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Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
Martin van Bruinessen, "Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu", Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en
Volkenkunde 146 (1990), 226-269.
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
(Comments on a New Collection in the KITLV Library)[1]
A research project on the Indonesian ulama gave me the opportunity to visit pesantren in various parts of the
Archipelago and put together a sizeable collection of books used in and around the pesantren, the so-called kitab kuning.
Taken together, this collection offers a clear overview of the texts used in Indonesian pesantren and madrasah, a century
after L.W.C. van den Berg’s pioneering study of the Javanese (and Madurese) pesantren curriculum (1886). Van den
Berg compiled, on the basis of interviews with kyais, a list of the major textbooks studied in the pesantren of his day. He
mentioned fifty titles and gave on each some general information and short summaries of the more important ones. Most
of these books are still being reprinted and used in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, but many other works have come
into use beside them. The present collection contains around nine hundred different titles, most of which are used as
textbooks. I shall first make some general observations on these books and on the composition of the collection. In the
second part of this article I shall discuss a list of ‘most popular kitab’ that I compiled from other sources. All of the books
listed there are, however, part of the collection.[2]
Criteria and representativeness
In order to judge how representative this collection is, a few words on my method of collecting are necessary. I visited
the major publishers and toko kitab (bookshops specializing in this type of religious literature) in Jakarta, Bogor,
Bandung, Purwokerto, Semarang, Surabaya, Banda Aceh, Medan, Pontianak, Banjarmasin, Amuntai, Singapore, Kuala
Lumpur, Georgetown (Penang), Kota Bharu and Patani (Southern Thailand), and bought there all available Islamic books
in Arabic script printed in Southeast Asia. The last two criteria may at first sight seem rather arbitrary, but I found them
to be sociologically significant besides being the most convenient ones. It is true, most toko kitab also sell limited
numbers of Arabic books printed in Egypt and Lebanon (an agent representing the Lebanese publishing house Dar al-
Fikr has special shops for these books in Jakarta and Surabaya), but the price differential between such books and
Southeast Asian editions guarantees that they are bought by a relatively small minority only. They include works of
reference for the advanced scholar and works by modern authors that have not yet been accepted by the mainstream of
Indonesian Islam. Any book for which there is a sizeable demand will sooner or later be (re)printed by one of the
regional publishers.[3]
Similarly, the script in which a book is printed carries symbolic meaning and differentiates rather neatly between
two different types of reading public. Indonesian Muslims use even different words for books in romanized script
(‘buku’) and those in Arabic script, irrespective of the language (‘kitab’). Up to the 1960’s a well-defined line divided the
Muslim community in ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists’ (with as their major socio-religious organizations the Nahdlatul
Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, respectively). The former used to study religion exclusively through kitab kuning (called
kuning, ‘yellow,’ after the tinted paper of books brought from the Middle East in the early twentieth century), while the
latter read only buku putih, ‘white’ books in romanized Indonesian. The authors of the latter usually rejected most of the
scholastic tradition in favour of a return to, and in some cases new interpretation of, the original sources, the Qur’an and
the hadith. This may have contributed to the negative attitude towards buku putih that long existed in the pesantren
milieu. In a few old-fashioned pesantren such books are not allowed until this day. Traditionalist ulama writing books or
brochures, whether in Arabic or in one of the vernacular languages, always used Arabic script, and many continue to do
so. Nowadays, however, the dividing line between ‘modernists’ and ‘traditionalists’ is not so sharp and clear anymore,
and many of the old antagonisms have worn off. The ‘modernists’ have generally become less radical in their rejection of
tradition — significantly, there are now several Muhammadiyah pesantren offering a combination of the traditional
curriculum (kitab kuning) and that of the modern school. Not only have most ‘traditionalist’ kyai, on the other hand,
become more catholic in their reading, many of them write now in Indonesian as well as in Arabic, Malay or Javanese.
The Arabic script, though still the most unambiguous symbol of a traditionalist orientation, is no longer a sine qua non
for it. I have therefore not applied the criterion of script too rigidly, and have included in the present collection a number
of works in (romanized) Indonesian, that logically belong to the kitab tradition: annotated translations of, or
commentaries on, classical texts by ‘traditionalist’ ulama.
