Originally published in Asian Review of Books on March 18, 2015

The mosque’s brick-like silhouette was blurred in the downpour. The rain in East Java is heavy, which gives the land its sparkling, paddy-green hue and fills the villages with the scent of moist-earth. It was the hour of the maghrib prayer and all 4,000 of the students at Pondok Modern Darussalam Gontor were gathered inside the building’s capacious two-storey structure.


I stood swatting away giant flying ants in the tubelight-lit veranda of the school’s main assembly hall, located diagonally across from the mosque. And then, all of a sudden, a lava-flow of boys spurted down the long staircase from the mosque’s upper-floor prayer room. Their slippers made squelching sounds in the wet. Most hitched up their colorful batik sarongs above their knees. Prayer mats hung from their narrow shoulders.

The boys gawked at me, a bedraggled salwar kameez-clad apparition, standing in the rain taking notes. Their dark eyes were curious, but they averted their faces if I looked at them directly. Some of them were not even teenagers yet, and retained the prettiness of pre-pubescence.

Despite the vast numbers, the mosque emptied out with remarkable discipline. There was no pushing in the midst of the crush. And there was little chatter for the most part, although I could hear the occasional “akhi”, Arabic “my brother,” that students at Gontor use to address each other.

My chaperone at the school, a 23-year-old teacher known as Ustad Aliy, offered to hold my handbag as I scribbled notes furiously. “Terimah kasih,” I nodded in acknowledgement, using the Bahasa Indonesia phrase for “thank you”. Aliy looked startled, as though unsure of how to respond. I corrected myself and said, “shukran.” I’d already been told that in Gontor speaking Indonesian was against school rules. The only languages permitted were Arabic and English


Gontor is one among the thousands of Islamic schools, or pesantren, that dot the Indonesian archipelago. (Estimates range from 13,000-30,000.) These are boarding schools primarily located in the countryside. Most combine scriptural learning with secular elements taken from the national curriculum, although more traditional ones focus exclusively on religion. An emphasis is always placed on character building, and vocational courses in agriculture and mechanics are usually offered as supplements.

Pesantren have existed in Indonesia for centuries. But their reputation has taken somewhat of a battering in recent decades due to a wave of terrorist attacks, including bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed over 200 people. Although most of Indonesia’s established terrorist networks have been dismantled since then, concerns about radicalization persist. By December 2014, militias in Syria and Iraq, including the radical Sunni Islamist group that calls itself the Islamic State, had attracted more than 100 recruits from Indonesia, according to Detachment 88, the country’s counterterrorism force.

The idea that pesantren, like some madrassas in South Asia, are breeding grounds for Islamic extremists, has gained traction in the popular imagination, yet most experts believe such claims to be wrongheaded. Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, and a leading authority on terrorist movements in Southeast Asia, told me that only around 40 pesantren in the country are associated with terrorist outfits like the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group responsible for the Bali bombings. She added that another 200-odd pesantren emphasize a Wahhabi philosophy, promoting the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92). But although these schools espouse a strictly orthodox understanding of Islam, they do not preach violence.

According to Jones, many more pesantren focus on grooming “upstanding citizens in a way that reinforces their own local settings and values.” They may even serve as a bulwark against extremism.

Some scholars of religion in Indonesia like Mark Woodward and Inayah Rohmaniyah have found that it is Indonesia’s secular universities that are more fertile grounds for an emerging Islamist culture. It is often students who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of their own religion who are more easily swayed by religious “proofs” quoted out-of-context regarding violent jihad.

But pesantren graduates who have been schooled in Qur’an and hadith scholarship can spot scriptural distortions with greater ease. They also tend to be more connected to their communities, which gives them a stable sense of identity. Moreover, the informal, secretive and extremist Qur’anic study groups known as pengajian tertutup flourish in the relatively lax, unsupervised environments of secular universities and village mosques, rather than tightly scheduled pesantren.

My personal curiosity regarding pesantren had less academic, more literary, origins. I first read about them in VS Naipaul’s 1981 travelogue, Amongst the Believers, which describes his journeys to four Muslim countries, including Indonesia.

