I have just returned from a 46-day hiatus, after having gone to Medina and then Mecca, been enlightened in Arafah, breezed through Muzdalifah and done the stoning ritual in Mina in observance of the fifth pillar of Islam, which is for every able-bodied and financially able Muslim to perform the obligatory Haj.
Now, I wonder how deep and intense Islamic education needs to be for our children at school level.
As long as one continues to read and reading does not stop, learning becomes a lifelong endeavour. Of course, the younger the learner, the better the learning, but there are levels of difficulty in learning and maturity to completely and wholeheartedly internalise the learning process and practise the ethics and principles posited by any religion for that matter. Not everything needs to be, and can be, learnt in school.
The National Education Advisory Council, on which I sit, has formed a task force that comprises well-rounded educators and open-minded scholars of Islam to review the way the religion is taught in primary schools, keeping in mind that national schools are not religious ones. The task force is deliberating the issue, seeking public opinion through meetings, discussions, surveys and focus groups, and will make its initial recommendations to the education minister by the end of next month.
We want the students to learn the true teachings of Islam, to uphold values, practise moderation in their way of life, be balanced in their thinking, be law-abiding in every aspect, not compromise on cleanliness, care for the environment, show compassion for those with special needs and the poor and needy, as well as respect people of different faiths and ethnicity.
After all, Muslims were a minority in seventh-century Mecca and their persecution brought about their inevitable Hijrah to Medina. Muslims are still a minority in many countries today and they too want to be treated fairly. Of utmost importance is the unity and harmony of all Malaysians, living together under one roof and celebrating their diversity.
A 2018 study conducted by Professor Hossein Askari of George Washington University entitled “How Islamic are the Islamic Countries?” showed that most of the countries that apply Islamic principles to their daily lives are not traditionally Muslim. New Zealand came out tops followed by Luxembourg and Ireland while Malaysia was rated a paltry 38th, Kuwait an embarrassing 48th, Bahrain a demeaning 64th and, most shamefully, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia an appalling 131st.
“We must emphasise that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, underdeveloped and are, in fact, not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination,” says the professor.
Kelantan, which has enjoyed — or suffered, depending on one’s sentiment — the longest Islamic rule, has recorded the highest number of HIV, drug abuse and mat rempit cases for years.
A comprehensive report entitled “Whither Integration”, published last month by Aidila Razak of Malaysiakini, who is a Chevening scholar and former BBC journalist, invites serious reflection. She quoted a study in which the respondents were asked to rate how they felt about their fellow citizens according to their religion. It was found that Muslim Malaysians had very favourable views of fellow Muslim Malaysians but viewed others much less favourably. The ratings given by Muslim Malaysians to Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Malaysians were much lower than what the Hindus and Buddhists rated the Muslims. Unsurprisingly, Malay respondents rated the Chinese and Indian respondents much lower and vice versa.
The Education Act 1996 provides for a minimum of four periods a week for Islamic/moral education. Muslim parents want more religion to be taught in schools in spite of the six periods a week already allocated. Maybe it is to make up for their own weakness in teaching their children, so they conveniently shirk their parental responsibilities and push the onus back to the government. If that fails, they will hold it against the ruling political party at the next general election. Parents too can turn political on education, worsening an already tense situation.
The sultans, who are the heads of Islam in their respective states, should facilitate a wholesome religious education for their people, from young through to adulthood and into the twilight years. At Masjid Al-Nabawi in Medina, between the congregational prayers, children sit in little groups guided by their teachers to learn to recite the Quran. It is a pleasure to see them and hear their young voices in mosques.
Here in Malaysia, enormous budgets are allocated to build and maintain mosques but little activity is organised to attract children to them to create a love and bond among them. After all, mosques were institutions of learning that existed long before proper schools were built. Now, mosques are perceived to be for mainly retirees, the compulsory Friday congregational prayer, tarawih prayers during Ramadan, prayers for the dead and annual festivities.
Islamic education in primary schools should focus on building the foundation of being a good Muslim and internalising the religion’s fundamentals. Learning to recite the Quran proficiently is adequate. In the end, practice makes perfect. But what is more important is understanding its teachings and putting them into practice as they were meant to be.
The cleanliness of oneself before prayer is as important as ensuring that one’s surroundings allow one to be completely cleansed without jeopardising the subsequent rituals.
My heartfelt appreciation goes to fellow Medina and Mecca roommates Hajjah Timah, Hajjah Farah, Hajjah Khairiah, Hajjah Zaitun and Hajjah Rose for making lifelong memories and taking this lifetime journey with me.
Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, which is an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders