The aims and contents of a complete educational program in the West become particularly demanding as soon as one starts trying to put them together with a built-in respect for the universality and comprehensiveness of the message of Islam. It is not only a matter, as we have said before, of passing on a knowledge of the scriptural sources that will illumine the heart with faith and build the mind for an understanding of self, humankind; and creation; it also concerns providing a very deep knowledge of the cultural and social environment, of history and human beings, and, more broadly, mastering the general disciplines and sciences that will give Muslims the means of living at home in their environment. These are the necessary prerequisites for harmony among faith, morality, reason, and life in the world. The most relevant question to ask at this point is whether Muslims in the West have the means to carry out such a program. Do they have the financial resources, and are they yet competent enough in a contextualized approach to the Islamic sources, in-depth understanding of Western societies, and scientific developments to put forward a completely autonomous alternative educational plan, thought through from within the Western world, for the Western world? Apart from the question of deciding whether a totally separate parallel system is in itself desirable (and I think not), it is appropriate to work out whether, on the basis of their own intellectual and human resources, Muslims have the means to achieve these ambitions, as some people hope.
In or view, the most realistic approach, and the most coherent and wise one in the circumstances, would be to work on a double initiative: on the one hand to build the framework of a complementary, not parallel, educational approach and on the other hand to concentrate on establishing connections as active as possible between the education provided in the West and the overall philosophy of the Islamic message.
Most Muslim children attend public schools, which provide in most areas (though some cities suffer from clear discrimination on the educational level) a quite complete and often well-thought-out basic education. Why should we reinvent what the public system already provides? Why should we invest so much money and energy in setting up, in most subjects, the same programs with the same outcomes and leading to the same examinations? (The difference in Islamic schools is essentially the framework, the rhythm, and a few additional religious subjects.) Would it not be wiser to think of an approach that proposes a “complementarity” between what society provides for all children and what Muslims want to pass on to their own? The first advantage of this plan is that it would reduce the needed financial investment and would more effectively highlight the requirements of this complementary education in terms of human resources; this would make it possible to reach a more significant number of young people. The second advantage, and actually the more important one, is that it would allow children to live, and have others alongside them, amid the ordinary realities of their society: the environment, the friends, and the moral challenges they would face would be those with which they will build their lives and their futures. The more this education is carried out in permanent interaction with, and at the heart of, a concrete situational context, the more solid (and also the more unpredictable) it will be. Finally, this type of complementary accompanying education would compel us to study in depth the society in which we live, even if only to find out what it has arrived at, and how. This is not the least of its advantages: how many parents and leaders of Islamic associations are completely uninterested in the subjects taught at school, as if they were not really very important and did not concern Muslims?
One approach, in the complementary plan, requires the exactly opposite attitude and calls for involvement in the life of public schools in various ways. The first is by studying the various programs to find out what they contain and what the requisite levels of knowledge at the various stages are. This information will be essential when, later, we try to build on a complementary (religious, moral, or even civic) education that must obviously be adapted to the levels of understanding that are naturally determined by the patterns established in school. Another crucial aspect is to encourage parents to be interested in school and in all facets of school life. Contact with teachers, membership on parents’ committees, and participation in school activities are all opportunities for understanding, entering into dialogue, and playing a real part in the education of children.It is imperative that every educational project in the West strive to involve fathers and mothers in one way or another: Muslim associations working on setting up a complementary education for children should suggest (and sometimes require as a condition of a child’s enrollment) parental attendance at regular meetings, activities, and evening gatherings for discussion and dialogue. We might even contemplate the establishment of a “school for parents,” such as exists today in some towns, with courses that provide basic information but also socialize fathers and mothers in the area of educational concerns.
From another perspective, taking an interest in public school also involves taking part in the discussions on the subject that are current in society. Most educational systems in the world go through crises, and everywhere the authorities put forward structural reforms and try to adjust the programs to the evolution of societies. These questions concern all citizens and are not the prerogative of politicians and teachers. What concept of settlement in the West says that American and European Muslim citizens have nothing to contribute to these discussions and that they should simply be by-standers? It is vitally important to concern oneself with the place of the school in the city, the reasons for the falling status of teachers, methods of testing and selection, and the timetable and contents of programs. On the last point, concerning programs, for example, citizens of immigrant and/or Muslim origin should make suggestions. If one looks at history (and sometimes geography) programs, one finds that they include representations of the world that are open to debate. The history of colonialism, parents’ experience of exile, the newly plural nature of Western societies, and some of the information provided about other civilizations as they are presented in most Western educational programs need some serious revision. Being interested in one’s children’s school also means being concerned about it. In this connection, the experience of Shabbir Mansuri, founder of the Council on Islamic Education (CIE), in California, is edifying: because he found out one day what his child was being told about her religion, he decided to devote himself body and soul to a critical study of the history and geography programs and to suggest alternative syllabuses. His thesis, which was not concerned only with the teaching of Islam and its civilization, is that it is necessary to propose a “paradigm shift” in the study of these two subjects and to revise the existing Eurocentric and Western-oriented approach. He concentrated on this work, drawing on the support of a solid team of specialists, and they came up with very interesting studies on the presentation of world history, particularly concerning the Chinese, Islamic, and African civilizations. Today, thanks to the seriousness of his work, official scholarly bodies in his state and from across the country consult his organization, and editors of school textbooks submit them to him before publication. This interest in the public school system and the inevitable consequent involvement is an important prerequisite for thinking about a complementary education, because the starting point must be the realities lived by young people.