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
The criterion of Arabic script has excluded one category of texts otherwise quite similar to those collected. Ulama
in South Sulawesi (the most prolific of whom are Yunus Maratan and Abdul Rahman Ambo Dalle) have written religious
texts in Buginese for use in madrasah and schools, employing not, as earlier generations of scholars did, the Arabic but
the Buginese alphabet. A good number of these works are already in the KITLV library, and several bibliographies exist
(Departemen Agama 1981/1982, 1983/1984).
The collection could, for a number of reasons, not be complete. Most publishers have very limited storage
facilities, and only a fraction of the books published by them are actually available at their sales departments. When a
kitab is (re)printed, almost the entire edition is immediately sent off to toko kitab throughout the country. It is only
through visiting many such shops and patiently combing the shelves that one can collect at least most of the important
works from major publishers. Virtually all works mentioned in published sources or heard about have been collected,
some even in several editions, in various translations or with different glosses. But some of the less important works
were simply out of print and sold out in all shops visited.
Furthermore, there are numerous minor local publishers bringing out works of secondary importance, often by
local ulama. There are not a few of such works in the collection, but it is likely that many others were overlooked. In
spite of these limitations, however, the collection represents a fair cross-section of the study materials used in Indonesian
(and Malaysian) pesantren and madrasah, as well as of the intellectual output of Indonesian ulama.
Statistics
Out of some nine hundred different works, almost five hundred, or just over half, were written or translated by Southeast
Asian ulama. Many of these Indonesian ulama wrote in Arabic: almost 100 titles, or around 10%, are Arabic works by
Southeast Asians (or Arabs resident in the region). Those in Indonesian languages were, of course, all written by
Southeast Asians (including some of Arab descent). If we count translations as separate works, the approximate numbers
of kitab in the various languages are as follows :
Language Approximate number Percentage of total
of kitab number
Arabic 500 55 %
Malay 200 22 %
Javanese 120 13 %
Sundanese 35 4%
Madurese 25 2.5 %
Acehnese 5 0.5 %
Indonesian 20 2%
These works can be roughly classified according to subject matter. The largest categories are:
jurisprudence (fiqh) 20 %
doctrine (`aqida, usul al-din) 17 %
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
traditional Arabic grammar (nahw, sarf, 12 %
balagha)
hadith collections 8%
mysticism (tasawwuf, tariqa) 7%
morality (akhlaq) 6%
collections of prayers and invocations, 5%
Islamic magic (du`a, wird, mujarrabat)
texts in praise of the prophets and saints 6%
(qisas al-anbiya’, mawlid, manaqib, etc.)
A few important changes have taken place in the composition of the pesantren curriculum, and these are only partly
reflected in the table above. A century ago, the Qur’an and the traditions were rarely studied directly but mainly in the
‘processed’ form of scholastic works on jurisprudence and doctrine. According to van den Berg, only one tafsir, the
Jalalayn, was studied in the pesantren, and no hadith collections at all. In this respect, a significant change has taken
place during the past century. There are no less than ten different Qur’anic commentaries (in Arabic, Malay, Javanese
and Indonesian) in the collection beside straightforward translations (also called tafsir) into Javanese and Sundanese. The
number of compilations of hadith is even more striking. There is almost no pesantren now where hadith is not taught as a
separate subject. The major emphasis in instruction remains, however, on fiqh, the Islamic science par excellence. There
have been no remarkable changes in the fiqh texts studied, but the discipline of usul al-fiqh (the foundations or bases of
fiqh) has been added to the curriculum of many pesantren, allowing a more flexible and dynamic view of fiqh.
These and other categories of kitab kuning will be discussed in greater detail in the second part of this article, where the
most popular of each are listed. But here are first some observations on kitab publishing and major authors.
