On Muslim Schooling

Putting aside the controversy of ‘if there should be Muslim schools at all’, what should the role of a Muslim school in Britain be?

Well, it can’t be a run-of-the-mill kind of Muslim school. It has to be able to effectively tackle the obstacles facing contemporary society and be a powerhouse in bringing something vibrant and beneficial for society as a whole – as well as for the students themselves.

A British Muslim School

1. It needs to be a school that deals proactively with the following:

a) (For Muslims) to be effective Muslims;

b) (For non Muslims – if the school is approached by non-Muslims for a place) how to be effective people (not merely effective citizens);

c) To assist the host nation (Britain) to be a successful nation; and

d) To make the world a better place.

2. It should be a school that is Islamic in ethos but situates itself firmly on British soil. That is to say to make Islam relevant and meaningful for the British citizens it caters to, with reference – as much as possible – to Britain’s own cultural heritage.

3. When the Christians converted the pagans of Ancient Britain from the 3rd through to the 6th Century, one tactic was to keep prevailing (pagan) traditions and ‘Christianise’ them – e.g. The Yuletide holiday marking the pagan celebration of the winter solstice was renamed ‘Christmas’ and became known as the supposed ‘holy’ date of the birth of Christ.

4. What I refer to in 2, above, is not the same as what I talk about in 3, above. Rather, I’m talking about making cultural parallels and links to bridge intellectual gaps without making claims to false traditions; point 3, above is about setting up false traditions as a means of conversion.

Loyalties: Government or People?

5. The school should be privately funded so it is not tied unnecessarily to government controls. This way, the school won’t be pandering to the whims of the state and its ‘politics’. This way the school can be positively critical of government (when appropriate). It is real life people we are concerned for. We need to maintain a charity arm and a social project arm. We must assist our nation in nurturing the next group of fruitful citizens amongst other objectives.

Innovation and Philosophies

6. Our Muslim school has to be assertive, forward-thinking and innovative. Note, we must make a clear distinction between bid’ah (as a fundamental change in belief or worship of God (religion)) and innovation (as a positive change in thinking, which may yield technological advantage, but is not necessarily restricted to this. It may lead to conceptual and cultural advances too). Our school should engage with a more rigorous attempt to deal with this notion of innovation and the underlying philosophy behind it and be a pioneer in its application.

7. We should teach philosophy on top of the traditional subjects taught already, and probe moral questions in a dialectical fashion (to get the kids to debate, discuss, think and reason out points. Note, the approach to these topics should not be entirely based on the normative Western (Euro-centric) versions, but on more holistic grounds. We must look at it not only from traditional Muslim perspectives, but compare/contrast this with other non-European and non-Islamic perspectives to gauge a range of perspectives in order to gain a fuller (human) understanding. Then questions are to be asked: what does this mean for Muslims and others, now, here or elsewhere in the world? The answers will enable us to be better and more relevant Muslims as well as to enable us to be of positive value for the rest of humanity by providing clues to the answers non-Muslims may ask too.

8. We should teach (other) religious and belief systems in the classroom with seriousness. To include and articulate perspectives from other faiths (including the atheist perspective) will stimulate thinking as students wrestle to make sense of different ways of thinking. Teachers may assist in ensuring a way of navigating through them. The effort to ‘make sense’ will lead to positive innovation – see point 11 for dealing with difference.

9. Promote the notion of ‘Humaneism’ (as opposed to ‘humanism’), which is the notion that what is paramount is to be humane whether one has a faith or not. Humanism on the other hand implies that the ‘human’ is the ‘measure of all’ – and in essence, replaces the position of ‘godhead’, functioning as a secular ‘idol’ but without the ‘mystique’ of religion. This despite its quasi-religious qualities and overtones and in spite of its antithesis to religion.

