Lessons from History

By Mujtaba Hamdi

KUALA LUMPUR – His friends said he was schooled in a madrasa (Islamic school), but when he walked up to me at a food stall in Bangsar, in this city, I suddenly wasn’t sure he was  the person I was supposed to meet. But he assured me he was Muhammad Abror Rivai, and yes, he was a madrasa graduate.

For sure there are conservative Muslims elsewhere who sport long hair and have moustaches and beards that flow as freely. But we were in Malaysia, after all, where conservative means clean-cut. Besides, on Abror, all that hair made him look positively bohemian – again something that one would not expect to see in this country.

Multi-ethnic and multicultural, Malaysia is nevertheless identified as a Muslim nation because Islam is the faith of majority of its dominant ethnic group. And even as Malaysia tries to project a moderate face of Islam, the more conservative among the nation’s Muslims seem to have developed stronger voices in recent years.

And so I expected a madrasa graduate in Malaysia to look nothing at all like Abror. But I was to realise that although this country’s Islamic schools have a lot in common with those in other nations, these have also been moulded by Malaysia’s political and social history, as much as their graduates are products not only of such schools, but also of Malaysia’s melting pot of a society, as well as of their own families.

Abror is a case in point. Born to a deeply Islamic family, he has nevertheless ended up an independent movie producer. At 30, he has produced six short films, among them one with a storyline that not all members of his religious clan might appreciate. He knows that not everyone outside of his family approves of how he has chosen to present himself, which some may think does not “reflect” Muslim values. His long hair, for one, is considered “unsuitable” for a son of an ustadz (religious teacher). But Abror says his mother, an ustadzah, has told him, “The Prophet Muhammad’s hair was also long.”

His entire family also does not mind that he has gone into film. “I’m lucky that I have a big family,” he says. “Many of my other brothers went their ways to fulfill family wishes, lah.” Among Abror’s brothers are an ustadz, a doctor, and a lawyer. “So my parents burdens were lifted lah,” he says.

Recalling madrasa days

They did, however, encourage Abror to study at a public madrasa. “I was taught fiqh, aspects of basic Islamic law,” recounts Abror of his some 12 years in Islamic schools. “The usual tawhid — the 20 characters. Tauhid uluhiyyah, rububiyah, asma was-sifat.”

In a nutshell, fiqh teaches a Muslim how to live his daily life according to Islamic law. Tawhid, meanwhile,  means ‘oneness of God’, and teaches how a Muslim can know  God. Tawhid uluhiyah teaches why Allah is the only God who should be worshiped. Tauhid rububiyah confirms that Allah is the only creator of the universe. And asma was-sifat emphasises on the importance of names and characteristics of God.

“Twenty characters” are the characters of God that should be understood by all students. Lessons of tawhid usually involves belifes in the prophets, angels, scripture, and the end of the world.

“All subjects used Jawi script,” says Abror. Jawi is Arabic writing in Malay language. Since the first centuries of Islam in Malay, Jawi has been used among the Malay Muslim communities. Abdullah Abdul Kadir Munsyi, a 19th century famous writer who had close relation with the British colonial government, wrote his works in Jawi.

For the most part, everything that one usually takes up in madrasa Abror learned in those he attended. He says, however, that his teachers would not answer questions that were not part of the official curriculum, which was provided by the government. Any subject that was not included in the government’s approved list was also not taught in a Malaysian madrasa.

“Textbooks are provided by the (education) ministry,” he says. “Different from the previous system, which used Matan Jurumiyah. Old textbooks are not used. All are provided by the ministry.” Matan Jurumiyah is Arabic grammar authored by Abu Abdillah Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Daud As-Sanhaji in 14th century.

In the past, according to Abror, those classical texts were taught in madrasa. But since the implementation of the New Curriculum for High School in the mid-80s, all textbooks have been prepared by the government. “Except for those studying in pesantren, at the pondok,” says Abror. “They are still learning from old textbooks.”

Pesantren or pondok  are boarding schools initiated in the19th century. Here in Malaysia, there are still several pondoks.. Apparently, though, they do not command the same level of respect as the madrasa.

“Living in pondok is isolated,” says Abror. “The educational system there is isolated from its surroundings.”

Amirudin Shari, who spent some eight years in a madrasa in Johore, would also tell me later, “Kids who are not smart in academics are sent to pondok.”

Malaya’s first Islamic schools

One reason for the rather unflattering view of the pondok in Malaysia is because the curriculum there does not prepare graduates for university. Some pondoks, in order to survive, now  teach the government curriculum along with traditional lessons.

The seeming “prejudice” against pondoks can also be traced to the development of Islamic schools in Malaysia. Education expert Rosnani Hashim places the pondok somewhere between the Koranic schools, the earliest forms of Islamic education in peninsular Malaya, and the madrasa, which considered to be the “modern” Islamic school.

