Last update: 2020-06-29 12:48:17
Conversation with Ignazio de Francesco, by Chiara Pellegrino
With the advent of the web, the channels for spreading Islam have multiplied. But to understand how faith is transmitted to the young generations it is still very instructive to analyse the contents of the school books. This is the opinion of Ignazio de Francesco, monk from the Little Family of the Annunciation and author of a study on the texts used in Jordan to teach the Islamic religion, from primary school to university.
Why did you decide to explain Islam through school books rather than the classic texts?
It seemed to me very important to explore how the subject of Islam is transmitted to the new generations. In the past, the old generations received a classical education, usually imparted in the mosque, at school, in the family and in the Qur’an summer schools. Instead, today the educational channels have multiplied. Through the web, young people potentially have access to any type of content. They go online and choose the imam who will inform and educate them. This presents some problems. But this does not mean that some traditional channels, such as schools, no longer hold any significance in understanding what type of Islam the new generations are learning. And so, I examined the school books for teaching the Islamic religion used in Jordan in the 2016/2017 school year, from primary school to university, for a total of over 2,400 pages. In addition to these, I also considered some examples of preaching, that is, mosque teaching, obviously aimed at a wider public which also includes adults.
Why did you choose to study the school books from Jordan and not another Arab country?
Jordan seems a very significant case to me. It is a hinge state: on one hand, it has a very traditional religious base, and on the other the Jordanian monarchy seeks to appear as one of the Arab systems most open to Europe. On their part, there is the attempt to transmit an Islam that is true to its roots, but also in dialogue with modernity. For me it was interesting to see how the books teaching religion, controlled by the state, reflected this difficult balance.
What are the mainstays of the religious syllabus?
I would say that there is a very strong commitment to basing the faith on the holy texts, the Qur’an and the Sunna. What immediately stands out is the fact that one third of the curriculum, i.e. 190 lessons, is devoted to learning the Qur’an by heart. To be precise, 77 lessons are dedicated to teaching the discipline of tajwīd, the technique for pronouncing the sacred text. The course entails the memorization of over 2,600 verses, around 40% of the Qur’an, starting with the shortest suras to arrive at the longest ones, only some parts of which are read. Memorizing has its positive aspects: having the Text inside you means you can dip into it at any time. However, on the other hand, this tends to make for a more rigid relationship with the Book: the more you memorize, the less you think. Nevertheless, compared to the past, I have noticed a new effort to reflect on the Text to understand its message.
The second mainstay is studying the Sunna. Like for the Qur’an, also in the case of the hadith the information given to the younger pupils is quite scant. At first, the tendency is to have some sayings learnt by heart, and only as of year 6 do they start to better define the meaning of the Sunna for the believer, the ways of forming the corpus, the reliability of the chains of transmission and its function with respect to sharia. During the course, students memorize around 700 hadiths. From this point of view, the books that I analysed reflect a very classical vision: contrary to a certain “modernizing” trend that aims to reduce the importance of the Sunna, these texts reconfirm its role in defining normative aspects not dealt with in the Qur’an.
Jordan is a country that is very engaged in promoting interreligious dialogue. Overall, what image of the relationship with the other emerges from the school books and what idea of coexistence do they propose?
An attempt is seen to strike a balance between those who are Muslims and those who are not. It is a very thorny issue, above all for young consciences in the making. The texts can be seen to propose a middle way that maintains the dogma that Islam is the ultimate and definitive revelation, while at the same time lacking fundamentalist excess. Indeed, it can provide a suitable response to a plural society like that of Jordan, home to a small but culturally significant non-Muslim minority. The topic is found explicitly in a lesson in year 10 dedicated to Islam’s position with regard to other faiths. The discourse opens by quoting a Qur’anic verse taken from the sura of the Family of ‘Imrān: “The true religion with God is Islam” (3:19), as if to remind that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and Islam is the religion that potentially substitutes the monotheisms that preceded it. The idea that recurs that every human being is monotheist and Muslim from birth thanks to a “natural inclination”, fitra (Qur’an 30:30), indicating a sort of innate condition in the believer. This genetic basis of the faith is confirmed in the famous hadith mentioned in a year 11 lesson, which has it that “No babe is born but upon Fitra. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Polytheist.” It is evident that this “genetic” characteristic of faith is quite problematic when it comes to dealing with others. Among other things, there is a mistake in this saying: it is common knowledge that Jews are born Jews, they do not become Jewish.
In general, other religions are considered distortions of the original divine plan, bearing the stamp of an error. People’s failure to subscribe to Islam is attributed, in extremely negative terms, to Satan whispering into people’s hearts and the domination of the passions. In addition to all this is the consequence of the verses and sayings dotted throughout the curriculum setting out a severe eschatological judgement for non-believers and disbelievers.
