Growing up, many Muslims around me strongly believe that Madrasahs are institutional representatives of the Muslim community, which is not a baseless sentiment. Madrasahs have been institutionalised as the representatives of the community through legislation such as AMLA (Administration of Muslim Law Act). However, in many ways, this representation has been internalised by Muslims to mean “representatives of Islam” instead. This notion is extremely problematic because it gives an illusory idea that Madrasahs act purely based on religious interests, and to a certain dangerous extent, even “represent God”. One of the ways this belief has played out in my experience was when a senior of mine genuinely expressed that she had chosen to enter a Madrasah and continue on a religious path because it “secured her place in the hereafter”. It was also common to hear of parents who genuinely believe that they can achieve the same thing by entering their children into Madrasahs. Unfortunately, I had internalised the same toxic sentiments as well.
Growing up in a conservative family and studying a local Madrasah, I came to see religious institutions as the custodians of religious affairs and believed that every decision they made only had religious interests at heart. This deeply affected me in my later experience in a Madrasah, where I realised that many of the actions made by the people in these institutions did not reflect the Islam that I knew and understood as compassionate, kind and liberating. In addition, realising that the education and system were not up to standard completely shattered my expectations of a Madrasah, which in turn affected my faith and how I saw institutionalised religion.
I spent 12 years through primary, secondary, and Pre-University in one of the local Madrasahs in Singapore. There were occasional fear-mongering lessons, homophobia, racism, and sexism in class when my teachers wanted to make a point to “obey God”. I hated it so much when they used these methods, especially fear-mongering. In secondary school, I had a discipline teacher who constantly used fear as a way to make us abide by the school rules by framing them as “God’s rules”. She usually did this by saying that if we “disobeyed” the school’s rules, we would also be questionable to God.
One of the things that she would say was that since most rules in a Madrasah, such as the school attire, were “rooted in religious texts”, going against the school rules also meant going against God. Sometimes, if we broke rules that didn’t have any religious implications, she would still find a way to bring God into the picture by saying that “disobeying the teachers” was equivalent to disobeying God. I didn’t like this for obvious reasons. Not only was the equivalence untrue, but the fact that they held themselves to the likes of God felt disgusting and hypocritical. The language she used also shaped an authoritative-submissive relationship between teachers and students, making the students feel fear and mistrust, instead of respect and admiration. Adding God into the equation just made the relationship dynamic even worse because it also conditioned us to feel afraid of God and shaped how we saw God as petty, angry, and spiteful.
One time, my class had an extra lesson on Saturday, but the canteens were closed so we had to eat outside. However, going out in school uniform was not allowed, even to nearby stores. When the class suggested going to one and buying food for the rest of us, a friend got scared and reminded us about what the discipline teacher said about being accountable to God, which totally didn’t make sense to me. I replied that if God was going to put me in hell for buying food, then he’s really not so much of a God.
It was not okay either that some of the teachers could be very exclusivist in their attempts to force students to believe in a “one, true Islam”. I remember my friend and I arguing with a teacher because she had said that although the Shia sect was recognised by MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), “they’re not actually accepted”. In her own words, “they’re okay but they’re not okay”, which was utter rubbish. My friend and I got so angry, not only because she was pushing an entire religious sect under the bus, but that she was also spreading this hateful sentiment to a classroom of could/would be-future asatizah. When you assert your position as an authority with unquestionable credibility whose words should be taken as Gospel, it is inevitable that the students would internalise your message and pass it onto the next generation.
These experiences did not help me like the Madrasah any better, because they gave such an unfair description of who God was, and how Islam was meant to be seen. I am not the best Muslim out there, but to leave impressionable, young students with the idea that God is unforgiving, petty and needy was unbelievably wrong to me. I felt angry that my teachers would frame God in such a way, and as a member of the Malay-Muslim community, I felt betrayed that the Madrasah was doing such a disservice to the students and foregoing their social responsibility to the community. What were they honestly thinking when they said all of these things in class? What was the kind of Islam that they wanted us to believe in? Wouldn’t they think of how these students would grow up, become religious teachers, and spread the same sentiments of an angry God to their future students? How was all of this okay?
However, my biggest problem with the system was the educational curriculum. It was only at the pre-university level that I fully realised how Madrasahs lacked the educational resources and expertise to teach students. In terms of resources, my friends and I had to scour for past year papers and ask for them from other Madrasah/Junior College students. It wasn’t just us who struggled just to get access to resources. Our teachers had to work twice as hard to gain information about the slightest syllabus change, and scrape for even the smallest details to help us ace the A Level exams. We were lucky enough that some teachers came up with their own initiative to collate the past year paper questions so we didn’t have to ourselves.
