I wished to remain silent on the recent BBC Panorama programme investigating extremism in UK Islamic schools. Experiments have repeatedly shown that — foolish faqir that I am, Seal of Clowns, tattered topsy-turvy Tailor — I have nothing of value to give the ummah of Islam. And certainly anything I write about this issue will not help the community. I can see it is primarily a cultural/racial/class issue, not one that involves “my” Islam: and so the solutions that people are asking for must involve sociology rather than Sufism.
All the same, I find it difficult to resist commenting on this case, if only because it affords me the opportunity to again argue for just how beautiful things would be if we all focused our attention on what is at stake here (our very souls) and “got” the point (Allah’s will). Panorama obviously missed the point (which is forgivable in a sense, as it was piece of mere sensationalism) but (perhaps less forgivably) the ummah of Islam appears to be failing the test too.
Because there is a test going on here, at least in my scheme of things. So here are some crib notes for that GCSE at the End of Time.
The BBC documentary focused primarily on the danger of extremist doctrine flourishing within Islamic schools, serving to reinforce and exacerbate divisions within an already divided Britain, cultivating an “us versus the kuffar” mentality in students that could lead very bad things: from general social breakdown to race riots to 7/7 style treachery (such an archaic word, but that’s what is meant by extremism in local contexts).
The documentary discovered a number of a part time schools in the UK are using the Saudi curriculum, employing textbooks that contain anti-semitism, lessons on Shariah that include diagrams on how to cut hands and feet of criminals, promotion of the death penalty for homosexuality and so on. Furthermore, it found that full time (Ofsted inspected) Islamic schools have links to extremist preachers and mosques. The implication was that these schools are not being policed adequately with respect to their promotion of tolerance and British values.
I am reasonably confident that this was an exercise in sensationalism. Clearly there are a few part time Saudi schools using unacceptable material. But the documentary leaves the viewer with images of children exposed to treacherous indoctrination: and that is far from the truth. Nothing wildly anti-British or treacherous is going on at these places and, in general, though operating within a divided society, they do not promote socially dangerous division.
But these schools suffer from a problem that all schooling systems suffer from but at an undeniably worse level: they promote mediocrity, they destroy creativity, they reinforce obedience to the system (Islamist system, British law, it doesn’t matter — it’s still the Pharoah sitting at the top of it).
My mother (a convert/outsider Sufi, one time anarchist Ivan Illicher who at some point decided to contribute to the ummah) worked for a decade in a number of reputable Islamic schools, as well as one of these tiny East End backyard deals that the documentary mentions (where the teachers don nikab etc). Lessons in hand chopping were never on the agenda. The main problem was a deeply unimaginative curriculum, in which mathematics and English were taught according to 1950s (I presume end of the British Empire style) route learning methods. Teachers lazily photocopied homework from outdated textbooks, science was taught piecemeal, failing to instill any sense of wonder or investigative spirit, and history (of course making obvious gestures to a more Arab centric view) was presented as just a series of events and dates. (Quranic recitation was impeccable though.)
In summary, she would complain to us regularly, they fail to train the students in reflection: in reflecting on what they have learnt, in reflecting on their reflection, in self-awareness of their situated nature as learners. But that’s the essence an Islamic education. Self-reflection, the ability to reflect on the process of learning, to be aware of, deconstruct, query and creatively play with the information flow streaming into our heads: that is how we know the Self, that’s how we know Truth, that’s how Allah is known. Creativity in Self-reflection is the nature of Islamic education. And most schools fail in this.
So the Panorama programme misses the point. Most schools are teaching us to cut hands and feet — in some form or another. Not in any literal sense: most Muslim schools are also generally not doing it in any literal sense. But the sin of schooling is the manner in which it promotes unquestioning obedience to some kind of law, to some kind of identity, to some system. Current Islamic schools are terrible examples — and obvious examples, because their system, the identity they promote — is alien and other to the systems and identities most of us fixate upon. Other schools do a better job, particularly in places like London, at least in the playground, where children are exposed to a variety of different belief systems in their peers.
But even so: that’s not nearly enough.
Most schools teach us to accept surface meaning, to consent to some system of law (of governance, religion, perception). To cut hands and feet and, even worse, to accept a system in which hands mean hands and feet mean feet. An Islamic education ought to follow the sunnah of Alice, to take children into a Wonderland of Creativity in which they are always free to query and re-create the meanings of anything and everything, where relativities and transformations are understood to be the norm (including the darker stuff like exactly who King Lear and Macbeth are meant to be, and what could be meant by “cutting” and what “hands” and “feet” mean in the anthropic symbolism of the world religions … ).
