Australian Consulate-General
Makassar, Indonesia

A Tale of Two Pesantren: Islamic Boarding Schools in South Sulawesi

A fascinating feature of the Indonesian education system is the pesantren: Islamic boarding schools which provide a faith-based secondary education. Traditionally, pesantren developed around a respected local religious leader, or Kyai, who taught Arabic, and a deep religious education. Today most pesantren have modernised and teach the full national curriculum to their students, as well as a broad Islamic education. In a typical pesantren there will be a junior high school called the Madrassah Tsanawiyah, for years 7 to 9 and a senior high school called a Madrassah Aliyah, for years 10 – 12. The big difference between a stand-alone madrassah and a pesantren, is that the pesantren is a boarding school: parents have to make the commitment to release their children for up to six years of secondary education.

Boys at these schools are called santri, while the girls are santriwati. In the west the media has reported stories about closed pesantren, which teach radical or extremist views of Islam and the world. But there are only a handful of these in Indonesia: almost all pesantren are open, teach a moderate and tolerant view of the world, and aim to produce fine, upstanding and independent young men and women through a faith-based approach to education.

We were lucky enough to be able to visit two pesantren in South Sulawesi recently. Both were established a few decades ago by Kyai whose families continue to manage their institutions in local communities.

Pesantren Abnaul Amir is a lovely, shady campus one hour south of Makassar in Takalar, not far from the coast. It provides a broad education to boys and girls from years 7 to 12. When we arrived we were welcomed by the Director, Pak Nasir, and a young and enthusiastic teacher who had recently returned from a stint as an exchange teacher in Australia. Ibu Annise had spent time at a Catholic School in Woolongong and was excited by the prospects of keeping up a connection with that school under the Asia Education Foundation’s Bridge Schools program (@BRIDGEschools). We were also welcomed by the school band who gave us a few very lively pieces, then we toured the campus with Pak Nasir and Ibu Annise.

Koalas make useful learning aids: in the library of Pesantren Abnaul Amir

We visited the library and the mosque. They are currently renovating the asrama (the student accommodation) and the computer room.

The mosque is the centrepiece of the pesantren and is a key building in the local community too. I was introduced by Pak Nasir to the students and gave a little talk, and we were treated to another performance, this time some traditional dances by senior high school girls. Ibu Annise had also collected up a group of young American college students she had met at a function in town recently and so they spent time, as the sun set, exchanging views and experiences with young santri and santriwati.

Pep-talk in mosque: Pesantren Abnaul Amir


A few days later we visited the Pesantren Sultan Hasanuddin in the Gowa district, about 90 minutes from Makassar. This school is set in 5 hectares of farming land, around 8 kilometres from the main road. It was established in the late 1980s by the father of Pak Firmanullah, the current Director, who welcomed us to the pesantren’s annual graduation day. I was, it turned out, the guest of honour along with the local head of the Department of Religion. My special role was again thanks to the fact that two of the teachers, Ibu Wahyuni and Ibu Santrian, had recently also participated in the Bridge schools program, spending a few weeks at schools in Australia.

There are several hundred students here studying from years 7 to 12, all living in two asramas set either side of the narrow road that splits the campus. One asrama for boys, and one for girls. Students enter the school at age 11 or 12 and spend the next six years of their life away from their families. They are allowed out once a month, if their families come to pick them up. Smart phones are forbidden, internet access is only permitted during study hours under supervision, and television is available in common rooms. The pesantren is relatively isolated, but in a lovely, peaceful, rural learning environment. Teachers and staff live on-site, including Pak Firmanullah, who works incredibly long hours providing administrative supervision to the school and pastoral care to all his young charges.

Students and parents have to make a big commitment to attend a pesantren such as this. One parent spoke to the graduation day assembly about why he had decided to put all his sons through the school. He came from a strong religious background and so for him sending his kids to a state school from year 7 was not an option. He would not subject his sons to the temptations and risks of education in a secular public school. He wanted his sons to grow up as moral, well-educated Muslims. So he gave his sons a choice when they graduated from primary school. They could have a motor bike and a pesantren education, or he would give them a cow and a “natural education” as a farmer’s son. All so far have chosen the former.

Pesantren fees are usually pretty low, but so are the teachers’ salaries. The schools also often rely on donations from wealthy members of the community, as well as small grants from the government. The large open pavilion in which the Pesantren Sultan Hasanuddin graduation day ceremony took place for example, was named after a local business man.

My turn to speak to the graduation day ceremony came at the end of a long, gruelling display of the impressive skills of the new and old santri and santriwati, so I kept my pearls of wisdom short. Never stop learning, I intoned, and hold high the values of tolerance and mutual understanding. And, I hope, maybe one day some of you young folk leaving the school today, will get the opportunity to study in Australia.

Graduation day at Pesantren Sultan Hasanuddin