It didn’t help either to know that the Madrasah’s lack of resources is a systemic issue. In 1999/2000, the Madrasah problem came to light in Parliament because the rate of enrolment was increasing at such an exponential rate, even though most of the graduates “did not have much economic prospects.” The solution to educational institutions that didn’t have enough resources and access to governmental educational aid? Introducing the Compulsory Education Act that would require all Madrasah students to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and set a standard for them to reach, following which if they are unsuccessful, a closure of their Primary One intake, until their Primary Sixes can reach the required standard and save the school from shutting down.
Another problem with the curriculum was the fact that most of the teachers were not NIE-trained (National Institute of Education), aside from the occasional short-length courses. They were rarely qualified enough to teach the subjects they were assigned to, and some often relied on online notes, which were also accessible to us students. This lack of training or qualification not only meant that some teachers were unable to teach efficiently, but they were also oblivious of the subject syllabus and its demands. Oftentimes, this forced us to self-teach and rely on friends who were informed on the subject syllabus because of their interactions with students from other Madrasahs/Junior Colleges. This often creates the illusion that Madrasah students are ‘independent’ and ‘resourceful’, but a forced ‘independence’ only reflects a broken system that cannot afford to provide a meaningful education.
At the end of the day, all of this accumulated dissatisfaction and frustration towards the Madrasah system—how it worked, how the teachers taught (or didn’t), and the poor relationship dynamics—affected how I saw religious institutions. Conventional religious knowledge tells you that these are the institutions that have your best interests at heart and are supposed to serve the community and God, but at the end of the day, they are still made by people, run by people, for people. My Madrasah experience has taught me a lot about how people will always have their personal interests at best, even if they are working in places that are deemed to be “selfless”. Now, I see faith as a personal complex, and that means I have a choice of standing by with religious authorities or figures that represent my principles and interests. And of course, my experience wasn’t absolutely horrible. There were some high points throughout my educational experiences, but I don’t feel the need to express them when their good points have always been part of the mainstream conversation in our community.
Writing this has been very difficult for me. I almost didn’t want to at first because I thought that whatever I experienced was perhaps purely based on sentiment, and I was being too emotional or my expectations were too high. It didn’t help too that there were people around me who have said these things to me. But my expectations are not ‘too high’ or unachievable. In fact, expecting a school to be a school, to provide an education, is the bare minimum. Aside from the fact that the bar is on the ground, at the end of my experience, I completely stopped putting even a tiny ounce of professional expectations on my teachers or administrative staff. I just wanted one thing: come into class and teach. That was all. The only reason why this article even happened was because a dear friend of mine who went through the same experience with me convinced me to write. She told me that writing this meant sharing MY story. And that’s it. This is my story and mine only. By writing this, I am not responsible for representing other Madrasah students’ stories. Perhaps they had a different experience and don’t share the same opinions as I do. And that is their story to tell. But this is my Madrasah story – a story of how I didn’t find God in a religious institution.
Thauria is a 20-year old who is trying her best to heal, unlearn, and learn again.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu
Thanks for writing this. I feel the same way. The Allah that the madrasah (I went to one too) propagated did not sound like the Allah I read about in the Quran. Thank you.
“when I realised that many of the actions made by the people in these institutions did not reflect the Islam that I knew and understood that was compassionate, kind and liberating”.
