Monday, September 24, 2007

Uninsightful Educational Reforms


Maryam Sakeenah

I remember how when I was in school, one of the toughest things the teacher asked us to do was learning the method of prayer. I remember the long afternoons I sat learning the various du'as and recitations for fear of a lurking oral test. Several years down the line, I value the training. It helped me slip easily into performing my prayers regularly and correctly when I was the right age. For several of those in my class who belonged to families where teaching Salat to a child wasn't the norm, being made to learn it at school came in handy in later years of self-awareness.

As a teacher myself now, and having developed a more seasoned vision, I often compare the English Reading Series printed somewhere abroad with our own Textbook Board Urdu and Islamiyat texts. Clearly, I see a difference. That humble, cheaply printed and colourles book with the 'Sadaqat Amanat Diyanat' monogram weighed so much more in substance than the glossy, colourful, expensively printed Oxford or Ginn series. At best, the stories and lessons in these foreign editions provided more room for creativity and imagination, created more interest and had better vocabulary. But that was almost all they could offer. On the other hand, each and every story or chapter in the locally printed text afforded the reader some valuable lesson in morality, religion, human values, ethics, social awareness or grooming. A sacred mission was palapable in every sentence of the books which the glossy foreign ones completely lacked in content, what with all the money, talent and skill they had invested. I reflect. Certainly, a lot of values that are now part of me and come naturally were implanted into me in those early years, and these books we read certainly have had a significant role to play.

My students today, and those of the forthcoming generations aren't as lucky.

Recently, the government has announced a revamp of the education policy. In the recently released White Paper titled 'Education in Pakistan' prepared by a team set up by the federal education ministry under Javed Hasan Aly, the core objectives to be pursued have been clearly stated.

It says that 'ethics... should essentially form the basis of religious education and rituals must not overtake substance as the focus of sensitisation.' Religious instruction now will not deal with rituals and traditional Islamic practices. No more methodology of prayer, fasting, Zakat or pilgrimage to be taught to students. These, after all, are 'personal matters' and it is not the task of education to deal with these. Instead, the focus here will be to promote the spirit of tolerance, ethics and universal human values.

Fed on such textbooks, the mindset that is sure to emerge is one which rejects the outward, the literal and physical aspect of the Shariah (Islamic Doctrine and Law). The focus on the inner spirit coupled with completely marginalising the literal/physical dimension can lead to a dangerous trend, much as that which led to the growth of the 'Baatineeyah' Movement which was responsible for the emergence of various groups and factions whose common thread was a rejection of the letter of the law_ the Shariah of Islam_ with a singular emphasis on the inner self and its spiritual states. Islam, however, does not bifurcate or separate the outward rituals and physical practices from their spirit and the inner states. Together, the two dimensions make a whole. Ignoring the rituals and practices reduces Islam to a spineless, insbstantive spirituality, renders it a sterile doctrine indistinguishable from Christinaity, Hinduism or Buddhism.

Building on the same point, the White Paper further states: “school education must now be designed to smoothen the turbulences of sectarian differences and develop a rational character and outlook of inclusion and tolerance”. This implies that the emphasis on what is 'right' and 'wrong' will be removed and matters of difference of opinion will not be touched upon in order to create harmony, tolerance and openness to sectarian differences. With the rituals, practices, laws, dos and donts of the Shariah thrown out, the student will find himself at a loss to even know and judge what in fact is correct, straight and in tune with the Quran and Sunnah and what is not. This will obviously lead to an unaccepptable variation in religious beliefs and practices, and eventually, deviation from the mainstream. It will lead to unclarity, confusion and ignorance. While we happily forecast the creation of a tolerant society, we do not know that with the grip on the Sources loose as ever, the ignorance and deviance it will create will only fan the differences.

For, the way to create harmony and gradual unification is to present the unequivocal statements of the Quran and the Sunnah (and the Shariah derived from them) as the Standard, the criterion and the yardstick, without indulging in any sectarian argument or prejudice. Teaching the straight and clear interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah and rationalizing it for a young mind will make all rootless, erroneous approaches quietly recede into the background. A logical, dispassionate appreciation for the clear, straight and simple letter and spirit of the Quran and Sunnah will naturally and gently be created. The Quran lays out the path to harmony and unification overcoming all divisions: "And hold fast, all together, to the Rope of Allah (The Quran), and be not divided." One only needs to understand the wisdom of this simple way to unify. The Prophet (S) said in the Farewell Sermon: "I am leaving behind two things: theWord of Allah, and my sunnah. If you hold fast to these, you will never go astray."

Strictly limiting religious instruction both quantitatively and in scope, the White Paper aims to alternatively create a democratisation of mindsets so as to bring into existence a culture of tolerance, moderation and co-existence. This is both myopic and uninsightful. Seeing Islam and the creation of a peaceful, harmonious society as diametrically opposed entities shows ignorance of Islam and of our socio-cultural dynamics. In a Muslim society, any enlightenment, any social model or democratic culture sought outside of Islam will fail. It is in a thorough, wholesome understanding of and education in Islam that creates the balanced and disciplined individual, and in turn, a peaceful, civlized society. Thinking that the way forward to be civilized and developed is to disassociate oneself from Islam and go secular is an outcrop of an ignorant mind.

Environmental awareness, personal and social hygiene, human rights and ethics are noble aims, but they should not be pursued outside of and while limiting Islamic education. For, Islam has a massive human rights and ethical content, and even guidance on preserving hygiene and environmental protection. A nascent Muslim society can heavily draw upon this untapped treasure to seek a positive direction for development. How many of us know that in Surah Rahman Allah instructs us to preserve the delicate natural 'Balance' of the environment, among other things? That planting trees is strongly encouraged and maintaining hygiene a necessary condition for the acceptance of your worship? That even a small action which benefits the community and creates comfort for others like removing a stone from the road is considered a deed carrying reward? That taking a single life unjustly is like killing all mankind? That the life and honour of a person are sacred to a Muslim? Teaching these concepts through Islam will give our younger generation a valuable sense of pride in their identity so they can lift their heads high and face the world to show it how beautiful that identity is. On the other hand, pursuing these goals at the expense of literally mutilating and marginalising Islamic education will only perpetuate the pitiable state of mental colonization and enslavement we are already trapped in.