If Islam is Truth, then Islamic education ought to be concerned with the Truth. If the Qur’an is at the core of Islam, and the Qur’an means Reading, then the children of an Islamic school ought to be taught how to Read the ayat of the world through the lenses of that Reading. A Divine Literacy programme.
If, on the other hand, Islam is about defending and strengthening an identity — a political/religious/racial/cultural identity that is distinct from other identities — then Islamic schooling would be about cultivating that identity, not about the Reading.
The two Islams are mutually exclusive.
This is because the former Islam, being about Truth, must be one that deconstructs all identities. Ultimately it affirms that there is only one identity, that of Allah-as-Truth: that is its Tawhid. Education within such an Islam does not negate the “little” human identities that are involved in the cultures, the sciences, the histories, the laws of humanity’s unfolding: but the job of Islamic education is the query identities, to comprehend that they are ultimately forms of differentiation (in their benign form), to deconstruct and unpack the differential trace of illumination that runs through the flux of these identities, to ensure we never fixate long upon them as idols, to understand that the true Self, the Self of Truth is known only by the temporal flux of identity, not by the ahistorical (and Pharonic) illusion of a perfect, ideal human identity to be protected and preserved as superior over others. Conversely, but equivalently, Islamic education ought to facilitate the student — Hogwort’s style — in the white magic of reconstructing new identities, developing new sciences, new forms of politics, new hybrid cultural possibilities, new art, new poetry: taming the new by riding that flux through Creativity. Because Creativity across the field of difference is how that Self of Truth is known: while that Truth is obscured by fixating upon the illusion of a particular, privileged human identity.
Arguably, that Islam cannot have schools at all, as the name of its game is deschooling: to nurture a form of consciousness in the “pupil” that 1) questions everything, all systems of identity, except that Single Identity of Love and 2) through questioning, is filled with Creativity to construct temporary answers (acts of science or literary criticism or art) that express — in acknowledged difference — love for that Single Identity and, in doing so, affirm Tawhid.
In contrast, the Islam of identity has the same purpose that all systems have: to deny Tawhid. It says: “There is no identity other than me.” All systems that assert truth do this. But such an Islam is particularly damaging when combined with the education of young ones: they are the ones whose channels of imagination and Creativity are least bound, who are closest in mould to living Tawhid as Creativty.
Oh my piteous Muslims, see how that that Tawhid of the flux is stamped out in our own children, when it is the only thing we have worth preserving!
Here is a quote from the prospectus of our local Muslim school (well regarded by Ofsted and the community) on Music and Arts:
As an Islamically faith-based school we carefully check all subjects by the guidelines of the Qur’an and Sunnah. It is for this reason that we do not promote learning through music. Do your children draw pictures of living animals? We endeavor to avoid this. Where it is unavoidable we try to use ‘stick-images’ or delete facial features on images.
This is the point. Not that some minority is using the Saudi curriculum: but Tawhid is being blanked out in the minds of the young. Creativity is how Allah’s Love is known: and Creativity’s form is flux, it is musical, it is a play of differentiation. Allah’s Love is Creativity: and there is nothing more Creative than a young child drawing a picture.
So much of how my daughter relates to the world — how she reflects upon her reflection of the world — is through her depiction of it in her drawings and her music. She’s typical like that: sound and vision are the basis for Creativity, and Creativity is Charity and Charity is the essence of the cosmos, the essence of Allah’s Love. She reflects her beautiful Self in the world by representing, symbolizing, by beautifying her representation, her symbols, her colours and her codes in crayon, ink and texta. All children are naturally drawn to beautifully reflect in this way.
Oh my piteous Muslims, what age do we live in, where we orphan our children from their Creativity in such a way? What cruelty is this, to cut off our young ones from the gamelan and the gallery at such an age of innocence? And all with such pride in some man made image of Islamic identity? You are forfeiting our future with the cruelty of your schooling!
Know that Islam is deschooling. And the Muslim people are in dire need of deschooling.
There is a problem with “integration” and Islam. On this I sound quite conservative, but that’s an illusion, so listen carefully to what I am saying, you at the back there.
