A palpable consensus across the board, over the desirability of education reforms, has perdured since the late 1980’s. Considering the looming threats facing the country, viz. the end of the multifibre agreements, the erosion of preferential tariffs on the E.U. markets, the soaring price of oil and their concomitant consequences for the economy, education reforms is more than ever an inescapable necessity for our mid and long term survival. Elaborating on his vision, the current minister of education aspired to provide a ‘world class education’ to our children. Such a vision presumably is borne out of the government’s ambitious strategy to make our island a regional ‘knowledge hub’ and cyber-island.

To that end, a fundamental element of the education system, the curriculum, must be radically overhauled and I am confident that the several stakeholders have had ample time to debate on that on the 30th of November. If ‘quality education’ is the ultimate target, then I presume it must not be seen to contain junky elements; the latter is the enduring perception that is usually attached to oriental languages or religious studies. My concern therefore, is how to render ‘Islamic Studies’ coherent with quality education, for all indications point to an undeniable fact: Islamic Studies is alive and well and it is there to stay, perhaps for a very long time. To be able achieve that though, one must initially be in a position to diagnose the prevailing carences of the present curriculum. So what is wrong with the present Islamic studies curriculum? Perhaps it might be more appropriate to ask, what is right with it? À mon humble avis, I can barely see anything right! Let me explain.

Firstly, Mr. Gokhool is absolutely correct in decrying the ‘fragmentary and reactive ‘ approach to education issues and the total lack a holistic and inclusive paradigm. And this, a fortiori, is the first problem of the Islamic Studies curriculum; it was devised and it still operates in total isolation of the rest of the curriculum in a supremely idiosyncratic environment. If the desired outcome of the national curriculum is national integration and the promotion of ‘multicultural peace’ then how is it that none of these figure among the objectives of the syllabus?! Take a look at the aims of the syllabus 2056 for instance; to develop an interest for the study of Islam, to introduce basic teachings of Islam, to inform students of the pre-Islamic/Islamic religious life and to identify and promote ethical issues of Islam. How do these contribute toward the attainment of the overall desired outcomes of the national curriculum? The overtly passéiste outlook of such anachronistic aims of the syllabus are an ideal recipe for societal fragmentation and disintegration and the resultant – as you might expect- is the production of successive generations of schizophrenic and confused adolescents trapped in between a rapidly moving society and a crystallised utopian ideal, mirrored as the only way to salvation.

Secondly, the syllabus is fragmented from the national curriculum in terms of its contents. If tolerance, coexistence, common values and peace are intended, then you tell me how these could be achieved through the current syllabus. In the very first part of the 2056 syllabus for SC, around 42% (5 out of 12 points) of the requirements focus on violence! Students are required to know the details of tribal feuds and vendetta, the details of the battles at Badr, Uhud and Khandaq, the power of the early caliphs, the sanguinary murder of Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the never-ending wars during the conquests of Syria, Egypt and Persia. This trend persists in the HSC syllabus (9013/02) where 25% of the of the syllabus is predominantly devoted to violence: the establishment of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties after bloody civil wars, their decline, again with wars and royal murders as toile de fond, and a special study of some caliphs, a prominent and common feature to all is wars, conquests and decapitation. If you want to have first hand experience of what I am saying, go ask the students of Islamic Studies what they retain from the life of these famous caliphs.

Thirdly, the syllabus is isolated from the national curriculum in terms of the quality of materials and resources; these comprise both textbooks and resource persons. Would you believe it, that more than twenty five years after the introduction of Islamic studies, no single textbook is available! What the NCCRD has been doing is anybody’s guess. For the past five years, students and teachers –by and large- have been mistaking a book prepared by a primary school teacher ‘for the Muslim home’ as a textbook. The latter is a monstrous and incoherent collection of whatever the author could get his hand on and is fraught with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Let me quote one example to illustrate; while discussing ‘Jihad’ (vol.2, p.548), the author stressed that this word is used ‘for holy war, that is waged solely in the name of God…’. Two sentences later, I came across a line, the meaning of which I am still deciphering; here it is: ‘Jihad is therefore far from being synonymous to war, while the meaning of war undertaken for the propagation of Islam which is supposed by European writers to be the significance of Jihad is unknown to the Arabic language and the teachings of the Holy Quran’!

