Religious Education Thrives in Penang

loading Ongoing class at Madrasah Miftahul Irfan.

The demand for religious schools in Penang is growing, especially for those offering tahfiz or Quran memorization classes. Each of these institutions offers a diverse and distinctive curriculum design and approach.

The first madrasah on the island, Madrasah Miftahul Irfan (MMI), has been producing high quality huffaz1 since its establishment in the early 1980s on Lebuh Leith. But as George Town developed and grew more crowded, the place became unsuitable for the school as it required a quiet and tranquil environment for students to memorise the Quran. A move was needed, and made: to Balik Pulau.

MMI relocated to Sungai Rusa, Balik Pulau in 1986 and solely offered classes on tahfiz (Quran memorisation) and Islamic studies (study of the kitab2, also known as a’alim).

According to Mohd Samiullah, a senior teacher at MMI, when the madrasah first moved to Balik Pulau, it operated in a small wooden house with only 20 students and one ustaz. “The house and the land were donated by Dr Hj. Rezuan Ahmad’s late father. Throughout the years, student admission kept growing and we soon had enough funding to build a two-storey building which we still use today; all this happened long before I joined the madrasah,” says Samiullah.

“We were told that there were obstacles in getting the required permits as the council was not convinced of the school’s teaching abilities. So when I first joined the madrasah in 2006 along with principals Ustaz Shamsudeen and Ustaz Osman, we introduced a proper school managing system to create an admission system for the enrolment of students and teachers. We also work as a team – each ustaz has their own roles and responsibilities in managing the school,” Samiullah adds.

The medium for teaching is Malay, which is mostly used in a’alim classes because the kitab is in Arabic and requires explanation. “There are eight years of schooling here in the madrasah. The syllabus includes tahfiz, Quranic studies, nahu (grammar), fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence, tajwid (elocution or rules governing pronunciation during recitation of the Quran), Islamic syariah and also extra languages such as Arabic and Urdu, with a year-end final examination. The school is open to children aged 10-15 who are independent and able to live in a dormitory; they first undergo interviews to test their ability to recite the Quran.

The students start each day before dawn, before the fajr prayer, and continues till evening (asr prayer), with breakfast and lunch breaks in between and also a nap before zuhr. Night-time is filled with study group activities and revisions.

The teachers are mostly the school’s own graduates, while others come from local and overseas madrasah, even from as far away as Tunisia and Pakistan. The teachers must have certified qualifications from their previous madrasah or universities, and with recommendations from their own teachers and professors, to teach at MMI.

Integrated Curriculum

Some institutions offer syllabi that include both naqli (religion) and aqli (conventional knowledge) for secondary schools, primary schools, pre-schools and childcare centres. There are also Darul Quran, which is run by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), and private tahfiz institutions offering tertiary-level education for the huffaz.

The Al-Itqan Education Centre (PPAIQ) combines the teaching of religious knowledge (diniah) with the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s integrated curriculum. PPAIQ began modestly with only 70 students and three teachers in a bungalow house in Teluk Kumbar. According to headmaster Mohd Naiz, the number of students has sturdily grown since the school’s establishment in 1998.

Al-Islah's school compound.

A decade later, the Al-Itqan secondary school was established. That same year, the Al-Itqan primary school was registered as a private education institution with the MOE. In addition to these, in 2015 PPAIQ set up two other institutions: the Permata Itqan preschool and an institution based on the pondok education system, Maahad Tahfiz Al-Itqan, which offers the “old school” tahfiz syllabus.

At the same time, Al-Islah started in 1999 as a kindergarten in Kampung Tok Bedu, Tasek Gelugor, housed within two bungalows donated by two donors, with a total of 30 students. Due to high demand, Sekolah Tahfiz Al-Islah (STAIL) was opened in 2001. “Parents wanted us to start an Islamic school with an integrated curriculum so that when their children finish primary school with us, they can continue to our secondary school,” says Al-Islah’s primary school headmaster, Ahmad Hafiz.

Sekolah Menengah Arab Tahfiz (SMART) was established in 2007 with a total of 25 students; this number has increased to 153 since, and includes Malaysia-born Indonesians and Rohingya.

Al-Itqan classroom.

Education for All Ages

PPAIQ and Al-Islah are among the schools registered under Ikram-Musleh, a network that seeks to empower Islamic education at the primary and secondary levels through holistic educational programmes and professional management.

