Embracing Moderation: Egypt’s al-Azhar and Indonesia’s Pesantren

By Faried F. Saenong | Resident Scholar - JD Stout Research Centre | Victoria University of Wellington | Jul 9, 2018
Embracing Moderation: Egypt’s al-Azhar and Indonesia’s Pesantren
Al Azhar Mosque | Cairo

Over the past 20 years, Indonesia — the world’s fourth most-populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation — has evolved into a democracy based on tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam, and has emerged as one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. 

This essay is part of a series on “Indonesia and the Middle East: Exploring Connections,” which examines the nature, scope, and implications of Indonesia's ties with the MENA region. See more ...

This article explores individual and institutional links between al-Azhar and several local Islamic institutions in Indonesia, notably those in South Sulawesi. Drawing on Abaza’s (1996) profile of an Indonesian Azhari originating from South Sulawesi, I argue that South Sulawesi’s institutions, especially Darud Da’wah wal Irsyad (DDI) and As’adiyah, have enjoyed strong links with al-Azhar in Egypt.

Both institutions have become the primary reservoir of South Sulawesi’s students in al-Azhar. This is supported by the fact that until the end of the twentieth century, South Sulawesi provided the largest proportion of Indonesian students at al-Azhar, compared with other regions.

Many segments of Indonesian Islam today have been directly influenced by Egyptian interpretations of Islam, which is predominantly colored by al-Azhar institutions. Thousands of al-Azhar graduates (known as Azhari) have been serving Islam and Muslim communities in Indonesia for more than two centuries. The influence does not only restrict itself to religious matters, but extends to Indonesian culture and politics. The early idea of Indonesian nationalism, for instance, was brought from Egypt, as well as from other sources.

The idea of nationalism was a common discourse in early twentieth century Egypt. Several key Indonesian figures, in the past and present, spent years studying in Egypt. They include several political and religious elites such as H. Muhammad Rasjidi (1915-2001; Minister of Religious Affairs), Harun Nasution (1919-1998; Rector of IAIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta), Quraish Shihab (b. 1944; Minister of Religious Affairs and Ambassador to Egypt), Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009, President), Alwi Shihab (b. 1946, Minister of Foreign Affairs), and many more.

Other Indonesian Azharis have played important roles in developing Islamic mass organizations such as the modernist Muhammadiyah (est. 1912) and the traditionalist Nahdhatul Ulama (est. 1926). Some contemporary scholars such as Tuan Guru Bajang, Muchlis Hanafi, Eva Nisa, or novelists such as Habiburrahman El-Syirazy, Geidurrahman El-Mishri, and some others,[1] are among the rising stars in Indonesian academe.

The most tangible contribution of Indonesian students in Egypt to their home country was Egypt’s official recognition of Indonesian independence. Just after Indonesia’s proclamation of independence on August 17, 1945, Indonesian students in Egypt established Jam‘iyya Istiqlâl Indonesia, an organization that disseminated it to the Egyptian people through mass media. This resulted in the publication of the independence proclamation in the weekly Ikhwân al-Muslimîn and the Egyptian national daily al-Ahrâm in September 1945. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs then officially acknowledged the Jam‘iyya Istiqlâl Indonesia on March 22, 1946 as the representative of the independent Indonesian government. Finally, on March 15, 1947, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im, representing King Farouq and the Arab League, delivered a speech officially acknowledging the independence of Indonesia. Three years later, the Indonesian embassy in Cairo was initially launched on February 25, 1950 with its first ambassador, Muhammad Rasjidi, a graduate of al-Azhar.

This network is not only built on personal relationships. Some local and national Islamic institutions in Indonesia have enjoyed institutional links and good cooperation with al-Azhar in Egypt. This includes those in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Nusa Tenggara regions. The roughly 3,000 Indonesian students studying there have been maintaining these links.

The fact that Islamic learning shifted from Haramayn[2] to Cairo in the second half of the nineteenth century does not mean that Haramayn is no longer attractive for Islamic learning. It merely indicates that Haramayn is not the only destination of Islamic learning for Indonesians since the latter part of the nineteenth century.[3] The shift also signifies that Cairo — whose al-Azhar is one of the most globally influential authorities on Islam[4] — has become the main destination of Islamic learning,[5] followed by Haramayn, Morocco, Yemen, and other centers.