To be honest though, the syllabus does provide a recommended reading list. So what’s the problem then? Well, the hitch is that almost all of the recommended books are texts that are used in postgraduate courses in British and American universities. Take the highly technical History of the Arabs (by P.K.Hitti); even postgraduate students in American universities have a very hard time getting to grips with its Arabic lexicon such as, ghazw, ‘Asabiyya, mawlā and historical terms like Chaldaeans, Hittites, Semites, Assyrians, Nabateans, etc… It is therefore not surprising to frequently come across teachers who will timidly ask you the meaning of Byzantine and Fertile Crescent! Now you can imagine what a dilemma our poor HSC students are facing. Other texts, such as those of M.Watt, N. Robinson and Rippin A., are highly polemical orientalist texts that are again, generally used for critical reading at postgraduate level. Ironically, you also have a text by al Faruqi, a fierce critic of orientalism! Can you figure out the mess in which a young uninitiated student would find him/herself if ever he/she happens to read the same topic in those two diametrically opposed texts?! You might be asking yourself, how such incoherence could have occurred in a national curriculum. Well, you would understand when I would elaborate on the expertise and ingenuity of the resource persons involved in the national ‘Subject Advisory Committee’.

It is worth bearing in mind that the earliest initiators of Islamic studies as a subject of the curriculum were redundant teachers of an oriental language who were ‘recycled’ into the system. Till now, an alarming number of teachers of that subject, particularly in the private secondary schools, are ‘accidental’ teachers of Islamic studies with no genuine university background of the subject. Those who have some background suffer from three major problems: (i) many have studied, from secondary level, in an entirely Arabic or Urdu medium and their English literacy level is catastrophic, thus their inability to even function as traditional teachers; (ii) the Islamic background of those teachers is essentially theology while the syllabus is predominantly history; (iii) most of these teachers cannot distinction between education and missionary work (da’wa); the result is that instead of facilitating learning, creativity and encouraging students to think ‘out of the box’ they keep on subduing students to regular assaults with absolutist quotations from the scriptures.

Lately though, there has been another batch of graduates; those who graduated through distance learning programmes from UNISA. Generally, their level of English is satisfactory and they are good, up to SC level, at blindly following every letter of the syllabus and producing uniform essay type answers, which all their students regurgitate during the exams. However, when it comes to critical and analytical questions at the HSC level, such as the how and why of the origins of the rationalists (mu’tazila), the dialectics between Sunni orthodoxy and heterodox Sufism, the development and impact of Neoplatonism on Muslim thought, the historical and political impact of Islamic revivalism etc… then you find those teachers out of their depth, mired in erratic explanations. On top of it all, there had NEVER been any targeted training, or staff development programme for that particular subject. You could now appreciate why, after a quarter of a century, the whole establishment has lamentably failed to produce a simple, coherent, user-friendly textbook for Islamic studies students.

You might think that I am just blowing things out of proportion to belittle the profession, but I shall now show you –with concrete examples- the outcome of such amateurism. In 1998, in the wake of the periodic updating of the Syllabus, the M.E.S. convened a ‘Subject Advisory Committee’ to examine Cambridge’s proposals with regards the syllabus. One of those ‘accidental’ lady teachers, hyperactively argued that the topic ‘marriage in Islam’ be removed in toto since there is no longer the need for that. To calm her down, the committee strangely approved the motion. This was at a time when locally, the MPL was a hotly debated issue and internationally, forced marriages and honour killings among British Asians was prominent items of news in the media. As expected, Cambridge maintained the topic, which till now still figures in the syllabus and the committee’s ridiculous proposal was outrightly rejected. The way in which local teachers are perceived is such that once, when some examiners –during a standardisation meeting in London- asked me: why is it that only Mauritius chose to name this subject as ‘Islamic Religion and Culture’? Why don’t you people, call it Islamic Studies like the rest of the other countries? I did not dare reply: perhaps because some bootlickers with inflated egos were divinely inspired of that appellation.

It is the students however who suffer from caprices of those parochial teachers. I am particularly concerned at the ‘multiplier effect’ that the perversion of Islamic studies, over the years, engender in portending an atavistic society and dangerously polarising the Muslim youth into successive generations of maladjusted citizens. To illustrate, let me quote from the examiner’s report (paper 9013) on the question that deals with Islam’s relationship to other faith: ‘ most candidates took the opportunity to make negative remarks about other faiths’ (N. 93), ‘candidates took it as an excuse to condemn other faiths’ (N.00), ‘some…went about discussing the Quranic critique of faiths’ (N.02), ‘answers were mixed showing negative stereotyping of other religions and their adherents, especially the Jews’ (N.04). How close can you get to xenophobia and anti-semitism, bearing in mind that the principal examiner is most probably a Jew!

