Laying a strong foundation
Pokok Sena’s heritage of religious studies began in 1929 with the arrival of renowned Islamic scholar Tuan Hussein Kedah (1863-1936).
“My grandfather was born in Titi Gajah, Kedah. He was an ulama and evangelist who spread Islam by teaching religious studies. He went from place to place to teach. He’d stay for a few years in one place and then move on to the next.
“Before he reached Pokok Sena, he had taught at six places. This was his last stop,” relates Tuan Hussein’s 73-year-old grandson Haji Abdullah Haji Ahmad.
The first person Tuan Hussein befriended in Pokok Sena was Mansor Ismail’s ancestor. He told him he needed a big plot of land to build his school.
“So, they went looking along Jalan Siram and even Jalan Raja Uda in Butterworth. The plots there were too small. He finally found a 10ha piece of land in Pokok Sena. But it was owned by Chinese who reared pigs there.
“It wasn’t just one farm, but many farms and hundreds of pigs. The kampung folk were not too happy,” continues Mansor, relating a story told to them by their elders.
After Tuan Hussein bought the land, it started raining. “It rained continuously for a week. All the animal waste, and everything else, was swept away by the water. The black sand turned white,” relates Haji Abdullah.
Initially, Tuan Hussein taught informally, with students sitting around him as he lectured on Islam and expounded on passages in the scriptures.
But in 1934, Tuan Hussein decided to build a long house that could accommodate 60 students and drew up a schedule for his lessons. That model laid the foundation for a more systematic way of learning and teaching Islam and his madrasah drew students from near and far. It transformed Pokok Sena from a quiet village into a centre of Islamic studies.
He passed away not long after that, and his son Haji Ahmad Hussein carried on his mission. Haji Ahmad was a learned Islamic scholar who studied in Mecca and was Penang’s Kadi Besar from 1965-1974. He passed away in 1978.
“We were raised in a religious environment. I, too, studied in the school my grandfather started,” says Haji Abdullah who is the ninth of Haji Ahmad’s 16 children.
In 1959, he continued his secondary school education at the renowned Madrasatul Mashoor Al-Islamiah in George Town, “where Komtar now stands,” says Haji Ahmad who learnt Arabic and English.
“We had religious studies in the morning and did academic subjects in the afternoon,” recalls Haji Abdullah, who would leave Pokok Sena at 6am and return home only at 9pm
After Form Five, he continued at the Teachers Training College in Kuala Lumpur and went on to teach religious studies in several schools in Penang. His last posting before retirement was at the Penang Islamic Religious Council where he took charge of religious studies.
His generation has continued to uphold their ancestors’ legacy of spreading and strengthening the Islamic faith through education, but in tandem with changing times.
There are now 450 students at Madrasah Khairiah Islamiah, with 200 staying in the hostels. But the curriculum has expanded to include academic subjects, and it’s now a government funded religious school (Sekolah Agama Bantuan Kerajaan or SABK).
“In 2007, we came under the SABK system. The government took over paying the teachers’ salaries and training. Students don’t have to pay school fees and the government subsidises their hostel fees.
“Our family has entrusted two hectares of land to the state religious department to use for the school. This means the land cannot be bought or sold,” he says. A board of 10 committee members, more than half from Haji Abdullah’s family, oversees the running of the school.
He likens the Malays sending their children to religious schools to the Chinese sending their children to Chinese schools.
“It’s to lay the foundation we want for them. For us, it’s important for our children to learn religious studies. Once the foundation is laid, they can choose to study anything,” says Haji Abdullah, whose six children are all Al-Mashoor graduates like him.
“My children all pursued different interests after secondary school. My daughter studied pharmacy at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and is now doing her postgraduate studies in Britain. My brother is a doctor and his four children are all doctors.”
Haji Abdullah acknowledges there are religious schools that are fundamentalist. Mansor Ismail concurs, citing a young man in their village who had been indoctrinated – “He talks differently”. Haji Abdullah nods, saying that one can tell by talking to someone if they hold extremist views.
“We need to open our students’ minds, so it’s good that we have included other subjects like Science into the syllabus. They are also learning something else apart from religion,” he says, adding that students at their religious school take up to 20 subjects.