Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Modern Islamic Schooling: Fulfilling an Important Need


Maryam Sakeenah

The writer acknowledges the assistance given by all individuals and organizations for making this work possible. Jazakallah. –M.S


The concept of modern Islamic schooling caught on rapidly in Western countries where Muslims had settled as sizeable minorities. Muslims from newly independent states emigrated in vast numbers after the end of the colonial era in search for lucrative work prospects. These immigrant populations, particularly in their second and third generations felt an increasing need to protect and assert Muslim identity and conserve Islamic values in their children who grew up in and confronted a permissive secular-liberal culture. The need to provide second and third generation Muslims growing up in the West with an environment conducive to traditional Muslim values which the public schools lacked led to the concept of the modern Islamic school.

The modern Islamic school teaches the national curriculum as taught in regular schools with some additional components related to Islamic ‘tarbiyah’ (education to impart Muslim values), in an environment that facilitates Islamic practice and protects Islamic values . As immigrant communities expanded, so did the Islamic schools. Today, thousands of these exist in countries where Muslims live as minorities.

In recent years_ perhaps not longer than a decade, a mushrooming of modern Islamic schools has been witnessed in Pakistan’s urban centres. The concept of an ‘Islamic school’ in a Muslim state is rather anomalous and seems uncalled-for, as the factors that led to the popularity of the idea in non Muslim states were not strictly present in a country with a predominantly Muslim population (approximately 98%).

The reasons for this increasing trend go into history. The conventional Islamic schooling institution in this part of the world has been the ‘madrassah’ where students are given religious instruction according to the conventional madrassah curriculum in the subcontinent_ the ‘Dars e Nizami’ which dates back to the eighteenth century, with slight modifications over the years. Traditionally, madrassahs have had a largely contributive role in Pakistani society, catering to a large section of rural and urban lower-middle class_ in some cases even providing lodging and rehabilitation to the poorest through the course of study. However, in later years the madrassah system developed regressive tendencies, in part due to the trend of blind following of the madhabs leading to sharpening of sectarian hostilities coupled with the fallout of the Afghan war that led to the growth of radicalisation and militancy.

On the other hand, almost simultaneously with the onset of denationalisation and growth of the private sector, state control on education loosened. The private sector acquired relative freedom to educate and a number of private institutions in urban areas began to teach increasingly Westernized curricula with a marginal role of religious values. Besides, with the madrassahs catering largely to religious education, their graduates began to find it hard to enter into mainstream education to get specialized degrees, or to compete in the job market. The two trends worked to increase the gaping split between conventional religious and modern schooling.
Roughly during the same time, Pakistan’s educated urban middle class underwent a gradual religious reawakening with the work of several religious movements and groups with a rich intellectual tradition and record of positive social activism_ such as the Jamat e Islami, Tanzeem i Islami, Tableeghi Jamat and of late Al Huda International. Endeavours to spread basic religious awareness and education by these and other groups have led to large sections of the urban middle and upper middle classes to adopt a more religious consciousness and lifestyle. This has also heightened the sense of dissatisfaction among these families with the degenerate madrassah system (barring some exceptions) on the one hand and the Westernized private English medium school on the other.

Modern Islamic schools have therefore filled the gap that has been created, and work to fulfil the intensifying need for a holistic education promising to create well-rounded personalities rooted in traditional religious values and yet adept at academic disciplines taught at conventional schools. Islamic schools have answered the need by providing a ‘middle ground’ imparting Muslim values in an environment that conforms to Islamic principles, facilitates religious practice and does not compromise on academic standards.

Islamic schools have mushroomed in Pakistan’s urban centres and there exist dozens of such schools now in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad as well as in other cities. The schools teach the same curricula as are taught in the private sector English medium schools, but have a greater emphasis on Islamic instruction with added course components like ‘Tarbiyah’ , ‘Fahm ul Quran ’, ‘Tajweed ’ and Arabic language. Also conspicuous about these schools is a mission-oriented appeal rather than a purely commercial orientation that has come to characterize private schooling in Pakistan. Most of the schools also have a separate Hifz department. Hifz is optional for students of a certain age, and in most schools basic education in Math, Science and the languages is given alongwith Hifz, enabling students to easily join mainstream education after completing their Hifz.

