Schools started by Muslim volunteers face a variety of challenges. But a few are major issues: finance, quality education, and, the raison d’être of their labor i.e., creation of ideal Muslim personalities.
School-running is now business. It is big business. Returns are proportionate to investment(s). The higher the investment: the better the area of school location will be, bigger the campus, grandier the buildings, higher the teacher’s salaries and – in consequence – better the results. Add a hall-full of computers, a playground, a good stacks of books in the library, and, if possible, a swimming pool, and you have everything to justify the fee that promises to fatten the investors’ pockets. In the poorest of societies there are always those who are ready to pay the sums of demand, if a school can deliver the quality of demand.
But this business-like attitude goes entirely against the mental makeup of those Muslims who volunteer (at the cost of their own careers) to open schools. Their objective is service: to the largest numbers. Consequently, they cannot be elitists, even if in their personal lives they are. They must have modest budgetary layouts to serve the largest number of people.
But modern-day good education – as it is understood by the great majority – has its own minimum costs and is available only to those who can pay for it. A school under a banyan tree can deliver, if you have the right kind of teachers, good quality education, but cannot deliver what is known in the contemporary world as “good education.”
Today, either that education is good which helps students score high marks, so that they can enter into professional courses (no matter how poorly they are educated in real terms, and how unfit for life in physical terms), or, it is one whose students can outsmart their parents in every conversation (because they employ such modern terms as to subdue them), whose outlook confirms with that of the celebrities around, and who will be perfectly at home with the culture and atmosphere of any Western University. Whether such a school has every possibility of young men emerging with long hair and short pants, an I-pod in one hand and marijuana in the other, with high communication skills in English, but incommunicable with any sane man, more at home in the streets of Paris and New York, than in their own country, is immaterial. They must achieve modernity and have wings strong enough to fly to America. What can produce this class of boys and girls is, to many, “good education.”
The volunteer management of Muslim schools does not regard any of the above as its model. This is the second challenge that the committed men and women face. They want to deliver good education, but parents differ with them over the definition of good education. Parents want one of the two above, while Muslim volunteer-management wishes to deliver them a new generation of young men and women who are well equipped with right kind of knowledge, are aware of the true challenges of life, realize the crucial role of morals in a man’s quality of life, are sober, and entirely responsible. In addition, Muslim volunteers believe in good physical health, meaning, to put it simply, feminism in the female students, and masculinity in the male students. In short, they focus on personality. But parents focus either on a profession, or on modernism, or a mix-up of the two. The ideal personality that the Muslim volunteers have in mind is suspect in the eyes of everyone else but a few. No matter how pronounced the parents are about their commitment to Islam, they wish to set limits to how Islamic their children will be! And those limits are pretty narrow.
The school organizers, therefore, attempt to satisfy everyone’s demands, along with whatever they can do about developing a personality out of the raw and straw in their hands. As if this is not burdensome enough, the other is: finance. How to make parents open up their purses? Just as the next-to-free services of the service-oriented Managers and Administrators of the school, parents want education also to come free, or at negligible cost. (The elitist class never hesitates to accept charity, if it comes disguised).
On the educational front the challenges are, again, several. From where to get trained teachers committed to the cause? Good teachers do not want to hear the stories illustrated in the above passages. They want to be paid well: full stop
You need a teachers’ training program in place before enrollment can start, and has to last until the school lasts – given resignations and new enrollments. But who will foot the bill? Parents think the syllabus is the key to success. The Organizers know that it is teachers who play the crucial role. The teachers can twist, turn, improvise, improve or turn dynamic any syllabus to produce the kind of product they have in mind and imagination. (It is teachers in USA who determined the results of the state schools experiments, and not, [much to the disappointment of] the brilliant designer of the experiments, John Dewy, early last century). The intentions, purposes, and resolutions in the head, are the riders. Syllabus is only a vehicle.
The amount of Syllabus is another difficulty of sorts. Most parents want private schools to add upon the state syllabus material that will give their children an edge over others: some extra science stuff, or maybe books used in leading Western schools. Whoever can afford the fees opts for such schools as can offer more advanced material. Muslim schools must be sensitive to the demand and expand their scope too. That satisfies the parents, but not the devoted volunteers. They want time for their own subjects. If they cannot teach Islamic disciplines, they think there is no point in they continuing with the project.
