Mad About Madrassah

Britain is home to 1600 madrassahs; an institution heavily criticised in recent months. So, what really goes on in a madrassah?

I have taught in madrassahs for 10 years. But for years, I could not bring myself to call it a ‘madrassah’. For me—and for so many of the wider British society—that word conjured up too many negative images. Images of children being taught about waging war against infidels. Images of rote chanting of the Qur’an, combined with collective head-swaying of small children. And of course, images of innocent children being beaten up at the hands of angry teachers.

Yet literally translated, the Arabic word ‘madrassah’ simply means a ‘place where learning and teaching is done’. In other words, it means ‘school’—not necessarily a religious school, but a school in the broader sense of an institution of learning about many subjects, for students of any age, potentially right through to university level.   

Prophet Muhammad never attended a formal place of learning. In fact, Muslims believe he was the ‘unlettered prophet’, unable to read or write. Muhammad’s character was naturally shaped through his childhood. He spent his formative years experiencing tough desert living with his nursemaid Halima. By the tender age of six, he was an orphan. He then stayed closely by the side of his grandfather Abdul Muttalib as he sat by the Ka’ba in Makkah and listened to the people who came to speak to this respected elder. His first job was as a young shepherd, a job enabling him to develop skills of patience and gentleness, a sense of contemplation and an appreciation of solitude. Well before prophethood, at age 40, he nurtured his sense of God-consciousness through spending many quiet hours in a cave, searching for the deeper purpose of life.

Even once Islam became established, madrassahs as we know them today did not initially exist. They developed several hundred years after Muhammad’s death, providing a forum for learned Muslims, or shaykhs, to hold regular education sessions. The first one was set up in Fez, Morocco in 859, and was much more recently given the accolade by the Guinness Book of Records of being the ‘oldest, continuously operating, degree granting university in the world’.

Today, most cultures value formal education over an unstructured upbringing, whether for secular or for religious education. There is now an array of primary and secondary schooling options, as well as Sunday schools for Christian children, Cheder classes for Jews, and madrassahs for Muslims.  A television documentary for Teachers TV called ‘My other school is a madrassah’ explains to mainstream teachers what the 200,000 British Muslim children who attend one of 1600 such institutions experience after school.

One of my close friends made sure they never visited the supplementary school where I taught, in case they witnessed me showing these impressionable young children how to fight disbelievers with swords. Leaving aside my total inability with sword-wielding, this topic never managed to feature on the curriculum. Religious schools for children are instead an opportunity for children to learn many aspects of their faith, while mixing socially with others of a same faith background. For Muslims, subjects usually include how to perform rituals such as prayer and cleanliness, developing an Islamic moral character, and understanding stories of many of the Prophets, with a special emphasis on Muhammad. Additionally, just as Jewish classes tend to emphasise learning Hebrew, madrassahs worldwide focus on teaching Arabic. This enables students to read the Qur’an in the language and manner in which it was originally revealed, ultimately to memorise large portions of it. It is also important the children learn the meaning of the Qur’an, so they can implement its teaching and guidance in everyday life.

Some state school teachers have spoken openly to me of their concerns about madrassahs: attending two hours after school, up to five times a week leaves little time for homework, sport, or playing with friends; and children are arriving at school in the morning exhausted.  There is also a concern that the typical rote learning style at madrassah conflicts with the questioning and interactive style now promoted in school.

Other concerns are even more serious, and include fears that children may be being physically beaten and that they are being brainwashed. An adult I know who attended a madrassah as a child was hung out of the window after he failed to answer a question correctly—unsurprisingly, he has now left the faith. A Dispatches programme broadcast only a few months ago used undercover filming to get footage of two madrassahs in the UK where the physical punishment of children occurred: parents and children alike adopted a culture of silence and acceptance.

However, while I have always felt unable and unwilling to commit myself or my children to attending madrassah five days of the week, a little bit of exhaustion may not be a bad thing. As a school-going child, Barack Obama was woken up by his mother at 4am every day to practise English through a correspondence course: when Barack complained, she replied, “This is no picnic for me either, Buster!” Perhaps without that persistence and learning from an extended school day, he would not be in the position he is today.

Moreover, rote-learning can have its benefits. Children have an instinctive desire to memorise language patterns—the ease with which they can replicate the words used in the latest American teen shows being vivid but unfortunate testimony of the fact. And just as the latest pop lyrics can go round and round in people’s minds as they sing along, so Qur’an memorisation becomes easier when children recite it repeatedly. This memorisation both develops the brain and builds a valuable mental discipline.

It is true madrassah education often ends up intensely boring, but there is no reason why such learning should not be fun and interactive instead. Many increasingly use song, craft, role play, storytelling, discussions, children’s presentations, and interactive games and activities. One such place is featured on the Teachers TV documentary. My madrassah also includes outings to other places of worship and fundraising events for and visits to its adopted ‘social cause’.

Beatings are unacceptable. But beatings are the antithesis of Islamic teaching. Muhammad insisted: “Whoever does not show mercy to his children is not one of us.” Shocking as this Dispatches expose was in a country where corporal punishment is now illegal in any teaching institution, the programme highlighted only two madrassahs out of the 1,600. There are no statistics on ‘brainwashing’ but all religious supplementary schools of whatever faith aim to familiarise their students with the basics of their religion and appropriate patterns of behaviour. This falls far short of indoctrination of an intolerant and aggressive attitude towards others. Muslim children learn Muhammad was taught to say: ‘For you, your religion—and for me, mine’ (109:6).

Multiple places of learning—at home, outside in natural surroundings, in school, and after schooI—help our children to develop a fully rounded and confident identity. I have seen how madrassah can be an integral and positive part of those experiences. My seven year old told me recently: ‘I love madrassah. I get to see lots of my friends and it’s really fun.’ That is how it should be. And I now have the confidence to say: I teach in a madrassah.

Lucy Bushill-Matthews is author of ‘Welcome to Islam—a convert’s tale’.

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