THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
It may be baffling to some that traditional Islamic schools appear to thrive in a multi religious, multiracial and multicultural country like Malaysia.
They find it rather anomalous that the concerted focus on religion is favoured and how the goals of pluralistic nation-building can be attained when Muslim children are corralled into a certain form of schooling to be taught only the religious facets, isolated from the other religions and races.
Having lived under a protected shell all throughout their formative years, the ‘graduating’ students may be spiritually-laden but are often ill-equipped to face the real world.
Dr Ebrahim Moosa, a Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of History and the Kroc Institute for International Studies, says that there is a need to ensure that traditional Islamic schools – locally known as “sekolah pondok” or “tahfiz” – in a country such as Malaysia follow a curriculum that supports nation building that melds together input from all religions regardless of race.
“If madrasas (traditional Islamic schools) are not helping to enlighten the next generation of people, then those students are going to be a problem. They are not only part of a nation, but also part of nation-building.
If madrasas are not helping to enlighten the next generation of people, then those students are going to be a problem. They are not only part of a nation, but also part of nation-building
“So, you have to be careful of what the curriculum is,” says Ebrahim.
He was speaking to AWANI Review exclusively after a forum on global politics in Kuala Lumpur recently. Ebrahim was here in Malaysia at the invitation of the Islamic Renaissance Front to promote his latest book “What is a Madrasa?”.
The academic adds that it is important for the curriculum at traditional Islamic schools to address the state of the world we live in now and not put too much emphasis on how to live as Muslims 15 centuries ago in Arabia.
Ebrahim should know, as he himself is a product of the Madrasa system in India and Pakistan. However, as he got disenchanted with the way he was taught in those schools, he decided to embark on furthering his education in western Catholic institutions. In fact, the university he is currently attached to is very much rooted in Catholicism.
He also said that in line with principles of equality, Muslim governments should be equivocal – not only subsidise the Islamic traditional schools, but also extend similar aid to schools catering to other religious denominations, should they require it.
This in turn, Ebrahim says, will enhance nation-building efforts to bring together people of different religions and different cultures.
“If we only subsidise madrasahs but don’t subsidise Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious schools – that is unfair. You can’t extend privilege for one group over the other.
“Therefore, I think if you are going to have madrasas that are only privileged and teach only a narrow education, those people are not going to be integrated into the national life and it’s going to be a deficit in citizenship.
“They might be living in a very narrow universe but they will not be able to integrate themselves into the world in which the rest of the country is,” says Ebrahim.
Ebrahim further opined that there is a necessity for the teaching and learning practised in such settings of traditional Islamic schools to be monitored by the powers that be.
Pointing out the deficiencies of the products of such schools, Ebrahim lamented such incomplete model of citizens will stunt efforts at nation-building.
“The contribution to nation-building would be a very narrow definition of Islamic identity. Oftentimes, these people who come out from these madrasahs, and if they go further, they don’t have a fully formed identity of what it is to be a Muslim or Malaysian in the 21st century. So, they have ideas, which are not really tested and tried ideas nor relevant to the experience of Muslims.
“In my view, they become individuals who either become spoilers of what is supposed to happen in the national life. They don’t understand these issues. Then, they make statements that are completely off-colour or they make statements that are irrelevant.
“I think the role will be to engage with those institutions and give them better alternatives and make them understand that what they are teaching is not going to be beneficial to the children and the community."
Ebrahim asks the authorities to weigh in on these questions for the betterment of the future of the nation.