Pesantren Ath-Thariq:

A Meeting Point in Interreligious Dialogue and Agro-Ecology

On the morning of the fourth day of our immersion at the Pesantren Ath-Thariq, I stepped on a rusty nail that was pointing out of a small block of wood. The block was hidden underneath wet hay near the spot where I was gathering hay from the paddy fields to make solid compost. A sharp pain shot straight from my right heel throughout my body. Oh crap! I thought to myself. At grade school we were told that tetanus infections come from rusty nails and animal manure. Perfect!

So I limped to find Abi Ibang. Abi Ibang is what we call the head of the pesantren, which is an Indonesian term for ‘Islamic boarding house’. I showed my wound to Abi like a sad child and Abi, being the resourceful man that he is, immediately hacked several banana leaf stems and rubbed the open ends on my wound to clean and disinfect it from impurities. Then, with the hilt of his hand axe, he tapped both sides of the wound to push out contaminated blood and continued to clean it with the stem. He went away briefly and returned with a handful of plants that looked like mini Lily pads called pegagan and told me to chew and apply the paste to my wound. We waited for a while, and I asked whether or not I could continue working, to which he said, “Yes”.

I haven’t felt free like this before. Even though we were living in the middle of nowhere without any modern medicine or tools, I felt free. Who knew living so close to nature and God felt so free like this? In our five days, we have learned so much from living at the pesantren.

Abi Ibang and Umi Nissa

Abi and Umi were the first two words we had to familiarize ourselves with at the pesantren. Abi means ‘my father’ and Umi means ‘my mother’ in Arabic. These are the two titles use to address the couple who manage the pesantren, Abi Ibang Lukman, and Umi Nissa Wargadipura. The pesantren Ath-Thariq, meaning ‘the way’ in Arabic, was founded in 2009 with hopes to promote agro-ecological education and form cadres who will take care of the Earth, humankind, and the future. Their actions are based on Islam — in particular the belief that humankind are caretakers of the Earth (khalifat fi-l-ardh). To respect God’s creation is to respect nature herself.

There are about 20 santri, or students, living at the pesantren at Ath-Thariq of both genders from various backgrounds and ages. There are no rigid boundaries here. On the third night of our stay at the pesantren, one of our scholastics broke out the guitar. Next thing you know, all of us, including the female santris, gathered around the musician singing cheesy Indonesian pop songs about love. Umi even encouraged the santri to enjoy their time with us. So we stayed up until eleven at night singing at the hut where they learn to recite the Qur’an with the cold mountain breeze of the town of Garut.

There are no television sets in sight at the pesantren. Even though some students have their own smartphones, they are encouraged to fly kites or go biking with their friends. From farming and playing, children develop their motor and social skills. Students who have higher grades also help tutor those with lower grades.

They take in santris as young as eight to those who are college students. Everyone contributes to the livelihood of the pesantren, whether it be preparing food or harvesting. We were impressed on how loving Abi and Umi were to the santris. We were even surprised that some of the children come with their own emotional luggage — from broken families to psychological disabilities. There was even one male santri in particular who was rather effeminate and spent more time in the kitchen with the girls — and not even once was he bullied by the others. We asked Abi what his policy was, and his answer is that everyone here is treated with dignity and respect despite their uniqueness.

A symbol of resistance

Prior to opening the pesantren, Abi Ibang and Umi Nissa were activists who established the Serikat Petani Pasundan (Sundanese Farmer’s Union) in 2000 and became one of the largest farmer’s union in Indonesia with over 50,000 members. Even though both have retired they are still seen as influential leaders among farmer and Islamic clerical circles in West Java.

Every four o’clock in the morning, Abi gathers the santri to read and recite the Qur’an until six, then the santri go to school until two in the afternoon. They continue to learn the Qur’an at five in the afternoon and on some days till nine in the evening. On weekends, the santri learn hands-on agro-ecological farming with Abi and Umi in the 8,500 m2 land that they live on. They also learn how to process the products and turn them into food and medicine.