Naipaul was confused by the pesantren he visited, and cynical about their value. He remained unconvinced that students learnt anything useful from such institutions given their unstructured curriculums and vague talk of communitarianism. He was also darkly suspicious of the Islam emptied of “local particularity” that some of these schools emphasized. His gloomy conclusion of the first pesantren he visited, “... it wasn’t tradition, and it wasn’t education. It was a breaking away from the Indonesian past; it was Islamization; it was stupefaction.”

Several years later I read Indonesian writer Ahmad Fuadi’s best-selling, fictionalized-memoir, The Land of Five Towers, which painted a rather different picture. Fuadi is a Gontor graduate and the book centers on his four years at the school in the late 1980s. It read like an Indonesian version of one of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Tower series. Essentially a boys boarding school adventure, the book details the life-transforming experience Gontor was for students, as they forged close friendships and imbibed the school’s inspirational motto, man jadda wajada (he who gives his all will succeed).

* * *

Gontor was established in September 1926 by three brothers who were, and still are, collectively known at the school, as the trimurti. That this triumvirate of Muslim reformers are referred to by a Sanskrit term, literally the “three forms”, that denotes the three Hindu Gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, is an irony that is lost in Gontor. The term’s Hindu connotations have become opaque with the centuries, and elicited no recognition when I raised the matter during my visit to the school. I was reminded of Naipaul’s observation of Indonesians as a people who had simultaneously retained and lost their Hindu-Buddhist heritage, so that they “talked as though they remained mysterious to themselves.”

The school was founded against a socio-political backdrop in which pesantren struggled to come to terms with the gauntlet of “modernity” that western colonialism had thrown down. The trimurti derived their institutional inspiration for their school from the venerable Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the relatively unknown Shinquit Islamic school in Mauritania, the reformist Aligarh Muslim University in India, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental school at Shantiniketan.

With this eclectic set of influences, Gontor was made into a waqf property, that is, under a charitable trust. Its management, relative to traditional pesantren, was also professionalized. The curriculum included non-religious subjects such as science and history, but the greatest emphasis was on foreign languages, with English and Arabic being the sole mediums of instruction. There was an exaltation of simplicity and nature, in the manner of Shantineketan, so that teaching took place both in, and outside of, classrooms. Students were expected to assume an array of responsibilities related to the functioning of the school, from cleaning to serving meals.

I visited Gontor in mid-November, a few days after mid-term examinations had concluded. The novelist Ahmed Fuadi had made introductions, and as a result I was picked up at the Solo airport by Ustad Aliy, who was to be my guide through the trip.

Aliy was sharply dressed, in a pin striped shirt and tie. “Surprised?” he asked impishly, indicating his outfit. “Most people associate us [pesantren folk] with sarongs and peci [a traditional hat worn by Muslims in southeast Asia]. But at Gontor we are not like that.”

In fact students and teachers had to wear western clothes at all times in the school, except while praying. Aliy was quick to insist that the term “western” was inappropriate for their dress. “These clothes are not just for the west. They are for everyone. They reflect our committed state of mind.”

It was not immediately clear why a sarong, for example, would have indicated a less than “committed” state of mind, but I imagined the dress-code dated to the school’s founding, when wearing a shirt and tie must have been symbolic of Islam’s purported confidence in adapting to modern ways.

Aliy kept up a steady stream of chatter through the long drive to Gontor. Originally from the eastern island of Sulawesi, he’d spent six years at the school, before becoming a teacher. He wasn’t paid money for the job, only board, lodging and “the love of my students.” He added “I am like a father to the children.”

Students’ lives were spartan. They often slept 30 to a room. They had scant belongings other than a mattress, a few change of clothes, toiletries and their books. “It is a simple life, but our kiai [school principal] always stresses simplicity,” Aliy beamed. “Simplicity and sincerity.”

There was something a tad cult-like about the teacher’s enthusiasm. Every once in a while he would squeeze his eyes shut, as though in ecstasy, and proclaim, “I just love Gontor.” Or, more ominously, “I just can never leave Gontor.”


