USTAZ Saiful Baharin Che Ali was giving a sermon at the nearby Kampung Delima mosque on the night of Feb 28 when he missed a telephone call from a student.
The 43-year-old mudir, or principal, of the Madrasah Al-Badriah in Jal Besar, Tumpat, later called back the student about 8.30pm and was informed that the religious school was on fire.
“I was shocked because it was the first time the incident had occurred in the many decades that it had been in operation. I rushed back, but there was nothing that could be done.
“The blazing fire was fanned by strong winds and the firemen were already there to control it. I am glad that there was no casualty as all the students were in the surau to hear a ceramah,” he said in an interview recently.
The fire destroyed 44 units of the double-storey pondok, which were partly brick and partly wood.
The incident is the first involving pondok schools this year.
The Kelantan Fire and Rescue Department recorded seven cases of fire at pondok and religious schools in the last five years, with three of them occurring last year.
The biggest fire last year was at Madrasah Addiniah Yusuffiah, or known locally as Pondok Gelang Emas, in Pasir Mas, where 40 pondok were razed to the ground, while the other two involved houses and a girls’ hostel at the well-known and biggest pondok in Kelantan at Pasir Tumbuh here.
Ustaz Saiful admitted that the pondok school was built without taking into consideration the security aspects and the units close to each other, which contributed to the fire spreading rapidly.
“Unlike other pondok, we had to build two-storey structures because the size of the land is small, less than 1ha.
“Many people have also asked why we had used cheap and highly-flammable materials for our pondok.
“Actually, the management did not have enough money.
“We just make do with what we have as the important thing is the students have a place for shelter in their quest for knowledge,” he said.
Ustaz Saiful, who is a graduate of Egypt’s famous Al-Azhar University, said the students at the pondok came from all over the country, mostly from poor families.
He said they did not pay anything to the madrasah, except for RM10 to RM15 monthly for water and electricity bills.
“They survived on zakat and also donations from the public when they are called to perform solat jenazah (prayers for the death), tahlil and recitals of the Quran,” he said.
On the reconstruction, Ustaz Saiful said they needed more than RM200,000 to rebuild the pondok that had been destroyed and complete several other buildings at the madrasah, which had been left abandoned due to lack of funds.
He said new buildings also had to be built as there were a big demand from the public for seats at the madrasah.
“The fire has made us realise the importance of taking security precautions to prevent fire. We were lucky that the incident happened early. Just imagine what would have happened if it had broken out at night, when everybody was sleeping.
“We have already gone to the Fire and Rescue Department to consult on the steps to be taken when rebuilding the pondok
and it has been very helpful,” he said.
The Malaysian Pondok Development Foundation, on its website, listed 62 pondok and religious schools throughout Kelantan.
However, the Pondok Studies Development Centre, a welfare body for pondok and religious schools in the state, which is also recognised by the state government as a representative of pondok in Kelantan, listed only 15 of them as members.