Against these issues, some positive lines are also taken too. Cohesion is sought within the umma, both to limit fundamentalist drifts but also to instil into the young people the ban on takfīr, that is, accusing a fellow Muslim of disbelief. Instead, as far as relations with non-Muslims are concerned, it is taught that Islam treats everyone with mercy and does not force anyone to enter, with clear reference to the two famous Qur’anic verses: “No compulsion is there in religion” (2:256) and “To you your religion, and to me my religion” (109:6).
The text for the last year group in use until 2016 still made reference to the institution of dhimma with regard to the People of the Book, while specifying, however, that today this classical formula corresponds to the notion of citizenship (jinsiyya), with all the rights and duties laid down for the citizens of a state. This reference has disappeared in the new textbook.
Then there is another very significant point. Until 2016, the textbook for the last year group allowed for the religious freedom for non-Muslims, but not the freedom of conscience of Muslims, who were put on guard against apostatizing. From this point of view, at school it was taught that community law prevailed over individual law, and that to abandon Islam is to destabilize the umma. In the new textbook adopted in 2017, the reference to the restrictions imposed on Muslims has been removed, while generally affirming the principle of the freedom of choice.
In talking about religious teaching, it is spontaneous in the West to think of theology. But we know that in Islam it holds a secondary role compared to other disciplines, such as law. What can you tell us about this?
Given that recognition of God is immediate in nature, I would say that theology is a support to ethics (the unsanctioned part of behaviour), and a handmaid to law (sanctioned behaviour). Indeed, it is true that Islam attributes primary importance to law and works of faith, which are for everyone, while theology finds itself on the sidelines, pertaining to the few. You just need to go into a religious bookshop and compare the shelves of Islamic theology works with those of the law manuals to see this: there are a great many more of the latter than of the former. This imbalance is then also confirmed in the saying of the Prophet that “religion is behaviour.”
Over history, Muslims have regarded theology with a certain reserve, the risk being to speak of God with non-divine words. Those who wished to run this risk, such as philosophers or mu‘tazilites, attracted much criticism. In certain contexts, theology is still regarded with suspicion today. For example, this subject is excluded from university studies in Saudi Arabia.
Hence, it was preferred to let God speak of himself. In this view, the 99 Names lend themselves to building a theology in which it is God who speaks about himself. Indeed, Islamic theology did not come about with the theologists, it was born in the Qur’an which presented its particular discourse on God.
So what image of God is transmitted to young people?
God is taught through his most beautiful Names, which become the framework upon which faith and ethics are based. In Islam, the fathomless mystery of God’s identity is enclosed in His Names, whose number, according to an old tradition, is also imprinted on the palm of every person’s hand: 81 (٨١) on the left hand and 18 (١٨) on the right, as if to attest to the profound bond linking human beings to God.
It is taught that God is truth (haqq), full existence translated into light (nūr), evident (zāhir) but also hidden (bātin), in the sense of ungraspable. He is an absolute sovereign but also an omniscient God. None of human action escapes him. Many names then refer to the idea of a God creator, a “great artist” who creates from nothing solely through his willpower.
Overall, what is taught is an ethical God, who demands unity between faith and actions in view of the final judgement and puts humans to the test in the present in view of the future life. This explains the considerable number of lessons dedicated to the good Muslim’s norms of behaviour, which range from fulfilment of acts of worship (28 lessons) meant as acts of divine law, to the rules that discipline family law (formation and dissolution of marriage, inheritance, status of orphans, birth control) and the economy.
The fear of universal judgement is a constitutive element of Muslim identity, and the didactics place a certain importance upon this. Tellingly, around 30 lessons are dedicated to eschatology and give an image of God as a judge. Islamic orthopraxis is based precisely on this perspective of the final reckoning.
Instead, the names that refer to the uniqueness of God as an element constituting the Islamic faith deserve a separate discussion. Suffice it to think of the Muslim’s testimony of faith, the shahāda, in which the believer declares that he/she believes in a single God. The topic of divine uniqueness is given much attention at university level, starting from a textbook that is quite common in the Arab faculties, al-Imān by Muhammad Nu‘aym Yāsīn (b. 1943). In this text, written specially for the course on creed, the author places God’s uniqueness in his two dimensions: rubūbiyya, that is, the unity of lordship that indicates God as the only Lord and Creator, and ulūhiyya, the unity of the divinity owing to which God is the only one worthy of being worshipped.