Our first stop at the school was at the lime-green and cream colored assembly hall, a spacious rectangular room with various mottos in Arabic and English painted on every wall, reminiscent of maxims popular in self-help books. “Even the best can be improved.” “Never too old to Learn.” “Be ready to lead and to be led.” On the side opposite to an elevated stage hung portraits of the peci-wearing founding trimurti.

It was only 8:30 in the morning, but the sun was already beating down. I felt my dupatta, with which I had covered my head (Aliy had asked me to wear “Muslim” clothes while at the school), going soggy with sweat as we walked around. The students were in their classrooms, where they stayed put between 7:00am and 12:15pm every day.

But their morning had started much earlier. The whole school observed the Fajr prayers at 4:30am, when even the roosters were still asleep. Teachers then assigned new words in Arabic and English to students for them to practice and use throughout the day. Between 5:30 and 6:30am the young men had to do laundry, bathe and eat breakfast. I was exhausted just listening to this punishing schedule, but Aliy said the kiai believed it prevented the students from getting up to mischief.

We continued walking. Other than the background drone of students chanting their lessons in unison, a hot lull hung over the campus. Occasionally a villager would drive through on a motorcycle. I was parched and asked for a bottle of water. We headed to one of the school cafeterias to buy one.

I spied a large poster featuring two women, plastered next to the entrance. The first lady was heasdscarved, but wearing high heels, trousers and a T-shirt: a fairly typical outfit in Indonesia. A large X was plastered across her buttocks. The second woman was dressed in what appeared to be a niqab with an approving tick mark next to it. Aliy hurried me past, talking about the variety of businesses owned by the school. These included a water packaging company, a publishing house, small retail ventures, and even catering services.

“We use the money from our own businesses to finance our needs. The students must buy their things in our shops, and that money helps to keep their fees low. It is a circle. We need never leave Gontor for anything,” my guide enthused, leaving me mulling over the Orwellian connotations of such sentiments.

Aliy took up detailing the students’ daily schedule once again. After classes it was time for the noon prayer, followed by lunch. At 2:00pm students divided into different groups for special classes that included extra language training for those who needed it, or more vocationally oriented sessions like carpentry. Then it was time for the afternoon prayer around 3:00pm, following which the students had some “free time” in which to catch up with their Koran reading, before they gathered at the mosque for Maghrib.

School “courts” were held in the evening where students who’d been reported for infractions that ranged from speaking in Indonesian, to littering, or leaving the drinking water taps running, were sentenced with appropriate punishments. Following dinner there were yet more study sessions until 9:00pm, when the school finally began to wind down.


Naipaul had noted that pesantren “still kept the hours of the monastery, still required day and night devotion of the inmates,” and this certainly seemed true of Gontor. Students had virtually no time to rest, and none at all, to tarry. Yet, their energy levels were high.

Even on Fridays, the official day of rest, students played soccer and made sculptures and sang along to their favourite music. Many of the young men I spoke to expressed shy enthusiasm for Hindi movies. “Chamak chalo; Raju chacha,” an otherwise rather taciturn teacher said by way of making conversation when Aliy introduced us.


I was scheduled to meet one of the school’s three kiai around noon. Before the meeting Aliy fussed about me like a mother hen, directing me to adjust my head scarf this way and that, until it had achieved some ideal of hair-covering perfection.

My interview with Kiai Hasan Abdullah Sahal began a tad uncomfortably. He refused to meet my eye and seemed suspicious of my intentions. It was difficult to move the conversation beyond platitudes until Aliy mentioned that the kiai had visited India in 2009. When I asked where, specifically, he’d been, the 67-year-old became animated as he searched his memory for names. “It was a university,” he said, snapping his fingers to aid his memory. “The one where Shahrukh Khan went.”

“Surely, you mean Sir Syed Ahmed Khan? Was it Aligarh?” I countered.

But the kiai only looked confused. “I’m an old man,” he said apologetically. “I forget names.”

Later, a senior teacher who had accompanied the principal to India told me that the university in question was indeed Shahrukh Khan’s alma mater: Jamia Millia Islamia.


That evening as I tried to fall asleep in my room in Gontor’s rather austere guesthouse, I thought about how the day had resonated with both Fuadi’s and Naipaul’s accounts of pesantren. The enthusiasm, camaraderie, and hard work that Fuadi’s book had described were on plentiful display at the school. But some of Naipaul’s cynicism as to the actual quality of the education seemed warranted too.

