An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #46

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont’d)

Reforming Religious Schools

These religious schools must be modernized. They must produce more than just future mullahs; rather they must prepare young Muslims for the modern economy. America too has many church-based educational institutions, but they produce their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers, and managers. Bellarmine, a Catholic school in San Jose, California, routinely sends its students to top colleges. Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, has outstanding law, medical, and diplomacy schools. Only a tiny fraction of its graduates end up in the clergy. Harvard started out training only ministers, but is now famous for other than its divinity school. These institutions do not insist that their students and faculty share their faith. Many Muslims enrich these campuses. I find the views of Muslim scholars at such institutions as Georgetown and Emory refreshing and highly enlightening. Countless Muslims have benefited immensely from the superior education afforded by these Christian institutions.

We can begin by modernizing the curriculum of religious schools to include my four core subjects. Islamic Studies should only be one subject, not the consuming curriculum. They would have a third language, Arabic. With their trilingual ability and enhanced science literacy and superior mathematical competency, these graduates would enjoy a premium in the marketplace. Not only would their scope for employment be greatly enhanced, their opportunities for further studies would also be vastly expanded.

There are many advantages in exposing these students to a wider curriculum. Many studies show that proficiency in mathematics correlates well with success at university and in later life. An understanding of biology would make them better appreciate such current dilemmas as transplantation and in vitro fertilization. A familiarity with modern economics would make them understand such sophisticated financial instruments as equity funding, bonds, and venture capital, and how these relate to and differ from Islamic financial principles. If these students were exposed to the social and behavioral sciences, they would be better prepared to deal with the ills of our community. If Islamic students were fluent in English, they would be able to communicate better with and have a greater impact on others, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Recently, some missionaries from Malaysia’s Islamic Institute were preaching (dakwah) in America. Unfortunately they could hardly speak a word of English. Some missionaries!

Malay parents value education when couched in Islamic terms. Because of this natural affinity, it is all the more important that we must not fail these students and their parents. The cause of Islam generally and Malays specifically would be served better if these religious schools were either abolished or integrated into the national stream. That is not a political reality; any politician who dares make that statement would be kissing his career goodbye. Yet there is merit to my argument; it would encourage greater integration. It would do immense good were future ulamas, ustads, and ustazahs to mix with all Malaysians in their formative years instead of being cocooned exclusively within their own kind. It would certainly end their academic and social insularity, and disabuse them of the false dichotomy between worldly and religious knowledge.

Mainstreaming religious studies would ensure that these students get a rigorous education. Islamic Studies is widely perceived as intellectually challenged, an easy way to get a degree. Encouraging it merely emphasizes credentialism–any degree will do–which is already ingrained in Malaysia. With a glut of these graduates, giving out more scholarships is simply stupid. We should use the rich Islamic scholarly traditions to expand the students’ intellectual horizon and stimulate their inquisitiveness. We should de-emphasize rituals and catechism. Sadly indoctrination passes for education at these schools. Critical thinking is discouraged; questions and doubts are not encouraged, while rote memory and conformity are expected and highly valued.

Communication in an Islamic class is strictly a one-way affair. As glorified in some ancient Arabic texts, teaching is akin to water flowing, always from the higher (instructor’s) to the lower (students’) level. That analogy implies something more destructive: student’s mind is but a can to be filled with recycled water, not intellect to be sharpened. Why cannot there be more rigorous intellectual discussions? How does the Muslim’s Allah differ from the Greek and Hindu Gods? Is the Koran to a Muslim comparable to the bible for a Christian? Students could analyze the tithe and how it differs from present day income tax. Would a tax based on wealth (the basis for tithe) be more equitable than an income tax? Similarly, is zakat superior to the modern welfare state? A lively seminar could be had comparing the Day of Judgment with the Hindu reincarnation, and how the concept of heaven and hell in Islam differs from that of other religions. I would give students hypothetical examples. Imagine had Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) been an Eskimo, would the imagery of hell be a place of intense scorching heat or a cold frozen dungeon? Would zealous young Malaysians be sporting thick parkas to emulate him? These are the kinds of exciting and stimulating intellectual discussions that could bring the religious class out of its usual slumber. And the answers are not given at the end of the book!

In the decade following merdeka, at the height of nationalism and pride in country and culture, a generation was wasted in the relentless pursuit of the national language. The dreams and hopes of thousands of young Malays were crushed when they discovered that their hard earned certificates were worthless. We are repeating the same colossal mistake today with our zeal and emphasis on Islamic Studies.

By insisting on rigorous standards, Islamic Studies would no longer attract academic loafers, and the nation would get better religious leaders. The cause of Islam would also be considerably enhanced if future ulamas have a broad-based liberal education. It gives them a wider and better perspective. They would then be less likely to resort to simplistic recitations of the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) or the Holy Qur’an when confronted with complex problems. Then they would make real and meaningful contributions to their ummah (community).

I would discontinue the Islamic High School (STAM—Sijil Agama Tinggi Malaysia) certificate. These students should take the regular STP, with Islamic Studies and Arabic as their two non-core subjects. Religious schools must not be the equivalent of Muslim seminaries. Nor should they be a refuge for Malays who wish to withdraw from the modern world. We must modernize these schools before they waste more Muslim brains. Meanwhile the present students with their useless diplomas must be given supplemental training so they can contribute to society. If we cannot discontinue the religious stream, then at least we should stop funding them. If parents want to send their children to exclusively religious schools then they would have to pay on their own. What parents do with their money is their right, but the government should not be subsidizing or funding a parallel school system that is at variance with the national aspirations.

I do not underestimate nor minimize the difficulties in reforming religious schools. The religious establishment would not take kindly to any diminution of its role or threat to its power. These people fervently believe that they are doing God’s work; anyone attempting reform or in any way perceived to diminish the importance of their mission would face their wrath. But if these schools were left as they are, Islam and Malays in particular would be the losers. Reform must take place, but very carefully and with the greatest trepidation.

The Islamic establishment in Malaysia is as entrenched as the communist party is in Red China today and the Soviet Union in the past. Gorbachev tried to reform the communist system too rapidly, and ended up disintegrating the Soviet empire and getting himself nearly killed. The Red Chinese leadership is much smarter; it reforms itself slowly and surely while ostensibly subscribing to the ideals of communism. As a result China is fast galloping economically past Russia, breeding new millionaires and capitalists every day. Their leaders still extol the virtues of communism and call each other comrades, but their new motto is, “Getting rich is glorious!” China today is only nominally a communist country but in every other respect it is as capitalistic as the West.

In reforming Islamic schools I would choose the Red Chinese strategy, slowly and carefully, giving due deference to the religious establishment while quietly changing the core of the curriculum by gradually introducing modern subjects like science, mathematics, and English, and reducing the hours devoted to revealed knowledge and prophetic traditions.

To be successful, reform must be sold to the religious establishment as a “win-win” proposition. It should be presented not as an attempt to curb its power and influence rather to enhance them. The aim of reform is not only to produce better and broader educated ulamas but also graduates for the secular world who have a core of Islamic belief and faith. I believe that professionals and executives would enhance their effectiveness if they were also well grounded in religious ethics.

Islamic institutions must produce their share of worldly experts and entrepreneurs. Once these institutions do that they would contribute immensely to reducing the socioeconomic gulf separating Muslims from non-Muslims. This would greatly improve race relations and bring the nation closer to its Vision 2020 aspirations.

NEXT: Charter and Private Schools

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