Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School: A Form of Moderate Islamic Teaching in Indonesia


Students engaging in out-of-classroom activities at Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School, an Islamic school in Indonesia. Source:

As a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, education in Indonesia is divided under two ministries: Education and Religious Affairs. Students in Islamic schools fall under the Religious Affairs Ministry, are obliged to learn Arabic as well as Qur’an reciting and Hadith on top of the national curriculum developed by the National Education Ministry.

Data from Indonesian Religious Ministry shows there are at least 26,445 private Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia, ranging from middle school level to universities.  Approximately ten per cent of the existing cohort of elementary and middle school students enrolled in schools in Indonesia attend Islamic schools.

When people hear the word “pesantren” (Islamic schools) sometimes it is thought of as medieval, out-of-touch with present life and basically an eat-pray-sleep way of life. After 9/11 which shocked the world and created suspicions between the West and East, the word pesantren is often associated as a breeding ground for militants and extremists.

“Almost six months after 9/11, every single day, there were interview requests mostly from foreign media who wanted to know what Darunnajah is all about, and what we thought of terrorism,” said Dr Sofwan Manaf, director of Darunnajah to The Establishment Post.

Established in 1974, Darunnajah Islamic Boarding school is located in southern part of the country’s capital, Jakarta. Standing on a five hectares of land, the Darunnajah compound consists of a private mosque, several dormitories, a convenience store, a swimming pool, and a football field to cater more than 4,000 people who live there, including 2,500 students from all over Indonesia.

“At first, we closed the door, but then we realized by doing that, there could be a misperception from the outside world, so we decided to open up and show who we are,” Sofwan said.

Since then, all kinds of organizations contacted them and understand that Darunnajah teaches one of the more moderate forms of Islam in the country. Darunnajah even established a teacher-student exchange programs with schools from United Kingdom and United States. In 2006, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the boarding school. Today, Darunnajah has 15 branches located in some provinces in Indonesia. “We don’t want to label our self as a modern pesantren, we are just a pesantren,” Dr Sofwan said.

It cost about US$1,400 to enroll a new student in Darunnajah with a US$100 monthly fee. This is not cheap by Indonesian standards, but Dr Sofwan said “With the rise of the middle class in Indonesia, the more expensive a school is, the better the parents consider it,” however Darunnajah provides free education for those who cannot afford to pay.

The Establishment Post sat down with Dr Sofyan Wanaf to find out what life is like with students in Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School. Dr Sofyan holds a Doctoral degree on Education Management from Jakarta State University. He spent his middle school to undergraduate years at the famous Gontor Islamic boarding school in East Java.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

TEP: When parents enroll their children in an Islamic boarding schools such as Darunnajah, what kind of output do they expect?

Sofyan Wanaf (SW): Aside from wanting their children to have a good knowledge of Islam, parents want to have children with good morals and character, and that is our main expertise. Most pesantren don’t care so much about academic achievement or IQ, because we care more about the creation of discipline [and] good character [in a] student based on EQ [emotional intelligence]. We teach our students what it means to be responsible, and that is created by a reward and punishment system that works well. When you violate a rule, you will receive punishment and in the long run students will grow a sense of discipline and responsibility.

TEP: Many thinks the day you are enrolled in a pesantren means you lose your freedom and become out of touch with present life. What exactly is life like in here?

Students engaging in out-of-classroom activities at Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School, an Islamic school in Indonesia.

SW: (Smiling) some parts of it is true. We introduce technology to students.  We provide internet connection to them although they always complain about the slow connection (laughs). That slow connection is by design by the way, and the result is quite interesting: instead of waiting for a long time for a page to load, students talk to each other. They actually relate to each other in real life, and not [only in] virtual life on the internet. We teach them about social media, such as Facebook etc, but we also tell them about the consequences.

The same goes with television. We have TV in many public places, but students don’t want to watch it because they are too tired and occupied with their books, praying times and reciting the holy Qur’an, as well as the football field. Students life begin 15 minutes before 5 a.m each morning and ends at 10 P.M; between classes, praying times, meals, and extra curricula activities, they have no energy left for TV. We have 27 choices of extra curricula activities ranging from swimming to rugby, and each student may choose a maximum of two activities.

Pesantren is a “mini life” for them. For example, you can imagine at 5 a.m daily, there are more than 2,000 students who wants to use the shower, so they have to learn how to share and respect others. They learn how to resolve conflicts, which is part of life after they graduate from Darunnajah.

In the 8th grade, we introduce students to the book of differences of sects and teachings in Islam. So they know how to react and where to stand when confronted with different groups in society.

TEP: That is interesting when you said that pesantren don’t care so much about academic achievement, because that is exactly how it is perceived in the society. Where do they go after graduation?

SW: There is saying (he said it in Arabic) which basically means “Do your business as if you will live forever, but you should pray as if you will die tomorrow”. By this, Islam does not prohibit Muslims from “worldly achievement”, such as academic life etc, but we are concerned about the shaping of good moral [character] for students. They have their share of academic life just like ordinary students because they also face the same standards set by education ministry [as normal schools], with the same schedule of final exams. Students get two certificates when they graduated; one from the education ministry, and another from Darunnajah.

Students who graduate from Darunnajah continue their study in public universities in the country. Some of them pursue their studies in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, or Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. Many of our graduates are now politicians, bureaucrats, judges et cetera. However, we consider “successful” graduates as those who can preach and teach in their communities.

TEP: What is your self critique towards pesantren and how do you want Darunnajah to be seen in the next 10 years?

SW: Just like secular organizations, we are really lacking in the management part and we try to do our best to fix that. Another problem is to prepare good leaders to run this boarding school in the future. Part of it is because kyai (traditional leaders in pesantren) are really difficult to change towards good management and sustainable leadership. In 2015, Darunnajah will celebrate its 40 year [anniversary], and we would like to have a smooth leadership and run a university.

With these modest words from Dr Sofwan, director of Darunnajah Islamic Boarding School, its future in Indonesia looks bright given its leadership is committed to professionalising management.  In this way, Dr Sofwan is steering it on a path that will make it more sustainable in future to meet the demand of parents for their children to be educated well both academically as well as morally in accordance with moderate Islamic tradition.

By: Dewi Kurniawati



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