Pesantren (the typically Indonesian traditional Islamic boarding schools) have always been the main reservoir of Indonesian students in Egypt. Pesantren pupils are provisioned with adequate fusha (formal) Arabic in order to be able to follow lectures delivered in Arabic. As the ‘âmmiya (colloquial/Egyptian street) Arabic is quite different from fusha, Indonesian students need about three to four months to adapt their language skills. This is important as before 2011, some lecturers had elected to deliver their lectures in ‘âmmiya in order to accommodate Egyptian students coming from rural backgrounds who could not understand fusha. However, at the end of 2011, Dr. Usama al-‘Abd the Rector of al-Azhar officially announced a ban on ‘âmmiya, obliging the use of the fusha as introductory language throughout the al-Azhar campuses.

Other than Egypt and Saudi Arabia, some other Middle East and Asian countries have been alternative destinations for Indonesian students to enhance their study of Islam. A growing number of Indonesian students have pursued their undergraduate and graduate studies in Arabic-speaking countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, or Algeria. Pakistan, India and Malaysia have served as other alternatives. Students choose these destinations for various reasons, including access to scholarships, the attractiveness of the ideology, or simply to follow their seniors.

Al-Azhar and South Sulawesi’s Pesantren

In her 1996 article, Mona Abaza profiles an Indonesian Azhari originally from South Sulawesi, a province in eastern Indonesia. Using the pseudonym Ibrahim, Abaza describes his life from childhood, as a pesantren pupil in DDI Pare Pare (South Sulawesi), his life in Cairo, until his doctorate in Al-Azhar.[6] Although Abaza does not explain her reason for selecting this particular student, the narrative nonetheless suggests the significance and contribution of South Sulawesi in terms of the quantity and quality of Indonesian students at al-Azhar.

Although the early generations of Indonesian students in Cairo were dominated by students from Sumatra,[7] up until the 2000s, South Sulawesi constituted the largest proportion. This high number also demonstrates the great attention of South Sulawesi’s ‘ulamâ’ and parents to sending their disciples and children to the oldest and the best Islamic university to study Islam. These students are associated in a group called Kerukunan Keluarga Sulawesi (KKS, Familial Concord of Sulawesi) in Egypt. Some of them go to Cairo as part of a group of Indonesian students who are awarded Egyptian scholarships, while the rest (majority) go to Cairo by ‘terjun bebas,’[8] including being sent by their former pesantren, coming as a tourist, or even through illegal agents.

In terms of Islamic educational institutions, South Sulawesi is famous for its two strongest ‘ulamâ’ and pesantren local networks: As’adiyah in Sengkang and Darud Da’wah wal Irsyad (DDI) in Mangkoso and Pare-Pare. The former was founded in 1929 by A.G.H. As’ad (b. Abdul Rasyid) who was born from Bugis family in Mecca in 1907, and educated in Madrasa al-Falâh in Mecca until 1928 when he travelled to Sulawesi. According to a 1992 report, there were more than 462 As‘adiyah branches all over Indonesia, from kindergarten to senior high schools and the university level.[9] Meanwhile, DDI was established in 1938 in Mangkoso by A.G.H. Abdurrahman Ambo Dalle. As of 2009, DDI branches existed in 20 Indonesian provinces, with 6 boards at the provincial level, 53 boards at the district level, 307 boards at the branch level, 87 boards at the sub-branch level, 1025 madrasa/schools, 75 pesantren, and 15 universities. Its branches also have expanded to Singapore and Malaysia.[10] Almost all contemporary South Sulawesi ‘ulamâ’ have intellectual roots in As’adiyah or DDI.

