Gontor Boarding Schools:
Islamic education with
a modern outlook

Darussalam Gontor Modern Islamic Boarding School is the first such institution in Indonesia that blends general and religious educational concepts. The Jakarta Post correspondent Indra Harsaputra writes on the unique, amusing and innocent aspects of the school's life. In April it celebrated its 80th anniversary.

Abu Nashar, 18, one of the broadcasters of Gontor radio station, seemed to be in a hurry to leave the school mosque after Friday prayers.

Riding a pedal bicycle, which is the general means of transportation within the Islamic boarding school, he headed toward a building where The Voice of Gontor radio station is housed. ""I don't want to be late for my broadcast. Our teachers have taught us to really value time,"" Abu told The Jakarta Post.

The Voice of Gontor is managed by Darussalam Gontor Islamic Boarding School in Ponorogo, East Java, which is the only such institution in the country to own an FM radio station.

Abu is certainly not a professional broadcaster. He is just one of the students in the school currently undergoing internship or a process of dedication.

Such an internship is a necessary requirement that a student must fulfill before being awarded a diploma certifying that education equivalent to that at senior high school has been completed at the school.

""Just take this as part of studying broadcasting science because it is my ambition to become a professional broadcaster after I complete my university-level education here,"" he told the Post.

Abu must have been greatly influenced by some of his seniors, who, after graduating from Gontor, are now engaged in print or electronic journalism.

Some Gontor graduates have become national figures, such as Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Central Board chairman Hasyim Muzadi, Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) former chairman and current People Consultative Assembly (MPR) Speaker Hidayat Nur Wahid and late Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid (Cak Nur).

Still fresh in Abu's memory is the message that school principal KH Abdullah Syukri Zarkasyi gave when he first entered, to the effect that the management and the students of the school should not rely on the school for their livelihoods but that they should think of ways to ensure the survival of the school.

Every time Abu remembers the message, he is filled with an ever-greater enthusiasm to find ways to ensure the survival of The Voice of Gontor. Aside from serving as one of the radio station's broadcasters, he and his seven colleagues try hard to find commercials for their radio.

""Besides developing our radio station, we have also tried to develop our media publication business by looking for advertisements and expanding our marketing network to include more Islamic boarding schools,"" another student, Amru Ali, who manages Darussalam Post and Alif magazine, said.

Darussalam Post and Alif magazine, both published by Gontor Modern Islamic Boarding School, are managed by the students themselves. Darussalam Post carries stories about the activities in the school and is distributed to all Gontor branches in Indonesia, while Alif is focused on matters relating to youth, education and religion.

At least 23 other business units are managed by the school such as a printing shop, mini-market, bookshop, building materials store, bakery, drinking water factory, cattle breeding unit, and so on. The proceeds earned are spent on the daily needs of the school such as for the purchase of books and other teaching facilities, the construction of new buildings, etc.

However, Gontor's educational and business activities are managed only by the school's clerics and students.

The principle of self-reliance in funding all the activities of the school is just like that developed at Al-Azhar University in Egypt. That was developed from a mosque set up by the Egyptian ruler of Daulah Fatimiyyah.

Thanks to its principle of self-reliance, the university secured endowment property from which it grants scholarships to the students.

Self-reliance is also practiced at Syanggit Islamic Boarding School in Mauritania where the students are taught to manage businesses, such that the school has now developed into a large educational institution.

This principle is also at work at some other private educational institutions. Take Sekolah Ciputra (Ciputra School), for example. This institution, which provides education from elementary to secondary levels in Jakarta and Surabaya and is managed by Ciputra real estate company, also implements an educational system based on entrepreneurship.

Graduates are expected to excel, both in general knowledge and entrepreneurship.

Suddenly, The Voice of Gontor received a cell phone text message from one of its listeners, asking that Abu play Cindai, a song by Malaysian singer Siti Nurhaliza.