Following the Maghrib prayer I had attended an English “public speaking” test for some of the senior students which had consisted of young men standing around a courtyard, each with an assessor, simultaneously shouting out random sentences in English that were barely audible given the din, to either speaker or examiner.

In the end, the pedagogic end of things seemed most accurately summed up by Aliy who’d earnestly explained that at Gontor, “It’s not how long, or how hard you study, but how much you learn to live a good life.”

* * *

Gontor is not typical of Indonesia’s pesantren, the majority of which are smaller, and less well-funded. But it is possibly the single most influential Islamic boarding school in the country, boasting an array of alumni luminaries, who collectively dominate the religious landscape of the country.

The current, liberal, minister for religious affairs in Indonesia, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, is an alumnus, as is Din Shamsuddin, the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council. Uniquely, Gontor graduates have held top positions at both of Indonesia’s rival social Islamic organisations, the “traditionalist” Nahadlatul Ulama (NU), and the “modernist”, Muhammadiyah. The membership of these two organisations numbers in the tens of millions, but while NU promotes a traditional Islam that is rooted in the cultural particularities of the Indonesian archipelago, Muhammadiyah is oriented towards “cleansing” Islam of some of its local flavor and advocates greater scriptural adherence.

Pesantren in Indonesia are usually run by kiai who belong to one of these two organisations. But Gontor’s leadership is neutral on this particular divide in Indonesian Islam.

“At Gontor we are for all groups, yet we stand above all groups,” said Dr Dihyatun Masqon Ahmad, one of the school’s most senior faculty. Dr Dihyatun had studied in India, at Jamila Millia Islamia (of Shahrukh Khan fame) in the early 2000s and spoke passable Hindi. He expressed much appreciation of Indian food by way of an icebreaker before addressing my queries about how Gontor dealt with issues of diversity within Islam.

“In Gontor, only belief in Allah is required, “ he said, pointing out that all four schools of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence: Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, are taught at the school. “We are a meeting point for all.”

This is one reason why many experts believe that pesantren serve to inoculate students against radicalisation by extremists. Robin Bush, the author of “Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power within Islam and Politics in Indonesia,” has spent years studying pesantren. She told me that the concept of the contestation of ideas emerges naturally in pesantren, because of this teaching of the fiqh.

Yet there are limits to how much diversity is accepted at Gontor. Muslims identifying as Shi’a or Ahmaddiya, for example, are not discussed. In recent years, Indonesia’s Ahmaddiya and Shi’a communities, which comprise less than 1 percent of the population, have complained of rising intolerance, including incidents such as the forcible closing down of their mosques.

Negotiating the considerable diversity within the Islamic fold is, moreover, not the only tricky bit of ideological navigation that pesantren must undertake. Another challenge is the  relationship with Indonesia’s pre-Islamic culture, a mixture of Hindu-Buddhist and local animist practices, that are collectively known as adat, is another challenge.

Most Indonesian Muslims continue to observe a range of cultural and spiritual practices that pre-date Islam’s advent to the region. Every island, and indeed most regions within the islands, have their own distinct adat ranging from ceremonies in which the future is read in the entrails of chickens, to throwing rice cakes at each other in order to propitiate the spirits of the paddy fields.

NU-run pesantren tend to be comfortable with the co-existence of adat and agama (religion). But Gontor, as a “modernizing” school, must walk a fine line between advocating a “reformed” Islam cleansed of these practices, while tolerating some of them, as long as they are seen as purely cultural rituals divorced from religion.

Aliy cited the example of the Reog dance, which involves the donning of elaborate lion and peacock masks to enact folk tales rooted in Ponorogo, the regency where Gontor is located. Pesantren students and faculty are allowed to attend these dances. “They are just a dance,” Aliy said, explaining that the school does not believe there is anything “against agama (Islam)” in them.


The third ideological obstacle course that pesantren in Indonesia traverse involves nationalism and the relationship of the schools with the non-Islamic state.

