To demonstrate how pesantren in Cirebon have evolved and functioned in the transmission role, I shall present in the following section, the case of Pesantren Buntet.[27] Scholarly work devoted to study this pesantren, historically or otherwise is  scanty. Siddique (1977:120–123) touches upon it only briefly when she takes Pesantren Buntet as a ready example to support her argument. Despite the fact that the political significance has disappeared, the symbolic universe of Sunan Gunung Jati is still maintained by his descendant groups through organisational structure especially the kraton and a number of pesantren and tarekat (Sufi orders). Siddique suggests that the fact that there are many pesantren and tarekat (Sufi orders), not only in Cirebon but also in West Java, led by the descendants of Sunan Gunung Jati who have prestige as a result of being descendants of Sunan Gunung Jati, clearly substantiates this tradition.[28]

The work which fully recounts the story of Pesantren Buntet is Zaini Hasan's study (1970), which comes with an historical account giving information about the chronological development of the pesantren since it was built until around the end of 1960s.[29] Another study is Amidjaja, R., et al (1985), which is a survey study on the life of the santri and which, along with providing the background of pesantren in general and Pesantren Buntet in particular, gives special emphasis to presenting quantitative illustrations about santri who studied there around 1984, with such details as their home origin, socio-economic and parental background, the santri's  attitudes in relation to their daily routine of the pesantren life.[30] Still another one is that by Hisjam Mansur, a staff member of the pesantren from 1958 to 1975. In this work Mansur provides both scriptural and ethical reasons for the haul (commemorating the death of the founder of the pesantren) annually held at the pesantren. Then he proceeds to present biographical accounts of the kyai who led the pesantren and the institutional development of the pesantren. By and large Mansur's historical narration tells about the same thing discussed by Zaini Hasan.[31] My subsequent discussion on this pesantren relies on these works, together with my own field notes from a short stay at this pesantren between July and September 1992 and various visits before and after the stay.

The location and setting

‘Pesantren Buntet’ is located at ‘Buntet Pesantren’ (Blok Manis), the northern part of Desa Mertapada Kulon, District of (Kecamatan) Astanajapura, about 14 km south-eastern of the city of Cirebon.[32] Access to this 127.43 hectares desa is possible by taking a bus or mini bus from Cirebon to Ciledug via Sindanglaut. The pesantren complex is only 700 metres from the Cirebon-Ciledug main road where the Desa Office lies. The complex is connected with the main road by a paved road (jalan desa). Becak and passenger motor-bikes (ojeg) are available, ready to transport both visitors and residents going in and out of the pesantren complex, day and night. Their terminal lies at the junction where the desa and the Cirebon-Ciledug main  roads meet. In 1992, nearly one third of the 3890 desa inhabitants (excluding the santri) made their living as labourers; the rest were engaged in trades, clerical work, agriculture, and crafts. Within the pesantren complex itself, there are both kyai and non-kyai families. The majority are the kyai families who are of either the sohibul wilayah (the rightful pesantren leadership) or keluarga biasa (common family who have no rights to leadership).[33] Some of the minority non-kyai families are indigenous people who were already there at the time when the pesantren was founded, some others are immigrants. Some non-kyai families are pager sari, (literally meaning ‘fence of the core’) who work in the service of a kyai or the pesantren. Some pager sari descendants still retain their patronage from the present kyai, some others live independently. As the mobility of the population is high their life style is urbanised. Some private and public telephones are available, possession of motor bike, radio and television sets is quite common, there are some parabolic antennas, including some of the kyai's possessions in the pesantren complex. Although there is no wall which separates the pesantren from the rest of the village, two rivers, Kali Kanci at the north and west, and Kali Ciwado at the east, form buffers against unexpected security disturbances rather than separating the complex from the entire village life. Over Kali Ciwado there is a permanent stone bridge providing a crossing for pedestrians and vehicles going in and out of the pesantren complex. For security purposes, heavy trucks and coaches are not allowed to pass over the bridge.

The main buildings within the pesantren complex are a two storey main santri-dormitory (pondok), and an antique public mosque (masjid jami’) equipped with a high capacity water pump provided by General Benny Murdani in 1987, upon which  the mosque and pondok rely for their water supply.[34] This main pondok accommodates 150 santri, mostly the seniors. The other buildings are five madrasah buildings with a book shop and a cooperative, and a two storey building used for the pesantren office and the small pesantren library. Those buildings are maximally utilised all day long with two shifts of schooling. The first shift is from 7.30 a.m through 12.30 p.m, the other from 1.00 p.m through 6.00 p.m. All these buildings stand around a wide multipurpose square, used as a play ground, as a parking ground, for ceremonial undertakings, and for other activities.

Table 7.1: Number of Students/Santri at Buntet (1992)
School/Madrasah Student
Kindergarten 63
Ibtidaiyah (boys) 127
Ibtidaiyah (girls) 186
Tsanawiyah (Mts: boys) 698
Tsanawiyah (MTS: girls 370
Aliyah (MA: boys) 314
Aliyah (MA: girls) 312
State owned ‘Aliyah (MAN) 846
Dirosah Diniyah (boys) 71
Dirosah Diniyah (Girls) 67
Other santri 1706[a]
Total 4197

[a] Includes those who go to public school, mature santri who work while studying, university students and santri kalong (bat santri).