Karachi takes the lead in having some of the best of these Islamic schools in Pakistan. The ‘Reflections’ school has managed to attract a fairly large student body, and maintained a consistently impressive academic record. It is run by the ‘Ibadullah Welfare Trust,’ who state on the school’s website the mission and purpose behind the venture: “Reflections is a not for profit, self-sustaining institution. We are working purely for the Pleasure of Allah, and surely none of this is possible without His will. As a Trust we consider ‘Reflections’ as an ‘amanah’ (sacred trust) and feel privileged to be part of this important project. We hope that Allah guides us towards helping Reflections achieve its mission while maintaining its core values.” Some of these ‘core values’ are, as listed by the school: ‘commitment to the Shariah ’, ‘tolerance, sensitivity and respect towards diversity’, ‘maintaining excellence in all aspects’, and a ‘balanced education with emphasis on Islamic morals and conduct.’ The mission statement, phrased ambitiously, states the aim to ‘produce God-fearing leaders’.

This mission, vision, purpose and approach is remarkably akin to most other modern Islamic schools that have recently sprouted. The Star Links school also in Karachi, promises to provide ‘quality education in an Islamic environment.’ The emphasis on academic excellence alongwith character building is explicitly elaborated on the school website hence: ‘Aspiring to become a model educational centre, SLS provides a balanced, integrated education to develop its students emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically. Over the years, the school has developed a curriculum that supports the development of dynamic yet balanced, holistic young personalities. The Islamic integration programme is executed across all subject areas which inspires the students to appreciate and internalize Islam as a way towards their individual and social growth to attain self actualization.’
Karachi’s ‘Nakhlah Education House for Islamic Grooming’ prioritizes Islamic ethics in education ‘imparted on scientific guidelines. ’ It is supervised by a team of acclaimed Islamic scholars and dedicated individuals and is housed in four different campuses, ‘catering to the enhancement of the students' physical, social, emotional and intellectual development, with an especially designed syllabus. The curriculum at Nakhlah is in line with Pakistani values and Islamic beliefs.’

The Intellect Islamic School also in Karachi is a fairly recent initiative in the same vein. Managed by the Bait us Salam Trust run by Maulana Abdus Sattar, the effort is strongly rooted in its rich Islamic intellectual and spiritual tradition. The Trust has years of experience in traditional Islamic education and social work which it has been conducting with consistency and discipline. This explains the enormous trust in the institution displayed by the parents who have enrolled their children here during the school’s very initial years. Amin Chotani, whose children have been studying at Intellect since it began, believes Islamic schooling is essential now for ‘those who take Islam as their way of life.’ He laments the fact that regular schools nowadays do not show any appreciation of the centrality of Islam in the education of children, and include several activities and approaches which go against the very fundamentals of Islam. ‘This leaves educated religious families with no option’, he says. Intellect, according to Mr. Chotani, was an obvious choice for him because ‘The Intellect team is sincere to their work, and the emphasis on character building is praiseworthy. The school’s foundation is a sacred mission and there is no profit motive at all.’ He says that a walk through the school convinces an observer of the school’s commitment to Islamic values: ‘The teachers observe the Islamic dress code, as do the students_ and it has a touch of elegance to it too. There is no compromise on quality. Arabic is part of the curriculum, as are lessons in hadith and the sunnah for children. The children perform the Zuhr prayer in school, and this develops in them the habit to perform prayers regularly. The teachers, guided by Imam sahib, strive to impart the right values, helping children develop a sense of discrimination between good and evil.’ He expresses his deep joy and pride when his children recite to him little prayers they learn at school, or try to practice at home the values and habits that were inculcated through instruction at school. ‘I think I made the right choice’, he says. ‘But it was not easy at first. I had to take a stand as many people questioned my choice of a new institution of alternative learning. At the end of the day it is all about ones priorities in life. An Islamic school like Intellect is the best option for parents for whom character takes precedence.’ The father is confident of the fact that the school will progress and expand tremendously in future: ‘It is under able guidance. The faculty combines spiritual and academic excellence. They work with devotion and are open to new ideas from parents and associates. It is the winning combination.’ Amin Chotani intends to keep his children here till they complete their GCSE and graduate, as do most other parents.

