Part one was about an experience Thauria went through in a full-time religious institution (Madrasah). I am immensely grateful to have shared such important experiences with Thauria in our Madrasah for the past 12 years and I am so honoured that she invited me to write about my experiences as well.
What I need to clarify is that all that we share is not just for the sake of slander or painting Madrasahs to be a bad place filled with bad people. In principle, full-time madrasahs are great. We get to learn about our religion while also working on our “secular” subjects. You get the best of both worlds! Or at least, you’re supposed to.
I believe so much in the potential of our community and the students who enrol in madrasahs, so if anything, this comes from a place of wanting to see change and improvement. Given our lack of resources and support from the government, madrasah students (generally) somehow manage to thrive and do well enough to make something out of ourselves. I do not doubt that our asatizahs are trying their absolute best to maintain what they believe to be true and to uphold what they believe is the purest form of Islam.
But what I doubt are our methods and our beliefs.
Through her experiences, Thauria explained how the beliefs and methods of our asatizahs affect the spirituality and education of students like us. Now, I’d like to shed light on how the quality of education in full-time Madrasahs affect Weekend/Part-time Madrasahs.
Many secular school students are sent to weekend Madrasahs in hopes of gaining some form of basic Islamic Knowledge, and so far, we have managed to cater to the crowd. From more popular institutions to more small scale private ones, it’s safe to say that thousands of children and youths have some form of Islamic education. But quantity doesn’t reflect quality.
I have taught in a few different weekend Madrasahs and there are two main areas that I personally feel needs to be reviewed urgently so that the quality of Islamic education can reach greater heights.
1. Quality of Education
I was asking my Secondary 3 students for topics they would like to discuss in class one weekend and they posed many topics, which made me happy. And then one student looked at me and said:
“We should discuss the declining quality of Islamic education in Singapore.”
He’s right. From my experience as a teacher, I could see that the syllabus was either too easy or too difficult. For that particular class, I had to teach the students about things like the history of the Umayyad Empire. Most of them don’t even know the name of the Prophet’s immediate family members.
I taught in another institution, and in that class, I had to teach a bunch of twelve-year-olds how to be compassionate through slideshows. For activity time we had to decorate a bunch of tiles with “positive notes of compassion”. The students ended up drawing Minecraft characters and BTS word art.
The syllabuses created were not catered to secular school students. In full-time Madrasahs, our grades are highly dependent on our performance in individual Islamic subjects like Fiqh, Tauhid and Sirah, and for that reason, we had to strictly stick to our curriculum. Islamic religious knowledge was academic.
But what many local asatizahs (all of whom come from the SAME full-time Madrasahs) fail to recognise is that these students aren’t here to study Islam as academics. They are here to study Islam as a way of life. But on the other hand, we also have asatizahs who underestimate the learning abilities of secular school students and dumb things down drastically. Unfortunately, asatizahs who do understand the needs and capabilities of the students aren’t able to teach at the students’ pace because they are forced to catch up with a particular syllabus set by the higher-ups.
When we force students to adhere to a syllabus that is not catered to them, they end up wasting away a good 4 hours every weekend for YEARS, not learning anything that can contribute to their spirituality.
What needs to be a part of the syllabus is how to integrate Islamic principles and teachings into our lives, living in a non-Muslim country. We need to start teaching our students how to be practical Muslims that are able to adapt to real-life situations while preserving/adding on to their spirituality.
We need to start teaching students based on their capacity to learn and their needs in this world.
But alas, when I brought my ideas up to the superiors in my organisation, they told me they wanted to stick to the books written by a friend.
Because sucking up is more important than actually trying to benefit the community.
When I tried to implement my own ideas in class while simultaneously covering the syllabus by simplifying our prayers to only the required actions, they told me I had to force my students to memorise everything, even if it wasn’t wajib (obligatory), to standardise the way students pray. Because sticking to our culture’s ritual is more important than showing our Muslims that our daily prayers can be simple and practical.