The books used in the tahfiz syllabus are written and published by Ikram-Musleh, while for the integrated curriculum, the schools use books provided by the MOE. Moreover, schooling hours are longer than in ordinary schools: for Al-Itqan (primary and secondary) and STAIL, school begins as early as 7.45am and ends at 3.40pm, while for SMART, school only ends at 5pm because of the extra classes for Jawi writing, Arabic language, mathematics and science.

Al-Itqan currently only offers vocational syariah and accounting courses for its upper forms. “We still can’t provide art or full science streams for the students as our school is not equipped with necessary facilities such as art rooms or science laboratories,” says Norliza, Al-Itqan secondary school’s headmistress.

In the northern region, Yayasan Ilmuwan Utara offers the Science and Technology Tahfiz Education Centre (PPTSAT), an institution that focuses on a religious and integrated curriculum, as well as science and technology subjects. The school was established in 2016 and is registered as a private education institution under the MOE, as well as the State Islamic Religious Council.

The Science and Technology Tahfiz Education Centre (PPTSAT).

PPTSAT aims to build an integrated science tahfiz school in Penang which will offer a broader choice to accommodate today’s demand for religious schools. “For now, we are considered a ‘temporary school’ because we are still in the process of funding the permanent school building, which is estimated to cost over RM3mil for the first phase and will include classrooms, laboratories, a library, a dormitory and a surau,” says Yayasan Ilmuwan Utara deputy president, Haji Abdul Rahim.

Even though PPTSAT is still new to the scene, the school already has 229 students in its primary school and 94 students in its secondary school, with 30 committed teachers. The students undergo an interview, written test and recitation assessment before they can enrol.

PPTSAT adapts their diniah syllabus for its primary school from Maahad Tarbiah Islamiah in Derang, Kedah, and Sekolah Menengah Agama (Arab) Yayasan Khairiah in Kupang, Kedah for its high school. “We also write and publish our own books for our students. On top of that, this year will be the first year that our students will sit for PT3 (Form 3 Assessment); after which, we offer the science stream for Form 4 and 5 students,” says Mohd Tarmizi, headmaster of PPTSAT.


Most religious schools in Malaysia list lack of funding as their main obstacle, especially “old school” institutions such as MMI that does not have a consistent income and instead depends on donations and annual or one-off funds from the local and federal governments. “We need funds and support from the government to help us operate and grow the institution; school fees and donations can only cover the school’s basic needs,” says Samiullah.

The fire that engulfed the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz school in Kampung Datuk Keramat, KL, and which claimed the lives of 23 people, created a backlash against religious schools, especially the madrasah-type schools, concerning fire and safety measures. Other institutions then faced the challenge of convincing parents that their children are in safe hands. According to Samiullah, MMI has good relations with the fire department and receives annual inspections. “We have to work harder now to convince and prove to new parents that we are well-equipped to guarantee their children’s safety.”

“We get visits from the fire department as well as several local vocational institutions to help with the checking, fixing and upgrading of the school’s wiring and safety features,” says PPTSAT’s Mohd Tarmizi.

Perception matters, too. In the past, tahfiz schools were viewed in a negative light as they were deemed to be “lower class”, and it was thought that the students did not have a bright future because of the quality and type of education, in that they were not fluent in English and were fated to only be ustaz.

The teachers disagree: “Our curriculum integrates religious education or tahfiz with academic skills. It is in line with current and future career needs because the job sector requires knowledgeable, skilled and trustworthy workers. The students also sit for SPM and are eligible for universities and good job offers. Society needs to change the notion that religious schools only focus on religious subjects, and that the students will end up as ustaz or ustazah,” says Maimunah, the headmistress of SMART.

The government is also seeking to implement the National Tahfiz Education Policy (DPTN) to ensure that the institutions create successful tahfiz graduates for the job market; as well as introducing technical education and vocational training (TVET) in religious schools. A new curriculum and a training centre for its teachers will have to be set up.

Maimunah, who is also a Masters holder, says that the teaching and learning in tahfiz schools is more or less the same as in national schools, albeit with a strong focus on Quran learning. “There is no problem for the students to pursue their tertiary education. Today, many institutions of higher learning offer religious major courses to tahfiz students. Job opportunities are wide open – many engineers, doctors or lawyers these days are graduates of religious schools. All we need to do is to educate our society about what we are providing; but changing their perception may take time.”

Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.

1A person who memorises, understands and practices the Quran, and remembers what is permitted and prohibited by the Quran.

2Holy book, scripture.

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