Hence, the preferred method of teaching God in the classroom is to map out his most beautiful Names. However, this way of speaking of God is not new: it had already been highly successful in the 1990s in Damascus, in the lessons held in the mosque by sheikh Muhammad Rātib al-Nābulsī (b. 1938).
How is the relationship between faith and reason dealt with in the textbooks?
Throughout the school years and university, education is directed towards a rational presentation of the facts about the faith. The faith is also the triumph of reason. This tendency strongly emerged in particular in the last century and fits into the late-nineteenth-century, early-twentieth-century reformist discourse which placed doubt on the blind imitation of the ancients, deemed obsolete and unsuitable for a modern public, and made an apologia for a “reasoned” Islam. Indeed, this tendency constitutes a response by Islam to modernity. A clear example of this orientation is the treatise on creed by the Syrian sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maydānī (1927- 2004), one of the most open and moderate contemporary theologists, adopted in many universities in the Arab world. In this work, the author gives the act of believing a rational foundation: God makes himself known to humans through logic and scientific investigation. This rationalist approach is not without its issues, however. Indeed, the theologist ends up asserting that the person who insists on not believing despite the evidence must be lacking in intellect, deviating from the truth to justify vile behaviour and leaving free rein to instincts and passions. Personally, I believe that this is the root of Islamic fundamentalism.
The presentation of the Qur’an as a rational discourse and scientific book also fits into this way of looking at things. This trend, which arose towards the end of the nineteenth century, today enjoys extraordinary popularity all over the Islamic world. Starting from the traditional formulation, the exegetes extended the classical notion of the Qur’an’s inimitability of its scientific contents and created a concordant type of exegesis, which aims to demonstrate the agreement between the contents of the revelation and science. An interesting aspect to note is that in the textbooks I consulted, the only contemporary exegetic work quoted is in fact a scientific commentary, Al-jawāhir fī tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-karīm [Precious Stones in the Interpretation of the Noble Qur’an] by the Egyptian exegete Tantāwī Jawharī (d. 1940). This use of the Qur’an as a book of science is evidently a double-edged sword. On one hand, the boys and girls are told not to be afraid of science because nothing can be discovered that is against the principles of the faith, and on the other, when something emerges that could undermine this principle, its reliability is disputed.
Instead, how do the textbooks deal with other big ideas of modernity such as democracy and human rights?
The principles of the system of government in Islam are dealt with from year 9 onwards. In general, the origins of democracy and the constitutional state are traced back to the foundational institutes the umma. Reference is made to the practice of consultation (shūrā) adopted by the Prophet as the source of legitimation of the democratic decision-making process, and the Charter of Medina as the precursor of the modern constitutions. The children are taught that the Charter of Medina already contained modern notions such as rights of citizenship, faith and worship, the principle of equality, and the right to free movement. A unit in year 12 explains how this Charter came about to “transform society from a set of scattered groups, linked on the basis of tribes or clans, into a single state, the state of Islam, under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad and based on a single bond, [namely] belonging to a cohesive Islamic society.” This assumption gives a clear perception of the importance for a Muslim of sharing the faith and Islamic values, the basic elements of Arab-Muslim identity. The topic of human rights, dealt with in the last school year, is also related to the Charter of Medina. Once again, it is repeated how Islamic religion preceded other systems in guaranteeing human rights, amongst which the right to life, dignity, education and science…
There is no doubt that it is interesting to seek notions corresponding to democracy, for example, in the Islamic heritage, but it cannot be taken to excess. As such, to me it seems a bit forced to equate the shūrā with mechanisms of modern parliamentarism.
A sphere in which it seems to me progress has been made is the question of women. In the textbooks used until 2016, a woman’s role started and ended essentially within the family group: women achieved realization as a wife, daughter and sister. In the new 2017 edition, there instead emerges greater appreciation of women and their right to study and work. The religion classes also tackle the topic of marriage, meant as a contract between a man and a woman, with an explanation of the details of the institution of the dowry as a wife’s right over her husband, and an illustration of the rights and duties of the two spouses. In particular, the rights set out for women are the dowry, board and lodging, while her duties are to obey her husband, look after his assets and take care of the children. Instead, in the schoolbooks there is no mention of polygamy, which is still a consented practice in Jordan. Instead, they do deal with the topic of repudiation, recognized as a lawful practice to resolve a dispute if the process of reconciliation between spouses does not have a positive outcome.
Do they talk of jihad and the use of violence?
