Kalsom Bee is 70 years old. Until 10 years ago, all she did was “work and raise my two children.” When her husband passed away, she decided it was finally time to do what
“I wanted to study religion … to learn what I never had time to learn before,” says Kalsom, who enrolled at a sekolah pondok, which literally means a ‘school of huts’.
‘Pondok’ comes from the Arab word ‘fuduqun’ which means hotel or accommodation for travellers. In this tradition of Islamic learning that originates from Pattani in Southern Thailand, students seeking to learn from an ulama would live in small huts near a mosque or a madrasah or the ulama’s house. They would attend lectures and sermons, and memorise scriptures.
“Sini, hari-hari masuk ilmu (here, I learn every day). It’s peaceful,” says Kalsom who lives in a hut just outside the surau.
Sekolah Pondok Warga Mas Pokok Sena, where Kalsom now studies Islam, is a continuation of that sekolah pondok tradition. It’s part of the Madrasah Khairiah Islamiah which was started by the renowned ulama Tuan Hussein Mohd Nasir in 1924 who is also known as Tuan Hussein Kedah.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the northern states of Kedah, Penang and Perak were centres of Islamic learning. In Penang, the centre of Islamic studies was in Seberang Perai, rather than on the island with its strong British presence.
Penang was also the port where Muslims from all over South-East Asia would embark on their ships to Mecca to perform their haj. Pilgrims and others seeking to acquire and deepen their Islamic knowledge and understanding would come from as far as Acheh and Cambodia to study at madrasahs in Seberang Perai.
There were many reputable madrasah, established by renowned ulama, such as Daeratul Maarif Wataniah in Kepala Batas and Al-Masriyah in Bukit Mertajam.
Graduates from these schools went on to study at renowned universities in the Middle East like Al-Azhar and became influential Islamic scholars.
These religious teachers would teach anyone willing to learn, regardless of age and origin.
“Anyone can take religious classes as long as they are able,” says Sekolah Pondok Warga Mas Pokok Sena caretaker Mansor Ismail.
But in the compound of about 40 huts, only three traditional wooden huts remain as the rest had been demolished and replaced with prefabricated cabins. Each hut accommodates only one, and has a living area and a kitchen.
“They look more like chalets now,” says Mansor in jest. He relates how one Friday afternoon in 2007, four strangers came and offered to refurbish and rebuild the huts for free. It turned out that the project to upgrade the huts was sponsored by former Tasek Gelugor Member of Parliament Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop.
“The huts were in a bad state. Many were infested with termites and in disrepair. They were built a long time ago,” recalls the 66-year-old Mansor, who has been caring for the women at the madrasah for 20 years now. He took over the job from his late father.
Their sekolah pondok is not a retirement home, he stresses. “They don’t come here to eat and sleep, like in an old folk’s home. They are here to study religion and follow a rigorous programme. There are ustaz and ustazah who come here to lecture and teach our residents.”
Mansor says some women stay for five years, some for 20 years and some till their passing.
“The women buy their huts. They pay a lump sum for the hut – usually a few thousand ringgit – but it also depends on their capability. When they leave or pass away, the hut comes back to us. Some stay for a few months and we negotiate the rent.
“We believe in give and take because this is a place to study religion. We want them to fulfill their niat (intention) to learn more about Islam,” says Mansor.
He is the fourth in his generation to manage the madrasah, and proud that his ancestor helped Tuan Hussein establish Poko Sena as a centre for Islamic studies.
He shares that he is not sure what his great-grandfather’s name is. He thinks it’s Lebai Man but there is no one who can verify this.