Untuk melihat dan memahami agama Islam yang sebenar, bukanlah melihat kepada individu tetapi agama itu sendiri. Tidak semua individu mencerminkan akhlak Islam. Agama Islam itu tidak pernah salah, Individu dan manusia yang tidak terlepas daripada membuat kesilapan. Lihatlah pada garis panduan yang diajarkan Islam bukan individu di sekeliling kita. Yang baik, kita ambil sebagai contoh. Mereka yang tersilap langkah, kita ambil sebagai pengajaran.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is the first time I’ve read of a particular point of view of someone’s experience in a Madrasah. May Allah guide us. As for me, Madrasah has always been like Paradise on earth even till now, and I have had 11 years of it. My teachers remain the light of darkness and the ones who showed me Allah’s door of forgiveness and mercy at my lowest 🙂
I am a Madrasah student who is in Pre-U and I have lesser years of Madrasah education than this author. However I do not need 12 years of Madrasah education to say I found Allah. I found Allah the most Merciful and close to my heart. In an era deemed to have been corrupted and westernised I proudly say the madrasah system right now is such a wonderful experience I feel like I am living in Paradise on Earth. EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE ive met makes Madrasah sound like the best place anyone can be in its the most protected place to seek knowledge from. To the person who’s had a bad experience in Madrasah I’m so sorry but you speak for yourself and definitely not the rest of us. I for one feel so indebted to my teachers who taught me so much value in islam and made me the best of who I am today in my community both religious and non religious. I don’t know if she was present at school but at 20? And you are talking like all your teachers brainwash you really? Our age gap is very close and I want to say on behalf of all Madrasah students that we feel our teachers are the ones who showed us light in darkness and at times we felt like we were sinning they taught us Allah’s door of forgiveness is always open. In times we felt like dying they taught us Allah loved us and made us the best of His creations and granted us with wisdom and intellect, and my sister, maybe you should try to use a bit of that. I wonder if you were ever present in your Madrasah life but really I’ve not met or heard any story like this so you speak for yourself. And again I would like to ask are you actually present in school because if you have such a huge problem with the education system kindly go to poly instead of preu a levels or go to a secular secondary school. Do you even do your research about teachers with NIE background? You want to blame your results and quality of education on your teachers who taught you how to write the same English language you are writing with right now? Please. Yes, 12 years of education and so you think that you taught yourself all those words you are writing with or was it the teachers who taught you? Of course ALL MADRASAH TEACHERS in academic stream are NIE trained and maybe your mind is not present but everyday I catch up with my teachers and learn about them. Mind you I have 11 years of Madrasah education, I went to THREE DIFFERENT MADRASAH(s) in Singapore and I have not encountered not a single soul, not one person who has this problem like you do. I have a good relationship with my teachers and I know all about then. For religious teachers they have Masters and Degrees in the subject they teach and they are so wise and knowledgable. They do not force these perceptions on you like what our sister here has written. For academic teachers all my teachers are NIE-trained or under MOE and have a qualification, or else they wont even be able to teach at the school! AND THESE SAME TEACHERS are being funded by madrasah to continue enhancing their skills and further their studies under NIE training and courses! Thats how much effort they put in while teaching students 14 subjects! Seriously just which madrasah did you go to or should I ask you again WERE YOU PRESENT while you were in Madrasah?
for the last time I would like to get my point clear crystal and for everyone to know this amazing lady speaks for herself. thank you for sharing your experience and your point of view of how Paradise was like to you but it was certainly different from all of us. I am so disappointed to read this as well as all my classmates because we see all these efforts our teachers have put in for us and I think I have an idea of which Madrasah you went to. I understand your point but really maybe you had a negative side of seeing things and it could not have been entirely your fault. All the Madrasah I have been in I’ve loved and respected all the teachers. I saw what you went through as things that will shape my character. That disciplinary master the same things she said. God fearing lessons and things said over and over repeatedly was because they themselves said it out of fear of God. They have experience and they know so much more about life than we do and that is why they do that. We all understand every single one of it we don’t find any fault in it, including the reason why the disciplinary master said all those things to us. It was really all to shape us in our belief and character and to be a strong believer. Maybe because we matured earlier and understood why she was being strict with us so we understood. At the same timw we still understood and know the compassionate Islam because we actually focused during our studies and saw it through proper learning. The truth is Allah guides who He wants and He will let us see the beauty of Islam if and when He wants to. May Allah guide me and all of us.
Alhamdulillah, we are delighted to hear that you had such a great educational and spiritual experience in your madrasah.
However, it is important to recognise that while we (and the people we surround ourselves with) may have positive experiences in certain situations, other people may not have had the same privilege. This does not mean that their experiences are untrue or less valid. In this case, the writer has taken pains to state that her story is her own and she does not speak for all madrasah students. And she is not alone in how she feels: several readers have communicated that they relate to her story and appreciate her sharing. It is therefore unfair to dismiss her experiences and to question her objectives or suggest that the failures of the system were due to her own faults and lack of commitments when there is no indication that that is the case.
We understand that what the writer has shared might be uncomfortable and difficult to accept because it is so different from what you personally encountered. While we can understand you may feel angry and disappointed (especially when it feels like something you love and benefit from is being attacked), rejecting someone’s experience, or dismissing stories that are not entirely positive, or treating your fellow sisters in Islam with disbelief and hostility is not productive.
