Not only conservative fundamentalism, homicidal fanaticism, destructive Nihilism. Islam is something else. It is much more than the criminally disfigured face of some fringe elements from within its community. Islam is mildness, culture, tolerance, peace.

“In Spinelli’s documentary I found the way to Rossellini’s documentaries, educated and curious […]”, using these words, Bernardo Bertolucci presented DA’WAH by Italo Spinelli at the Rome Film Festival. A documentary filmed entirely in a Pondok Pesantren, a Koranic school in Indonesia in the town of Pasuruan, in an eastern province of Java. The Pondok Pesantren are traditional Islamic schools in Indonesia, originally places where meditation, religion and philosophical arts were studied. They later became centers for the study and spread of Islamic traditions representing an important element in the history and growth of Indonesian society.

DA’WAH is a “classic” documentary, a real-life story, a camera catching the daily life of the thousands of young students garbed in their white robes and gamis, the Muslim turban. The images of Spinelli, the only person to be allowed to enter a Pesantren, are a harmonious, ordered and unbiased glance at a multitude of young students. Just like their white robes.

In the school in Darwa, as in others in the region, a distinctive concept of Islamic education is taught – the DA’WAH – the preaching of Islam, in a country where there is the largest Islamic community in the world, one billion and six hundred thousand Muslims.

2,700 young people attend the Darwa school, from the ages of 6 to 18. Spinelli “follows” four of them – RafliMasduquiYazid, and Shofili. As all the others, they are there with one ambition only – to become Ustād, experts in Islam, religious guides, preachers of the precepts of Allah. For many, especially for those from the lower income groups, knowing religion is the highest level of their education. “I want my son to study […], so he will not be stupid like me, knowing nothing”, the father of one of the students says.

School life is governed by very rigid and demanding rules. Waking up at 3 am, ablutions, praying, Koran reading until 5.30, outdoor gymnastics (another impressive sight), classroom lessons into the late afternoon, then ablutions and praying once again. The strictest rule concerns the use of the Indonesian language. At Dalwa, you study and speak only in Arabic “[…] the only time I’m punished is when I speak in Indonesian, it is compulsory to speak in Arabic, but not everyone does it.”

“DA’WAH in Arabic means invitation”, the teacher explains, “it comes from the verb Dawatan, to invite someone to be closer to the Koran.”  The term is often used in Islam to describe the sharing and teaching of the religious precepts.

There are ways and means to teach, preach and convert.

“In the Koran there is a verse (16:125)”, continues the teacher, “that says […] invite them to take the path of Allah, a Saint and the Almighty, with wisdom and gentle advice […] If the advice is rejected, invite them to join into a calm discussion, using logical arguments that can be acceptable […] You should not insult them nor harass them. As, by doing so, it is quite difficult that Da’wah will be successful. Da’wah must begin from a pure heart, with people beginning on the path of Allah with good manners and respect […], neither terrorizing nor threatening, avoiding violence [..] You must not be rigid, rigidity leads to further rigidity. Violence begets violence.”

A clear stance against the bloody incursions of the armed Jihad, quite wrongly linked to the entire Islamic world. The term Jihad, (literally, force, striving towards a set goal), is associated with many concepts, which cannot be reduced to the words – Jihad – Holy War. In its meaning, there also lie the preaching of the Word of God and the struggle of each believer to fight all evil inclinations.

For very many Muslims (many more than we are led to believe) striving to continuously enhance the actual etymology of the word Jihad has been a mission, to maintain its positive meaning. This is quite removed from the messages of al-Qaeda and the Caliphate of al-Baghdadi, for whom the Jihad means to be armed, the very essence of the Muslim identity, and for whom, whoever denies it, Muslim or non-Muslim, must be punished with death.

“There are many Da’wah schools, some more liberal, others more strict.” (Teacher)

“However, now, the more severe Da’wah prevail. There are bombs everywhere. How do we face the different sects of Islam?”, asks a student.