The publishing of kitab kuning in the Archipelago
Printed books are a relative novelty in the pesantren. In van den Berg’s time, many of the kitab in the pesantren were still
in manuscript, and were copied by the santri in longhand. But it was precisely in this period that printed books from the
Middle East began entering Indonesia in significant numbers, one of the side effects of the increased participation in the
haj (due in turn to the arrival of the steamship). There had, by then, been a century of bookprinting in the Middle East
already, but of particular relevance for Indonesians was the establishment of a government press in Mecca in 1884,
which printed not only books in Arabic but also in Malay. The latter part of its activities was placed under the
supervision of the learned Ahmad b. Muhammad Zayn al-Patani, who is also the author of several treatises himself.[4]
(the present collection contains seven of them in recent reprints). His selection of books was rather biased in favour of
those by compatriots, and it is partly due to him that many works of Da’ud b. `Abdallah al-Patani and Muhammad b.
Isma`il Da’ud al-Patani are still widely available, in reprints of his original editions. In these and other reprints, the
imprint of the original publisher has been replaced, but many of the works published by Ahmad b. M. Zayn may still be
recognized by the verses that he wrote as introductions and placed on the title pages.[5]
This was not the very first Malay press, although the first one of importance. Zayn al-Din al-Sumbawi, another Jawi
scholar resident in Mecca, had a short treatise lithographed as early as 1876 (Snouck Hurgronje 1889: 385) and several of
Da’ud b. `Abdallah al-Patani’s works were printed in Bombay before the 1880s too. Bombay was also the major source
of printed (lithographed) Qur’ans entering Indonesia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[6] Publishers in Istanbul
and Cairo soon followed the Meccan press in establishing Malay sections. It was especially Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi of
Cairo who, in the course of time, was to publish many a Malay kitab. Two studies by Mohd. Nor bin Ngah (1980, 1983)
discuss a more or less representative sample of these Malay kitab and of the worldview that is reflected in them.
These publishing activities in the Middle East, as well as the example of British and Dutch lithograph presses,
stimulated Islamic publishing efforts in the Archipelago too. The first presses there that printed in vernacular languages
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
were operated by government and missionary organisations.[7] They were soon followed by the first enterprising Muslim
publishers. One of the pioneers was Sayyid Usman of Batavia, that prolific ‘Arab ally of the Dutch Indies government,’
many of whose simple works are still in use, primarily among the Betawi and Sundanese. He had a first version of his Al-
qawanin al-shar`iyya lithographed in 1881; by 1886, at least four other booklets of his hand were mentioned and many
more were to follow.[8]
Even Sayyid Usman was not the first Islamic publisher in the Indies; that title probably belongs to Kemas Haji
Muhammad Azhari of Palembang, who in 1854 made his first lithograph prints of the Qur’an, calligraphed by himself.
He had bought a press in Singapore a few years earlier, on the return journey from the hajj, and taught himself to operate
it. His Qur’ans — to which he had written a 14-page Malay introduction on pronunciation and style of reading — found
ready buyers.[9] In Singapore too, there must have been lithograph presses occasionally printing in Malay by that time,
but very little is known about them as yet. In the 1880s and 1890s, several presses published Malay newspapers and
occasionally books, but it remains unclear whether these included more than one or two small religious tracts.[10]
In 1894, the junior ruler of Riau, Muhammad Yusuf, established a printing press, the Matba`at al-Ahmadiyya, on
the island of Penyengat in 1894, which in the following years printed several religious treatises by the contemporary
Naqshbandi shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Zawawi, the spiritual preceptor of Muhammad Yusuf and his relatives.[11]
These promising beginnings found little follow-up. Many books and journals were published in the Archipelago
in the first half of the 20th century, but very few of them were kitab (in the wide sense defined above) and almost none
were texts of the classical kind. West Sumatra was probably the only region where a significant number of kitab (written
by local `ulama) were printed during the first decades of the century. Some of these were simple textbooks, in Malay and
Arabic, for the then new madrasah, meant to replace the rather difficult classical works on Arabic grammar, doctrine and
fiqh. Several of these books are still widely used.[12] Others were polemical writings, weapons in the religious debates
between kaum muda and kaum tua then raging in West Sumatra.[13]
Here as elsewhere, most of the modernists, who were by far the more prolific writers and publishers, soon
adopted the romanized script, which brought them closer to the secular nationalists but reinforced their social separation
from the kaum tua. They did write religious textbooks, but in style and contents these differed rather much from
traditional kitab.