Among early South Sulawesi students studying in al-Azhar in the 1960s were Gurutta’ Abdul Kadir Khalid, Mudassir, Basri Daud Ismail, Nawawi Yahya, Dr. Amin Samad (b. 1938), Professor Quraish Shihab (b. 1944), and Gurutta’ Sanusi Baco (b. 1937). Except Shihab, all of them are As’adiyah and DDI alumni. Gurutta’ Kadir was accepted because of his elucidation work on an Arabic book. Gurutta’ Sanusi started studying in al-Azhar University in 1963 under the scholarship of the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs. So, their study in al-Azhar did not exactly represent DDI or As’adiyah. Professor Quraish Shihab has a unique story. He began studying in Cairo in 1958 in junior high school, or I‘dâdiyah al-Azhar, and started studying at al-Azhar University in 1963. He was sent to Cairo under the scholarship of the local government of Sulawesi.

In another context, the DDI then sent its alumni through institutional cooperation between DDI and al-Azhar. It was preceded by the official visit of A.G.H. Ambo Dalle, the founder of DDI, to the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar in 1970. This was the first step in the development of the special relationship between al-Azhar and DDI. A.G.H. Ambo Dalle requested special scholarships for some DDI alumni who were studying at al-Azhar. He also requested that al-Azhar send teachers and lecturers to teach at DDI in South Sulawesi. Hence, several al-Azhar lecturers and teachers were sent to teach and work in South Sulawesi. All travel expenses and salary were covered by al-Azhar, while DDI was responsible for their accommodation, meals and local transportations.

Living and teaching in Indonesia is not easy for these Mab‘ûthî al-Azhar (Egyptian Azharis). They must adapt themselves to local circumstances when they are teaching and working in Indonesia. They may find clashes as they tend to propagate a form of ‘big tradition’ of Islam that often contradicts with the ‘little’ one, the typically local Indonesian Islam. Gender issue is also one of main problems for these Egyptian Azharites.[11]

However, my conversations with many DDI alumni who enjoyed classes and courses with these Egyptian Azharis indicate that these cultural gaps can be minimised when they remember their main mission in Indonesia. They might experience these cultural differences in their initial adaptation in the first weeks after their arrival, but Saifuddin Zuhri, who is a DDI alumnus of Mangkoso-Barru, told me that these Sheikhs were happy to have the experience of teaching and working in Indonesia. Their hectic activities could muffle the cultural issues as they were posted from one DDI to another in particular period. Saifuddin told me that Syeikh Basyuni, an Egyptian visiting teacher was always happy. He really liked and hoped to eat ducks wherever he was sent to teach. Teaching in many places made them eliminating these cultural issues.

The close relationship between Al-Azhar lecturers and South Sulawesi’s students is also apparent in the personal experience of Quraish Shihab. In several conversations, Professor Quraish Shihab often told me stories of how his great teacher and supervisor at al-Azhar had made good impression and personal remembrance each other. Shihab and his teacher the former Grand Sheikh ‘Abd al-Halîm Mahmûd, often took bus together, talked, and made jokes. He described his supervisor as his foster father during his studentship in al-Azhar, and how important he has been in his academic career and his life.[12]

The DDI official visit to al-Azhar also resulted in the mu‘âdala (accreditation) of the DDI syllabus and curriculum. This allowed alumni of DDI with their BA to begin their study in the third tier of the undergraduate programme in al-Azhar. An additional year is required to complete the programme and receive a Lc. (Fr. License). The mu‘âdala was a blessing in disguise for DDI alumni. According to Dr. Amin Samad, before the mu‘âdala in 1970s, Indonesian students were underestimated. They had to take exams to be placed in particular level or tier in al-Azhar schools (ma‘had). Dr. Amin had finished his senior high school in South Sulawesi, but was forced to join the second tier of the same program/level, together with Professor Shihab. As a result, some junior students from South Sulawesi who attended al-Azhar after the mu‘âdala became more senior in grade/level than their seniors in age. DDI alumni who were accepted by al-Azhar through this mu‘âdala system include Gurutta’ Faried Wadjedi, MA., Gurutta’ Dr. Abdurrahim Arsyad, Gurutta’ Yunus Samad, Abduh Samad, Dr. Rusydi Ambo Dalle, Dr. Syamsul Bahri Galigo, Dr. Nur Samad, Dr. Mustamin Arsyad, Dr. Lukman A. Rake, and Amin Samad, MA.