Amazingly, 8,500 m2 land is sufficient to feed 30 mouths. They eat what the land gives them. All their plants are non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) and are endemic species, which have no market value but are rich in nutrients. Native plants are low-cost since they do not require matching fertilizers and pesticides provided by the market. The rice that they grow are also non-GMO and are native to the land. Instead of using poisonous pesticides, they grow flowering plants to distract pests from the crop. They also provide homes for natural predators such as snakes and owls to help control the mice population. They fertilize the land with solid fertilizers created from a mixture of manure, fresh legume-bush leaves, and hay as well as liquid fertilizers created from indigenous microorganisms bred in recycled jars.

Their main income comes from the selling of dried medicinal herbs which they also consume on a daily basis. Aside from that, students also learn to not depend on their daily carbohydrate intake from rice, but from other staples such as cassava, plantains, and corn. Interestingly enough, their diet is about 90% vegetarian; and they only eat meat during ‘Id al-Fitr. For self-hygiene, they use the extract of a native fruit called lerak, which can also be used to clean furniture, glass, and silverware.

Umi Nissa is like a walking dictionary when it comes to agro-ecological farming. In one of our sessions, she spoke of global issues such as the Green Revolution and its impact to the farmers of West Java. The Green Revolution and the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO) have forced local farmers into an uneven playing field. The market demands high-yield crops that require pesticides as well as fertilizers that come from the same companies. The crops that they produce are then sold at a low price to middle men who are in control of the market. This is one of the reasons why farming is becoming more and more unattractive for the youth who would prefer to urbanize and leave their villages behind. As they leave, areas which used to be rice fields are transformed into factories and housing compounds by the minute. Once pristine mountains are now scarred by deforestation and mining. The deterioration of their land leads to the deterioration of the human condition and this pesantren is a symbol of resistance.

From work comes a person’s dignity. The hand-axe that Abi Ibang used to help push out the bad blood within my wound is also used to chop branches. By working, Abi and Umi are in charge of their own life — and this is what they teach to their children. They chose to live outside consumerism. Most of the things they use are grown in their own backyard. Their relationship is directly with God and with nature.

A triple-threat cocktail

After my wound sealed up, I was back in action making myself through the soft earth of the paddy fields to gather more hay for the compost. Good compost consists of hay (carbon), manure (phosphates), and fresh leaves from forage legume (nitrates). Sugarcane water is also added to further facilitate fermentation. After a few weeks, the compost cake will be dried, pounded into powder, and will be used as a base fertilizer.

After showing us some composting techniques, Abi bathed and changed into a pair of slacks and an embroidered orange colored shirt. He was going to help the farmers of Garut rally against the current regent who is corrupt. Some of us followed Abi and saw how well loved and respected he was by those who organized the peaceful demonstration in front of the Regent’s office. Abi and a few men were allowed to enter. Several of us were fortunate to see him become the voice of the little people of Garut. Not only is he a father to his santri, he is also a father for the voiceless. He too became our father.

That was just one of the many mini episodes of our five-day immersion program at the Ath-Tareeq Pesantren in Garut, West Java. Our immersion program is part of the Asia Pacific Theological Encounter Program (APTEP) that was arranged by Fr. Greg Soetomo SJ and accompanied by Fr. Budiarto Gomulia SJ and Fr. Heru Prakosa SJ. Our group comprised of 13 Indonesians, 3 Thais, and 1 Myanmar scholastic as well as 4 diocesan seminarians from the Archdiocese of Jakarta.

The experience was amazing, for lack of a better world. Never would I have expected that in just five days, we have learned so much from our Muslim brothers and sisters — all of which relates directly to the three main issues faced by the Indonesian Province of the Society of Jesus: (1) religious fundamentalism, (2) environmental destruction, and (3) poverty. Indonesia itself — as the world’s fourth most populated country in the world with about 250 million and also the largest Muslim population in the world (roughly 6,5 million are Roman Catholics) — is struggling to fight against numerous cases of religious-themed violence towards every single non-Muslim minority and even to Muslim minority sects, such as the Ahmadis and the Shiites. ***

Captions: (1) Umi Nissa introducing her team of female santris who help manage the pesantren (2) A view of the land belonging to the pesantren (3) Saplings from local plants grown in banana-leaf cups
(4) Abi Ibang and I (5) Father Greg gathering hay from the paddy fields (6) Pop music unites us all!
(7) An Interreligious groupie session (8) The peaceful rally in front of the Garut Regents Office
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