It was only after Indonesia’s independence that kitab began to be printed on any serious scale there. As the present major
publishers remember, before the Second World War there were only booksellers, no actual publishers of kitab in the
Archipelago (the largest being Sulayman Mar`i in Singapore, `Abdullah bin `Afif in Cirebon, and Salim bin Sa`d Nabhan
in Surabaya, all three of them Arabs).[14] They ordered virtually all books - including works in Malay - from Egypt,
where book production was then considerably cheaper than in Indonesia. There was one exception, but it had only local
significance: the (Malay-owned) Patani Press as well as Nahdi (Arab) in southern Thailand began printing Malay kitab in
the late 1930s, for use in the pondok of Patani and the contiguous Malay states.
In the first half of the century, Indonesian demand was still low, and the only commercially interesting kitab was
the Qur’an itself. Both Mar`i and bin `Afif made their first attempts to have it printed locally in the 1930s; they were later
followed by Al-Ma`arif of Bandung, established late in 1948 by Muhammad bin `Umar Bahartha, a former employee of
`Abdullah bin `Afif. By mid-century, Mar`i had several kitab kuning printed as well; one of the more conspicuous was
`Abd al-Ra’uf al-Fansuri (al-Singkili)’s Malay adaptation of the tafsir Jalalayn, published in 1951. In the course of the
1950s, Al-Ma`arif followed suit with cheap prints of oft-used kitab, and so did `Abdullah bin `Afif and various relatives
of Salim Nabhan. (Larger and therefore more expensive works, such as the four-volume I`anat al-talibin by Sayyid Bakri
b. M. Shatta’, the latest great compendium of Shafi`i fiqh, were only published from the 1970s on, reflecting a growing
affluence in santri circles). In the course of the 1960s Toha Putra of Semarang also ventured onto the kitab market. Still
later, the publishing house Menara of Kudus joined the competition: the first non-Arab publisher of this type of literature
in Indonesia. Both Toha Putra and Menara have published numerous classical texts together with Javanese or Indonesian
translations, as well as original works by Javanese `ulama. In 1978, a former associate of Al-Ma`arif established the
house Al-Haramayn in Singapore, which in a few years put out a wide range of classical Arabic texts, many Malay and
even a few Sundanese works. Singapore was apparently no longer an advantageous location to serve the Southeast Asian
kitab market from, for Al-Haramayn closed shop after a few years (although its books could still be found all over the
Archipelago in 1987), and the owner established a new house in Surabaya, called Bungkul Indah.[15] In number of titles,
al-Haramayn and its successor Bungkul Indah are the largest publishers of kitab; in sheer volume of sales, however, they
lag far behind Al-Ma`arif. Another new publisher with a wide range of (exclusively Arabic) titles is Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub
al-`Arabiyya in Surabaya.[16]
There are no signs yet of strong centralization in the publishing of kitab kuning. Surabaya boasts the largest
number of publishers; the most conspicuous, beside those already mentioned, are the houses of Sa`d bin Nasir bin
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
Nabhan and Ahmad bin Sa`d Nabhan (ten other members of the same family also publish kitab). On Java’s north coast
we find further publishers (besides those mentioned) in Semarang (Al-Munawwara), Pekalongan (Raja Murah), Cirebon
(Misriyya, the old establishment of `Abdallah bin `Afif) and Jakarta (Al-Shafi`iyya and Al-Tahiriyya, belonging to the
large Betawi pesantrens of these names, and putting out textbooks used there besides simple books by authors beloved to
the Betawi community). `Arafat in Bogor mainly produces works on Arabic grammar (over twenty titles); Toko Kairo in
the small West Javanese town of Tasikmalaya publishes both Arabic classics and simple Sundanese kitab.
In Sumatra there are at present, surprisingly, no important publishers of kitab. The public there is served by
publishers in Java, Singapore and Malaysia. Publishing in Singapore has, as said, declined; in Malaysia too, publishing
of kitab is on the wane (in contrast to the publishing of modern books, in which the country’s output is above that of its
ten times more populous southern neighbour). Georgetown (on the island of Penang) still has three active publishers, of
which Dar al-Ma`arif and Nahdi are the most productive. In Kota Bharu (Kelantan), the Pustaka Aman Press is very
active, but it publishes mostly modern Malay books, not classics.[17]
There are also several publishers in Patani (Southern Thailand), the eldest of which, Patani Press, began
publishing the works of Patani `ulama in the late 1930s.[18] At present their books do not receive a wider distribution
than Patani and the contiguous Malay states. One of the other publishers here, Nahdi, has moved most of its activities to
Penang, where the political climate is more favourable to Islamic publishing, and whence the books receive a wider
distribution. Besides these, there are a large number of small local publishers putting out religious tracts, brochures and
books for strictly local markets.