Histories, Secular Space and Publications

10. With history, for instance, we know there should be different emphases to the global narrative based on one’s perspective. So the history syllabus in the UK, say for instance in modern history, is articulated within a structure that is bound by an Anglo-American ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama 1992) – or ‘Clash of Civilisations’ (Huntington 1996) paradigm. This leads to two points:

11. A) First, why not unpack the ‘other perspectives’. What are they? This will give us a truer account of what is happening (see for instance Mohammed Arkoun 1994, or Susan Douglass 1994). But how do we interpret these accounts? Which is true? Won’t this simply lead to relativism? For Muslims, no. We will by virtue of knowing we are accountable, need to make decisions in life in terms of real, existential questions of being and becoming – and it is here that our actions will be judged. (We are, of course, entitled to ‘sit on the fence’ if we choose for non-essential decisions.) For non Muslims, we may assist in providing them with greater clarity in the range and complexity of phenomena (in history) by assisting in the presentation of alternative data that non Muslims may not otherwise had any ‘air-time’ to. What is essential is a non-polemical, non-dogmatic, non-possessive claim to truth in the way we articulate ourselves. We must admit ours is our belief of the truth and admit that Allah knows best, just as equally as a non Muslim may believe their version of reality is the truth. There must be a space for people to make their own decisions that must be respected in a pluralistic society. Some may call this a ‘secular’ space – but we can decide on another term if it is deemed that this name is too value-laden. The name doesn’t matter; it is the phenomena that does.  There is a necessity of dealing head-on with difference and different opinions [1]. This breeds new and original thought (for more on investigating history see point 13; for more on difference see points 14-16).

12. The school must respect point 10 (above) and make it absolutely clear that people must remember they are accountable for their decisions in life. We must then articulate the rules governing this ‘secular space’. Please note: we shouldn’t conflate God controlling the religious and non-religious (secular) dimensions with our role as vice-regents overseeing the religious and non-religious; in terms of systems, we should avoid making tenuous comparisons of God’s to man’s. The only exception to this is with God’s attributes (His 99 Names), which is a worthwhile measure for man to aspire to. And since these impact the spiritual-personal core: one’s character, personality and one’s existential dimension, they have sub-sequential effect on the sociological and political domain. It is the latter domain, which to all intents and purposes, could be considered to fall within the ‘secular’ remit. That is to say, systems constructed to govern the sociological and political (regardless of one’s belief as to the why’s and wherefores) are essentially man-made (and can be ‘man’ipulated) – and hence ‘secular’ enough. This is a debateable point.

13. B) We could create literature to investigate the various narratives of history – (following on from point 10) – and thereby, make textbooks to market. The results of which will lead to the next generation of educational material. We should identify current (normative) thinking modes that shape the world, and by doing so, pick out latent, undercurrents in thinking that run synonymously with this norm, which may become valuable visions for the future.

Proactive Thinking and Dealing with Differences

14. I’m convinced stagnation happens when people are told what to think and are dissuaded from thinking ‘outside the box’. Muslim thinking in near recent times, which has been conflated to mean ‘traditional’ Islamic thinking, believes that thinking ‘outside the box’ is synonymous to thinking outside what is ‘Islamically proper’. The definition of the latter – often appears to be –closely tied to insecurities around the historical Muslim (cultural and political) demise of power from the world stage. Advance happens in times of conflict; and conflict here can also mean the struggle (jihad) to deal with radically new circumstances and ideas in a pro-active way – not in a defensive way. Let’s not build more walls. Let’s step forth and bite the bullet [2]. Think about the tensions thinkers had to deal with prior to Shafi’s Risala, or the Ashari breakthrough, the rise of secular humanism in the West after their struggle with Muslim philosophy (notably, the works of Ibn Rushd) in the middle ages, or more recently, the advances with microchip and scientific technology and Western political/ cultural co-operation after the crisis of WWII.

