Pesantren And Kitab Kuning

One of Indonesia's great traditions is that of Muslim religious learning as embodied in the Javanese pesantren and similar institutions in the outer islands and the Malay peninsula. The raison d'être of these institutions is the transmission of traditional Islam as laid down in scripture,
Pesantren And Kitab Kuning: Maintenance And Continuation Of A Tradition Of Religious Learning
By Martin van Bruinessen

One of Indonesia's great traditions is that of Muslim religious learning as embodied in the Javanese pesantren and similar institutions in the outer islands and the Malay peninsula. The raison d'être of these institutions is the transmission of traditional Islam as laid down in scripture, i.e., classical texts of the various Islamic disciplines, together with commentaries, glosses and supercommentaries on these basic texts written over the ages. These works are collectively known, in Indonesia, as kitab kuning, ‘yellow books’, a name that they allegedly owe to the tinted paper on which the first Middle Eastern editions reaching Indonesia were printed. The corpus of classical texts accepted in the pesantren tradition is — in theory at least — conceptually closed; the relevant knowledge is thought to be a finite and bounded body. Although new works within the tradition continue to be written, these have to remain within strict boundaries and cannot pretend to offer more than summaries, explications or rearrangements of the same, unchangeable, body of knowledge. Even radical reinterpretations of the classical texts are not acceptable. The supposed rigidity of this tradition has come in for much criticism, both from unsympathetic foreign observers and from reformist and modernist Muslims themselves. In practice, however, the tradition appears to be much more flexible than the above sketch would suggest.

The pesantren (or pondok, surau, dayah, as it is called elsewhere) is not the only institution of Muslim religious education, and the tradition it embodies is only one out of several tendencies within Indonesian Islam. Modernist, reformist and fundamentalist currents emerged partly in opposition to it, and to some extent developed into rigid traditions themselves. My concern here is exclusively with the former, although a strict delimitation from the other currents — with which there has always been interaction — is not possible, and in recent years even a certain convergence is perceptible. Muhammadiyah, the major reformist organization, for
instance, now has its own pesantren, where besides its usual school curriculum, classical Van Bruinessen, Arabic texts are also taught (although a different selection from the classical corpus is made than in the traditional pesantren).[1] In the average pesantren, on the other hand, there has been a shift of emphasis within the traditional corpus of texts, apparently under the influence of modernism. Different Qur'anic exegeses (tafsir), the canonical collections of traditions (hadith)2 and the principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) receive much more attention than a century ago, in a development parallel to (and perhaps responsive to) the modernist ‘return to the Qur'an and hadith’. Books on fiqh (‘jurisprudence’ — the science of religious obligations) continue to constitute the vast majority of texts studied.

It seems best to delineate the Islamic tradition with which I am concerned here by enumerating its most important characteristics, while acknowledging that none of them represents a clearcut and unambiguous criterium, and that the boundaries with other currents are often fuzzy.

Delineating the tradition

Key elements of the tradition are the institution of the pesantren itself (the school with its core of resident students), and the crucial personalistic and charismatic role of the kyai (or ajengan, tuan guru, etc.) - charismatic in the full Weberian sense of the term. An attitude of reverent respect for, and unquestioning obedience to the kyai is one of the first values installed in every santri. This reverent attitude is extended to earlier generations of `ulama and, a fortiori, to the authors of the texts studied. It might even seem to the outside observer that this attitude is deemed more important than the acquisition of knowledge; but to the kyai it is an integral part of the knowledge (ilmu) to be acquired. Hasyim Asy`ari, the founding father of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), is known to have been a great admirer of Muhammad `Abduh's tafsir, but to have discouraged his students reading it; his objection was not to `Abduh's rationalism but to the contempt `Abduh showed for traditional `ulama.