After a considerable number of meetings between the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) and al-Azhar, MoRA then took over all mu‘âdala issues in the late 1990s. This means that any Islamic educational institutions in Indonesia cannot directly deal with al-Azhar with regards to mu‘âdala. Since then DDI, as well as other institutions, cannot renew the certification by themselves as they previously did it every year. As a consequence, all schools must join the national exam organised by MoRA. In other words, all students must have Madrasah Aliyah Negeri (MAN) certificate in order to continue their undergraduate programme in al-Azhar, as well as in any universities in the Middle East.

Al-Azhar has continued to be the main model of Islamic studies. Even the changes of curriculum in al-Azhar have not turned Indonesia away from al-Azhar.[13] In fact, in instances when al-Azhar modified its curriculum, soon thereafter Indonesia adopted the changes. In the early 1990s, for example, all related UIN branches (Universitas Islam Negeri, or State University of Islamic Studies)[14] changed the Department of Tafsir and Hadis from the Faculty of Sharî‘a (Islamic Law) to the Faculty of Ushûluddîn (Islamic Theology) simply to conform with al-Azhar. In this regard, Indonesian pesantren and Islamic schools need to adapt their curriculum to match that of al-Azhar schools.

The long story of Indonesian students in Egypt has established a good relationship between al-Azhar and several Islamic educational institutions in Indonesia. Taking the case of Darud Da’wah wal Irsyad (DDI) in South Sulawesi, the network has become stronger with several special agreements between them. The exclusive network, however, is getting weaker since the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) has taken over some issues, such as mu‘adala and scholarships arrangement.

Moreover, this study has also demonstrated how al-Azhar, to some extent, has affected the form of Islam that is developed, especially the way it is taught in Indonesia. Al-Azhar has always been the first model for the development of Islamic studies in Indonesia. In addition, Al-Azhar’s influences are ingrained in the alumni who have returned to serve Islam and Muslims in Indonesia. The respected figures of al-Azhar Grand Sheikhs have been idols for many Indonesian students. It is generally acknowledged that the moderate (wasatiya) character that is mostly attached to al-Azhar is very strong,[15] and in turn will disseminate to Muslims in Indonesia.[16]

[1] Mona Abaza, “Indonesian Azharites Fifteen Years Later,” Sojourn 18, 1 (2003): 139- 53; Mona Abaza, “Expanding and Controversial Role of Al-Azhar in Southeast Asia,” in C. Hunner-Kreisel and S. Andresen (eds.), Kindheit und Jugend in muslimischen Lebenswelten: Aufwashen und Bildung in deutscher und internationaler Perspektive (VS Verlag fur Sozialwissenschaften, 2010).

[2] C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs and Learning of the Moslems of the East- Indian Archipelago (Leiden: Brill, 1931).

[3] Azyumardi Azra, The Origin of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia. Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern ‘Ulama’ in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Honolulu: Allen & Unwin and University of Hawai’i Press, 2004); and Azyumardi Azra, Shabka al-‘Ulamâ’: Haraka al-Tawâsul bayn al-Sharq al-Awsat wa al-Arkhabîl fî al-Qarnayn 17 wa 18 (Jakarta: PPIM, 1999).

[4] M. Bano and K. Sakurai, “Introduction,” in Masooda Bano amd Keiko Sakurai (eds.), Shaping Global Islamic Discourses. The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medinah and al-Mustafa (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015): 1-18.

[5] William Roff, “Indonesian and Malay Students in Cairo in the 1920s,” Indonesia 9 (1970): 73-88; and P.J. Veth, “Javaansche Studenten in Egypte,” Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche Indië 2, 2 (1868): 43.

[6] Mona Abaza, “A Profile of an Indonesian Azhari Living in Cairo,” Archipel 52 (1996): 31-44.

[7] Mona Abaza, Indonesian Students in Cairo: Islamic Education, Perceptions and Exchanges (Paris: Cahier d’Archipel, 1994) 40; Mona Abaza, “Some Research Notes on Living Conditions and Perceptions among Indonesian Students in Cairo,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 22, 2 (1991): 347-360; Mona Abaza, “Cultural Exchange and Muslim Education: Indonesian Students in Cairo.” PhD Dissertation. The University of Bieldfeld, Germany, 1990; Michael Laffan, “An Indonesian Community in Cairo: Continuity and Change in a Cosmopolitan Islamic Milieu,” Indonesia 77 (2004): 1-26; and Michael Laffan, “When Kiais Came to Cairo (29 July-1 August 2003),” Archipel 66 (2003): 5-12.