I hate vicious cycles. We often hear about the cycle of poverty, the cycle of abuse, etc, but have you ever heard of the vicious cycle of ignorance in the Malay-Muslim community?
Local religious teachers often come from one of the 6 full-time madrasahs. They learn from their teachers who come from the same background who learn from older teachers from the same background and therefore adopt the same set of ideologies. This cycle has its benefits, where we get to preserve the original ways of our people and our adab (etiquette). If there’s one thing I truly love about the Malay-Muslim community, it is our level of adab and courtesy and helpfulness, especially when anything Islamic is involved.
But the bad thing is, negative ideologies that are hateful, racist, exclusivist, misogynistic, homophobic and condescending don’t just remain, but becomes widespread.
Our asatizahs don’t only stay within the full-time madrasah circle. Right now, because of the high demand of Islamic Education in Singapore, asatizahs go out and teach their beliefs to the wider Malay-Muslim community.
The easiest and most non-controversial example I have is with regards to Sunnis and the Shias. In full-time Madrasahs, the hate Sunnis have for Shias is incredibly prominent. Time and time again they remind us how Shias are astray and are not considered as Muslims until that very exclusivist ideology is embedded in our minds and becomes a part of our beliefs as Muslims.
Unfortunately, this ideology has become so widespread in the Malay-Muslim community that we dehumanise Shia Muslims. It’s a disease that blinds us from the fact that even scholarly consensus (under the Amman Message) has agreed that Ja’fari and Zaydi Shias are recognised as Muslims, and declaring them as disbelievers or transgressors is impermissible.
In my pre-university years, we are often reminded that one of the main problems that caused the end of the golden Islamic era that stunted the growth of Muslims is something call “penyakit akhlaq”, which can be translated to moral illness. Muslims back then would be too obsessed with the imams they followed to the point that they would actively try to bring down Muslims who abided by other imams who are equally credible. It BOGGLES me that even though our asatizahs are highly aware of this, they don’t stop. Ironically, we continue to promote the idea of rejecting every opinion that is not ours while declaring that Islam is a kind and fair religion.
Another problem in terms of ideology is that asatizahs are generally sheltered. Because they all come from religious backgrounds where people always pray and heed by Islamic laws, who don’t drink, gamble, take drugs, take part in crime or talk to the opposite gender unless required, they often give unrealistic advice to the general public who face these problems on the regular.
They don’t understand major topics like addiction, poverty and abuse and don’t make a point to mingle around with those who do, but still find a way to convince themselves that they are qualified to give advice to victims. The advice given often includes the phrases: “Just be patient and stay strong” and “Remember God and stop”.
My solution: stop being ignorant. If only our local asatizahs took the time to stop being ignorant and start opening their eyes to the reality of everything, the reality that people aren’t as bad as they think and that problems are bigger than what they hear from a friend’s friend. Then maybe, just maybe, Madrasahs could truly be a place of understanding and growth.
I am speaking from my experience and my experience alone. I speak for no one but myself. This is all merely what I have observed and what I hope to GOD can be made better.
Everything I have written comes from a place of love. I love my religion. I love my community. But it also comes from a place of sadness. Because I know, deep down, no matter how much I wish no matter how much I try, some things just don’t change.
This is my story.
A story of how I wanted to teach Islam in a Madrasah.
Amber is an almost twenty-year-old who is trying to figure out her place in the universe and life’s purpose.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu
As someone who went through part-time madrasah in hopes of improving their spirituality and connection with God, you expressed the sentiments, inner conflicts, and reflections I had after completing years and years of classes. And like you, I doubt and I question because I know things can be better. Amber, thank you for writing this.
no truer words have been spoken. coming from someone who got the 12 year full-time madrasah experience, i thank you with my entire being for writing this piece because it reaffirmed that i wasn’t the only one who struggled with this
Important article. How can I get in touch with Amber? Would like to follow up with her.