on a solution, how would they plan to enforce their decision in the too-fragmented landscape of the pesantren in Indonesia right now?

Another development within the Islamic movements in Indonesia at present warrants a short discussion because of its effect upon the pesantren: the increasingly different strategies employed by various Islamic organizations to serve the cause of Islam form their basic approach to social change including the following: the socio-political, cultural and socio-cultural strategies.

The socio-political strategy stresses the need to spell out items of formalization of Islamic teachings in the state institutions through continuous legal formalizing efforts on the part of the Islamic movements, preferably through an explicit Islamic party or an exclusive political party for muslims only. Inherent in this strategy is the imperative of the quest for control of the state apparatus by muslims at a later stage. Anticipating the coming of that stage, muslims should educate themselves in correct Islamic morality and develop the Islamic way of life both individually and socially. The campaign for islamizing national law should be given priority in this context.

The cultural strategy is designed for the development of mature individuality among muslims by widening their horizons, enlarging their scope of commitment, deepening their awareness of the complexity of the human environment and strengthening their solidarity with fellow human beings regardless of political ideology, ethnic origin, cultural background and religious conviction. The way to attain these objectives is the fully-fledged development of the muslims’ rational attitude toward life. This strategy stresses open dialogue with all ideologies and philosophical thoughts, with the aim of enabling muslims to absorb as far as possible all kinds of knowledge and information. By necessity, this attitude avoids all forms of institutionalizing Islamic teaching, since the very effort of formalizing those teachings would narrow them into exclusivistic attitudes and respective measures inhibiting the freedom of expression and liberal thinking valued so highly by this strategy. It prefers the idea of a secular state, since only this form of governing is objective enough to guarantee that very freedom.

The socio-cultural strategy sees the necessity for developing societal frameworks using Islamic values and principles. But the institutions resulting from this process are not to be exclusively Islamic institutions, but “common institutions” acceptable to all. In other words, the societal frameworks developed by muslims should correspond to those developed by other people as well. This commonality should reflect the desire for a fundamental transformation of the society by the people’s own efforts. Formalizing Islamic teaching is not part of that transformation, but contributes to the establishment of a society where muslims could implement individually or socially. Instead of political institutions, this strategy aspires to build a community upholding the rule of law. Freedom of expression, democratic frameworks of the state, equal distribution of the nation’s wealth and so on. The ways employed to achieve these objectives are not political networking, but cultural campaigns to make the population aware of their inherent capability to mould their own destiny with their own hands. The social institutions they would build would certainly be cultural ones, albeit with sociocconomic features, imbued with political awareness of the strength of the people to transform their lives.

How can the pesantren respond to these strategies? Several pesantren would naturally apply the first strategy, since historical development of Islamic movements in the past dictates that. But a safe bet would yield either the cultural or socio-cultural strategies among the majority of pesantren. This is dictated by the main existence of the pesantren as an educational institution. What is the effect of either of those choices on the respective pesantren, especially concerning the educational properties developed so far? The answer to this question would lead us to the all-important question of whether or not an educational institution is able to develop ideological insights in the view of its increasing role in the process of social transformation of the Indonesian nation. How the pesantren, as an educational institution responds to this challenge is the most interesting development to monitor and analyze. Both limitations and opportunities abound in the conflicting development of the pesantren so far. The difficulty of combining both educational and ideological functions in the premise is so great that this unique institution would be able to do precisely that, provided the hard questions posed earlier in this paper are addressed in a constructive manner.

The relative independence of the pesantren from outright external intervention on a massive scale gives it the room to manouvre needed to experiment with ideas and tinker with notions. This relative independence, the result of the pesantren’s ability to respond in constructive ways to external challenges such as the introduction of the westernized school system at the beginning of the century, is the one firm autonomy which gives the pesantren enough flexibility to pioneer new educational concepts culturally playing complementary roles with ideological awareness to provide a strong base for the fundamental transformation needed by the nation in the near future. Only history will be able to judge whether the pesantren’s promise in this respect remains an unfulfilled one, or a promise realized for the benefit of all.