The Role of Pesantren

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The Role of Pesantren

Rabu, 25 Juni 2008


Carilah ilmu walau kemana
Walau adanya dinegeri Cina
Itulah sabda junjungan kita
Harus dikejar dengan segera.

Seek knowledge wherever it is
No matter if it is in China
That is what our master (the Prophet) insisted
It has to be sought immediately.

In the preceding Chapters I have discussed the major religious
traditions that currently prevail in Cirebon. Some traditions may be
independently transmitted by one individual to make it known or accessible
to others. An example of this is the accession of “ilmu ghaib” or “ilmu
” from an owner (master) to a learner. In this Chapter,
however, I would like to focus my discussion on how the main corpus of the
traditions is institutionally transmitted from one generation to the next
in a more formal and systematic manner. It is not difficult to find out
the main institutions responsible for this. They are widely known, being
found everywhere within the society itself. They are the household, the
madrasah (modern religious school) and
the pesantren (traditional boarding
school). With special reference to Buntet, the biggest pesantren in Cirebon, I wish to focus my
attention in this Chapter on discussing the role of pesantren.

The verse at the beginning of this Chapter reflects a pesantren tradition. The teacher, Pak Nawawi (47
years), who wrote the verse, is a pesantren graduate. He composed the verse as a
part of the lyrics to be sung by his students at the private primary
religious school (Madrasah Diniyah) of
“Budi Tresna” in Desa Panembahan of
Kecamatan Weru. The first two lines of
the verse contain a message which has been derived directly from a well
known hadith that says: “Seek
knowledge, even as far away as China.” The last two lines accentuate the
fact that the message is indeed derived from the hadith and thus its conclusion is that it is
everyone's duty because it is an instruction from the Prophet and thus
part of the Islamic doctrine. The verse suggests that among the local
people the pursuit of knowledge, especially religious knowledge, and its
transmission from one generation to the next lie at the very heart of
their inner traditions and become something which is always worthy of

Islam, following its Judeo-Christian predecessors, is a religion of
Scriptures whereby the activity of teaching and learning is an inseparable
part of its doctrine. In a real sense, learning is worship, so the study
of God's words, the traditions of the Prophet, and the system of law
derived from them are part of everyone's fundamental service demanded by
God.[1] For Muslims the first revelation which marks Muhammad's
prophecy is God's instruction to mankind (via Muhammad) to read.[2]


Many verses revealed subsequently also exhort believers to
engage in the pursuit of knowledge. To mention a few, there is God's
advice to man to pray: “O, my Lord, advance me in knowledge” (QS 20:114).
Further, there are God's assertions that those who have no knowledge are
not equal to those who have (QS  39:9); that those who do not observe
and try to understand are worse than cattle (QS 7:179); that the meaning
of revelation becomes manifest to those ‘who have knowledge’ (QS 6:97) and
those ‘who have understanding’ (QS 6:98); that whosoever has been given
knowledge indeed has been given an abundant good (QS 2:269); that the
basic qualifications for leadership are, among other things, knowledge and
physical strength (QS 2:47); that by virtue of knowledge man is superior
to angels and has been made vicegerent of God on earth (QS 2:30),

The enactment of these verses was also exemplified by Muhammad's
apostolic career. After the first victory of 300 Muslims over 1000 Meccan
Quraisyi unbelievers at Badr in AH 624, for example, Muhammad set all the
prisoners free after requiring them to teach skills to the Muslims,
especially reading and writing. He then insisted to his followers that
someone who leaves his home in search of knowledge, actually walks in the
path of God; that seeking knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim,
male and female. Also his instruction: “Acquire knowledge, because he who
acquires it in the way of the Lord performs an act of piety; he who
disseminates it (the knowledge) bestows alms and he who imparts it to
others performs an act of devotion to God.”[4]


Concerning religious knowledge, for which Muhammad himself
held the authority, he always insisted his followers should transmit (to
others) everything from him.[5] Under this scriptural scheme the Muslims have a legitimate
claim to having Islamic ethics for the spirit of seeking knowledge. The
verse cited above, which in fact is derived from a hadith, is part of this scriptural ethical
package. As we will see this package is clearly manifest is popular

In recent versions albeit more popular Babad,[6] Walangsungsang's and Rarasantang's being Muslims and their
departure to Mecca for pilgrimage, as cited in the previous chapter, did
not occur accidentally without precedence as the Babad Tjerbon of Brandes edition recounts. The
popular Babad explain that Syeikh Qura
of Pesantren Karawang paved the way for Islam to penetrate the core Hindu
Pajajaran ruling house when he encouraged his student, Nyai Subanglarang,
to respond positively to the wish of Prabu Siliwangi, the Hindu Pajajaran
king, to marry her. This marriage produced Muslim offspring's,
Walangsungsang, Rarasantang and Kian Santang. After a long adventure in
seeking wisdom, Walangsungsang and Rarasantang finally became Syeikh
Kahfi's students at Amparan Jati. Upon completion of their learning,
Syeikh Kahfi advised Walangsungsang to open a settlement at a Tegal Alang-alang (Field of wild grass) in
cooperation with the local elder, Ki Pangalang-alang. After Tegal
Alang-alang grew into a busy village, it became Cirebon and eventually
needed a sort of government. Ki Pangalang-alang was appointed the
Kuwu (chief) and Walangsungsang his
assistant. Upon Pangalangalang's death Walangsungsang succeeded him and
became Pangeran Cakrabuana. Thus, it was after having settled in Cirebon
and becoming the Chief's assistant, according to this Babad that
Walangsungsang went to Mecca for pilgrimage. What happened with
Walangsungsang and Rarasantang during the pilgrimage and later after his
return to Cirebon, by and large accord with the scenario of the Babad Tjerbon which tells the story of the
emergence of Cirebon kraton.

