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     On the education of Muslim children in Britain



Below is the text of an article by Common Sense editor Sahib Mustaqim Bleher for issue 3 (July/August 1991) on the topic of:

Education of Muslim children in Britain

The Background

Whilst Islam is slowly but steadily growing amongst the indigenous population of the UK - and we now have the first children born to Muslim converts at the compulsory school age (5-16) -, the majority of Muslim pupils in the UK are born to immigrant families, mostly of the second generation. For some time, Muslim immigrants heard other pressing difficulties to solve and the education of their children remained a low ranking priority. It was only after a large number of Muslims acquired a standard of living comparable to that of their non-Muslim contemporaries, that they started worrying about their children's Islamic education and upbringing. By then, the un-monitored exposure to Western norms and life styles had already produced painful results for many parents. Not only were Muslim children not able to read the Qur'an nor had any knowledge about their faith, but also did they copy the life style of their non-Muslim class fellows and broke with their inherited cultural norms.

The Weekend School

To combat the influence of Western schooling and social life on Muslim children, mosques started offering classes which predominantly featured Qur'an reading and mother tongue lessons (mostly Urdu) in the intention to keep their children within the culture of their ancestors. The fact that Islam was more or less seen as a cultural pattern and that lessons were offered in Urdu rather than in English, whilst the Qur'an was deciphered hut not understood or explained, produced a situation whereby the children experienced two un-reconcilable worlds: the home and the mosque on the one hand; school and society at large on the other. Naturally, the influence of non- Muslim society gained the upper hand, as children were exposed to its Leaching all day long, re-enforced by TV programmes which their parents uncritically permitted them to watch. Until now there is little critical evaluation of the influences of mass media, especially TV, amongst the Muslim community, and the situation has become more bleak through the introduction of video programmes which spread rapidly within Muslim homes. The weekend school, sometimes complemented through evening classes, was unable to instill lasting values within the children or foster a proper understanding of Islam. Teachers faced tired children who were hardly motivated, and had to combat the effects of the day school which offered more excitement and imposed greater authority. Children frequently reacted to the obligatory attendance at Islamic evening or weekend classes with a genuine dislike of Islam as such.

The State School

The 1944 education Act stated that children were to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. In practice this included the right of parents to withdraw their children from religious assemblies and religious instruction, later religious education, in the Christian faith. They were even permitted to substitute lessons in their own faith if they could provide the teachers. When Islam entered the classroom, children began to be taught about Islam in the English language, and thus acquired the skill and confidence to communicate about their religion to their class-fellows. On the whole, the climate in schools and in society at large became more open to alternative ways of life, other than the ones passed down, and adherents of various religions were encouraged to demand equal rights. It has, however, to be said that this new attitude was not always genuine and free from bias. By permitting Muslim children to bring packed lunches to school, abstain from mixed swimming lessons, and withdraw from religious education or even have their own lessons on Islam, it was hoped to neutralise dissatisfaction and assimilate Muslims as an integral part into non- Muslim society. By permitting them to be different in a number of aspects it was ensured that Muslims would not question the status quo. Again Islam was mainly a culture, and teaching was morc about learning what Muslims do rather than encouraging a child to be a practicing Muslim. In recent years the maxim of multicultural education has speedily taken on, and most local authorities have formulated agreed syllabuses on religious education following this pattern. Religions are presented as a variety of customs to choose from, with the effect that commitment is drowned and neutralised in plurality. This multicultural concept penetrates the whole school curriculum and is often more damaging in its results than a strict Christian teaching that children can be prepared for by their parents. Revealingly, Muslims are seen as an ethnic minority with their own native culture rather than as a faith with a message for all men at all places.

The Independent Schools

The British education system has two main streams: the maintained sector, i.e. schools run by the government, and the independent sector, i.e. private schools. If independent schools fulfill certain requirements, they may obtain voluntary aided status, that is they will largely be financed by the government whilst retaining their independent character. This is the case of the Catholic and Church of England schools, a number of Jewish schools, and schools following other ideologies or educational theories. Applications by Muslim schools have however been prejudiced in the past, and many politicians have argued that the door for opening further voluntary aided schools should be closed to avoid the teaching of Islamic fundamentalism. Anybody at any time can open an independent school. This school has to register with the Department for Education (DfE) for a provisional registration. Once it has started to operate, it is then visited by Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Independent Schools (HMI) who comment on the suitability of the building and the educational provision. The building has to be of sufficient size and has to comply with fire and safety regulations, the number and qualifications of the teachers, materials and organisationhave to be adequate for the number and age of children attending the school. If the HMI find the situation satisfactory, the school will bc given final registration by the DES, otherwise it will be served a notiice of complaint. If after a given time it fails to meet the requirements laid down in the notice of complaint, it has to close and stop operating.

