The Curriculum for Islamic Religious Education for Primary Schools
BY: EBERHARD TROEGER
While the draft curriculum basically follows Sunni orthodox tradition efforts are made to adapt its teaching to modern western thinking. For the unfamiliar western reader the language employed rings moderate and tolerant. In consideration of the western context terms such as tolerance, understanding, peace, equality, reconciliation and social responsibility are repeatedly employed throughout the proposal. These terms are, at least as commonly understood and interpreted within western liberal thinking, unfamiliar to orthodox Islam. Perhaps in order to present a positive image the draft proposal considers only those classical legal issues of Islamic law (Sharia) that deal with godliness and moral ethics. Human rights as well as criminal and civil law are not dealt with. And yet, precisely these legal domains are the potential minefields of Islam’s relationship with liberal democracy.
Language accommodation in order to conform to western liberal thinking
The German and Arabic words for God (‘Gott’) and ‘Allah’ are used interchangeably. Children are to know that „Allah is the Arabic word for God“ (p.13). While this is accurate, of course, it is seemingly used to emphasise that Islam is nothing ‘foreign’. A further reference stresses „that there are non-believers who likewise pray to God.“ (p.13)1. „Jews, Christians and Muslims say: There is only one God“ (p.23). There is an obvious attempt made here at reconciliation. The crucial issue between Jews, Christians and Muslims, however, is the question of who this one God is.
„Tolerance ... towards believers of other religions and ideologies“ (p.3) is the expressed aim of Islamic religious education. In considering Judaism, Christianity and Islam students should learn that „all three faiths equally stress tolerance“ (p.23). To western ears this must sound rather pleasant. However, these statements do not follow Islamic legal opinion nor reflect established practise in the contemporary Muslim World. While Islamic tolerance, as commonly understood, allows for a conditional and limited acceptance of non-Muslims within their midst, it bears little resemblance to the post-modern definition of the same term.
Tradition and reason
Modern Islam is characterised by a precarious relationship between blind acceptance of orthodox tradition and the application of independent reason. Many Islamists, for example, stress the need to re-think Islam. This is also the approach taken by the writers of the draft proposal. The aim of lessons, according to page 3, is „not the unquestionable acceptance and imitation of religious practices ..., but to engage human reason in discussing religious content and Islamic Tradition at an intellectual level ...“. Muslims should „aim to convince by using reasonable arguments“ (p.53). Reason has a long tradition in Islamic theology. Here, its application is apparently emphasised in view of the rational thinking that emerged from the Age of Enlightenment in the West. Many Islamists and modern Islamic reform movements seek to achieve a synthesis of Islamic Tradition and rational thinking. These approaches, however, have little resemblance with the kind of reasoning shaped by the European Enlightenment. The statement (p.4) that children „should see the requirements in Quran and Sunna as a guide rather than an admonition“ has to be understood in the same way. This sentence is obviously meant to counter common western prejudice against Islam. Children should „employ reason as a gift of Allah“ (ibid.). Two things are implied in the statement above. First, there is the need to conform to western patterns of thinking. Secondly, the remark suggests an unspoken critique of the Christian faith which, in Islamic polemical literature, is portrayed as unreasonable.
Responsibility and the love for peace
„The ultimate goal is the mature Muslim who takes an active and responsible part in shaping his social and political environment“ (p.4). While this sounds good to western ears, such statements do little to clarify the Islamic position vis-àvis modern democracy. Even for moderate Islamists the ultimate goal is a state that is governed by Allah’s ordinances. To be tolerant and peace loving is repeatedly emphasised in the upbringing of children: „Even though the differences between the religions should not be blurred, it is nevertheless important to reveal similarities building on them to foster a peaceful and constructive coexistence.“ (p.5). It is not easy to find evidence from the Quran and the Sunna in support of such statements. Likewise the sentence (p.13): „We strive for reconciliation.“ Indeed, this is an important goal in the upbringing of children. Yet - what meaning does reconciliation have in Islam? On page 16 there is an elaborate but incorrect statement: „The term Islam is derived from the word ‘salam’ meaning peace.“ ‘Salam’ and ‘Islam’ are indeed derived from the same root meaning. However, ‘Islam’ strictly denotes submission (to the will of Allah), at best ‘peace through submission’. In a world which is yearning for peace this misleading explanation of the word ‘Islam’ is often used. As a result those unfamiliar with the subject matter would find it difficult decide whether this is true or not.