Harris gives some practical suggestions for dealing with potential Islamic sensitiveness to the “music problem” in the UK state system. She lists a number of techniques and workarounds to the problem that many Muslim parents object to music but that it is officially compulsory in the state curriculum. In her own very nice kind of fashion (political correctness gone mad!) she recommends such possibilities as single sex classes in music, utilizing Islamic poetry for composition practice, singing and computers instead of instruments, shifting some music theory into science classes and so on.
That’s a good way to work if you believe the Muslims in this country are a kind of endangered species, like the Panda say, needing its own indigenous bamboo and a natural habitat in order to thrive. It’s a zookeeper approach. It is well intended: but actually rooted in the days of the British Empire — sensitive, but about strategies containing and regulating the needs of a social/ethnic group. And certainly many Muslims treat their own community in such a way and that’s a reason for Muslim parents to buy into Islamic schooling (as opposed to deschooling Islam).
Note that this is an appropriate motivation in certain deprived areas of the UK, where all life is essentially endangered, where violence and drug abuse are rampant, for example. So the point I am making is not about such areas. There are Muslim schools in “safe” parts of the UK as well.
My point is that these approaches — to care and love for the endangered species — is not how Allah made Islam to work: it is not what Allah intends Muslims to be. Allah gave us a “becoming”, gave us Creativity, gave us Love knowing to be Known through the flux of difference. Allah did not give us a panda.
Muslims are sent to a land to spread Islam — not the religion or its practices, not to “convert” people to a club — but to infuse that land, its geography, its social fabric, its sciences, its poetry, its art, to influse that land with Tawhid. And this must be done in an indigenous fashion: to highlight, illuminate the spirituality that has always existed in this island.
When Islam came to Java, it didn’t act like an endangered species under siege. It “integrated” like a crawling Vine onto the Tree of that island’s culture and sciences and existing God consciousness. This is because the Muslims are a Vine. The early Javanese ummah were a live Vine, growing onto the poetry, the mythology and the music that was central to that society, highlighting the Tawhid already immanent to it. For example, they involved Gamelan into worship and God consciousness, because the orchestra is the metaphor for Javanese society — the Gamelan is the Javanese mind. The saints who brought Islam also innovated new forms of Gamelan and even brought it into the Mosque, using it in the Azan.
That ummah was a live Vine. Are the British Muslims a live Vine? Or are they dried up, unsalvageable?
In these troubled times that moment of Islamic becoming is largely ignored as mere precursory syncretism prior to the advent of “real” Islam. Nevertheless, I say to you that it is the essence of da’wah: becoming Islamic is Islamic becoming.
From a zoological perspective, Harris’ recommendations for sensitivity are fine. From the perspective of the Vine, they are the opposite of what is necessary.
What is needed? More music: the whole Western canon! Islamic poets, of course: they are also indigenous now as are the different scale systems and cyclical modes of India, and the polyrhythms of Africa. Teach it to the children.
But, specifically in an ideal British Muslim education: more Shakespeare, Donne, Blake. Unlike the continent, music is not a strong point of this island, but its songs are the exception: Purcell, Dowland, Handel, the Beatles, Bowie and Drake. Let ‘em in.
Not a traditional curriculum, not the way the poets have been taught or are being taught in the current state system. Instead, developing ways of Reading the plays, poetry and opera and listening to, corporeally imbibing, playing and living the music that seeks to find where God lies within that art: because God’s voice runs through those songs. And through that Reading, the children will learn how to Read the Qur’an — and vice versa. The Qur’an will be translated by that generation, finally, into English — because an English translation does not exist in our generation. They will read Donne to read Qur’an and read Qur’an to read Donne.
That will be a foundation for the Vine: a British Muslim ought to be the Hafiz, a Guardian and custodian, of the Godly within British culture — just as the Muslim Saints Of Java became the Dhalangs, the leaders and cultivators of the Gamelan.
Nurture them to think about ways in which they, as the buds of that Vine, might enwrap it, so the branches grow strong here and then bear fruit.
The Tailorite madrasa.
Back to the Real world.
My elder daughter (who is going to an independent school) got in trouble for scratching her classmate, Kumbi. Apparently he declared some place in the playground “for boys only” — which she disputed, with her talons of holy wrath. I don’t approve of a physically violent jihad, and will tell her off. Nevertheless, she is correct to dispute Kumbi’s assertion: because the place/Maqam/Makom is filled with the feminine/Sakina/Shekhina. Thus all places in the playground are in fact for girls only, just as a seaside cave is filled with the immanence of the ocean’s glory.