In other words, according to this Babad version, the Cirebon region, sprang up and
developed from the teaching-learning enterprise of pesantren-like institutions.[7] Pesantren Krawang (Syeikh Qura) paved the way for Islam to
penetrate the core of the Hindu Pajajaran kingdom, whereas Pesantren
Amparan Jati (Syeikh Kahfi) paved the way for the establishment of an
Islamic kingdom (kraton). In return,
pesantren gained full recognition,
legitimation and political support from the kraton.

The Babad scenario provides even
more information than this, however. It says that both Walangsungsang
(Cakrabuana) and Sunan Gunung Jati were themselves priest-king (raja-pandita), a kind of pre-Islamic title, the
ruler and the priest (guru) at the same
time whose performances were much more like missionary workers (Sufi wanderers) than rulers.[8] Their stories are more centred around preaching than ruling.
They tended to use political power to ensure fruitful missionary efforts
rather than the contrary, using religion to gain political
benefits.[9] During their reign, as far as the Babad narrative is concerned, not only did the
transmission of Islam enjoy political support, recognition and
legitimation from the kraton but the
kraton itself took over and established
the mission of the pesantren. Such
antiquities as Tajug Jalagrahan, Pengguron Kaprabon, the grand mosque of
Kesepuhan, the Panjunan mosque and many sites now known as kramat are but a few examples that are taken
 as evidence to substantiate this suggestion.[10]


Consequently, the Cirebon kraton at that stage is represented as a
missionary rather than a political institution. De Graaf's and Pigeaud's
assessment may be right in arguing that Sunan Gunung Jati did not have
substantial political power although clearly his spiritual charisma was
acknowledged and highly respected by the Demak imperium and other Javanese
royal circles.[11] This may indicate that Cirebon was not a political
institution although to a certain extent it also exercised a
quasi-political power. The extent to which Cirebon was known as a centre
of learning and piety is witnessed, among others, by Hoadley

This situation was maintained throughout the period when Cirebon
stood as a fully independent state. The situation changed dramatically
however, when, under Pangeran Girilaya who succeeded Panembahan Ratu,
Cirebon lost its independence, being first, controlled by Mataram and then
by the Dutch Company (VOC). Girilaya's lack of status as a religious
teacher in comparison to his predecessors removed Amangkurat's hesitation
in demoting Cirebon from ally to vassal. Girilaya and his two sons were
invited by Amangkurat to visit Mataram where they were then held as
hostages. During the 1660’s Amangkurat sent his governor to rule Cirebon
on his behalf and thus Cirebon became the vassal of Mataram.[13]

When Java was in chaos due to the Trunojoyo revolt, on April
30, 1681 Cirebon signed a contract for VOC's protection.[14] The cession of Cirebon to the VOC became official when, at
the  end of the Trunojoyo revolt, the Mataram-VOC contract was signed
on October 5, 1705, by which Mataram transferred its suzerainty over
Cirebon and Priangan to the VOC.[15]

There is enough grounds to suppose that at the earlier stage
predating the kraton era, the
transmission of Islam in Cirebon was centred in the village (Syeikh Qura
at Krawang and Syeikh Kahfi at Amparan Jati). Since Cirebon had its own
ruling house under Cakrabuana and then developed into a kraton under Sunan Gunung Jati (circa 1570), and
his successor, Panembahan Ratu (circa 1650), the centre of religious
transmission moved from the village to the ruling house. In 1702 the VOC
removed the main traditional function of the kraton by forbidding learning activities within
it, leaving the kraton as a mere ruling
house with lands and other possessions but with neither political nor
economic power.[16]


Religious transmission moved back to the village one hundred
years after the death of Panembahan Ratu when Kyai Muqayim, the Kraton
Religious Official (Penghulu Kraton),
fled from the kraton to the village and
established Pesantren Buntet. The kraton became more and more a colonial subject
and finally collapsed while the pesantren, despite encountering hardships and
suppressions, kept its independence and has continued to function until
this day. It is on this pesantren that
further discussions in this Chapter will be focused.



Adobted from the book:

The Islamic Traditions of

Ibadat and Adat Among Javanese Muslims

by: Abdul Ghoffur Muhaimin

ANU Press Australia