Over the past few years Lahore has also seen a steep rise in the number of modern Islamic schools. The pioneer in the field was Rosans Islamic School which was the first to begin Matriculation and O level classes. It enjoys the highest rate of admissions and enrollment among all Islamic schools in Lahore, owing not only to its seniority but also its stringent application of Islamic values on campus. The School of Contemporary and Islamic Learning (SCIL) was a groundbreaking venture in Islamic schooling as it did not just present an alternative but promised a higher academic standard alongwith an Islamic environment. Mrs. Shaiza Mela, a member of the administration confidently states, “I do not want any of our students to ever feel they have missed out on any aspect of education because they did not go to a conventional school. I promise them the very best right till when they graduate after their O level. We have faculty par excellence.” The rate of admissions to the school has grown exponentially since the school began.

The Educational Partnership of Islamic and Contemporary Studies (EPIC Studies) roughly emerged around the same time as SCIL, and with a similar commitment to academic excellence. The Principal Mrs. Humaira Irfan retired as Associate Professor of English from the prestigious Kinnaird College after she underwent a personal spiritual rejuvenation and decided to utilize her years of experience as an educationist for her own Islamic school. EPIC began O level classes and became a registered CIE centre in the second year of its existence_ a fact the Mrs. Irfan cites with some pride. ‘Understanding Quran’ is a course component from classes I to VIII which includes Quranic Arabic as well as simple tafsir of selected verses. There is a strong emphasis on developing fluency in the language of international communication_ English_ in order to create ‘leaders who can project a positive image of Islam and can convey its message internationally.’ EPIC also prides in its exhaustive and engaging extra curricular activities programme, which Mrs. Irfan believes makes it unique. The school has to its credit the staging of various plays scripted on Quranic themes and stories, Dawah project work by students, debating and science fairs. The school publishes its bi-annual magazine consisting of students’ creative work, to give them avenues of self-expression.

Starting an Islamic school is an epic journey strewn with challenges all along. Mumtaz Khan, principal of the Islamic International School in Lahore shares his journey: ‘The concept of bringing Islamic and worldly education together is fairly recent, and for us to start the IIS idea, we had to deal with a lot of scepticism. There always is reluctance in sending your child to an Islamic school, because of a lack of confidence in such a new and little-known initiative. However, the encouragement and appreciation we get from the parents who have their children with us, keeps us going and makes us strive harder to excel.’ Mr. Mumtaz Khan opines that the most difficult task for Islamic schools is the hiring of faculty members. ‘You see, we do not want just ordinary teachers like you find in all other schools. We want people who combine in themselves academic and professional expertise alongwith sound Islamic knowledge and morals. Also, teachers have to abide by the Islamic dress code so that the school’s Islamic environment is maintained. Finding such individuals is often very difficult. And we cannot compromise on any of the criteria_ it is all that we stand for and promise our students.’ Mr. Khan shares how his education and experience as a U.S- educated entrepreneur helped him develop an effective business strategy for the school which accounts for the school’s success in a relatively short period of time. ‘We have always aimed for self-sufficiency. You cannot run a successful institution on charity. We are here to stay, InshaAllah.’ In fact, the school not only aims to stay, but to expand tremendously in future. Mumtaz Khan shares his ambition to take the IIS idea across Pakistan, and eventually overseas. ‘We want to create a breakthrough in higher education eventually.’ The school is now working to develop educational resources by its own staff members. The school has its own syllabi for Kindergarten classes, as well as Computers and Islamic Studies. ‘Fahm ul Quran’ (understanding of the Quran) is a core course offered in all classes. ‘We considered it necessary to introduce the subject because the current crop of textbooks by the Punjab Textbook Board consist of merely basics. We have a broader aim_ we are here to mould our students into religiously oriented individuals who take pride in their Muslim identity.’ Classes in Quranic recitation skills are also offered at the school. ‘We make sure that before our students graduate, they are able to recite the Quran perfectly with the proper tajweed skills.’ At IIS, Mr. Khan continues, ‘The learning environment comes before the learning content. Before we teach our students, we have to teach our teachers to be role models for students at all times. Teaching is not through verbal instruction. Teachers have to first implement the values, manners and ethics they wish to inculcate in the children.’

