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Madrasah As-Sibyan and early forms of Islamic education 1905

There is some uncertainty over the identity of the first madrasah built in Singapore. Madrasah Al-Iqbal Al-Islamiah, founded in 1908, is generally acknowledged as the first reformist madrasah to be established in Singapore by the kaum muda, or “young faction”, reformist movement.[1] However, according to Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Mohamad – a renowned and respected Muslim scholar – who had been informed by the former imam of Sultan Mosque, Ustaz Haji Muhammad, the first madrasah built in Singapore is Madrasah As-Sibyan on Bussorah Street.[2] Chee Min Fui, an academic, also agreed that Madrasah As-Sibyan, established in 1905,  is Singapore’s first madrasah.[3]

Both Sonhadji and Chee identified Madrasah As-Sibyan as a pondok school. The pondok system was one of the earliest educational methods adopted to teach Islam in Malaya. The word pondok is derived from the Arabic word funduq, meaning “inn” or “hotel”.  A pondok school is, therefore, described as “a boarding institution in which students stayed in simple huts built around the teacher’s house”.[4] According to Sonhadji, Madrasah As-Sibyan was a pondok before it was known as a madrasah.[5] Similarly, Chee mentioned that the madrasah’s history could be “traced back to 1901 to an Indonesian religious teacher who taught in his home at Bussorah Street”.[6]

Students of a pondok learnt about Islam through subjects such as Tauhid (theology on the Oneness of God), Tafsir (Quranic exegesis) and Fiqh (jurisprudence). They normally lived in the pondok – usually for a number of years – until they completed all the subjects taught and mastered all prescribed texts.[7]

The Quranic school was another early form of informal Muslim educational institution in Malaya. Lessons on Islam were conducted privately by religious teachers in their homes, mosques or surau (prayer halls).Students of Quranic schools were taught how to perform basic Islamic rituals such as the five daily prayers, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca.They were also taught Arabic so that they would be familiar with the Arabic pronunciation for recitation of Quran verses during prayers.[8]

The pondok and Quranic schools flourished in Malaya from the 14th until the late 19th century.However, at the beginning of the 20th century, these schools were criticised by the kaum muda reformists for their constricted methods of teaching Islam.  The reformists disagreed with the pondok system of teaching the tenets of Islam through memorisation and repetition because it “did not prepare the Muslim youths for socio-economic changes and new employment created by the British colonialists”.[9] The kaum muda subsequently established reformist Islamic schools like Madrasah Al-Iqbal, which adopted “an enlightened approach to the study of Islam”, and included the study of secular subjects such as English and mathematics in the curriculum.[10] The reformists’ ”Westernised” education system would eventually bring the kaum muda into conflict with the religious traditionalists –  the kaum tua, or “old faction” – who were made up of the official religious hierarchy, the traditional Malay elite and the rural religious teachers of the pondok and Quranic schools.[11]

Despite the reformists’ criticisms of the pondok system, it is important to note that pondok schools like Madrasah As-Sibyan significantly contributed “towards a progressive eradication of myths and legends which were pervasive in Malay texts and society during the Hindu era”.[12]

Madrasah As-Sibyan relocated to Lorong Engku Aman in Geylang Serai sometime around 1923.[13] Unfortunately, little is known about the madrasah after that year. However, what is evident is that the madrasah had long since ceased operations because there are currently no pondok schools in Singapore.

1. Khoo, K. K. (2000, November 6). What the ‘madrasah’ actually meant. The New Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from Factiva; Roff, W. R. (1994). The origins of Malay nationalism (pp. 66–67). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 320.54 ROF; Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied & Dayang Istiaisyah Hussin. (2005, August). Estranged from the ideal past: Historical evolution of madrassahs in Singapore. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 25(2), 259. Retrieved November 3, 2014, from EBSCOHost.
2. Ahmad Sonhadji Mohd. (1987). Pendidikan Islam di Singapura [Islamic education in Singapore]. In Mahrajan ke-60: Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiyah, 1927–1987 (p. 66). Singapore: Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiyah. Call no.: Malay RSING 297.07105957 MAH.
3. Chee, M. F. (2006). The historical evolution of madrasah education in Singapore. In Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman & A. E. Lai (Eds.), Secularism and spirituality: Seeking integrated knowledge and success in madrasah education in Singapore (p. 7). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic. Call no.: RSING 371.077095957 SEC.
4. Khairudin & Istiaisyah, Aug 2005, p. 251.
5. Ahmad Sonhadji Mohd, 1987, p. 66.
6. Chee, 2006, p. 7.
7. Khairudin & Istiaisyah, Aug 2005, p. 251.
8. Khairudin & Istiaisyah, Aug 2005, p. 251.
9. Khairudin & Istiaisyah, Aug 2005, p. 252.
10. The New Straits Times, 6 Nov 2000, p. 2.
11. Chee, 2006, p. 9; Roff, 1994, p. 66–67.
12. Khairudin & Istiaisyah, Aug 2005, p. 252.
13. Ahmad Sonhadji Mohd, 1987, p. 66.


The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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