The Koranic schools were actually informal institutions, with the lessons conducted in the homes of religious teachers, in mosques or in surau,  says Rosnani. Children of five or six years old were sent to these schools, where they learned how to read the Koran and how to perform their Islamic duties – particularly the five daily prayers. The teachers usually read the lessons aloud, and then the students each take their turn reading until they memorise the lesson. Often, the lesson would be short verses from the Koran and prayers used in shalat. After that would come the lessons in the Malay language.

Rosnani says that the Koranic students paid no fees,  “but donated money to buy kerosen for the oil lamps that were used if classes were held at night”. Or sometimes students helped the ustadz for his daily life by fetching water for his household or even tending his ricefield.

After students were already able to read the Koran and write in Jawi, they then proceeded to the pondok. There they were taught how to interpret the Koran, as well as hadith, along with other subjects such as fiqh, tawhid, and Islamic history. There were no levels; students would gather around the ustadz, who would read and explain the scriptures, which were in Arabic.

From pondok to madrasa

But the Islamic education system went through changes during the early 20th century. This was the time of the Islamic reform movement, or Islah in Malay, and the pondok became one of the targets for an overhaul. According to Rosnani, pondok education was deemed “narrow” and insufficient in preparing students for the socioeconomic changes that were taking place. Pondok graduates were certainly not qualified to be employed by the British colonial government. Neither could they enter the commercial sector.

Syekh Tahir Jalaluddin and Syekh Ahmad al-Hadi thus tried to establish a more “modern” school, opening Madrasah al-Iqbal in 1907 in what is now known as Singapore. The new school had levels or grades, and there were additional secular subjects, such as geography, history, and science. A year later, however, the school had to close; al-Hadi then moved to Malacca and established Madrasah Al-Hadi. Again, the school was closed within a year. Al-Hadi next set up Madrasah al-Mashoor in Penang; to this day the school remains open. By 1913, the Neracha weekly newspaper reported that tens of madrasas were operational in Perak state. A number of pondoks had transformed themselves into madrasas.

At the time, Malays thought little of secular education, even though the British had already opened schools offering this. There were even national schools that had Malay as their medium of instruction. It took the Educational Ordinance of 1957 for Malays to begin considering national schools, which now offered Islamic lessons. By the time the Education Act of 1961 was ratified a few years after Malaya gained independence from Britain, more and more Malays were sending their children to the national schools, whose graduates had greater chances of going to university and landing good jobs.

In no time, the madrasas seemed to be under siege. In Kelantan alone, they declined in number from 151 in 1967 to 111 in 1970. It did not help the madrasas any that they were soon becoming known as the refuge for those who flunked the entrance exams for national schools.

The madrasa takes it turn at reforms

The Muslim Malays could not let such a situation continue, especially after the 1969 race riots that brought to fore the grievances of ethnic Malays especially against the ethnic Chinese, who were more economically dominant. This was during the 1970s, when there was a revival of Islam in the country as well. Several organisations began to criticise the government policies regarding Islam and ethnic Malays. In her book Educational Dualism in Malaysia, Rosnani writes that the government was hit for allegedly providing mainly secular education and putting too much emphasis on material development “to the neglect of Islamic values and identity.” She adds that Muslim Malays began to worry that their children would not be able to read the Koran or even perform the five daily prayers.

In response, the government amended the curricula in the national schools, first in the primary levels and then in high schools, the main change being more hours devoted to religious study. The government also began giving financial assistance to private madrasas that had been receiving aid from wakaf, as well as to those supervised by local governments. In some cases, the government took over the management of the madrasas; these eventually became known as the Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Agama or SMKA. In 1977, there were only 11 SMKAs. Now there are about 55, with none among them in need of students at any one time.

“SMKAs are very popular,” Rosnani tells me when I finally meet her in person. She adds that such schools are fully equipped and has very good teachers. In addition, the SMKA is considered to be an integration of Islamic and secular education. Or as Rosnani puts it, “the best of both worlds,” religious but modern, capable of producing “religious professionals.”

I remembered that Abror had spent some six years in an SMKA. While before I thought there was some disconnect with Abror the film producer and Abror the madrasa graduate who was steeped in Islamic teachings, now I saw his two sides merge.

Then again, Abror went to madrasa at a time when there were efforts to integrate the religious and secular worlds. In present-day Malaysia, however, efforts to keep them apart seem to be growing stronger.

Mujtaba Hamdi is a writer from Syir’ah, a monthly Muslim magazine in Jakarta that promotes religious openness and diversity. This story was written originally in Bahasa Indonesia.