A high proportion of the books printed by these Southeast Asian publishers are photomechanical reprints of
works first published in Mecca or Cairo around the turn of the century. Many even still carry the imprint of the original
publisher on the title page. In other cases, this imprint has been replaced by that of the new publisher. Borrowing
continues freely meanwhile. Thus it can happen that a book originally published by Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi of Cairo
appears with the name of the most recent publisher, Bungkul Indah, on the jacket while the title page still bears the
imprint of the previous publisher, Al-Ma`arif. Some cheap reprints of more recent Egyptian or Lebanese books are only
distinguishable from the original by the quality of the paper and the binding: a nightmare for the bibliographer. Thus
Bungkul Indah has recently brought out a series of modern works with the imprint of Beyrut publisher Dar al-Thaqafa
still on the cover and title page.
The common format of kitab kuning
Most of the classical Arabic kitab studied in the pesantren are commentaries (sharh, Ind/Jav: syarah), or glosses
(hashiya, hasyiyah) upon commentaries on older original texts (matn, matan). The printed editions of these classical
works usually have the text that is commented or glossed upon printed in the margin, so that both may be studied
together. This has perhaps been the reason of occasional confusions between related texts. The name Taqrib, for
instance, is used both for this short and simple fiqh text itself and for the Fath al-qarib, a more substantial commentary
on it (van den Berg, in fact, believed these two works to be identical). If one asks for the Mahalli, a popular advanced
fiqh work, one is given the voluminous super-commentary on it by Qalyubi and `Umayra, that has Mahalli’s Kanz al-
raghibin in a modest position in the margin, etc.
Many of the basic texts are manzum, i.e. written in rhymed verse (nazm, nadham), to facilitate memorization.[19]
Perhaps the longest manzum text is the Alfiyya, a text on Arabic grammar so called because it consists of thousand (alf)
bayt. Many generations of santri have, patiently chanting, committed this entire work to memory, along with a whole
range of other texts. Commentaries of such manzum works commonly incorporate the original verse in the (prose)
commentary rather than placing it separately in the margin.
A small fraction of the (Javanese, Madurese and Sundanese) translations simply consists of word-by-word,
interlineary translations - written obliquely in a finer hand under each word of the bold Arabic text, and therefore
graphically dubbed jenggotan, ‘bearded.’[20] In most cases, however, there is in addition a freer translation and/or
commentary, usually printed on the lower half of the page. Malay translations sometimes follow another pattern: the
Arabic text is broken up into small semantic units, each of which is then followed by a rather literal Malay translation
between brackets. But more often the Malay translation and/or commentary is printed separately, without the Arabic.
The most common format of the classical kitab for pesantren use is just below quarto size (26 cm), and not
bound. The quires (koras) lie loose in the jacket, so that the santri may take out any single page that he happens to be
studying. This is another physical characteristic that seems to have largely symbolic value: it makes the kitab look more
classical. Kitab by modern authors, translators or commentators are never in this format. Many users of classical kitab
are strongly attached to it, and the publishers oblige. Some even print kitab on orange-tinted (‘kuning’) paper (produced
especially for them by Indonesian factories) because this too is more ‘classical’ in the users’ minds.
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
Popular authors of kitab
As might be expected, there have been no great shifts in the popularity of classical authors during the past century.
Virtually all kitab mentioned by van den Berg are still available in Indonesia, in recent reprints. But there has been a
noticeable increase in relatively recent commentaries on these works. A few authors stand out, in that numerous works
by them are widely available and have been generally accepted into the pesantren curriculum. The most influential of
them flourished in Mecca in the late 19th century.