Instead of looking at the writer’s post as a condemnation of the madrasah system, we would recommend taking this piece as an invitation to discuss these issues amongst your community to see if there are issues your fellow madrasah students were facing that you were not aware of, and to reflect on whether the system can be improved in any way to ensure that everyone has as positive an experience as you did.
We sincerely hope that you can open your heart and understand that it was not easy for the writer to share this dissenting view and that she did not do so thoughtlessly.
Finally, we would like to wish you a blessed Ramadan 🙂
I just wonder, given the dreadful experience that she described about, how is it that she managed to continue her studies till pre-university eventhough she has the opportunity to discontinue her studies there and proceed to any other educational institutions?
As the writer has described, her experience is Madrasah was not completely “dreadful”, & she acknowledges that she has had positive experiences she appreciates. Her choice to focus on the more critical, untold aspects of her Madrasah experience is due to the fact that positive experiences of Madrasah are already well-represented in the mainstream conversation. It would not be productive to speculate on why did not simply change institutions, as that is irrelevant to the main point of her story. While what she is sharing is uncomfortable, we hope readers can read and engage with what she has shared fairly.
I also would like to note that in my 11 years of Madrasah education, I’ve followed closely with my teachers and got to know them well. I’ve gone to three different Madrasahs and I can assure that all three have qualified and trained teachers in academic streams, and on top of that they are still enhancing and gaining more knowledge outside. Definitely this experience does not speak for every madrasah.
*are qualified and trained
Lastly, I’ve had the same things said to me by my disciplinary master and the same strict rule of not being able to go out in uniform. However me and my batchmates we see that as a form of discipline to shape our character, and it has a lot of wisdom behind it. I don’t see why we should break the rules, and why we should not listen to the teachers telling us not to break the rules. It’s all practice for the real world where we have to abide by the law.
Dear beyond hijabi,
The title of this article should be “I didnt find God” or ” I didnt find God in madrasah Al- Maarif” or I didnt find God in Masrasah Alsagoff” or ” I didnt find God in madrasah Irsyad” or ” I didnt find God in Msdrasah wak Tanjong”.
The writer’s expectation was a tall order and ended up not finding God in a Madrasah. Didnt she seek God out in the first place or was she put in the system in the first place because the parents insisted that she should be in the madrasah system so the system could mould her into an Ullama as both parents were busy working?
This is a public space … so you should be prepared for others ‘ strong opinions as well. Being vocal does not mean the hearts are closed. Instead you should advise the writer to open her heart and not blame the instituition for her wayward perspectives of God but our moral foundation and belief system come from home, not school.
You should take opposite opinions kindly as article published in public spaces attract public scrutiny.
I find this article lame …. and does it give you cheap thril? Perhaps you should publish better article that feeds the soul and expand the mind.
Like the law of attraction says …”You get what you give”.
Is there any madrasah parents or student discussion thread available? Would like to know more of the pros and cons between madrasah and circular school enroll for my kids.
People are expressive and openly give their opinions without reflecting on the message that will be put acrossed and its impact.
I felt like this before when I found out so and so scholar reacted in an unislamic way and it deters me from seeking knowledge from said person. I later realise that I felt that way because I put these scholars on a pedestal and look up to them. Having said this, we need to remind ourselves that people make mistakes. Only God is worthy of judging and praiseworthy.
A glass can be look upon as half empty or half filled, it’s a matter of perspective.
Is madrasah a place to find God or is that the purpose of life itself? Does graduation put a stop to finding god?
Let’s give the benefit of doubt that the writer is in search of goodness and may she find guidance. As readers, let’s not judge and remind each other as we tend to forget as well.
i agree wif eveerything u have to say. i didnt study in a madrasah but i know this was gona happen. but hold on to your iman. take this as a test of faith to be even closer to Allah. u have been blessed to be able to see wat is not right with the norm. im happy for u
Thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic. My daughter is starting secondary school in a madrasah next year. While she seems happy in her previous primary school level madrasah, I’m preparing her for the secondary environment bcos it’s more close knit. I understand when you mentioned fear mongering bcos I can see many adults practicing that on younger more impressionable youths. I have encountered this numerous times by people around me. I hope the secondary madrasahs have improved on such communications. I for one will definitely be more communicative with my daughter and want to be aware if such practices still prevalent in her new madrasah next year.