15. We should have a principle of ensuring we have a range of different types of Muslims in our teaching staff (we market our school to these differing groups when recruiting teachers). Consider this like six divergent houses – or ways of thinking: rational-empirical (scientific); legal-political; aesthetic-creative; spiritual-social-cultural; physical. This will stimulate different ways of thinking and lead to innovation through tension. This is a debateable point.

16. Consequently, we must ensure we have a policy on the notions of agreement / disagreement and the etiquette of discussion.

Mainstream Education and its Discontents

17. If we agree with the notion that the sole purpose of mainstream education has become one to get kids directly into jobs market[3], then something needs to be done. Mainstream education fails to explain life or provide ways of dealing with life on the one hand and narrows everything to material forces on the other; an obsession with the attainment of grades with purely functional (secular) skills.

18. We need a different approach to teaching, which must be heavily ‘applied’ – a combination of work experience and life experience. I do not simply refer to ‘vocational’ courses in this context:

Departments and Curriculum

19. Our school needs the following key departments/zones:

  1. A great media department encouraging kids to generate films etc with innovative cultural content;
  2. A great literature department to do the same in the field of British literature,
  3. A great business school allied to an innovative Employer Engagement Unit to help students with work experience and the world of work; – and to rethink models of the home-work balance. We need to encourage entrepreneur-like thinking and perhaps provide manual and office (work experience) skills. Encourage volunteering – with a mentoring element, which helps students psychologically, emotionally and gets them to think about their social, economic and spiritual self; hence:
  4. Partnerships with social groups and participating in cultural movements as a necessary student and human vocation.

20. To develop a curriculum which does not favour one way: an academic route or a vocational route. We must consider students that have learning difficulties and learning disabilities. Islam should not be regarded as the religion for “brainy kids” – but for all. So what are the pathways we propose for less able students? (See points 21-22.)

Different Approach for Weaker Students in the Muslim Education System

21. Considering students with poor aptitudes we must have radically different strategies for them (especially as it relates to the kind of Islamic learning we want to offer). In terms of general education, it does need to be more vocational and we must broaden students’ life experiences (as 17, above).

22. Not all students will be hafiz, imams, politicians, and academics. So we cannot assume that this will be the end product. We must deliver a syllabus that maximises students’ skills and enable them to be articulate with a religious understanding to carry on in life with a compass to Allah forever with them. But they must also be nurtured to develop other skills of value.

Different Approach for Academically-‘Stronger’ Students in the Muslim Education System

23. For academically ‘stronger’ students, we need to provide pathways to very good colleges and forge links with universities as a pathway of progression, including Muslim ones (i.e. Cambridge Muslim College).

Parent Policies

24. Parents should be fully committed to the children’s education. We therefore ensure as part of our policy that they must sign to say they will partake in some activities/workshops: interactive, innovative, project-based – disseminating thoughts on Islam in the west, their rights and responsibilities, and active thoughts on dealing with society and marketing/fundraising to them – or to get them to assist us in this. (Non Muslims must go to a different workshop: ‘understanding Islam through the manufactured myths’; Islam must be allowed to articulate itself (un-prejudiced); and the need for honest debates on current trends in society.)

Final Words

This I believe is a viable project to work towards when it comes to Muslim Schooling in Britain. Please note that I have taken it for granted that we are trying to inculcate Islamic knowledge as our core goal into our kids’ consicences so that their actions, behaviours and personas serve as leading examples for the next generation to come, as demonstrated by our Prophet (pbuh) in his time.

[1] See my paper on the ‘’7-step Easy Guide to Dealing with Difference” – although, please note, this was more about helping people through the ‘dealing’ part of the conundrum.

[2] Nitzsche explained that acting defensively was a weak manoeuvre; acting pro-actively was life-affirming and reaped greater rewards because it was a stronger manoeuvre. Refer to ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’.

[3] See www.johntaylorgatto.com. for literature about the failure of mainstream education, including ‘Dumbing us Down’ 2002 (2nd Ed); ‘The Underground History of American Education’ (2001) and ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’ (2008).


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