[8] This term literally means “free jumping,” whereby Indonesian students can travel to Egypt on a visitor’s visa on their own initiative, either individually or in a group, and upon arrival obtain a student visa and officially enrol at al-Azhar.

[9] Muh. Yunus Pasanreseng, Sejarah Lahir dan Pertumbuhan Pondok Pesantren As’adiyah Sengkang. Sengkang: PB As’adiyah, 1992: 221-236)

[10] M. Yusuf Khalid, Biografi Kiyai Hj. Abd. Rahman Ambo Dalle dan Sumbangannya dalam Dakwah di Sulawesi Selatan, Indonesia (Kuala Lumpur: Kolej Universiti Islam Malaysia, 2005).

[11]Abaza, “Indonesian Azharites Fifteen Years Later,” 146-147.

[12] M. Quraish Shihab, Membumikan al-Qur’ân: Peran dan Fungsi Wahyu dalam  Kehidupan Masyarakat (Bandung: Mizan, 1996); M. Quraish Shihab, Membumikan al-Qur’ân Jilid 2: Memfungsikan Wahyu dalam  Kehidupan (Jakarta: Lentera Hati, 2011) 11.

[13]Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reformism and Conservatism: Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010); Rainer Brunner, “Education, Politics and the Struggle for Intellectual Leadership: Al-Azhar between 1927-1945,” in Meir Hatina (ed.), Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: ‘Ulamâ’ in the Middle East (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009); Rainer Brunner, Islamic Ecumenism in the 20th Century: The Azhar and Shiism between Rapprochement and Restraint (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004); Bayard Dodge, Al-Azhar A Millennium of Muslim Learning (Washington: The Middle East Institute, 1961); A. Chris Eccel, Egypt, Islam and Social ChangeL Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1984); M. Zeghal, “Religion and Politics in Egypt: The Ulema of al Azhar, Radical Islam, and the State (1952-94),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 32 (1999): 371–399; and Ahmad Muhammad ‘Ûf, Al-Azhar fî Alf ‘Âm (Cairo: Majma‘ al-Buhûth al-Islâmiya, 1970).

[14] Since 1999, the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Afairs (MoRA) has supervised three kinds of state-sponsored Islamic studies at the university level: 6 UIN (Universitas Islam Negeri or State University of Islamic Studies), 12 IAIN (Institut Agama Islam Negeri or State Institute of Islamic Studies), and 32 STAIN (Sekolah Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri or State Islamic Higher Institute of Islamic Studies. In addition, MoRA coordinates 461 PTAIS (Perguruan Tinggi Agama Islam Swasta or Private Islamic Higher Institutes) across Indonesia.

[15] Muhammad Kâmil al-FaqÎ, Al-Azhar wa Atharu-hû fî al-Nahda al-Adabiya al-Hadîtha (Cairo: Nahdha Misr, 1965); Muhammad ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Khafaji, Al-Azhar fî Alf ‘Âm (Cairo and Beirut: Maktaba al-Kulliyyât al-Azhariyya and ‘Âlam al-Kutub, 1988).

[16] M. Bano, “Protector of the “al-Wasatiyya”-Islam: Cairo’s al-Azhar university,” in Masooda Bano and Keiko Sakurai (eds.), Shaping Global Islamic Discourses. The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medinah and al-Mustafa (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015): 73-90; Hiroko Kinoshita, “Islamic Higher Education in Contemporary Indonesia: Through the Islamic Intellectuals of al-Azharite Alumni,” Kyoto Working Papers on Area Studies No. 79 (G-COE No. 81) (2009): 1-27; and J. Schlehe and Eva Nisa, “The Meanings of Moderate Islam in Indonesia: Aligments and Dealignments of Azharites. Occasional Paper Series, Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Freiburg (2016).