Any Islamic institution has to face the difficult but oft-asked question of its ideological leanings, its affiliation with a certain school of thought or sect. Mr. Mumtaz Khan of IIS handles the query skilfully: ‘We are Muslim first and last. The fact of our sectarian orientation is not relevant at all because we do not promote or demote any sect or school of thought here. Everyone is welcome at IIS and we have no concern with your sectarian affiliations. This is not an issue we give any importance to. You see we educate children, and jurisprudence is not a children’s issue. We teach children to pray on campus, but if any student has a different method of performing Salat, we give that space. We accommodate everyone.’ He further clarifies, ‘What we discourage, however, is the blind following of any one particular creed. We give the knowledge and the right values, and believe in freedom. Students are free to decide for themselves which school of thought they wish or do not wish to subscribe to.’

Islamic schooling in the United Kingdom is fairly popular and has a long history. Today there exist Islamic schools throughout the country, on average three Islamic schools in every county and 38 in London alone. Most of these schools follow the Islamic dress code, segregate boys and girls in senior classes, have arrangements for congregational prayers on campus and include additional Islamic components to the national curriculum taught in classes.

Saaleha Sameen is a young college student from Burnley, Lancashire. She is currently studying at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Saaleha studied at an Islamic school and reminisces about her school years: “In retrospect I can whole heartedly say ‘Alhamdulillah ’, I feel incredibly blessed having been able to attend Tauheedul Islam school. The sense of community I felt while being there is unexplainable. The teachers and other students made you feel like you were part of a large family. Nobody asked you what race you were, what sect you belonged to etc. What made my experience different to that of ordinary public schools is the inordinate amounts of energy our teachers put into the lessons. During our lunchbreak, all students and female members of the staff would gather to perform their Salaah (prayer). Again this was a humbling experience, being able to stand amongst all 360 girls from the school and your teachers showed us how in the Eyes of Allah we are all equal. This is not something I would have been able to experience if I had attended any other school, as it is very rare to find a public school which allows students to go and recite their prayers as the athaan (prayer call) is being called. At the beginning of each lesson we would also recite Surah al-Fatiha as a class, first the Arabic and then the English. This brought a sense of calmness amongst the classroom as everyone felt at ease when starting their work. My religion has more significance to me today than it did previously and Allah has provided me with the facilities to practise my faith to the best of my abilities. For this I am truly blessed.”

In the United States the need to establish Islamic schools grows by the day. There exist 136 Islamic schools in the country. Most of these exist in states with large Muslim populations. Although some of these schools have managed to reach out to the Muslim community and maintain reasonable academic standards, most depend on charity from the Muslim community and have yet to build an autonomous self sustaining financial base. Some are managed by local mosques. Some Muslim families in the U.S prefer to enroll kids in public schools and send them to mosque schools on weekends in order to preserve their link with religious values and identity. Still other families have begun ‘homeschooling’ children. They keep their children out of public schools and help them cover the national curriculum at home through materials available on the internet. Parents directly supervise children’s education at home. Several Muslim groups now also provide homeschooling assistance on the internet for parents to include Islamic components in their child’s education at home. Homeschooled children can join colleges after qualifying for their college entrance exams.

There have also been attempts both in the United States and Britain to co ordinate between Islamic schools, give them support and help build their resources. The ‘Association of Muslim Schools’ is such an initiative and has hundreds of Muslim schools registered as members: ‘The AMS guided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah, will strive with sincerity to represent, inspire, motivate, support and build capacity in institutions, so that they become centres of excellence. ’ On its website, the association provides guidance for lesson planning and gives some basic sample lessons and curriculum outlines. The website also has a section on ‘Setting up an Islamic school’ to assist individuals and organizations to establish such institutions which are highly needful in the UK where a large Muslim minority resides.

