Rigorous Islamic Boarding School Preps Students For “Easy Life” Of Prayer And Contemplation

By Stuart Clay, Guest Contributor

At four a.m., Hendri wakes his students for prayer at Pesantren Tebuireng, an Islamic boarding school in East Java, Indonesia.

The call to prayer echoes through Pesantren and the surrounding town, and students and teachers begin the day together with prayer. These students do not need the imam to recite the Quran for them. They chant it themselves.  

Pesantren Tebuireng school is located in the town of Jombang, about 500 miles east of Jakarta. 

This is how every day begins at Pesantren Tebuireng in Jombang, a bustling town surrounded by fields of sugarcane. This author visited Tebuireng and Darussalam Gontor school as part of a delegation from The King’s College, NYC, to learn more about the traditional, Indonesian Islam found in this tight-knit spiritual community.

Hendri is 23 years old and now teaches Arabic at Tebuireng, where he also attended school.  After prayer, the students begin lessons in Arabic and Quranic recitation. Between 4:30 and 6am, students practice various methods of memorization.

For beginners, Hendri reads verses from the Quran in a sing-song voice to a group of 20 or so male students. He pauses, and the students repeat the verses back to him, loudly, in the same sing-song voice. The teacher and students repeat the process with the following verses, varying their pitch with the different syllables. This method is called “bandongan,” and it teaches Arabic pronunciation to these beginners, whose native tongue is Indonesian or East Javanese dialects. Within one to three years, most of the students will be able to read the Quran in Arabic and recite from memory the last 30 suras of the Quran.

After six a.m., the students attend lessons in subjects more familiar for Americans, such as math and science. Extracurricular activities follow classwork, including karate, Arabic calligraphy for the artistically inclined, and sports. Of course, all students break from their activities for prayer throughout the day.

At six p.m., the students return to the study of the Quran.

Dozens of students sit cross-legged on the floor in groups of two or three in a large, open auditorium. The students help each other with memorization. One student in each group reads the Quran while the other students listen. Some sit by themselves, preferring to work on their memorization alone. The room is filled with the buzz of many voices, all reciting different passages again and again.

Meanwhile, Hendri is done teaching for the day. In the evening he drinks coffee and hangs out with his friends. Hendri’s days are long and grueling, beginning at four a.m. and ending as late as 11:30. Hendri's days are made even more exhausting because he has been fasting from dawn till dusk for six years. Hendri does not eat or drink anything while the sun is up - not even water.

This far exceeds the ordinary requirements for fasting in Ramadan once a year. Hendri says that maybe ten other people in Pesantren practice this fast. Hendri credits his commitment to Mohammed’s words in the Quran, saying that, “the closest to Muhammad in the last day will be the one who is greatest in character.” By fasting every day, Hendri hopes to conquer all evil desires and perfect his character.

Muslims involved with Pesantren Tebuireng and the surrounding educational institutions do not sleep much – usually around five hours per night. Hendri is an extreme example, but in some ways he represents the heart of the project at Tebuireng – the whole community is centered around spiritual discipline. The five prayers define the community’s schedule every day. Even on road trips, my companions stopped at a mosque on the side of the road so as not to miss prayer. The students at the Pesantren have little free time, spending much of it studying the Quran. Every teacher at the Pesantren gives up two and a half percent of their salary every year to be distributed to the poor through LSPT, Tebuireng’s charity organization.

Darussalam Gontor (Darussalam means “house of peace”) is another prestigious institute at Pesantren. Two of the school’s core values are “nobility of character” and “seeking knowledge for the sake of Allah.” The school’s goal is to educate students for God’s glory, not just prestigious careers.

Developing self-reliance is one of Gontor’s key objectives. The school teaches students to understand multiple perspectives on Islam, and is strongly opposed to outside influence from the Indonesian government or any particular Islamic group. While the school receives funding from both the government and Saudi donors, Gontor has special programs that enable it to run independently. Most teachers at Gontor run small businesses so that students’ money can fund school improvements. Gontor also packages and sells its own drinking water and publishes its own textbooks.

Gontor’s campus is intertwined with the surrounding village. The teacher’s houses are all near the dormitories. Similar to Tebuireng, Gontor runs a charity for the local poor. The small profit that the school makes from its microfinance program helps pay part of the delegation guide’s salary - a middle aged man named Toufiq, who teaches finance at the nearby University of Darussalam Gontor.

The central building on campus is a magnificent mosque that rises above the town and is accessible by a broad staircase. Students gather to pray here daily. The walls of the auditorium across the street display messages in Arabic that remind students of their school’s values. One wall tells students “to be courageous in doing right, but that they must also be polite,” according to Toufiq.

Every activity, both educational and recreational, is meant to train students to be better “citizens of humanity.” This includes strict discipline. Minor punishments include push-ups and running, while major offenses may be punished by shaving a student’s head. The school disciplines them with encouragement in the same way that the student’s parents would discipline them with love, explained Toufiq.

Toufiq is among a group of Gontor staff who have vowed to remain at Gontor for the rest of their lives, essentially becoming part of the founding family. Toufiq showed us a graveyard on campus.

“The family [of the school founders] and some students and staff are buried here, and maybe me someday,” Toufiq told us with a smile.

The discipline and fervor of Tebuireng and similar institutions might seem demanding and exhausting from the outside. Yet the daily routines at Tebuireng offer relief from the stresses of big-city life. At a faculty dinner, men dressed in “sorongs” (which are like kimonos) relaxed and chatted over tea, greeting each other warmly.

The Vice President of Tebuireng calls the way of life that he teaches at Tebuireng “the easy life.”

“I go to Jakarta and work two days a week,” he says about his business, “that is enough.”

By his reasoning, people should spend less than half their life at work. Life is not about your career or your salary, he explains. The “easy life” is a life of prayer and community. Of course, most people have to work more than he does. It is hard to imagine a hardworking rice farmer accepting this view.

Life at Tebuireng is rigidly structured and disciplined, yet it also has rhythm and meaning – intentional stepping away from the rat race and becoming a better person. It is about seeking and serving God every day.  

Stuart Clay is a politics, philosophy, and economics major at The King’s College in Manhattan. He spent the month of May in Jombang, Indonesia, on a venture sponsored by The Media Project.