Deschooling Islam/Islamic deschooling

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.


14 thoughts on “Deschooling Islam/Islamic deschooling

  1. Musa, you are undoubtedly at your best when you talk about children: there is a passion and a gentleness there, alongside the – now expected – originality and reach of your thoughts.

    There are so many fascinating threads that you leave hanging in this piece, but for the moment I’ll try to confine myself to just one.

    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.

    It’s a lovely idea, except that Hogwarts – as JK Rowling envisaged it – isn’t quite the experience it is often imagined to be. In fact, it seems to owe more to her harrowing memories of working for Amnesty International, than to any fantasy of an idyllic education. But, in the light of what you’re saying here, this is perhaps worth exploring a little more.

    Harry Potter’s adolescence is set against the backdrop of an all-encompassing, total war between the forces of darkness and light, in which – up until the very end – the forces of darkness seem to have an upper hand. (In this respect, it’s the kind of story that ought to have been written by someone who was at boarding school in the 1940s, rather than someone born after the end of WWII). And it is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the population in which he lives – at least part of the time – the non-magical ‘Muggles’ are completely oblivious of what is happening in the magical world.

    Is this actually so very different from how some of the embattled British Ummah see themselves? Surrounded by a culture that they see as headed, sleepwalking and heedless, straight for the fire, with no understanding of Allah’s command, and engaged head on with forces of darkness hell-bent on destroying their faith (Zionists, American Neo-Conservatives, Sufis…)? Looked at like this, how much real difference is there between the hapless Harry, schooled by the enbarbarated Dumbledore, and the young Jihadist with his greybeard mentors?

    Nonetheless, if one looks at the experience the books describe (and I’m hardly setting myself up as a Reader in Hogwarts Studies here! 😉 there are also distinctly Sufi-ish overtones. Throughout his various encounters and achievements, Harry is consistently deprived of the opportunity to see himself as ‘special’ or ‘important’ – and constantly reminded that, if he is in any sense ‘chosen’, it is not a personal thing. More, a duty that he cannot shirk. (Ms Rowling also rather nicely manages to catch the distinctive ‘beaten with rubber hoses’ experiences that are so characteristic to the Sufi’s journey – suffering inside, whilst still managing to hold things together and function effectively in the world). Harry Potter ‘individuates’ through intense, and challenging, birth pangs.

    Which is not to suggest that the Harry Potter series are in any way Sufi books. Only that – in the way authors and artists can – Rowling is able to use her imagination to ‘pick up’ on archetypal and other experiences that she may not have undergone herself. But there is something here for education, and in particular for the kind of education that is needed at this time. What the Hogwarts’ experience provides are two things that are almost completely absent in current educational practice: the mentoring of people who are deeply concerned with unfolding the real potential of their charge, and their complete refusal to feed that charge’s self-pity or self-importance.

    However one looks at it, our children have come into a world as dangerously poised between the forces of darkness: selfishness, intolerance, irresponsibility and the forces of Light: hope, empathy, creativity as that which Ms Rowling describes. The problem with the kind of Muslim education you describe here – which is the problem of all ‘sectarianism’ – is that this conflict is projected outwards, onto others (and thus, also, becomes a battle over the souls of children, as if they were merely pawns in this conflict). And this answers to a third theme that the Hogwarts books pick up, although by no means fully developed, which is that the real education of master Potter really consists in his growing recognition that both this darkness and light dwell, ambiguously,within himself. For all education worthy of the name begins with the encounter with – and the eventual owning of – one’s own shadow (and I think I owe it to you, Musa, for first pointing out that Adam and Eve’s fall from Grace consisted in becoming zalimin, shadow-bearers).

  2. Peace James,

    Wow, thanks for the Potterology — you make some great points here, particularly with respect to responsibilities and light/darkness. You are also way ahead of me on the books, I expect I will inevitably have to consider Rowling more deeply when I am done with reading the Chronicles Narnia to my eldest (lots of other more blatantly theological issues coming up in those books!) and start on the Potter books properly.

    I think what I meant by the Hogwart’s experience is how children generally view the school (particularly from the films) — despite the darker subtexts, most children seem to be very keen on Hogwart’s over their own school, primarily because they simply would like a magical environment, with all that it entails.

    But I know for a fact, from listening to their own complaints about schooling, that children wish most for what you describe here:

    [i] What the Hogwarts’ experience provides are two things that are almost completely absent in current educational practice: the mentoring of people who are deeply concerned with unfolding the real potential of their charge, and their complete refusal to feed that charge’s self-pity or self-importance. [/i]

    To be like Harry: living heroic and magical lives.

  3. It’s nice to read stuff and see thoughts that have crossed your own mind being expressed by someone else. Makes you feel clever.

    I don’t quite know the exact shape and colour of the ideal of Islam that floats about inside me, I know it is vibrant, the boundaries I don’t know yet.

    If Islam is Truth, it will stand up to interrogation. I don’t really see how you can be a Muslim without an enquiring mind.

    My own Islamic education put me off religion altogether for around 15years, there is a clear problem with any system which does not encourage people to ask ‘Why?’ of everything. It’s only natural. It’s where flights of fancy begin. Why this? Why that? Why not?

  4. Thanks for your comment, Mash. What got you back into it, if I may ask? BTW, I can’t remember if I thanked you for the photos — they are fantastic! You’re a really talented photographer 🙂

  5. I think I’ve always had an enquiring mind more than anything, at the back of my head I felt a deep sense of meaningless in my actions during my uni years. I think I still believed in God but was at a loss as to how to approach Him. The models and reasons I was given didn’t work for me.