Ahmad b. Zayni Dahlan, the Shafi`i mufti of Mecca during Snouck Hurgronje’s stay there, is represented by
seven works in this collection, and his younger contemporary Sayyid Bakri b. Muhammad Shatta’ al-Dimyati by four,
that are very widely used.[21]
The most ubiquitous presence, however, is that of the Indonesian author Muhammad b. `Umar Nawawi al-Jawi al-
Bantani (Nawawi Banten), who has twenty-two titles in the collection, all of them in Arabic.[22] Eleven of them occur in
the list of most frequently used kitab below — he has more titles among these top hundred than any other author.
Nawawi wrote on virtually every aspect of Islamic learning. Most of his works are comments on well-known texts,
explaining them in simple terms. He is perhaps best regarded as a popularizer of, rather than a contributor to, learned
discourse.
Another commentator comparable to Nawawi Banten in scope and popularity is the earlier Egyptian author
Ibrahim al-Bajuri (or Bayjuri, d. 1277/1861), several of whose works were already widely used in van den Berg’s time.
The collection contains six of works of his hand, on fiqh, doctrine and logic.[23]
Besides Nawawi, several other southeast Asian authors have acquired lasting places in the pesantren or madrasah
curriculum. An earlier, very prolific author is the said Da’ud b. `Abdallah al-Patani (d. ca. 1845), who also wrote on a
wide range of subjects, always in Malay.[24] Fourteen of his works were found in recent reprints. They are widely used
in Patani, Malaysia and parts of Sumatra. The major works of his contemporaries Muhammad Arshad al-Banjari and
`Abd al-Samad al-Palimbani (who wrote in Malay too) are also regularly reprinted. Another author of still popular Malay
works is the said Sayyid Usman (`Uthman b. `Abdallah b. `Aqil b. Yahya al-`Alawi).
An important Javanese author of the late 19th century is Saleh Darat (Salih b. `Umar al-Samarani, d. 1321/1903).
He wrote commentaries (in Javanese) on several important works of fiqh, doctrine and tasawwuf.[25]
K.H. Mahfudz of Termas (Mahfuz b. `Abdallah al-Tarmasi), who lived and taught in Mecca around the turn of
the century (he died in 1919), wrote a few highly regarded works (in Arabic) on fiqh and the science of hadith.[26]
Another highly respected `alim is the late K.H. Ihsan b. Muhammad Dahlan of Jampes, Kediri, who wrote (in
Arabic) a much admired commentary on Ghazali’s Minhaj al-`abidin, titled Siraj al-talibin. The names of all these
authors (except Kyai Mahfudz) occur in the list of most popular kitab below.
A more recent, and highly prolific Javanese author is Bisri Mustofa of Rembang (Bishri Mustafa al-Rambani),
represented in the collection by over twenty works, including a three-volume tafsir (a translation of rather than
commentary on the Qur’an).
Misbah b. Zayn al-Mustafa of Bangilan, Ahmad Subki Masyhadi of Pekalongan and Asrori Ahmad of Wonosari
translated numerous classical texts into Javanese; the first moreover wrote a voluminous Javanese tafsir.
Other productive Javanese authors include Kyai Muslikh of Mranggen (Muslih b. `Abd al-Rahman al-Maraqi, d.
1986), who wrote several treatises on his tariqa, the Qadiriyya wa Naqshbandiyya, and related matters, and Ahmad `Abd
al-Hamid al-Qandali of Kendal, who wrote various treatises on doctrine and religious obligations as well as texts of
practical use (methods of da`wa, NU affairs).
In the 19th century, pesantren in Madura and West Java did not use their own regional languages but Javanese as a
medium: when Arabic texts were translated it was into Javanese. This too has changed, there are now kitab kuning in
Madurese and Sundanese as well. `Abd al-Majid Tamim of Pamekasan translated over ten books into Madurese,
covering almost all branches of learning.
There is a wider range of Sundanese kitab, and more of them are original works rather than simply translations.
Three authors stand out in the collection: Ahmad Sanusi of Sukabumi (founder of the organization Al Ittihadiyatul
Islamiyah, which which merged into the Persatuan Ummat Islam in 1952) wrote a translation/tafsir of the Qur’an; Rd.