Respect and acceptance
„Students should know that in addition to the 'People of the Book’ there are other religions, as well as people without religion, to whom Muslims should show respect and tolerance“ (p.23). As an educational objective this has to be welcomed. However, the Quran, Sharia jurisprudence as well as Islamic propaganda in the Muslim World largely speak a different language. Likewise, the phrase (p.27) that „Muslims do not differentiate between the prophets“, must have the modern western reader in mind. By referring to Muhammad as the „Seal of the Prophets“ (Quran 33:40) Islam undoubtedly differentiates between the prophets. Islamic Tradition elevates Muhammad far above the rest of the prophets. Moreover, it need to be said that Islam denies Jesus Christ the role of redeemer and ultimate saviour as portrayed in the New Testament but merely ranks him alongside the other prophets.
Equality and social behaviour
Given the importance of the unity of God in Islam (tauhid) the ideals of unity and equality of mankind are of great significance. The statement that at the pilgrimage „all men are equal before Allah“ (p.41) might impress the reader. Intended perhaps is a parallel to modern notions of equality. Whether the Quran and Islamic Tradition allow for such is open to question. Unity is also emphasised on page 21 where it is stated that the Islamic community (umma) is neither based on statehood, race nor social status but on the fear of God alone (Sura 49:13).
In defence of the critique that reality seems far removed from ideal the paper states that „some Muslims indeed mistake national tradition with the teachings of Quran and Sunna (e.g. the differential treatment of boys and girls, dress regulations)“ (p.46). While it is correct to say that many customary practices in the contemporary Muslim World (e.g. female circumcision) are indeed pre- Islamic, it is nevertheless equally true that a large number of authorities in Islam quote from the Quran and Islamic Tradition (Sunna) in support of unequal treatment of girls and women. It is the intention of the paper’s editors that Islam should be applicable and relevant to the needs and requirements of modern life (p.47). Support for this is taken from the teaching that man is God’s steward and trustee (Arabic, Khalifa) who has been given „responsibility for himself and his environment“ (p.48). Exhortation from the Prophets is employed to discuss contemporary social norms which are referred to in terms such as „human … misbehaviour and social disgrace ...“ (p.47), „destruction of society...“ (ibid) and „guidance“. Children should understand that „Allah’s guidance and the community of the faithful can protect the believer from being led astray, from bondage, oppression and exploitation“ (49). While these are indeed very worthwhile ideals and goals the reality is often quite different. Muhammad founded Islam as a religio-political system. Later, during the Middle Ages, Islam developed into an authoritarian legal system. It would take a radical breach with accepted Tradition to transform Islam in such a way as to grant freedom of religion and uphold a secular society.
Mysticism has a long tradition in Islam. The following sentence expresses closely the currently felt need for spirituality: „The recitation of the Quran is calming to those that are sad and sorrowful ... reciting the Quran make you feel the presence of God“ (p.44). That might be true, but the choice of words used here indicates an intended reference to the felt needs of our present age.
Masked separation and religious supremacy
Objectivity characterises the following sentence (p.27): „Jews, Christians and Muslims have all received written revelations - there are similarities in message but differences in inspiration and in the way revelations were handed-down.“ What is not mentioned, however, is the fact that according to Islamic understanding the biblical scriptures were handeddown incorrectly, errors which the Quran is meant to correct. Page 43 states that the Quran is „Allah’s eternal word“ which, given Islam’s doctrine of abrogation, can only mean that the Bible isn’t. The reliability of the Quran's transmission (p.44) is meant to confirm that Muhammad dictated „passages of scripture immediately following their revelation“. Therefore, children should come to see „the Quran as the final Word of Allah ...“ (p.4).
