“The first generation of Muslims did what was within their capacity to protect the identity of the Muslims and give us something to inherit and take forward”
I was invited to be a guest along with Imam Abdullah Hasan on a recent televised programme called ’Let’s Talk, hosted by br Ajmal Masroor to discuss the relevance of the Prophet (SAW) today. Many brothers and sisters called in to make some valid points showing the relevance of our beloved Prophet (SAW) in our lives.
One brother called in and challenged the community on the relevance of Masjids and Islamic schools. His argument was that we had to develop our children with a focus on mainstream education. He posited further that ‘Islamic schools’ and ‘masjids’ were only taking us backwards. There is much that can be said in response to such a statement, but I thought at the time that brother Ajmal challenged him sufficiently. However, what has played on my mind since that phone call is the thinking, and rationale behind it. The nature of phone-ins is such that the person calling in will represent (however small that minority may be) the views of at least a small minority. It is a view which champions the ‘modern’ technological schools over the ‘traditional’ Madrasah approach which they believe is followed by Islamic schools and masjids across the globe. The problems in regard to such a belief are two-fold. Firstly, the case is always such that those who champion the modern, secular schools have never taught in a State school, or seen its inner workings. The Muslim teachers I know who have worked in State schools openly testify that State schools irrevocably, and unalterably destroy a child’s perception of Islam without necessarily giving them an education that is noteworthy. The child who finishes his or her education in a State school, having had no Islamic input from say, a weekend Quran class, or spent any time in the Masjid, will come to hold the belief held by the State school they went to: ‘Islam’ is confined to Ramadhan, and the two Eids, and there is no problem with Muslim children celebrating diversity and taking part in the end of year Christmas party, and (perhaps most destructive of all) the Year 11 Prom. The Prom asks every boy and girl to attend with a ‘date’ of the opposite gender. Students see their teachers drinking alcohol in their presence. As is nearly always the case, one student always manages to sneakily steal a bottle of champagne from the teachers’ lounge, and this results in students drinking large amounts of alcohol also. Although this happens every year in State schools, the prom continues to occur in the same fashion, because it is a part of a school’s fabric, and because the Year 11 need some time to ‘relax’ after having prepared so for their GCSE exams.
The second problem lies in the approach taken by those who hold the view that Madrasahs are ‘backward’ in their approach. At the time of the telephone call in Let’s Talk, following Ajmal Masroor’s response, we, the guests pointed out that the brother may have articulated things in a manner that he did not intend (some of what he said, if taken literally, would’ve brought his faith in to question). His experience of ‘madrasah-backwardness’ (if that term can be coined) was based on what he witnessed in the majority of poorly-run Masjids, at the helm of which are people who really know nothing about taking a community forward, and leading it Islamically. The unfortunate state of our Masjids in the UK is such that the majority of the Imams are brought over from abroad, and they struggle to relate their knowledge of the Deen to a community and context which is largely alien to them. Their struggle is further compounded by their language problems and, in many cases, an unwillingness to develop.
While the above is no doubt true, there is another way to look at people who bring up these types of criticisms against Masjids, which was very kindly pointed out to me by a colleague the next morning who, as it happens actually did try to call in to the programme, but did not get through. People who say things like, ‘masjids are backwards, and Islamic schools don’t achieve anything and the solution is in mainstream western education’, need to be reminded that the first generation of Muslims did what was within their capacity to protect the identity of the Muslims and give us something to inherit and take forward. They had, at the time, little or no support and were building everything from the ground up in a country and community which was completely alien to them. Rather than simply working to passively assimilate, they were proactive in their approach to their Deen, and took those vital steps towards creating barriers around their practice of their Religion here in the UK. In doing so, they knowingly went up against the Christian Church, and in a somewhat Postcolonial way, reversed the process of colonisation; now there were Muslims coming to England and setting up their own Islamic learning centres, and places for prayer. Of course, there were things they could have done differently, but we need to remember that they had no real modern template to follow. They were taking those first initial steps, and their constraints, restrictions, and limitations were many not least the fact that they were farmers from rural areas of the sub-continent.
What we often find is that those who openly and actively criticise the Madrasahs which do exist now, have themselves done little (if anything) for the community. They believe in assimilation and that whatever we get from the mainstream schools is sufficient and better for us. As mentioned previously, they have little if any knowledge of the inner workings of State schools in Britain.
The question I would like to pose is, ‘if the complaint is that masjids are backwards, what are these armchair critics of our generation doing to get involved and change things?’ There are masjids up and down the country that are crying out for some ‘forward’ thinking. They need a critical mass of fresh input from people who know what they are doing. Sons and daughters should now be taking over the running of Masjids from their parents and elders, who have really done their bit. But this critical mass is not forthcoming. One or two come forward but get caught up in the politics, and then lose their enthusiasm. Being proactive does not mean becoming pessimistic about progress, and stepping down as soon as one faces a problem, or a polemic. Being proactive means continuing to actively strive, and it was proactivity, not pessimism which created the original Madrasahs and masjids. It is true that there is a lot of dirty politics in our institutions, but there has to be a longer term strategy by the current generation to get involved in Masjids, work with the elders for some time, pick up membership forms, and wait until they have enough numbers and an established track-record of services to the masjid or Islamic organisation, so that other members will vote them in.
What we see instead is young people coming into masjids, not liking what they see, and trying to take this over by force. Change is a process that takes time, and patience. Our conduct should not pour water on the efforts of the first generation by way of a coup, but we should congratulate them on their efforts and then gradually take the helm from them.
If the likes of the brother who called in to the programme are expressing their grievance on the basis that Islam is not relevant and we have to be like the West and assimilate, or even that we are backwards, then such people have not yet come out of the colonised/slave mentality. They suffer from an inability to see what they have as good because the ‘other’ was their ‘master’ during the process of colonisation, and they were the master’s slave. Until they can break away from these mind-forged manacles, their view will always be something along the lines of, ‘what my master has must be better’. In the postcolonial era, while their countries of origin are no longer colonised, it is clear that their minds are. They are still ideologically colonised by values that will come and bite them when they realise that their children are not quite what they wanted them to be. I can say without reservation that such people are materially colonised by the glitz and glamour of a Western capitalist life, centred around the self. Colonised by their aspiration to do what they want to do and whatever makes them happy, ‘as long as they are not harming anyone’. Such people are in need of mental emancipation, rather than a new masjid committee, or even a better Islamic school. They need to learn to look at the world objectively and ask themselves what modernity has given the majority of the world aside from wars, injustice, famine, climate change, crippling debt, political and economic instability, and weapons of mass destruction. These brothers and sisters need to wake up and small the coffee, latte, double-espresso, or whatever it is they drink while sitting on their armchairs, and seriously ask themselves the question: ‘do I want my child to be like the people drunkenly staggering into black cabs on a Friday or Saturday night?’ I myself live on the border of the city of London, and have seen these ‘modern’, State educated people going to the limits of depravity for the sake of their own selfish pursuits. . They are all going ‘forward’ into a time-tunnel that is projecting them back a whole millennia, back in to the dark ages, albeit a sophisticated version of it where brutality, slavery, depravity, immorality and injustice are made to look good because they have been intellectualised, glamorised on the silver screen and made ‘mainstream’.
There is much more to be said on this topic, but I hope this much will at least get us thinking and make us truly utilise our freedom in the west by ‘unplugging ourselves from the matrix’ that is the ‘mainstream’. Then we will be the revolutionaries and heroes who will be remembered as people who freed our brothers and sisters in humanity from the slavery that they exist in.