After 9/11, Islamic schools in Western countries have come under close scrutiny and in some instances, under fire for encouraging the ‘religious segregation of the Muslim community’, maintaining social exclusivity and teaching inappropriate course content which sharpens divides and prevents integration of Muslims in Western society. Muslims in the West have attempted to address these concerns in varying degrees. The Noor ul Islam Welfare trust in the UK states amongst its objectives: ‘to encourage Muslims to actively participate in public life in the UK...’ The Association of Muslim Schools has issued a well articulated response to the vilification of Islamic schools: ‘The overwhelming majority of Muslim schools demonstrate good practice in both Community Cohesion and academic achievement despite the constraints of limited resources and unhelpful media prejudice.’ AMS Chairman Amjad Ahmad comments: ‘Muslim schools are part of the solution to the issue of community cohesion and social harmony, some schools have challenges to meet and AMS UK will support them and continue the work of building bridges with other faiths and communities...’

In the United States strong criticism has been levelled against Muslim schools by the media. Fox News ran a programme highlighting the dangerous fanaticism being preached by Islamic schools which were dubbed as a ‘homegrown threat.’ Daniel Pipes launched a slander campaign alleging that Muslim schools indoctrinate students with hatred and prejudice. Attempts to dispel the negative image and redress the false claims are obvious in the stated missions of Islamic schools in the United States which increasingly stress upon ‘integration’ ‘respect for other faiths’ ‘tolerance’ etc. Albert Harb is the director of the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan. He explains, “We follow the standards of the state of Michigan curriculum. In addition, we have an Islamic component, and we teach Islam as well as Arabic as a foreign language. We want to ensure that we can develop an Islamic character within our youth and give the positive aspects of Islam here in the society of the U.S.A.”

Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University, says “There are over 100 of Islamic Schools of North America teaching the curriculum of the state. There is absolutely no difference in the content of social studies, history, geography, math and science. The only difference is they have one period a day where they study Islam.”

The Islamic Schools League of America (ISLA) is trying to co ordinate between and build support for Islamic schools throughout the United States. The organization also provides assistance for setting up Islamic schools as well as resource materials for Islamic education. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) has several Islamic schools under its wing which it supports in terms of financial, human and educational resources.

All modern Islamic schools are remarkably akin in their mission, vision and strategy. In their own ways, they all strive to fulfill an important need in Muslim societies. Also, they face the same challenges and hurdles. This, alongwith the heartening fact that sectarian affiliations are utterly irrelevant and inconspicuous gives these schools a tremendous scope and potential for co operating, building connections and an effective liaison. Their common not-for-profit missionary zeal also ought to rule out any element of competition. There exist some real grounds for a broad-based collaboration between Islamic schools. While in the United States and the United Kingdom the process is already underway, the need is graver in Pakistan for Islamic schools to pool in resources, to collaborate and share experience and expertise to work towards the development of a unified curriculum.

The intense need of an Islamic curriculum for modern Islamic schools was highlighted in this writer’s discussions and interviews with Muslim educationists and school heads in Pakistan, almost all of whom heartily agreed to a collaboration in this regard. ‘It is tragic’, says Dr. Muhammad Amin of the Safa Islamic Educational Reforms Trust in Lahore, ‘that Islamic schools teach the syllabi of the Oxford University Press and other foreign publishing houses. It defeats the very purpose of Islamic education, as the Islamic ethos has to reflect across the curricula, in all subjects taught at school. It cannot be confined to the Islamic Studies period. Secular and religious knowledge cannot be compartmentalized according to Islam.’ A forum for training of teachers for Islamic schools is a highly needful venture as well. The development of a unified syllabus reflecting academic quality and integrating Islamic concepts and values is an urgent need for Islamic schools so as to enable Muslim youth to develop a worldview imbued with the essential teachings of Islam. The task can be achieved only through concerted effort by pooling in material and intellectual resources and collaborating to provide our children with ‘the best of both worlds.’ The creation of such a collaborative forum for Islamic schools must be taken up by Muslim educationists. It will certainly step up and facilitate the noble struggle taken up by modern Islamic schools and take their sacred mission to fruition, inshaAllah.