Although the material studied consists exclusively of written texts, their oral transmission is essential. These texts are read aloud by the kyai to a group of students, who have their own copies before them and may take notes on the proper vocalization and the kyai's explanations of grammatical niceties or the meanings of certain terms. Students may ask questions but these usually remain within the narrow context of the text itself; there are rarely if ever attempts to relate them to concrete, contemporary situations. The kyai rarely tries to discover whether the
students actually understand the texts on any but the linguistic level; elementary texts are memorized, the more advanced ones simply read from beginning to end. (In a small circle of pesantren graduates, however, there is now much talk of understanding the kitab in their historical and cultural context, and to look for their contemporary relevance). Perhaps the majority of pesantren now operate on the madrasah system, with graded classes, fixed curricula and diplomas, but many important pesantren still use the more traditional method where the student reads a few specific texts under the guidance of the kyai (together with other students of various ages). For each text read he receives, after completion, an ijaza or diploma (usually oral only), after which he may move on to another pesantren to study other texts — many kyai are known as specialists of a number of specific kitab. Beside their more or less specialist teachings to the students in the pesantren, many kyai also hold weekly pengajian umum for the general public, in which they discuss relatively simple texts.

The central intellectual contents of the tradition are inscribed within the parameters of Ash`ari doctrine (as mediated especially by Sanusi's works), the Shafi`i madhhab (with nominal acceptance of the other three Sunni madhhab), and the ethical and pietistic mysticism of Ghazali and related writers. The vast majority of the texts studied in the pesantren3 — including the most recent works added to the tradition — fall within these three categories or that of the ‘instrumental science’ of traditional Arabic grammar (nahw). In the last-named branch of learning, too, the cumbersome traditional method (see Drewes 1971) continues to be preferred over more modern approaches. Modern currents of Islam partly defined themselves in opposition to the ‘petrified’ madhhab and Ghazalian quietism, advocating the reopening of the gate of ijtihad (independent judgment on the basis of the original sources, Qur'an and hadith) and social and political activism instead. While to the pesantren tradition Ghazali represents the ideal pinnacle of scholarly and spiritual achievement, the fundamentalists have chosen Ibn Taymiyya as their culture hero (significantly, the latter's works are forbidden reading in many pesantren).[4] In practice, however, there is a considerable overlap of the texts read by ‘traditionalist’ and other `ulama.

Most kyai content themselves with teaching existing kitab kuning, but not a few have added works of their own to the tradition. There is a remarkable formal difference with the writing modernist and reformist `ulama: the latter write their works in (romanized) Indonesian (the reformist public reads works by Arabic authors also usually in Indonesian translations). To the ‘traditionalist’ `ulama, on the other hand, the Arabic language and script represent noble values in themselves; not only do they often write in Arabic,5 but when they write or translate in vernacular languages, they almost exclusively use the Arabic script. The script is a badge of identity that, better than most criteria, differentiates the ‘traditionalists’ from the other currents. Well over 500 different works by Indonesian traditional `ulama are currently in print, ranging from simple pious tracts through straightforward translations to sophisticated commentaries on classical texts.

The pesantren tradition is pervaded by a highly devotional and mystical attitude. Supererogatory prayers and the recital of litanies (dhikr, wird, ratib) complement the canonical obligations. Many kyai are moreover affiliated with a mystical order (tariqa) and teach their followers its specific devotions and mystical exercises. A quarter of the literary output of the traditional `ulama consists of mystical and devotional texts. The Prophet is highly venerated and the object of numerous prayers; even the most undeserving of (those claiming to be) his descendants is deemed worthy of the highest respect. Saints are similarly venerated, and their intercession is frequently invoked. Visits to the graves of saints and lesser kyai are an essential part of the annual cycle; most Javanese pesantren hold annual celebrations (khaul, Ar. hawl) on the anniversaries of the deaths of their founding kyai.

A kyai's charisma is based on the belief in his spiritual powers and ability to bestow blessing due to his contact with the world unseen; he is generally believed to retain this ability beyond the grave. It is this attitude towards the dead that most sharply distinguishes traditional Islam from the modernists and fundamentalists, who hold that after death no communication is possible and who condemn all attempts to contact the dead as shirk, idolatry. To the traditionalists, on the other hand, it is an integral aspect of the essential concept of wasila, spiritual mediation. An unbroken chain from one's teacher, living or dead, through previous teachers and saints to the Prophet and hence to God is deemed necessary for salvation. (The same reasoning is responsible for the curious fact that a kyai's membership of NU is not considered to end upon his death, for that would imply that his wasila is cut off).[6]

