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Schooling Islam
Nov 1, 2009
Moroccan preschoolers acquiring the basics of reading, writing and Qur’an memorization in state-funded kuttabs… Turkish high school students meeting with mentors in private homes after school to prepare for science, math and tafsir (Qur’anic interpretation) competitions… Students at Indonesia’s State Islamic Institutes (IAIN), fulfilling divisional studies requirements in Islamic history and contextualizing methodologies for the study of Islam, as well as coursework on democracy, civil society, and human rights before teaching at one of the country’s 10,000 pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) or 37,000 madrasas… Young adults of Muslim background “rediscovering” their religion (after varying levels of formal education) and recent converts attending informal and semi-structured programs of learning that have been organized around key religious authorities in Great Britain... According to Schooling Islam (2007), these are only four snapshots of the diverse types of Islamic education being pursued by Muslim citizens in the world today. Nonetheless, since the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, the Western public has grappled not with the relationship of Islamic education to regional and global developments in economy, educational policy, instructional technology, or interfaith dialogue, but rather with its relationship to radical Islam. Media reports tend to paint madrasas – religious schools dedicated to Islamic learning (or, in Arabic, simply “places of learning”) – as medieval institutions opposed to all that is Western and as breeding grounds for terrorists. Others have claimed that without reforms, Islam and the West are doomed to a clash of civilizations.

Fortunately, the contributors to Schooling Islam (2007), eleven internationally renowned scholars brought together by Robert Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman to examine the different modes of modern Muslim education and their implications for national and global politics, provide new insights into Muslim culture and politics in countries as different as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Mali, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Great Britain. The authors demonstrate that Islamic education is neither timelessly traditional nor “medieval,” but rather that it is complex, evolving, and diverse in its institutions and practices. Citing historical instances of pedagogical reform and attesting to a flexible list of texts and subjects used in religious instruction – (most notably, Arabic grammar and lexicography, rhetoric, logic, Islamic jurisprudence, the prophetic traditions (ahadith), Qur’anic interpretation (tafsir), theology (kalam), pre-Islamic and early Islamic poetry, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and Islamic history, economics, politics and sociology, and modern adaptations of “customs and common usages” – ‘urf and ‘adat - including world religions, European history and languages) – they convincingly challenge the hyperbolic assertion that Islamic education deadens all sense of inquiry. Moreover, they reveal the extent to which the struggle to capture hearts and minds occurred in Muslim lands before the Western media discovered the madrasas, as well as the degree to which Islamic schools remain on the frontline of regional and national debates surrounding culture and politics. Finally, they unanimously conclude that the present struggle, which is concerned with both the political functionalization and the internal dynamics of Islamic education, will shape a generation of young Muslims and their relations with the West.

In his introduction to the volume, Robert Hefner remarks that the reform of Islamic education was given momentum by the decline of Muslim political power: “In colonial settings, Islamic schools were functionalized to sustain Muslim values and ‘ulama social standing, even in the absence of a Muslim-led state. After the Second World War, national independence seemed at first to offer Muslim educators an opportunity to relax their guard. But postcolonial nation-building only ushered in new struggles to control the commanding heights of public ethics and culture. This was no more forcefully the case than [in debates] on the question of where Islam should figure in new programs of mass education” (p.32). Recalling the resurgence of personal piety and public observance which swept through many Muslim societies in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and citing contemporary examples, like the increased involvement of the Egyptian ‘ulama in politics in response to the regime’s efforts to co-opt al-Azhar scholars, as well as the politicization of Pakistani madrasas, particularly during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Hefner states that the primary question today as regards Islamic education “is not whether it should be drawn up into broader political projects (functionalized), but whose projects they should be and how they should engage the plurality of peoples, powers, and ideas that marks our age” (p.33).

According to Hefner, a second line of reflection that emerges in the chapters of Schooling Islam concerns the internal dynamics of Islamic education rather than its functionalization. Indeed, a number of authors discuss how the rise of modern Islamic education has brought about a shift in the distribution and style of Islamic knowledge. The earlier pattern of informality and, in Louis Brenner’s phrase, “initiatic transmission” gave way to classrooms, fixed curricula, examinations, and professional teachers. In these relatively depersonalized settings, many believers came to view their faith as “a subject which must be ‘explained’ and ‘understood”’ (Eickelman 1992, 650) on the basis of formal doctrinal canons. The transmission of Islamic knowledge was abstracted from intimate teacher-student relationships, with their habits of dress, bearing, and deference, and repositioned in classrooms and quick-read textbooks (see Berkey, chpt.2). More recently, as debates over Islamic knowledge have moved from elite circles into restless, mobile and ever-more technologically savvy mass societies, the authority base of teachers in live classrooms and that of print textbooks have begun to be challenged by participants in virtual chat rooms and producers of YouTube video clips, who argue an increasingly diverse set of views. Many of the latest shifts in the internal dynamics of Islamic education – such as Muslims’ increasing reliance on electronic Qur’anic devices, online sermons, and instructional hajj videos, the integration of nasheed, “Islamic rap,” religious cartoons and children’s books in Islamic weekend school curricula, the emergence of international dawah conferences and online fatwa resources, and the recent (2004) establishment of the International Alliance of the ‘Ulama – have not yet been sufficiently examined by scholars of Islamic and social sciences.

The lack of evidence suggesting that the agonistic pluralism of Muslim politics and learning will diminish in the near future leads Hefner to make a third and final conclusion as regards the cultures and politics of contemporary Islamic education. Rather than viewing the ferment surrounding religious schooling as proof that the modern Muslim world dances to the beat of a different drummer than that of the West, East Asia, and Latin America, he reminds us that mass education of a moralistic temper has been the hallmark of nation-making and societal reform since the late nineteenth century’s “Age of Education” (Zeldin 1977); ie. that a moral agenda of one sort or another lay at the heart of state educational projects that unfolded in disparate parts of the late nineteenth-century globe (Fortna 2000, 35). Hence, Hefner argues, “[We] in the West would be truer to our own moral history were we to recognize that our schools and politics, too, bear the imprint of struggles over how children and citizens should ethicalize and behave. Current debates over Islamic education, then, do not represent Muslim civilization’s regression to some pre-modern past. They are a civilizationally specific response to the challenges of pluralism, knowledge, and ethics faced by all citizens in the late-modern world” (p.35).

Schooling Islam has been described as the most comprehensive work available in any language on madrasas and Islamic education. Because it gives a broad, comparative overview of educational developments in the Muslim world, and because each chapter’s bibliography directs the reader to more detailed sources of information, it can, indeed, be called “essential reading” for scholars and policymakers who are interested in the multifaceted cultures and politics of Islam and the future of the Muslim world.

Dr. Jeannette Okur is the translator of Tales from Rumi, a selection of Mathnawi stories adapted for young readers. She is currently conducting research on the portrayal of Muslim-American teens’ lives in a new literary genre called Islamic youth fiction.