Map of Desa Mertapada Kulon Kec. Astanajapura Kab. Cirebon
Map of Desa Mertapada Kulon Kec. Astanajapura Kab. Cirebon

Junior santri are required to stay at the many pondok scattered throughout the pesantren complex owned by the kyai. There are currently no less than 40 kyai houses with their annexed pondok each of which provides accommodation for between 50 to 200 male or female santri separately. In 1992 there were 4760 santri, about 120 of whom were santri kalong (literally meaning ‘bat santri’, who came to the pesantren only at night). Most of them are involved in one or a combination of learning activities: ngaji Qur'an (Qur'anic learning), ngaji kitab (religious texts studies) and sekolah (going to public school/madrasah). Ngaji Qur'an was handled by 64 kyai and nyai (female kyai) whereas ngaji kitab was handled by 70 kyai and nyai. The madrasah school system involved 183 teachers, male and female, about 40 per cent of whom are on government subsidy. Except kindergarten the madrasah education in Buntet is non-co-educational where boys and girls study separately. “Cross-pondok ngaji” especially ngaji kitab is common practice in which a student staying at a pondok goes to another pondok to study certain kitab with another kyai.

Because most santri are outsiders, the revenue produced by the pesantren from the incoming cash, in turn, helps animate the market economy of the district. With few exceptions, in 1992 each santri spends at least around Rp.30,000.00 (about A$ 20.00) a month for food and other daily necessities.[36] This means, the pesantren injects no less than Rp. 120,000,000.00 (about A$ 80,000.00) cash into the local region each month which, by local standards, is a substantial contribution to the district market economy.

Administration and Leadership

The overall educational activity throughout the pesantren is coordinated by the Lembaga Pendidikan Islam (LPI) or Islamic Educational Board. The LPI consists of  a Majelis Syuriah (Steering Assembly) and Majelis Tanfidziyah (Executive Assembly). The former is headed by Sesepuh (elder), Pengasuh (Counsellor) and Anggota (Members of Executive Board). The latter is headed by a Chairman, three vice-chairmen, a Secretary General, two other secretaries, a Treasurer and some assistants. Crucial to this organisational structure is the appointment of the Sesepuh, the spiritual leader and symbol of the unity for the whole pesantren. Acknowledging the pesantren's possessions such as lands, buildings and equipments have come from various sources, no one in the pesantren is entitled to claim any individual rights of ownership over the pesantren. It is envisaged that the pesantren will become a public trust (amanah) and adopt the principle of so-called “trustee leadership” (kepemimpinan amanah). The leader bears a community trust that is to be passed on hereditarily from the Sesepuh along the male line to his oldest son. If, under certain circumstances, it cannot be achieved because the Sesepuh has no son, or the son is still an infant, for example, or unable to carry out the function for any other reasons, a Sesepuh pemangku (caretaker) is appointed by consensus among the ‘sohibul wilayah’ (rightful individuals for the pesantren leadership), the male descendants of the founders of the pesantren along the male line (see figure 7.1).

Figure 7.1: Genealogy of Sesepuh and Sohibul Wilayah
Figure 7.1: Genealogy of Sesepuh and Sohibul Wilayah

When Kyai Mutta'ad (number 3) led the pesantren, all his sons from both wives automatically became the sohibul wilayah. His oldest son born by the first wife, Kyai Barwi (number 4) however, married out and stayed in East Java, whereas the second oldest, Kyai Soleh Zamzami (number 5) established a new pesantren at Benda Kerep. When Kyai Mutta'ad passed away, Kyai Abdul Jamil (number 6) took the leadership as he was the oldest son staying at Buntet because Abdul Jamil's elder brothers, Kyai Sulaeman (number 7) and another brother, died earlier preceding Kyai Mutta'ad.

In the next generation, upon the death of Kyai Abdul Jamil, the sohibul wilayah were his sons from his two wives (numbers 12 through 16), Kyai Abdul Jamil's  brothers (numbers 7 through 11) who were still alive and their grown up sons. The pesantren leadership in this generation, however, fell onto Kyai Abbas (number 13) because he was Kyai Abdul Jamil's oldest son (born by the second wife). The above principle follows upon Kyai Abbas death whence Kyai Mustahdi (number 17) took the leadership. Upon Kyai Mustahdi's passing away, Kyai Mustamid was appointed sesepuh pemangku and then, after Kyai Mustamid passed away, Kyai Abdullah Abbas (Ki Dulah) became the sesepuh pemangku.[37] Abbas Sobih (number 21), son of Kyai Mustahdi, shall retake the position of sesepuh after Ki Dulah.

The trustee leadership principle adopted in Buntet, according to Kyai Fu'ad Hasyim, finds its root in the Prophetic era, which is especially exemplified by the tradition of key bearer of the Ka'bah in Mecca.[38] When the Prophet defeated Mecca and wished to enter the Ka'bah, the key was held by ‘Utsman bin Thalhah, a Meccan unbeliever. The Prophet asked Ali to take over the key from ‘Utsman but the latter refused to pass it on to Ali. ‘Utsman argued that by any means he was obliged to keep his traditional right as the key bearer which, since Abraham, was supposed to be passed on hereditarily from one generation to the next. A quarrel between ‘Utsman and Ali was unavoidable. When the argumentation was going on, a verse of the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet saying: “God commands you to hand back your trust to their rightful owners and, when you pass judgement among men, you are to judge with fairness” (QS 4:58). After having this revelation the Prophet approached the quarrelling parties to stop the argument and the Prophet said: “‘Utsman, keep the key with you for an undecided duration.” On hearing the  Prophet's words, which to him were unthinkable, ‘Utsman's heart was so touched by surprise and astonishment, that as his tears fell ‘Utsman embraced Islam.[39]

The principle of sohibul wilayah as practiced in Buntet therefore, does not include female descendants and their heirs into leadership account. This, according to my informants in Buntet, is because in theory, upon marriage, women are taken  by and under the auspice and responsibility of their husbands, whereas their descendants inherit their father's heirs.