Back five years ago in a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in the small city of Jombang, East Java, amidst a tranquil crack of dawn a congregation of male santris (students of pesantren) was performing their morning prayer in the mosque. While they were absorbed in the rituals, a Dutch Catholic priest who had spent the previous night at the pesantren was observing them from behind. Sitting cross-legged at the outer part of the mosque, he was attentively watching them perform the rituals and patiently waiting for a dialogue with some santris to be scheduled after the prayer.
Later on that day, after a dialogue with santris, the priest had a warm, friendly conversation in the Arabic language with the kyai (leader of pesantren) on various religious and humanitarian issues. The Catholic priest, upon returning to his country, wrote that his stay at the pesantren and dialogues with the santris and kyai was one of the most beautiful moments in his life. He thanked the kyai and santris for their hospitality and warm welcome.
Three years later, the pesantren hosted a multi-religious delegation from a Norway-based inter-faith organization that came to Indonesia to see how religious pluralism is internalized and practiced here. The dialogue between the delegation and the santris was warm, open and sometimes filled with bursts of laughter. The santris enjoyed not only stories about far away life especially among its teenagers, but also the opportunity to practice their English. They had no prejudice at all to the delegation, moreover because one of them who happened to be the leader was a Norwegian Muslim lady with a headgear. The santris and the European guests exchanged views and perspectives on different topics especially relating to the lives of Muslims and Christians in Europe.
The above stories are just two ‘episodes’ in the activities of many pesantrens in Indonesia, including Jombang which is known as a city of thousand pesantrens. Countless Western and non-Muslim researchers and activists have visited and even lived in pesantren for different purposes. Some of them conducted anthropological studies using the popular method of participant observation; some others taught English, while others were interested in learning deeper about Islam. These direct encounters with ‘outsiders’ have been an invaluable experience for santris which has nurtured awareness and appreciation of differences and diversities. It is not surprising, therefore, that pesantrens in Indonesia have produced broad-minded and tolerant personalities and alumni such as Abdurrahman Wahid or Nurcholis Madjid, two out of quite a few Muslim intellectuals and scholars widely reputed for their integrity in religious pluralism.
When asked about religious justification on their openness to outsiders, including non-Muslims, some santris immediately referred to the Prophet Muhammad’s saying that whoever believes in God and in the hereafter, s/he has to respect her/his guest. This prophetic saying (hadith) is a strong religious basis for santris to be confident in respecting their non-Muslim guests. There is no limitation in this hadith as to whom the respect should be addressed in terms of religion, for example to Muslim guests only. The limitation applies in terms of time, which is three days. To a visitor of more than three days, the host is not obligated to give a special treatment.
Another santri refers to the teaching on brotherhood that is prevalent among members or followers of Nahdlatul Ulama or NU (Resurgence of Ulemas), the so-called largest Muslim organization in Indonesia. The teaching advocates three levels of brotherhood that need to be uplifted in pursuing peaceful coexistence of all humankind. First, is brotherhood among Muslims (ukhuwwah Islamiyah); second, is brotherhood among people of the same nation (ukhuwwah wathoniyah), and third, brotherhood among all human beings (ukhuwwah basyariyah) regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion and nationality.
The above illustration of tolerance and pluralism in pesantren might sound ‘awkward’ amongst the emerging stigmatization against pesantren in the aftermath of the JW Marriot bombing. The suicide bomber, Amsar, reportedly was an alumnus of a pesantren, the Al-Mukmin in Ngruki, which is led by the alleged cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. This association of pesantren with a suicide bomber can obviously ruin the image of moderate and tolerant santris in thousands of pesantrens who have demonstrated these traits as their built-in characters as illustrated in the examples above. From outside, judged from the names or physical appearance, these two types of pesantren may look alike. But in terms of teachings and moral values nurtured they are completely contradictory, just like night and day. In a pesantren like Ngruki, a dialogue with ‘the other’ (people with different interpretations of Islam or those who are non Muslim) would not be possible. These people are regarded as ‘kafir’ or infidels and there is no point in dialoguing with them. Their blood is even considered ‘halal,’ meaning that it is allowable to shed their blood. So, one should never make any generalization when talking about pesantren. There are thousands of moderate pesantrens, but there are radical pesantrens, as few as five according to Sidney Jones, that appear like, to borrow the term used by Bassam Tibi in his book The Challenge of Fundamentalism, ‘a horse of another colour.’
One unique characteristic of moderate pesantrens which has enabled them to produce tolerant and pluralistic people is their balance in teaching Islamic legal aspects (Fikih) and the spirituality (Sufism). This approach can be traced back to derive from the nine saints (wali songo) who spread Islam on the island of Java peacefully. This spirituality dimension is what probably missing in radical pesantrens, who prefer to stand in a binary position: right/wrong, halal/haram, me/the other, heaven/hell, etc. As a result, they produce people with an exclusionary stance who see the world as black and white and who lack the beauty and inner meaning of the religion: peace, tolerance, respect, love and care for others, and other esoteric and humanitarian traits.
This type of Islam is not typical Indonesian. Islam in Indonesia has been known as tolerant, pluralistic and adaptable to local cultures. But the last three decades have witnessed the growing phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism that tends to practice religious teachings in a rigid and exclusive way. Moderate pesantrens should be alert of this and enhance their teachings on pluralism to their santris.
Lily Zakiyah Munir
Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies (CePDeS)
From The Jakarta Post, 5 September 2003