The following sentence is intended to go beyond what is reported in the Bible (p.40): „The Ka'ba is the oldest place of worship which Abraham and Ishmael first established...“ Abraham „settled a part of his family in the valley of Mecca“ (p.53). „In gratitude for sparing Ishmael Abraham and his son build the Ka'ba“ (p.54). In these statements Islam is portrayed as preceding both Judaism and Christianity, and therefore as surpassing all other religions („the oldest place of worship“). When referring to Ishmael’s submission to be sacrificed the biblical report is altogether rejected. Likewise, the statement that the story of the life of Muhammad „unlike other prophets has been handed-down in all its details ...“ (p.5) has to be understood in the light of the Quran’s claim to completeness. The remark that „Islam always addresses the whole person“ and that „not one aspect is overemphasised at the expense of another“ (p.6) is intended as critique of other religions and to distinguish Islam from other faiths. Implicit behind this critique is the accusation that the Christian religion lacks the rules necessary to govern human society.
Misrepresentation of the biblical faith
Subsection 8 of Unit I („I and my community“) is called „Muslims and other faiths“ (p.23). It is intended for the fourth grade. There it says that children should increase their knowledge about Christianity, discover common features between Jews, Christians and Muslims, learn about differences objectively, be open-minded to new information, correct misconceptions, know the significance of religious festivals and celebrations and understand that enmity starts „when people do not follow God’s commandments...“ (p.24). Nevertheless, neither the Jewish nor the Christian faith are represented in line with the biblical account. Nowhere is there a quote or inclusion of a biblical text. Muslim interpretations are carefully superimposed on both the Jewish and the Christian faiths, thus claiming ownership for Islam.
In this way efforts are made to look for common ground similarities: Judaism, Christianity and Islam share „a common origin“ (p.45).“The fact that the same message about God’s unity and man’s accountability has been proclaimed by all the prophets and throughout time can, in a society characterised by Christian culture, foster a sense of community“ (p.5). „Jews, Christians and Muslims share the belief that man is accountable for his actions ...“ (p.23). It is said that some „of the things Jews and Christians believe are included in the Quran. They share the same prophets: Even before Muhammad Allah ... sent messengers who instructed men in religion“ (p.23). „In the Quran Jews, Christians and Muslims are called ‘ahlul-kitab’ ‘people of the book’“ (p.23). The biblical testimony about Jesus' divine sonship, God's fatherhood and the Holy Spirit is not explained but simply juxtaposed against the Islamic interpretation: „Jesus – ‘son of God’ (i.e. divine) for Christians, prophet (i.e. created) for Muslims“ (p.23). There is no mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection or ascension. The draft proposal has a separate unit (p.57f) about the Islamic prophet Jesus (‘Isa’) who is portrayed in typical Islamic fashion: created by God, a prophet confirming earlier revelations, not crucified, a teacher, Allah confirms his mission through miracles, near to God, mortal and not the son of God.
Overall, the draft proposal presents the picture of an orthodox Islam described as rational, tolerant, peace-loving, full of social concern, responsible and balanced. The image painted here is that of a pure and ideal Islam. Anyone informed, however, will recognise that the paper skilfully contextualises common fundamen22 talist belief. How this portrayal of Islam can be reconciled with those texts from the Quran, Tradition and especially from Islamic law, which are clearly discriminatory and aggressive towards other faiths, remains to be seen. The fact that the biblical faith is denied self-representation in the draft proposal only indicates the lack of concern on behalf of the authors to communicate genuine information about other faiths and to strive for mutual understanding and integration. This is unacceptable for an Islamic country, as well as a western society with a predominant Christian history and tradition. The disclaimer that the proposal is only for teaching in primary schools does not help in this respect. European history and culture are incomprehensible, inconceivable in fact, without understanding of the Christian faith. If Muslim children and youth are to become acquainted with western history and culture the biblical faith has to be taught from a biblical perspective even when it forms part of Islamic religious instruction in primary schools. This is absolutely essential if a level of integration is to be achieved.