I still remember that day when a healthy discussion over some issue was going on in my economics class at university, when my professor, a PhD, uttered the words ‘Alhamdulillah, I am a sunni, I am a muslim.’ These words took me and many other likeminded students in my class by surprise. I could not get the bizarre logic of uttering these unnecessary words in the midst of a socio economic discussion, especially when the class, although in minority, comprised of students from diverse religious backgrounds. Even if she considered it essential to make a reference to the Islamic economic system, she could have easily done that in a mild tone without boasting about her own religious and sectarian affiliations wrapped in an ‘Alhamdulillah’. Moreover, the way this sentence was uttered, and the order in which her sectarian view followed by her religious affiliation was mentioned, it gave an impression as if her views are divinely superior to others. At that point of time, none of the students present, including me, dared to cut her off in the middle and question, protest or confront her on the statement that she made.
This issue remained on my mind for a couple of days and for some reason I could not find the courage to speak to my professor about it. I tried to explain myself that may be I am overreacting as even the people who were the potential victims of her statement did not react to it, and perhaps it was expected from students at mature ages (age groups between 20 to 23 years) to remain tolerant towards difference of opinion. Some part of me was but still unsettled and was insisting that this statement itself had a heavy intolerant undertone.
I had forgotten about this seemingly minor incident, until after three years, when I took up teaching. It was somewhere between the first ten days of Moharram this year, when one of my students confronted me as I entered the class.
‘Ma’am, why are you wearing black?’ She inquired.
‘Why, what’s wrong with that.’ I replied casually as it didn’t occur to me what she was pointing at.
‘You are not a shia, are you?’ She threw another question.
‘Well, there is no connection between my religious identity and what I wear and there is nothing wrong with that.’ I was paranoid about how to reply to this young lady clad in a pair of jeans.
‘There is a connection. Since Shias wear black during Moharram, it is not appropriate for us to use a similar dress code.’ She confidently explained her reasoning behind questioning me.
This attack of hers not only did refresh the buried memory of the three year old incident I quoted above, but was even much more hard hitting than the one I experienced as a student. Hard hitting, because my student was as young as fifteen years of age. I might have find some lame explanation to calm myself and let go off this incident as well like the earlier one, had I not received another blow in the stomach only a few days later, which primarily became the reason why I decided to write about it. I came across one of the students from a renowned ‘islamic school’ based in Karachi that claims to impart modern education (Cambridge system) along with providing an environment for ‘islamic grooming’ simultaneously. The said school is known as part of the mainstream modern English medium schools in Karachi that follow Cambridge system curriculum, and has its branches spread throughout the city. It so happened that I found her studying ‘Islamiyat’ from a book that was not a part of the books endorsed by GCE syllabus, nor did I ever come across any other major schools using any such book. When I inquired her about why isn’t she studying from the book used by all other schools and is part of the book list given by the GCE, she explained that her school does not allow using that book. When I further asked her about the reason behind that, she told me that it is because that is a Shia book, which was of course not true.
The truth however is, that the said book had certain content that was not in agreement with the self-righteous, orthodox religious philosophy that the school adhered to and aimed at inculcating the same in the young minds. Upon further inquiring about the ‘islamic grooming environment’ of the school, I figured out that it is essential for all the female students of the school to wear a hijab and for all the male students to wear a muslim cap, regardless of how young they are. Moreover, female teachers are only given a job in the school on the condition of wearing an abaya in the premises, thus justifying their claim of a ‘Shariah Compliant’ faculty.
Over a period of time this trend of modern educational institutions offering Cambridge system in Islamic environment has grown stronger, with many such institutes opening up all over the metropolis. The student population of these schools come from urban families with a decent economic background, mainly those who are torn apart between their modern lifestyles and the new wave of ‘religion mania’ to the extent that even whether to say ‘Khuda Hafiz’ or ’Allah Hafiz’ is an issue of concern for them.
No, I am not at all against teaching religious values to young children, but my contention is the definition of ‘Shariah compliant Islamic education.’ Almost all of these Islamic schools serve the aim of propagating religious views of their own sect, rather than preaching on common grounds and peaceful coexistence. This is much more dangerous than the sectarianism spread through madrassah system, which is usually justified by making poverty and illiteracy as an excuse. These ‘modern’ education institutes are dangerously poisoning young minds by inculcating sectarian differences sugar coated in the name of ‘modern education.’ Ironically, these schools are registered as part of the conventional private educational schools and are not registered as part of authorities regulating the madrassah system, which means that there is almost no check and balance on what is taught in these schools in the name of modern Islamic education.
Only a decade back, when I was at the same age, I was least concerned about what colour I wear in a certain month. Back then, we competed with other schools in terms of sports, drama, and oratory skills. I am afraid that if the trend of imparting sectarianism through modern education continues at the same rate, by the next decade students in this country will compete each other in terms of Barelvis, Deobandis, Salafis and Shias, and I do not even want to imagine how severe the degree of that competition would be?
An edited version of this article was published in Express Tribune Blogs on January 29, 2012.