A cold war starts between them and the parents somewhere at this point of realization. So far as recitation of the Qur’an is concerned, or memorization of a few du`as, their inclusion in the syllabus has everyone’s approval. (Parents are happy that they do not have to pay a hired Qur’an-teacher at home). But introduction of any other Islamic material raises their eyebrows. “Are you going to make maulwis out of our children?” they ask. If the child begins to show Islamic leanings at home (for instance, objecting to his sisters watching wrong TV shows) then some parents are really concerned. But, if for any reason a child does not score well, the blame is conveniently laid upon, what the parents call, the extra burden on the child. (Islam is not named – out of courtesy). Parents begin to withdraw their children if the school authorities will not show signs of repentance, i.e., educational policy reversal. In many instances, the volunteer organizers do repent, i.e., are regretful at having ventured into the field at all, and, consequently, gradually withdraw themselves out. Gradually too, the school becomes just like any other institution, or worse. Mostly worse.
The story is the same throughout India, Canada, Britain or any other country.
If the school and the organizers survive long enough, determination of the quantity and quality of the Islamic course of study is, for them, another knotty issue. Should you teach Arabic language? Or, should you go for a thoroughgoing “Islamic Studies” course? What to teach and how much to teach? This in fact is the main point of this discourse. (What went earlier was to educate the parents: please understand the difficulties of the organizers).
Our opinion is that teaching the Arabic language, (so often recommended for all and sundry), is not the appropriate thing for school children in countries where Arabic is not offered as a second language, without the modification that we shall discuss presently. Firstly, Arabic has a highly organized structure of modules. Each module is connected to others, in a criss-cross, but well designed fashion: something like a circuit diagram, although not so complicated. Each module must remain in place for the structure to function and yield the meaning of a sentence. For the structure to stay in memory, the application has to be frequent. That is, the student must speak or read Arabic quite regularly. But, in higher classes, the entire focus is on passing the exams with high grades, leaving no time for any subject other than science and mathematics. This is unavoidable. A school which is insensible to this has its end at close hand.
The above means that Arabic language studies will have to be halted when the student reaches higher classes. So, these two or three crucial years will have to be counted out. Thereafter, if the student joins a professional course, then he will have to keep Arabic away for another four or five years. This long absence will obliterate all that the student had learnt until the middle school. He may remember words, but with holes in the structure, those words are single words. Sentences will not come forth.
That many young men who were taught Arabic language in schools, hardly remember a woeful little, a few years after they left, might be surprising to many, but not to those who understand the process of gradual loss: discontinuity. The idea of teaching the Arabic language, the key to religious knowledge, and the best way to educate and reform a person, or give life to a dead tree, will function well only if continuity is maintained. That is, the language must be taught as a subject throughout the school and college studies. That will give it the roots that will keep the tree green. Indeed, anyone who knows even basic Arabic, cannot but be influenced by the Qur’an, if he merely attends to five-time Prayers. Therefore, teaching Arabic at the school level bears its fruit for many seasons if the language tempo is kept alive until he leaves college. Otherwise, most is lost.
So, is the scenario so discouraging? Should we abandon Arabic? Or, should we look for a short cut? Such as, for instance, teach only vocabulary of the Qur’an, or maybe a good understanding of the Qur’an itself through translations? No. Neither a short cut will do, (there is no short cut to learning); nor the Qur’anic studies will; i.e., in place of Arabic language. Many people seem to ignore the fact that any serious understanding of the Qur’an can only start after the child has achieved mental maturity to some degree. But that is the time when all religious books have to be withdrawn in favor of the special classes to help students score qualifying marks.
Yet, the scenario is far from discouraging. The program merely needs some modification. The way out of the difficulty would be through two steps.
First: get the non-scientific state prescribed books of the last three school years translated into Arabic and teach them through Arabic: History, Geography, Social-studies, etc. Having studied them in Arabic and having become familiar with the contemporary Arabic, the students will find it easier to comprehend other Arabic literature. Keeping in mind that the school subjects touch upon ideas, and deal with life, (rather than numbers), the student’s mind may begin to think, even if it is occasionally, in Arabic. And, if you can think in a language, you know that language.
Second: make it obligatory on parents to subscribe (through the school), for at least 3 years, one or two Arabic socio-religious magazines, coming directly from the Arab world. It is impossible that the sole Arabic knowing person in a house will not browse through the magazines arriving at the table, month after month, for say three contracted years, after the child left school. Thus, the student remains in touch with the language until several years later, and is less likely to forget in short term what he learnt over a long spell. And, of course, even if he remains a border line Muslim in his later life, marginally committed to Islam, his encounter with the Qur’an and Sunnah, by way of five time Prayers and Friday sermons, will keep his Arabic alive. If the language is kept alive, it is bound to work on him, his mind, and spirit after he has been through his or her hectic youthful years and advance into more mature years. If you know Arabic, you may abandon the Qur’an. But the Qur’an will not abandon you: “A mercy from your Lord.”