They talk about it, also because this moment in history requires emergency measures to be fielded to counter the narration of Islamic radicalism. For the Jordanian state, it is a priority to transmit to its one and a half million students that the catechism taught by terrorist groups is a distorted form of the original Islam. The attempt emerges in the textbooks to find a balance between two tensions: on one hand the history of Islam, which in some ways sacralizes the violence used by the Prophet and his companions to create the umma, on the other the present-day jihadist groups which claim to legitimize another type of violence. The sacred history abounds with tales of Muhammad’s military campaigns and the heroic death of the first Muslims who fell in battle. Hence, what the textbooks set out to do is contextualize these events, explaining how the first generations of Muslims used violence as a means of defence. It is a praiseworthy but also difficult effort, because fath, “conquest”—the term used to describe Mahomet’s campaigns—is not a synonym of difā‘, that is, defence. In the educational programme, jihad is first systematically dealt with in year 5, starting from a hadith on the three best actions: prayer, good behaviour towards one’s parents and jihad in the path of God. In this specific context, jihad is interpreted as a spiritual effort, in the sense of sacrificing one’s life and assets so that the word of God may triumph, but also seeking knowledge and providing for one’s children’s upkeep and education. The lesson continues with some quotes from the Qur’an, amongst which two verses of the sura Saff (61:10-12), whose more explicitly bellicose nature invites to fight in the way of God. And it is here that the principle of authority according to which only the Head of State can declare war is introduced. In this connection, it seemed significant to me that the expression walī al-amr, traditionally used to designate the authority prepared to declare jihad and belonging to religious language, has been replaced with the expression ra’īs al-dawla, Head of State, which refers to the secular dimension. This specification enables delegitimation of the actions of terrorist groups, which do not have the authority to declare military mobilization. The textbook even follows the religious argument with Jordanian positive law, quoting article 2 of law no. 18/2014 on the fight against terrorism. Therefore, on the whole, there is the attempt to sideline the violence that the jihad groups have been taking too far, but it is not always simple to build a vision that also fits with Islamic history and the sacred sources.
If you were to take stock of the situation, what are the most critical aspects that emerge from your study and what are instead the positive points?
It seems to me that these textbooks are imbued with a tension that has remained unsolved. As I was reading them, I asked myself if they represent an evolution in the Islamic discourse or not, and what model of personality they mould. On one hand, no doubt they strive to leave behind any ambiguity, for example, by distancing themselves from the version of Islam proposed by the various terrorist groups that are expressly condemned. However, on the other it seems to me that the curricula are still deeply traditional in the representation made of God, in the law, the ethics and the dogma. There is some openness as to what can be considered a more affective and mystical faith, but, upon assessing the lessons as a whole, it does not seem particularly significant to me. Memorizing the Qur’an and the Sunna continues to prevail over reflection, although tafkīr is discouraged more than in the past. The exegesis of the Qur’an continues to be proposed according to a classical pattern of explaining the unusual terms and paraphrasing the verses, while the possibility of a historical-critical approach is excluded. The insistence on the rational nature of the faith and the notion of the scientific inimitability of the Qur’an, leading to the idea that the holy text contains the origins of all scientific discoveries, are very slippery things. Furthermore, it is asserted several times that Islam invites to study the sciences as testimonies of the existence of God, but at the same time the choice is limited to the branches of science that do not upset the principles of Islam. This can evidently be very problematic. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the normative aspect of faith to the detriment of personal reflection, and the subject of eschatology is particularly well developed, with the risk that behavioural choices are mainly oriented by fear of the final judgement.
Another critical point is the idea of the relationship with the West. The textbooks in use until 2016 presented a substantially negative vision of globalization and the encounter with the West. This aspect, however, has been toned down a lot in the new textbooks. I found it disconcerting to read the textbook for year 12, the last secondary school class, which spoke of the colonial and religious assault of the West, and the plot to spread Christianity. It was saying that the umma was experiencing a moment of cultural regression and pinpointed its cause in some not well-defined internal factors, but above all in three external factors: the political-military and economic hegemony of the West, and cultural invasion. The pupils were told that the cultural invasion aims to weaken the Islamic doctrine in the hearts of Muslims, tear open the unity of the umma and destroy the Islamic virtues and values to spread secularism. Among the examples of cultural invasion, it indicated attempts at evangelization and quoted a phrase attributed to the famous American protestant Samuel Zwemer, who died in 1952, according to which the aim of missionary activity was not to get Muslims to sign up to Christianity but to make them reject Islam, and spoke of missionaries as the vanguards of the colonial conquest of the Muslim kingdoms. All of this part has been taken out of the new textbook in use since 2017 which to me seems a great step forward.
To cite this article
Ignazio de Francesco, “Islam as a school subject”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 39-48.
Ignazio de Francesco, “Islam as a school subject”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/islam-as-a-school-subject