To open independent Muslim schools was a natural response to the unsatisfactory situation resulting from the negative influence of the state school which was insufficiently corrected through Islamic religious education classes or weekend schools in the mosque. However, while the legal situation theoretically permitted the setting up of a Muslim school, in practice there were a number of obstacles. First of all, a suitable building had to be found. The building had to have planning permission for educational purposes which local authorities, biased against Muslim schools, were reluctant to give. Ideally, a school could start within the mosque building which already had the desired planning permission, but ultimately the rooms adjacent to the mosque would provide accommodation of insufficient size and suitability for school purposes. The other major obstacle was finding suitable teachers. It was not enough to keep children away from the exposure to the teaching in state schools, but it had to be substituted with Islamic teaching. This had to include the main areas of knowledge, and there was and still is a shortage of qualified Muslim teachers.

The individuals who got involved in setting up the schools, themselves lacked experience in educational matters. They realised the problem, but were ill-equipped to bring it to a solution. As the government does not help financially with independent schools, financial difficulties were a further set-back. Even if there were qualified Muslim teachers or if one were to employ non- Muslim teachers under Muslim supervision, the school could most likely not afford them in sufficient numbers. Lack of experience in the field and financial restrictions gave Muslim schools the bad reputation of being sub-standard. However, significant progress has been made. At present there are 21 independent Muslim schools (this number has doubled since the article was written in 1991), 10 of which have acquired final registration, that is they are operating at a comparable standard to other schools in the country. Yet a lot more effort and resources are required to make them Muslim schools in the true sense of the word, in which the community can take pride. The details of existing Muslim schools are listed on page 5.

Future Needs and Developments


The financial situation continues to pose a major difficulty. In the long term, some schools intend to achieve voluntary aided status, which means that the government will have to provide a grecaer part of the expense. There is no doubt that neither local nor central government can stop this development in the long run, but there are at present many hurdles in the way. For the foreseeable future, Muslim schools will have to rely on their own finance and, as school fees cannot be too high if all Muslim children are to be catered for, they require the generous support of Muslims for this important venture. The need for excellent provision to prove the viability of Muslim schools makes the availability of outside funcds an utmost necessity.


To ensure that the education in each Muslim school is of an Islamic character as well as up to standard, the aims and targets of teaching in a Muslim school had to be defined. Previously, little work had been done. the set up of teaching being left to the headteacher who often - in the case of a Muslim - lacked experience in the formulation of curricular aims, or - in the case of a non-Muslim - lacked understanding of the underlying purpose of a Muslim school. In any case it meant overburdening the headteacher to ask him to go beyond day to day needs in his considerations. A comprehensive guideline on curricular contents in all subject areas from an Islamic point of view is now available from the Islamic Party's Edu- cation Department (please enclose 5.00 for copying and postage with your request). It is already successfully being used in some Muslim schools in Britain and abroad (a French translation was produced).

Teaching Aids

All the existing teaching materials are - naturally - written by non- Muslims, and therefore either neglect the Islamic point of view or show clear bias. This holds true for all subject areas whether it be history, where the narrative takes the side of the crusaders, or mathematics were the children count with items like pigs or bottles of beer. Even in areas like Islamic education and Arabic hardly any purposefully written material by Muslim authors exists. The Islamic Party's curriculum document contains as an appendix a list of schoolbooks suitable for Muslim schools in terms of quality, effectiveness and moral values. There is an extreme shortage of books on history that can safely be employed. Given the importance of Arabic for Islam, there is also an inadequate provision of material suitable for teaching Arabic to non-Arab children in the West. Future success of Islamic education will largely depend on producing good Muslim school books as well as practical schemes of work which guide the teacher how best to employ existing resources in translating curricular aims and targets into class room activity.


The best curriculum, teaching aids and other provisions will be of no avail unless there are dedicated and highly qualified Muslim teachers to implement the aims of an Islamic education. At present there is an intolerable shortage of Muslim teachers. The greatest obstacle to the encouragement of taking up the teaching profession is that Muslim parents are at present even more reluctant to send their sons or daughters to a teacher training college after completion of compulsory school age than to send them to a non-Muslim school. Only a good Islamic education at compulsory school age will give them the necessary re-assurance.

Author: Sahib Mustaqim Bleher
Date Published: July/August 1991

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