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Islamic Education in the Malay World: A History for Our Time Part 1

Published in the Vizier Magazine, Issue 16, June 2014

Muslims of today tend to have their eyes fixed on the centers of Islamic education in the Arab World in their endeavour to pursue Islamic studies. This is unsurprising given the fact the Al-Azhar, the University of Madinah, the Muslim colleges that populate modern-day Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Morocco are sites by which generations of students and scholars have spent the prime of their lives to satisfy their thirst and appetites for religious knowledge.

What have so often been neglected, if not forgotten, are the many other reputable hubs of Islamic learning elsewhere that have produced equally notable scholars and intellectuals. Studies of the Muslim communities in Africa, Central Asia, Russia, the Balkans and the Malay World have shown us that there exist thousands of centers of Islamic education that have maintained their presence and traditions for hundreds of years. These were places where men and women from all over world converged to study about Islam – its laws, history, philosophy and other branches of knowledge at the feet of the erudite.

Although the rapid spread of Islam in this part of the globe began in earnest only after more than 600 years after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), the transformations that the new religion brought to the Malay World was most felt in the realm of religious education. We know from classical historical records that the Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra was once the seat of Mahayana Buddhism from the 8th through the 11th centuries. Upon the conversion of the Sumatrans into Islam, what was once a conduit of Buddhist-Hindu scholarly networks became the nucleus of Islamic education in the Malay World.

Indeed, any study of Islamic education in pre-modern Malay World must begin with the island Sumatra. Upon the establishment of the Samudra Pasai Sultanate in the 1267 by Sultan Malik as-Salih and the consolidation of Muslim power in Aceh some decades later, thousands of scholars and missionaries from Arabia, Persia, and China came to Sumatra to teach about the basic tenets of Islam and spirituality. The foremost and longest surviving form of institutions of Islamic education that were established in that kingdom was called the pondoks (also known in other part of the Malay World as pesantren). Derived from the Arabic word funduq, which means an inn or hotel, this institution was, at the same time, a boarding institution within which students of Islamic sciences stayed in close proximity with their teachers’ house. Judged by today’s standards, these pondoks could be likened to specialized colleges in Cambridge, Oxford, London and Harvard.

The pondok was a private institution where students would study for a number of years until they had completed all the subjects taught and put to heart all prescribed texts. Among the many subjects that were taught were Ilm Kalam (Theology), Fiqh and Usul Fiqh (Jurisprudence and Principles of Jurisprudence), Tasawwuf (Islamic spirituality), Khat (Islamic Calligraphy), Tarikh (History) Tajwid and Tahfizul Quran (Rules and Memorization of the Quran), the Arabic language and the art of public speaking. Students were also expected to learn some form of martial arts to defend themselves. They were obligated to engage in community work and also spend time Muslims and non-Muslims in their neighbourhoods to fulfill their duties as da’i (missionaries). The method of instruction in these institutions were so rigorous that many graduates from the pondoks eventually rose to become known ulamas (religious scholars) in different fields of Islamic studies. And so rapid was the growth of Islamic education in Sumatra that the island earned the honorific title of Serambi Mekah (Mecca’s veranda).

Continue to Part 2

Photo Credit: danchitnis via Compfight cc

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