Independent Indonesia narrowly avoided opting for theocracy as the basis for its polity, yet it allows religion an active space in public life. Religion remains an important part of the identity of most citizens (unlike in largely agnostic Europe), and the government features a Ministry of Religious Affairs. Indonesia is therefore not a “secular” country in the European sense of the word, and nowhere does its constitution mention the term.

The doctrine of Pancasila, that the constitution is based on, professes a “belief in the divinity of the one God.” But, by leaving out a reference to any specific God (in the face of opposition from Islamists who had wanted a concrete mention of Allah), the Indonesian constitution also protects the right of citizens to freedom of religious belief and practice. Although close to 90 percent of Indonesia’s 250 million citizens self-identify as Muslims, the state officially recognizes five other religions as well: Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Confucianism.

Pesantren are independent of the state and often fiercely committed to this independence. At the same time they accept varying degrees of financial assistance from local and central authorities. They must also work with the state to harmonize their curriculum with the national high school syllabus, so as to make it easier for pesantren graduates to go on to study at state universities.

Dr Dihyatun told me that Gontor was proudly nationalist. “We sing the national anthem at our assemblies and we believe Pancasila to be the greatest gift for Indonesia.”

“And yet, they dare come here and accuse us. They ask all these questions, as if we are terrorists,” Dr Dihyatun’s voice rose an octave. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia’s tough counter-terrorist unit had paid interrogatory visits to pesantren across the country, including Gontor. This was scarcely surprising given that the spiritual head of the country’s most notorious terrorist outfit Jema’ah Islamiah, Abubakar Ba’asyir, is a Gontor alumnus from the 1950s.

Baa’syir who is currently serving a 15-year prison term for his involvement in running terrorist-training camps in Aceh, is the founder of Indonesia’s most infamous radical pesantren, Al-Mukmin in Ngruki, located not far from Gontor. Dr Dihyatun complained about how some journalists confused the Gontor school with the one at Ngruki. But he also refused to condemn Ba’asyir himself, describing the convicted terrorist as “an old guy with his own ideas.”

When I’d asked Kiai Hasan whether he worried about Islamic terrorism in Indonesia, he had retorted that, “it (terrorism) is media hype. The Israelis are the real villains.” Dr Dihyatun took a more nuanced approach. It is not religion that is behind radicalisation he said, but “poverty, western imperialism, and inequality.”

Despite the over-simplification, there was some truth to the Vice Rector’s explanation. I was struck by the point about inequality, which had strong resonance in a country like Indonesia, where socio-economic differences are stark. In this context, pesantren have an important leveling effect. Regardless of background, Gontor students pay only US$40 a month all-inclusive as fees. Many of them are poor boys from the sticks, yet others come from privileged families. Even family members of current vice President Jusuf Kalla, who is one of Indonesia’s wealthiest men, have studied at Gontor.

It is quite remarkable for young men to have exposure to the kind of diversity of student-population that the school boasts, a fact that comes through clearly in Fuadi’s fictionalized memoir, where he talks in detail about his friendships with boys from far-flung parts of the archipelago. Fuadi’s closest friends included Dulmajid, the son of a poor salt farmer from the island of Madura, as well as Atang, whose parents were middle-class, art-loving, government employees from Bandung city.

* * *

I left Gontor on an overnight train to Jakarta where the bright tube lights were kept switched on throughout, banishing any possibilities of sleep. I passed the time trying to digest what I had seen and heard. In many ways, pesantren symbolized the unresolved future of Indonesia. In their ideological incoherence, the push and pull of all the competing visions of the country: nationalist, Islamist, syncretic and radical, could be glimpsed.

Islam and its role in Indonesia remains a contested space, complicated by the country’s relatively new transition to democracy. Freed from some of the restrictions of the Suharto-era, a religious revival in Indonesia is underway. Tangible manifestations include an increase in the number of women choosing to wear head scarves, as well the accelerated mosque-building activity evident in many parts of the country.

And yet Islamic parties have not gained a significant foothold in the electoral process. The country’s new President Joko Widodo is a committed pluralist and the new religious affairs minister, a Gontor graduate, has made proposals to further protect the rights of minority religions.

Indonesia is an important gauge for the compatibility of democracy and Islam and pesantren are central in shaping this dialectic.