Ma’mun Nawawi b. Rd. Anwar various edifying booklets, and the great `alim and poet `Abdallah b. Nuh of Bogor works
of sufi piety, based on Ghazali. Besides their books, there are numerous simple booklets in Sundanese, for use in the
lower grades of the pesantren, published by the bookstore Toko Cairo in Tasikmalaya.
Of the Minangkabau authors, whose polemics in the beginning of this century have drawn some attention
(Schrieke 1921), almost no works are still in print. Even the once influential Ahmad Khatib seems hardly to be read
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
anymore; only two of his works were found in print and these are not generally available. Two other Minangkabau,
however, who were associated with Sumatera Thawalib, have reached the top hundred, and are well represented in the
collection: Mahmud Yunus and Abdul Hamid Hakim. Both have written numerous textbooks, in Malay and Arabic, for
use in the madrasah, and several of these are very widely used, also in pesantren.[27]
A top 100 of pesantren literature
The present collection represents to date the most complete overview of literature used in and around the pesantren and
madrasah. But it cannot, of course, by itself tell us which works are the ones most frequently used, at which levels, and
where. The curriculum of the madrasah, especially those owned or subsidized by the state, is more or less standardized,
and is not so strongly oriented towards the classics as that of the pesantren. The collection contains a fair number of
modern books written for the Egyptian madrasah, that are also used in the similar Indonesian institutions, besides books
especially written by Indonesian authors, in simple Arabic.
The pesantren differ from the madrasah, among other things, in the lack of uniformity in curriculum.[28] Many
kyais specialize in one particular branch of learning, or even in one particular text,[29] and many santris move for this
reason from one pesantren to another in order to study a certain range of texts thoroughly. No single pesantren offers a
‘representative’ curriculum all by itself. We have to take a number of pesantrens together in order to establish with which
works the average santri is confronted in the course of his studies.
I have the strong impression (based on what I found in stock in toko kitab in the various regions) that the
‘average’ curriculum in Sumatra, Kalimantan and on the mainland still differs to some extent from that in Java. Kitab
originally written in Malay, by such ulama as M. Arshad al-Banjari, Da’ud bin `Abdallah al-Patani and `Abd al-Samad al-
Palimbani long had, and to some extent still have, precedence over the classical Arabic works and their 19th century
Arabic commentaries that constitute the bulk of the Javanese curriculum. The establishment all over Sumatra and
Kalimantan, from the 1920’s on, of pondok pesantren on the Javanese model and madrasah of the West Sumatran type
has resulted, however, in the gradual displacement of these Malay kitab in favour of standard Arabic works.
Van den Berg’s study (1886), although dated, is still the most detailed survey of kitab commonly used in Javanese
pesantren. The catalogues of Arabic, Malay and Javanese manuscripts in the Jakarta and Leiden libraries also give an
elaborate impression of what was in use in the 19th century, although it remains doubtful how representative these
collections are for the pesantren milieu. The Serat Centini, probably compiled in the early 19th century, refers to a large
number of kitab; there is a close correspondence with van den Berg’s list (see Soebardi 1971). For an earlier period,
Drewes (1972, appendix) has compiled an interesting list of works in use in 18th century Palembang.
There are a few more recent surveys claiming a degree of generality, but these are still far from satisfactory.[30]
We learn more, in fact, from an anecdotal autobiography such as that of K.H. Saifuddin Zuhri (who was NU’s minister of
religion under Guided Democracy), with its glimpses of the texts he read (or had read to him) in the pesantren, the way
these were studied and the impact they had on him.[31]
There exist now a good number of monographs on individual pesantrens, most of which contain shorter or longer lists of
the texts studied there.[32] These lists, compiled by different researchers, vary in length and quality, and none of them is
complete; well-known works are undoubtedly over-represented in them at the expense of less popular texts equally
studied. Taken together, however, they give a reasonable indication of which are at present the most frequently used
kitab. I have added to these a small number of similar lists compiled by Indonesian researchers in the course of a recent
research project on the Indonesian `ulama,[33] and thus compiled aggregate data on 42 pesantren, of which 18 are in East
Java, 12 in Central and 9 in West Java, and 3 in South Kalimantan. I add some data on Sumatra, although these are not
really comparable because they do not refer to individual but to four idealized, ‘average’ pesantren. They consist of two
aggregate lists of kitab used in pesantren and by traditional `ulama in Riau and Palembang, respectively; the curriculum
of an ‘average’ PERTI madrasah in West Sumatra; and the curriculum of one conservative surau in Pariaman, West
Sumatra.[34]
The number of Kalimantan pesantren on which data has been gathered is unfortunately too low to lay claims to
being representative. These data confirm the general impression of the Banjarese pesantren as old-fashioned.[35] The
Sumatra and Kalimantan columns in the tables give an indication, but not more than that, of minor but systematic
differences in curriculum with Javanese pesantren; the differences between the Sundanese and Javanese parts of Java are,
because of better data, brought out more clearly.
