Jakarta Globe | Insight
Filmmaker Shalahuddin Siregar. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Documentary Dispels Islamic Boarding School Misconceptions

Jakarta. Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren, often suffer from negative stereotypes and suspicion. For a long time, such schools have been seen as strict institutions where creativity is limited and any fun activities are not allowed. A careless conclusion will even instantly see it as a breeding ground for terrorist organizations.

Yogyakarta-based filmmaker Shalahuddin Siregar said he has had negative reactions to Islamic boarding schools while screening his 2012 documentary “Negeri di Bawah Kabut” [“The Land Beneath the Fog”] at local and international events.

At the end of his debut work, a little boy in the feature ends up going to an Islamic boarding school because his family cannot afford a formal education for him.

Shalahuddin said he received many comments from audience members who were upset about the family’s decision.

“I even met with an Indonesian [in the audience] who immediately associated it with terrorism,” he said.

In his upcoming documentary “Pesantren,” Shalahuddin said he wishes people would pause and see beyond their clouded judgment. The filmmaker took his camera to the Pondok Kebon Jambu Al-Islamy boarding school at Ciwaringin in Cirebon, West Java, in April to get an up close and personal look at the lives of the school’s students, known as santri.

Students at the Pondok Kebon Jambu Al-Islamy boarding school in Cirebon, West Java. (Photo courtesy of Shalahuddin Siregar)
Students at the Pondok Kebon Jambu Al-Islamy boarding school in Cirebon, West Java. (Photo courtesy of Shalahuddin Siregar)

Shalahuddin found that daily life in the school was in stark contrast to popular belief that Islamic boarding schools are conservative institutions that discourage open interpretation of various issues. As a start, the boarding school was a venue for the first congress of the Indonesian female ulemas, attended by 500 members. He also found that the school regularly hold discussions on how Islam may offer solutions to recent social problems.

“Earlier this year, they held a discussion about whether or not it is allowed for a couple to get married via Skype, because one of them is working overseas, but they want to get married.

So, they are trying to keep up with social changes as well,” said Shalahuddin, who discovered Pondok Kebon Jambu while working on a freelance project for a Malaysian production.

A trailer of “Pesantren” was shown in a media event during the Docs by the Sea forum in South Jakarta on Monday (14/08). The film follows three characters going about their daily lives and it exposes all the old and false notions about Islam and traditional gender roles.

The film begins with Diding, who discusses what they can learn from dogs. Muslims are taught to cleanse themselves thoroughly with water or soil after direct contact with a dog’s saliva, but in the small discussion during the trailer, Diding explains parts of “Kitab Kuning,” which state that Muslims can also learn good, honorable things from dogs and that people should not see and judge living beings from only one side. “Kitab Kuning,” or “The Yellow Book,” is written in Arabic and contains moral lessons and interpretations of hadith, aqidah, fiqh, history and Islamic culture.

“For many Muslims, including me, who was born and grew up in Aceh, this thing about learning from dogs is quite unimaginable. I think this is different and interesting, and context is important. The dog’s saliva is still dirty and you should still cleanse thoroughly before you perform a prayer, but the kitab also says there are 10 traits we can learn from dogs,” Shalahuddin said. “So, the Islamic rule about a dog’s saliva is only about hygiene, and not about hating the animals.”

In the following scene, Bibah teaches her juniors to play traditional musical instruments, again breaking the notion that music is not permissible in Islam. Meanwhile, Dika is a young man in charge of the kitchen that feeds the whole school.

The trailer ends with a few boys showing off their beatboxing skills during the school’s talent show.

A female student performs in front of her friends. (Photo courtesy of Shalahuddin Siregar)
A female student performs in front of her friends. (Photo courtesy of Shalahuddin Siregar)

The Pondok Kebon Jambu Al-Islamy boarding school was established in 1993 by husband and wife team Muhammad and Masriyah Amva. Muhammad, also known as Akang in the local community, was a teacher at the Kebon Melati Islamic boarding school for 25 years before deciding to start his own school. He passed away in 2006. Masriyah, popularly known as Nyai, continues to lead the school as headmistress.

The school is home to more than 1,500 students between the ages of 13 and 25. They usually go to formal schools in the morning and return to Pondok Kebon Jambu to continue learning about Islam. Apart from qiraat [reading the Quran], they also study calligraphy, rebana [tambourine] and martial arts. Students are also allowed to pursue higher education in undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate studies outside the boarding school.

“It’s really peaceful there. They are taught to appreciate other people’s opinions, which I don’t really get from my formal education. It really stood in contrast with the political atmosphere in Indonesia, which [at the time, in April 2017] was all about the Jakarta gubernatorial election, Ahok and his imprisonment,” Shalahuddin said, referring to the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

Shalahuddin said people living in the Ciwaringin area realized that Islam was being used in the political arena – in this case, the Jakarta election.

“In a 20-kilometer radius from where I was filming [at Pondok Kebon Jambu], I still found banners that said: ‘do not politicize Islam,’ so they know that they are being politicized,” he said.

The filmmaker also believes emotional maturity is built by forging a strong bond between Islamic boarding schools – who send their senior students to take care of local mosques – and communities in the area.

Prior to the first female ulema congress in April, the management of Pondok Kebon Jambu, who follows the traditions of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, made sure that the students are able to accept differences and treat their guests well regardless of denomination, be it Muhammadiyah, Ahmadiyah or even Shia Islam.

Based on his findings while researching material for “Pesantren” and filming the documentary, Shalahuddin said he does not think intolerance is rising in Indonesia. He believes it is mainly elite politicians who use religion and social media as weapons to win votes and smear their political opponents.

“First of all, I think identity politics is growing stronger, especially after we had a direct election in Indonesia, and that’s because religion is being used to win over voters. Secondly, hate is very accessible since the use of social media is booming. But that only involves a handful of people,” he said. “If you really go to local communities like this, such hate or intolerance do not exist.”

“Pesantren” is currently in the post-production phase. It will be released next year.