“Excellent question. Islam is a mild and calm religion. Many religions relate Islam to terrorism, to violence. This is not Islam. It is a misunderstanding. Islam is a religion of peace and we do not see the other religions as enemies”. (Teacher)

“And the violence in the name of Islam? How can we change the image that shows Islam as synonymous with war and criminality?”

“You must tread carefully. We must not act like them. We must make them understand that all this is wrong, but without using violence. We must be kind and gentle with them. If violence responds with violence, does something good come of it? Throughout world history, every religion has had its wars. All communities have had wars, not only Islam. Every religion has had in its past a series of wars, politics has also left different wars behind it. Every civilization has known many wars. There is not one that has not had a war. Wars are linked to the politics of power […]”

Arriving from India towards the end of the 1600s, and mainly spreading in the Sunnite version, Islam grew in strength in the fight against Dutch colonialism. The Pesantren became centers of Islamic proselytizing in response to the Christian colonization.

The Islamic militancy in Indonesian is of the Saudi stamp, where the efforts of Riyadh to export the more puritanical and conservative version of Islam, have coincided with the so-called “Islamic Rebirth” in South-East Asia at the end of the 1970s when the Afghan Jihad and the Khomeini Revolution were seen as a lever of Islam to be used on the West.

“In Indonesia, there are many religions […]” This is the reason, along with the democratic hold, that the country has failed to become an Arab satellite following the wahhabita-salafita discipline.

It is prayer time, hundreds of boys seated on the ground. Their bodies swaying, emanating an aura of serenity, peace, mildness. At 5 pm they return to the classroom.

“In the history of Islam there have been wars, but not fought out of cruelty, or the mere pleasure of fighting. They were for self-defense, as in the battle of Badr when the Prophet Muhammad founded a new civilization. The people of Mecca at that time attacked the Muslims of Medina. The Prophet defended Medina together with Christians and Jews against the attack of Mecca. They fought to defend themselves.” (Teacher)

In 624, in Badr, the foundations of the holy war against the apostates were laid. Muhammad defeated the more numerous and better equipped Meccans, the old pagan caravan traders. ‘It was God who won the battle, not us’, Muhammad was later to declare. After receiving their school reports, students return home to celebrate Ramadan, taking their dreams and ambitions with them.

“I dream of going to Yemen, not as a tourist but as a student. To the Al-Ahgaff University, many of my teachers have graduated from this university. I want to go because it is the place of the great Ulema. I want to learn from them. The Ustad tell us that the Wali, the Muslim saints, have lived in Yemen. People say Yemen is at war, but it doesn’t seem so in Aden or Hadramawt.” (Masduqi).

There is no Internet in the Darwa Pesantren.

“Even if there is war, the will of Allah will triumph for my son. I would be happy even if Allah calls him to him” Masduqi’s father explains.

Yazid, instead, would like to study at the ‘Al Azhar of Cairo, the most prominent religious university in the Muslim world with nearly 90,000 students.

“I would like to go to Spain and watch Real Madrid playing and to Italy for Valentino Rossi.” (Yazid)

“Upon becoming an Ustād I’ll teach abroad. I’ll practice Da’wah and spread Islam, maybe in Germany. In Germany and in Europe Muslims are said to be terrorists, I want to prove them wrong.” (Rafli)

Only a small percentage of the approximately 13,000 Pesantren run by the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, promulgate orthodox Wahhabism and a militant version of Islam. As well as teaching Islamic values and ethics, all the other schools teach mathematics, economics and English. A student finishing the Pesantren, can become an Ustad, or go on to become an engineer, a doctor. In 1989, National Education Law II recognized the Pondok Pesantren as part of the national educational and training system.

DA’WAH is a well-crafted, valuable and educational documentary. Italo Spinelli takes us to a distant land, chipping away (we hope) at our pre-established prejudices.

“Maybe I am wrong, but I believe the Islam depicted in the documentary Da’Wah is possible.” (Bernardo Bertolucci)

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