I have lumped together texts (matan) and untitled commentaries on them; only commentaries generally known by
a different title were listed separately. Even so, the total number of texts mentioned is well over 350; the tables below list
Kitab Kuning: Books in Arabic Script Used in the Pesantren Milieu
only those that occur most frequently, grouped according to subject. Within each table, genealogically related works (i.e.
those based on a common original text) are placed together; otherwise the titles are roughly in order of popularity, not in
the order in which they are studied. The latter is vaguely indicated by notes in the final column on the level of education
at which the books are usually studied. Ibtida’i, tsanawi and `ali (‘primary’, ‘secondary’ and ‘high’) are really the names
of the three levels of madrasah education (of three years each), and not always adequate to describe traditional pesantren.
Khawass (‘the special ones’) indicates a more advanced level.
The tables give the titles of kitab in their commonly used short form, transliterated in Indonesian style; in the text the full
names are given, in a transliteration closer to English usage.
The instrumental sciences (Table I)
The instrumental sciences, ilmu alat, are in the first place the various branches of traditional Arabic grammar: nahw
(syntax), sarf (inflection), balagha (rhetoric), etc. There is a bewildering array of different texts on these subjects. We
can, in this case, compare our entire collection and the list of most popular titles not only with van den Berg’s list but
also with a list of the manuscripts of such grammatical texts in the Leiden and Jakarta libraries compiled by Drewes
(1971). Although Drewes has more titles than van den Berg, the latter’s list corresponds in fact more closely with ours.
[36] This is another indication that the manuscript collections are certainly not representative of what was actually used,
and that one should be careful in drawing conclusions on the bases of these collections alone.
In the traditional system, the student usually began with the basics of sarf, which meant that he had to commit the
first tables of verbal and nominal inflection to memory. The simplest work of this category is the Bina (Al-bina’ wa’l-
asas, by a certain Mulla al-Danqari); having mastered this, the student would turn to the Izzi (Al-tasrif li’l-`izzi, by
`Izzaddin Ibrahim al-Zanjani, see GAL I, 283; S I, 497) or to the Maqshud (Al-maqsud fi’l-sarf, an anonymous work
often attributed to Abu Hanifa). Having arrived at this stage, the student would turn to the first works on nahw before
going on to more difficult sarf works (if he ever got so far). One of the simplest, and most widely popular works of this
kind was the Awamil (Al-`awamil al-mi’a, by `Abd al-Qahir b. `Abd al-Rahman al-Jurjani, d. 471 AH), a list of the
situations determining the case endings of nouns and the vowel following the final consonant of verbs. After this, the
student was likely to proceed to the Jurumiyah (Al-muqaddima al-ajurrumiyya, by Abu `Abdallah Muhammad b. Da’ud
al-Sanhaji b. Ajurrum, d. 723 AH).
This introductory curriculum was accepted in regions wide apart; the same texts were studied, in this order, in
traditional madrasa in Kurdistan (apart from the last named work, which is not known there), in 19th century Javanese
pesantren and West Sumatran surau.[37] The same works are still in use, but a certain shift has taken place. The Bina
and the Izzi are most certainly under-reported in the curriculum lists in favour of more advanced works, but they seem to
have retained their place better in West Java and Sumatra than in Java proper. A recent (but also traditional) introductory
work quite popular in Javanese pesantren is Amtsilatut Tashrifiyah (Al-amthilat al-tasrifiyya li ‘l-madaris al-salafiyya,
consisting of inflection tables), by the Javanese au


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