Weekly Insights and Analysis

Islamic Education as a Vehicle for Human Development

October 15, 2008

By Robin Bush

“Human Development” as a concept stands at the center of a vast array of development funding and policy initiatives — and in its broadest sense encompasses indicators of life expectancy, education, gross national product etc.., as well as environmental quality, effective governance, and freedom. For a full elaboration I refer you to the excellent discussion paper on this topic produced by Hady Amr for the 2008 Doha US-Islamic World Forum.

Let’s look at education, because, when one looks at Islamic schools and Islamic education in the region, one can observe a fascinating dualism: in many areas, Islamic education is the poorest in quality and serves the poorest demographics; at the same time, there are Islamic schools and institutions that are centers of excellence, which function as a bridge or vehicle for lifting the human development indicators of entire communities around them. We know that in the predominantly Muslim areas of Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Malaysia, Mindanao, and Southern Thailand, the vast majority of Muslim students attend public schools — nevertheless, significant percentages of the population do not. Provision of basic education through Islamic schools (variously called pesantren, pondok, madrasah, sekolah agama rakyat) ranges widely. In Mindanao, 14% of children attend Islamic schools, while in Southern Thailand, up to 80% of Muslim children attend Islamic schools. In Indonesia 10% of children in primary school are educated in Islamic schools and up to 22% of secondary school children go to Islamic schools.

It is also the case that for the poor, very often a private Islamic school is the only chance for an education. In Indonesia, 80% of families who send their children to Islamic schools live under $2/day. At the same time, these schools that educate the poorest of the poor often receive the least support from the government. In Mindanao only 40 out of 2000 madrassah are registered with the government. In Indonesia, 90% of Islamic schools are private — receive neither regulation nor funding from the government. This can lead to the downward spiral of poor quality teaching provided to children who are already disadvantaged, resulting in education that does not provide a stepladder to a better future.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful success stories of model madrassah and Islamic schools in all of the countries of this region, that do receive government and private sector support, that produce test scores much higher than public school scores, and that are extremely competitive nationally. Islamic universities in Indonesia, for example, were at the forefront of curriculum reform of civics curriculum when Suharto fell and the militaristic state ideology doctrine no longer had to be taught. It was educators at the State Islamic University that stepped into that breach, and developed a cutting-edge curriculum for teaching democracy, political participation, human rights, and basic civics. A recent World Bank report has also shown that test scores from public Islamic schools in the region are no worse, and in some cases a little better than the standard public school test scores. So we see that Islamic schools and Islamic education in Southeast Asia represents both challenges and opportunities for human development among Muslim communities.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Indonesia. Above is a summary of remarks she delivered while on a panel Tuesday on Human Development and Social Change Dialogue at the 2008 U.S.-Islamic World Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, and ISIS. She can be reached at

Related locations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand


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In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia\’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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