Such intolerance is not restricted to adherents of other religions only, Muslim women and other denominations such as the Shi’as are not spared; ‘ a great many candidates treated it as an excuse to criticise all aspects of Shi’ism’ (N.00), ‘most answers were full of anti-shi’a comments…however due to latent hostility, there was not much effort to look positively’ (N.02), ‘some candidates express unsavoury comments about other Islamic groups’ (N.03), ‘others gave very partisan opinions portraying Shi’as in negative terms. Candidates should be able to show a distance from their own personal beliefs and not to think in terms of sectarian influences within the community’ (N.04). On the question of the role of Muslim women ‘there were candidates who thought women should stay at home’ (N.96), ‘too many answers introduced details about westernisation and the bad influences emanating from it’ (N.00), ‘some were rather judgemental…assuming their proper place is always second to men’ (N.01). When I said earlier that the syllabus is perpetuating schizophrenia, see what the examiner has to say : ‘students gave a ‘romantic’ view about (the role of women in) these countries and showed little awareness of reality… disparities between what Muslims believe and what is actually practised should have been mentioned’ (N.03).

Taken together, can you see how an explosive cocktail has been in the making for decades? How do you expect coexistence and multicultural peace to be the outcome of such a curriculum? Despite the persistent signals sent by the examiner for over a decade, nothing has been done by the establishment to remedy that specific problem. What the examiner did not know was that his comments about the students are symptomatic of the visceral intolerance of the Mauritian environment that the students are merely reflecting. I am pretty sure that you would find analogous remarks in examiner’s reports of other religious studies subjects.

So, what could be done about it? I submit that you could now appreciate that the problem in not simply conjunctional but rather structural. Hence structural adjustment is necessary and not the usual skin-deep cosmetics. Structural adjustments might be spanned over the short and long term. In the short term, violence prone contents of the syllabus must be eliminated and the approach to wars and conquests must be reworked out. The beleaguered mentality created by the way topics such as ‘persecutions of Muslims at Makka’ are presented, must equally be revised and the political, economic and social implication of Islam must be vigorously stressed rather the simplistic assumption: ‘they hated Islam and its Prophet, that’s why they persecuted them’. Students taking the subject must be made to participate in cultural exchanges with religious studies students among the Hindus, Christians and Chinese as part of exams requirement. Appropriate textbooks such as Cambridge’s ‘Islamiyat’ and Farkhanda Noor Mohammad’s ‘Islamiyat’ be introduced.

In the mid term, the Islamic studies syllabus must be made to contribute the overall objectives of the national curriculum. This implies that the syllabus must be radically overhauled. I suggest that up to for III, all students be empathetically exposed all the current religions and cultures in Mauritius with particular emphasis on one religion. The SC and HSC syllabuses for all religious studies must be developed in a matrix of current essential issues such: war and peace, the environment, wealth and poverty, prejudice and discrimination, freedom and equality, sexuality and gender, marriage and divorce, abortion and euthanasia, tissue transplants and cloning, apostasy and capital punishment, suffering and evil, literature and art etc…. These themes could be studied from any religious perspective that the student at A level may choose. In such an endeavour, the John Murray textbooks series ‘Religion in Focus’ for key stage 4 of British Schools might be excellent models for the development of appropriate local textbooks. In that way, religious studies curriculum will be complementary to and integrated into general paper, sociology, citizenship, history and human geography.

Projects (preferably intercultural projects), field studies and assignments must be made an examination requirement. In that way religious studies might raise the pathetic performance of our students in general paper, enhance coexistence and cultural interaction, dispel cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, develop creativity and critical thinking, and prepare students for university studies in fields such as multiculturalism, international relations and diplomacy, anthropology, Islamic art and architecture, comparative law, gender studies, social work and chaplaincy and other related fields. Religious studies might also be a key element in a long-term strategy of making Mauritius a unique cultural hub; this might be a powerful marketing tool for the MTPA in the promotion of cultural tourism thereby helping in robust economic growth.

Reform of the Islamic Studies curriculum is necessary and desirable. It is necessary because it hampers social coexistence and inadvertently ghettoises Muslim youth from mainstream society. It is desirable because it has the potential of contributing to economic and spiritual growth of the country. Either way, there seems to be only one way out: bizin sanzman!

Belall Maudarbux