    Over time I just started asking questions and I had the freedom to come back to it on my own terms and to ask questions and find my own answers. Now I sort know where I lie, but it’s more a case of chipping away and finding consistency in my actions and thoughts. I read Malcolm X at 21 that had a big impact – the journey he went on, constantly changing, moving and growing until in the end he found a taste of the sublime. That neverending search for Truth with a capital T.

    The main catalyst that got me really thinking and contemplating about God and what I believed was when I was around 20 a Hare Krishna followed me down the street and kept asking me questions until I stopped and asked him to leave me alone and he said ‘Can I ask you just One Question?’ and me being too nice to tell him no I said ‘ok’ and he said… ‘Do you Believe in God?’ and it hit me in the head like a brick. Nobody had ever asked me that before. Ever.

    So I thought about and replied ‘Yes’.

    And he said ‘That’s good, forget about me. Just remember God’ and walked away.

    Probably the single most profound thing anyone ever said to me. The first time somebody talked to me about religion without trying to own a part of me along with it and it just completely changed how I thought about it all. That’s where it began, was a very slow process after that.

    I wrote about my madrassah if you want to read about it – I will email you the link.

  6. Thanks for sharing the story, it’s a lovely one. That Hare Krishna gets my thumbs up 🙂 Yes, please email me the link — I’m very interested.

  7. So much is happening here. As school budgets in the US are cut back, music and art is first to go. I think of kids in inner city schools having no creative outlet and it is obvious the world has just given them another barrier to success in life.

    Forbidding it in Islamic society is a misinterpretation at best and a form of oppression at its worst. The Quran never states music is forbidden. Faces were not forbidden when people were liberated by Islam rather than confined by it.

    The more we suppress a child’s natural curiosity while she is in school, the more likely the society she is a part of will suffer. In the end, if a few rich men are like the bullies in the playground, the entire society will eventually collapse.

    Static vs. dynamic….the latter leads to a thriving society; the former to a lifeless vacuum.

    The first Muslims were liberated from their oppressors by Islam. The scholars strengthened the community. The philosophers and masters of the sciences helped society thrive. A deep respect for art created the beautiful detail in the mosques. It offered us images of virtuous Muslims in their communities. The call to prayer itself is a type of song. Sacred music sets people on the path to God, increasing longing in their hearts, offering a stronger connection to the Divine.

    Inevitably, there are many who are not truly interested in helping Muslims with their relationship to the Divine. Tyranny has taken the citizens of an entire society and forced their minds closed.

    And this doesn’t mean all Islamic schools are guilty. There are intelligent men and women in many Islamic areas. We can’t generalize. Just as every school in the US is not qualified to raise up the next generation, not every Islamic school is run by extremists.

  8. You are also way ahead of me on the books, I expect I will inevitably have to consider Rowling more deeply when I am done with reading the Chronicles Narnia to my eldest (lots of other more blatantly theological issues coming up in those books!) and start on the Potter books properly.

    It was reading the (first) Potter books to mine which made me a(n unwitting) Potterologist. But who knows if they’ll have the same resonances for a new generation? Still, when a writer can accumulate a net worth of more than $1 billion from a story, we can be pretty sure that that story touches deeply on the archetypes constellating in this time.

    I loved Lewis’ books as a child: at a very different life stage, I’m discovering Lewis the writer of adult (maybe that’s not quite the right word, these days 😉 fiction like The Screwtape Letters, That Hideous Strength etc.

    [As an aside here, I’ve always been puzzled by the strange encroaches of Turkish into the Narnia series – especially Lewis’ use of ‘Aslan’ for the Christ-like Lion, or ‘Tash’ for the Calormene’s God. But perhaps there was a Turkologist amongst the dons of Magdalen, throwing such things into the erudite banter at the high table…]

    As for theology, Lewis was indeed quite explicit about it:

    “The whole Narnian story is about Christ. Supposing there really was a world like Narnia . . . and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened? The stories are my answer. Since Narnia is a world of talking beasts, I thought he would become a talking beast there as he became a man here. I pictured him becoming a lion there because a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; b) Christ is called ‘the lion of Judah’ in the Bible.”

    It’s a fascinating conceit, and lends itself to ideas beyond the confines of 1950s Anglicanism. I’ve always wondered why so few Science Fiction writers have addressed the subject of the parocialism of our ‘world religions’: a Christ that was sent to ‘save’… who exactly? The people of a small planet circling a minor star in one of 40 billion stellar systems in a galaxy itself one of more than 40 billion in the known Universe. (And the same must go for the Qur’an being a ‘mercy to the worlds’ – does this mean that the same Qur’an is/has been/will be revealed to other worlds? Or that the Saudi’s will fund a space mission?) You’d think that religion would be the biggest subject we have, but somehow we always seem to think so small…. ;-(

  9. …does this mean that the same Qur’an is/has been/will be revealed to other worlds?

    Of course one of Frank Herbert’s characters quotes from Sura Ya Sin (without attribution) in one of the Dune series… so there is another Science Fiction writer suggesting an answer.

    1. [shamelessplug] … and of course in Herman U. Ticz’s Sufi-trash “Rainbow Connection” distopia, a kind of Salafist Islam survives solely as the national religion/politics of the future America, while (a corrupted version) of Tailorite Sufism runs the show in Eurasia … [/shamelessplug]

  10. have you seen the Sci-Fi film Pitch Black? A spaceship crash lands on a distant planet carrying a disparate bunch of passengers including a bunch of Muslim guys and they pray towards earth in once scene if I remember correctly.

    This sounds delightful 😉

    I was trying to imagine what a Salafist astronaut would be like (truly an ‘alien’ to the inhabitant of any planet unlucky enough to be visited). ‘Little Green Men’ are popularly supposed to greet the unwitting denizens they encounter with “Take me to your leader!”

    The Salafist, on the other hand, is almost guaranteed to say:

    “Salaam, brother! We have come to teach you your Deen…”


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