We must revise and reform our whole approach to Islamic education around the school. First, it is right to take time to listen to young people and to analyze as well as possible their expectations, needs, and difficulties. By taking into account this information, the objectives we want to attain with regard to specifically Islamic education, and the need for a balanced life (e.g., intellectual, social, athletic), it becomes possible to build a picture of a coherent complementary approach. The Islamic organizationsinvolved in this work should, more than any others, be characterized by their strength, competence, and seriousness, because this is about working with hearts and minds, and a hodgepodge of contributions and wild experiments have grave consequences, as we have seen too often, and are completely unacceptable. The proposal to create an “after-school school” needs a lot of serious thinking at various levels, because it would be a development that must be adapted to the environment. Taking into account the children’s ages, school programs, and life patterns (after listening to them), it should be possible to think about a contextualized religious education program. Apart from the traditional and essential training in learning to recite the Qur’an, the study of Qur’anic passages and commentaries on them should be related to reality, as should the presentation of the life and tradition of the Prophet. We must bring the sources alive (in the awareness of young people and adolescents) by giving priority to their dynamic and practical aspects over the simple accumulation of dry, theoretical information. The teaching of morality is deepest when it is made up of exercises based on real situations. So it is a matter not only of putting forward programs of study that are exclusively intellectual but of supplementing this with social, cultural, and sporting activities. It is imperative that Islamic education be integrated into the dimensions of real life, at the heart of our towns, in the relationships with women, men, and nature that constitute our environment. In this way, a true “pedagogy of solidarity” can be instilled by organizing activities to support people who are sick, elderly, or disabled, and, for young people above a certain age, work with prisoners and drug addicts. Visits to political and social institutions will help build civic awareness and involve young people in the life of the city. And, finally, suggesting various cultural activities in line with the Western world of reference and connected with the lived experience of the people involved will naturally show them that being a Muslim does not mean having an Eastern and permanently foreign culture but consists in coming from here and learning early on to distinguish between what is consistent with our values and what is not.
Public schools already teach the basic subjects; it is for Muslims to find complementary, alternative, and original ways of providing the knowledge they judge to be essential to comply with the requirements of the message whose followers they are. In the conviction that this message is universal, they must find the means to be faithful to it in the West. It is clear that planning a series of traditional “courses” where young people sit and learn in theory the ideal principles of their religion will not do. Two two-hour sessions, held for example in the late afternoon twice a week, with an additional half-day during the weekend, should be enough over the course of a year to provide appropriate Islamic education with a series of innovative activities of the type suggested earlier. Children can and should be involved in these activities, first because, having been born and now living in the same context, they know better than anyone else what young people need and how it is possible for them to interact positively with society. In addition, such a program is an excellent “school of life” experience for the students themselves, who should under no circumstances forget their duty of solidarity. If they do not have money, they have knowledge and time, which they should, like any other possession, share, give, and offer. This is exactly the meaning of the Qur’anic phrase that defines believers: “[those] who give of the gifts with which [God] has blessed them.”
The Islamic associations concerned with education in the West that would like to take the path of complementary action should therefore decide who their partners are and what their human resources (school, parents, students)are; what their precise objectives are for each year; and what is the scope of activities that can be covered in a balanced fashion (religious, community, civic, cultural, and sports education), keeping always in mind the need to integrate their educational project with the life of the city. What is central here is to understand the crucial importance of giving a sense of worth: to educate is to give all persons a sense both of their own value and of the value of what they do. Young Muslims living in the midst of the city who are being taught to remain true to their principles and to live fully in their society must feel that that society recognises them, respects them, and values their involvement. Acts of solidarity and community service and ethical behavior in itself are a kind of public expression that should ultimately bring them a sense of recognized worth.
At the beginning of this section, we referred to the need to establish working connections between the various educations provided in the West and the overall philosophy of the Islamic message. To be truthful, this particularly concerns university education and professional activities. Many students do not know how to find a link between the object of their study and their belonging to Islam: here, too, we seem to find a division of the personality, and we see Muslim women and men very comfortable with their academic work but suddenly ill at ease and even inconsistent when it comes to their Islamic context and the link between these two areas of their life. The same is true for many professionals, whose competence in a particular field (medicine, engineering, political science, and all kinds of manual and technical employment) feels to them completely disconnected from Islamic teaching and morality, and they regret this. The result is a double impoverishment: on the one hand Muslim communities cannot benefit from the outstanding abilities of these students and professionals, and on the other hand the latter, although in the midst of society and with their religious and ethical resources to draw on, have nothing original to offer in the way they use their knowledge and their talents. What is needed here is first the inculcation of a state of mind, a way of engaging with study, while bearing in mind the three major questions we have spoken of before: What is my intention? What are the limits my tradition imposes on me with regard to the use of knowledge? What are the outcomes of the latter and of my profession? This awareness, formed too by humility (“the need of Him” in everything), must be wedded to that fundamental precept of Islam: the service of other human beings. The Prophet said: “The best among you is he who is best for people.” He did not say “for Muslims” only but spoke of all people, of humankind. Here we find the basis of the universal teaching of Islam concerning the acquisition and use of knowledge, which advocates establishing a virtuous harmony among knowledge, competence, morality, and gift. Whatever subject one studies, whatever profession one follows, being true to one’s principles and at the same time serving one’s community and society demands that one aim for the highest levels of competence and mastery in ones field, a fine sense of the ethical boundaries in using them, and a constant concern that they be exercised for the benefit of one’s society. In this way, the Muslim presence in the West can become normal without becoming trivial—not by voluntarily clinging to Otherness or by justifying difference but by offering solidarity and moral principles coupled with a confident competence in one’s field.
One is valued by making a visible contribution, not by being different.