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The new face of Qur’an schools


When Ministry of Education school evaluators were invited in 2004 to establish whether Umar B.A. Islamic Centre qualified to attain an examination sitting centre, they hesitated and said, “We know Muslim schools.”

But when they eventually visited the newly established primary school in Mukono, they watched with inexpressible surprise how the school was enormously equipped.

Their initial underestimation of Muslim schools was not surprising. Since their emergence in Uganda, Islamic schools were regarded as the worst in both performance and appearance.

Mostly situated around Mosques, Madrasahs – as Islamic schools are widely called – attracted pupils whose parents understood “Islamic brotherhood” to mean non payment for services rendered by fellow Muslims. The reward for teaching in an Islamic school, such parents thought, was only Al-Janna (Paradise), which is attainable after death.

As a result, Islamic teachers often found it unaffordable to replace their torn shirts, struggled to secure just one meal a day and their general misery scared away pupils from acquiring religious knowledge.

Conditions did not improve even after Madrasahs incorporated in their curriculum so called secular studies such as mathematics and science. Unable to pay reasonable salaries, the schools largely attracted unqualified teachers who found overcrowded classrooms without windows and a handful of tattered textbooks.

Such learning conditions explain the scarcity today of Muslim graduates, especially those with Qur’an knowledge, in medicine, engineering and other natural science professions that entertain students with a strong primary and secondary education background.

But whereas it would be an exaggeration to suggest that a deep change has taken place, a new breed of Islamic schools is emerging whose products are likely to be profoundly different from the generations that passed through old madrasahs.

These modern madrasahs are nurturing what Islamic University Rector Dr. Ahmad Ssengendo has dubbed the “Q – Generation”, with “Q” standing for “Qur’an”. The Q – Generation, Dr. Ssengendo explains, is “a generation that not only memorises the Qur’an, but also lives by the teachings of the Qur’an.”

Teaching two syllabi of concentrated Islamic theology and ‘secular’ education, the madrasahs that admit only Muslims are designed to produce Sheikhs who are competent enough to become doctors, engineers, physicians, computer connoisseurs, nuclear scientists, economists, lawyers and other professionals.

Umar B.A., one of the leading Qur’an primary schools in Uganda is also among Mukono’s best performing schools in ‘secular’ national examinations. Its pupils can deliver Jumaa (Friday payer) sermons in Arabic, English and their mother tongues and, at the same time, top mathematics in the district.

The story is scarcely different from King Fahd Primary School, another Madrasah in Busega, Luqman Primary School on Entebbe Road and similar mushrooming seminaries in various parts of the country.

According to the Uganda Qur’an School Association (UQSA), the country has over 200 Qur’an schools registered under the organization, teaching Qur’an recitation and interpretation; Islamic jurisprudence; Traditions of the Prophet and Arabic language and ‘secular’ sciences such as mathematics, English, science and social sciences. These Islamic schools are fundamentally different from nominal Muslim schools, which teach very little or no Islamic knowledge.

The planned rise of Sheikhs capable of performing surgery on patients, overseeing the construction of skyscrapers and inventing computer software is partly calculated to smash the allegation that experts on the Qur’an lack ‘secular’ knowledge. This, Muslim strategists hope, will prompt more parents to take their children to madrasahs, fast-tracking the creation of the Q – Generation.

Muslim strategists hope that in the long run, this trend of education will produce Muslims with an unprecedented determination and ability to takeover strategic sectors of the country, a key step towards establishing the dominance of Islam and effecting Shariah.

It is the determination to realize this dream that drives the Union of Muslim Professionals (Umpro) to meet on August 29. Umpro President Dr. Adam Sebbit says that the Kampala meeting is intended to examine “who is doing what” in the Muslim education sector.

Strengthening both religious and secular sciences is unquestionably a central requirement for Muslims to regain their position as the world’s leading mathematicians, physicians, scientists, astronomers and scholars who also know and practice their religion. Dr. Ssengendo says that as medieval Europeans were still stuck in superstition and backwardness, Muslims had not only advanced in knowledge and established a powerful Muslim civilization that out-competed the rest of the world, but also ensured that their people lived an Islamic way of life.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Muhammad adds that so advanced were Muslims in science that “Europeans had to kneel at the feet of Muslim scholars in order to access their own scholastic heritage.”

The intellectual triumph that sustained the power of the Muslim empire, however, began to wither as Muslims abandoned the teachings of the Qur’an, including the obligation to acquire knowledge. Self-styled, misguiding interpreters of Islam emerged and preached, as Dr. Mahathir recalls, that “acquisition of knowledge by Muslims meant only the study of Islamic theology.” They discouraged the study of science, medicine and related disciplines and allowed Europeans to overtake Muslims in science and technology.

To regain their glory, Muslim activists believe, Muslims must not only excel in science, mathematics, etc, but also acquire sufficient Islamic knowledge that will commit them to the cause of Islam. This, a leading Umpro member thinks, would enable committed Muslims to infiltrate key sectors of Uganda and drive the country towards an Islamic direction.

It is often said that most Ugandan Muslims who have excelled in ‘secular’ sciences without a strong Qur’an background have been so overwhelmed by ignorant western lifestyles that they feel ashamed of their religion. Most Sheikhs, on the other hand, lack ‘secular’ knowledge – which is actually also Islamic knowledge – a weakness that significantly limits their ability to promote Islam.

The aim of the new education strategy, therefore, is to produce sufficient Muslim professionals who can give both Sharia and Science instructions with an intension of establishing the political supremacy of Islam.

Qur’an schools, however, face open hostility from western and local enemies of Islam who spread Islamophobia by claiming that madrasahs breed terrorism. Andrew Mwenda’s The Independent magazine of May 30 – June 12, 2008 wrote that terrorism in Uganda “is made worse by the proliferation of Islamic Schools commonly known as madrasas especially those run by the Salaaf where most of the [terrorism] indoctrination takes place.” (The title of the story was Museveni survives assassination).

Such enemies and detractors are determined to wipe Islam from the face of the world by mobilising hostility against the centres of Islamic knowledge. Their conspiracy, a leading strategist noted, is nevertheless not beyond the Knowledge of Allah who said in His Glorious Book, “They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths but Allah will perfect His Light… “61:7.

The strategist advises that while nurturing a stronger Muslim generation, Qur’an schools must stand firm to surmount any intimidation from America’s proxies and all those who see in the triumph of Islam a blow to their unjust order and deviant practices. He adds that the brains behind such schools should learn from the wisdom of Orison Swett Marden who said, "Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds."

The impact of Islamic schools, however, may not be significantly felt unless their number increases substantially. They are still very few and so expensive that they can be afforded by just a handful of privileged Muslim families.

This suggests that the overwhelming majority of Muslim children still go to old, substandard madrasahs or secular and Christian schools. Unless this problem is addressed, efforts to attain the Q – Generation might be an exercise in futility.

This story first appeared in the print version of The Campus Journal in 2009