The concept of an unbroken chain to the Prophet is central to the tradition, and is encountered in various aspects of it, as in the spiritual genealogy (silsila) of a tariqa[7] and the line of transmission (isnad) of hadith and of traditional texts in general.[8] The chain is a guarantee of the authenticity of the tradition. The numerous Hadrami sayyid (who have had a great influence on the formation of Indonesian traditional Islam) are the physical embodiments of such a chain; drops of the Prophet's own blood are thought to flow in them, which makes them superior to the rest of mankind. In somewhat different form we recognize the same concept in the preoccupation of many kyai with their own genealogies and in their claims, spurious or correct, of descent from the great Javanese saints or ruling houses.9 Modernists, of course, deny that heredity gives anyone claims to spiritual superiority.

The political ‘opportunism’ for which NU is often criticized by other committed Muslims is, in the case of many kyai, a conscious emulation of the Sunni tradition's political conservatism, which considers one hour of political chaos (fitna) worse than a century of tyranny. Political accommodation is almost a matter of principle in the Sunni tradition, not just one of expedience. All of NU's important political moves in the past, legitimated if not actually initiated by its body of leading legal scholars, the Majlis Syuriah, are based on solid references to kitab kuning10 — which proves that this theoretically closed corpus is not so rigid after all.

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1 Before Muhammadiyah's own pesantren, there were already several others with a definitely reformist orientation. The best known, but not the only one, is that of Gontor (Castles 1965). A summary survey of types of pesantren in East Java in the 1970's is given by Abdurrahman 1981.

2 Notably those of Bukhari and Muslim; the other four collections of ‘authentic’ (sahih) hadith are much less used. Non-canonical collections such as the Riyad as-salihin and the Bulugh al-maram, with their much heavier emphasis on devotional than on legalistic matters, are still more popular in the traditional milieu, but
these too were hardly studied a century ago.

3 A detailed survey of these works is given in van Bruinessen 1990.

4 On Ibn Taymiyya's place in the late medieval tradition and his engagement with Ash`arism, philosophy, mysticism and political theory, see Al-Azmeh 1986, passim; Hourani 1962:18-22; on his impact on later fundamentalism Sivan 1985. A generation ago, the NU still had a body of censors; they placed Ibn Taymiyya's works high on the index. Many kyai, in fact, own copies of some of his works, notably his Fatawa, but keep them locked away to protect their pupils from their influence. Like elsewhere, such a ban only acts as an invitation to the more intelligent santri to read these works in secret.

5 Out of the 500-odd kitab by Indonesian (and Malay) `ulama presently in print, almost 100 are in Arabic. Over 200 are in Malay and 150 in Javanese; the remainder are in Sundanese, Madurese and Acehnese.

6 Abdurrahman Wahid, personal communication.

7 In this case, there may be shortcuts in the chain. Numerous mystics have claimed spiritual initiation, in a dream or vision, by a predecessor long dead or even by the Prophet himself. The latter was the claim, for instance, of Ahmad Tijani, the North African founder of the tariqa Tijaniyya; it is a highly controversial claim,
and is rejected by many traditionalists. The former claim is more common (also among contemporary Javanese kyai); even the silsila of the quite orthodox Naqshbandiyya contains several ‘jumps’ across the generations due to such ruhani initiations.

8 Indicative of the importance attached to isnad is a book by the leading Indonesian ulama in Mecca, Shaykh Yasin of Padang (the director of the traditionalist school Dar al-`Ulum there), which lists nothing but the
classical kitab he is allowed to teach, with for each the name of the master under which he studied it and the entire preceding isnad up to the author (al-Padani 1402). For earlier examples of this sort of work see Vajda 1983.

9 The well-known Madurese Kyai As'ad Syamsul Arifin of Situbondo (East Java), NU's ', eminence grise, has recently constructed an intricate family tree showing most Madurese kyai to be descendants of the wali Sunan Giri. Hasyim Asy'ari and Wahab Hasbullah, two of the founders of NU, traced their pedigree to Jaka Tingkir,
who according to tradition was a son of Brawijaya VI and became the first Muslim ruler of Pajang (Aboebakar 1957:41-2).