Although the station is managed by an Islamic boarding school, it broadcasts both spiritual and popular songs, ranging from dangdut music, which combines Indian, Arabic and Malay nuances, to songs in Javanese.

""We don't play rock music here because it does not suit the mission of our radio station -- to entertain our listeners and at the same time propagate Islam,"" Abu said.

In short, therefore, the station's programs are not confined to religious education as they also include science and general knowledge, technology and youth problems.

Teachers at the school always emphasize to their students that they should seek as much knowledge as possible, both spiritual and otherwise. There is no prohibition on studying nonreligious subjects. A student is free to read anything apart from pornography.

The school is just like any other day school run by ordinary educational institutions in Surabaya, Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia. Only the teaching approach distinguishes this school from other, similar educational establishments.

The educational system here is similar to what has been adopted at Aligarh Muslim University in India, which provides its students with both general and religious knowledge and is noted as a pioneer in Islamic revival.

The university has become an inspiration for the development of an Islamic boarding school that is open to general knowledge. That is why ""Be widely knowledgeable"" is the motto of all Darussalam Gontor Modern Islamic Boarding Schools.

That is also explains why the libraries in these modern Islamic boarding schools are full of books on a great variety of subjects, as well as encyclopedias.

It came as no surprise, therefore, to see Abu show off his favorite Harry Potter novel just before he left the radio station when he was replaced by another broadcaster. He likes the novel so much he carries it wherever he goes, treating it like a second must-read after the Koran.

Currently, many other Islamic boarding schools in East Java have been developing the system adopted at Gontor as they believe their students must learn as many things as possible during their studies.

Take, foreign language teaching, for example. Today not only Arabic is taught. About 60 percent of some 5,200 Islamic boarding schools in East Java include English in their curriculum. Some Islamic boarding schools, such as Lirboyo in Kediri, Genggong in Probolinggo and Manba'us Sholihin Suci in Gresik, even teach their students Chinese and German.

Only Islamic boarding schools that maintain themselves as a center for Islamic learning do not teach foreign languages other than Arabic to their students. These schools deliberately give nonspiritual matters a wide berth.

In 1936, when the Ponorogo Darussalam Gontor Modern Islamic Boarding School began to develop a new educational system, it faced a lot of opposition from many parties so that at one time the school roll, which originally had over 100 students, dropped to only 16.

At that time Gontor was applying a teaching system using books that were not in general use at Islamic boarding schools. Also, it taught students general subjects, as well as English and Dutch.

In addition, unlike in other Islamic boarding schools, the teachers and students at Gontor no longer wore sarongs but put on shirts, ties and pants during the school day.

In those days, English and Dutch were considered taboo within an Islamic boarding school as they were considered the languages of infidels.

The opposition and rage shown to the changes in the teaching culture and system at Gontor in those days could be likened to what big-time terrorist Imam Samudra said in his book Aku Melawan Teroris (I Fight Against Terrorists, Jazera, 2004), to the effect that unbelievers deserve to be murdered by means of jihad (a crusade for Islam).

""However, Gontor has maintained its image. A foreigner can see that this is Islam that has nothing to do with terrorism or the likes of Imam Samudra,"" said Royyan, a teaching assistant there.

The tradition of speaking in foreign tongues is still maintained at Gontor today. On certain days, the students may use only English when they are in school, or be penalized.

""In the past, a student who refused to speak English would have their thighs caned. Today a student like this will have his head shaved bald,"" said Royyan, while pointing to some students with shaved heads.

Some students with bald heads went past swiftly when they heard that a stranger had come to their school.

Curiously, though, a bald head can also be a mark of pride at the school because when a student has passed the final exams at senior high school level he will also have his head shaved bald.

Famous Gontor alumni
* Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin
* Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board chairman Hasyim Muzadi
* Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) former chairman and current
People's Consultative Assembly Speaker Hidayat Nur Wahid
* late Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid (Cak Nur).

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