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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Are Morals Best Taught in Religious Schools?

Thus reads a motion in a local debate for tertiary-level students (you can see it here). I am admittedly rather fascinated. Especially since it strikes chords that are a little too close to where the bad memories are. Are morals best taught in religious schools?

The phrasing of the sentence is, typically, completely ambiguous. Firstly, the parameters of morality are debatable – you could be referring to the basic cognitive ability to discern good and bad, i.e virtue ethics. Or you could be referring to deontological ethics, which is a measure of one’s adherence to a certain set of rules. Rules which are, inadvertently, derived from inherent ethical judgment. These rules are meant to preserve the harmony of society and the rights of every individual. Fiqh Al-Mu’aamalaat is an example of a moral code (although it is much more than that), and so is, more specifically, Adab, which is a more individual level of ethical observation.

If I might add other interpretations of morality, it is perhaps a fundamental level of consciousness whereby one recognizes the need to be mindful of oneself and others and acts upon it. As the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.”

Thus, to have a sense of morality means to have a sense of honour and respect – beginning, of course, with oneself. It is not merely a superficial preservation of image. It is not only to be perceived as a good or prudish person, but to recognize that virtue is a value far beyond what any prescriptions and regulations can dictate.

We then proceed to define the term ‘religious school’ – it is basically any institution that functions within the creed and jurisprudential disciplines of any religion. It is important to inculcate values and beliefs as dictated by the sacred text and its scholars, and to recognize the utmost authority of these sources of information.

The question of morality and how it is perceived also happens to be a part of ‘Aqeedah, or creed. The two major schools of ‘Aqeedah under the Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah are the Ash’ari and Maturidi, both of which insist on differing ideas of moral inspiration. The Ash’ari school believes that the human mind is only able to discern right from wrong with the aid of Divine revelation. Conversely, according to the Maturidi school, the human mind is able to perceive that the more major sins such as alchoholism and murder are immoral and evil.

We are now faced with the challenge to commensurate the effectiveness of such institutions in developing moral individuals. Since I intend to speak from experience, I am not able to account for Dharma schools, convent institutions or Batei Midrash here. What I can account for, however, are the local Islamic religious schools in my homeland.

The nature of morality that is being taught in these schools is deontological, as previously defined, and it veers closely to an absolutism of sorts. An action is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, regardless of the intention behind or the consequence following it. It may be argued here that it is still emphasized in such institutions that ‘actions are by their intentions’ as the Holy Prohpet Muhammad PBUH had put it, which is true. However, it should be noted here that actions that are deemed negative according to canonical evidence have been presumably prescribed negative intentions. An all-accommodating set of guidelines is now suddenly a black-and-white list of commandments.

The enforcers of these commandments are almost bereft of any form of compassion, so there is no tolerance for backsliding. Anyone who slacks in keeping ritualistic traditions is immediately chastised, when the reality is that every life journey is unique. Sadly, it is unconventional to believe that there are no two souls that reach Divine Unity the same way.

I cannot look at a supposed ‘backslider’ and immediately condemn the person to eternal doom, because according to canonical evidence, there is no such thing as eternal doom. In reality, however, this is exactly how morals are taught.

Studies of Qur’anic exegesis in school consisted much emphasis on the punishments of Hell, for instance. Assembly speeches are little more than endless, repetitive droning over the same texts about the law and the punishments that await those who do not abide by it. It was a fear-based pedagogy; therefore no room was left for love. No one knew the freedom of being non-judgmental, non-critical and all-embracing, terms that are next to best when one would want to describe Muhammad PBUH. The most apt term, and this is without a doubt, is unconditional Love.

Another grave consequence of such an approach is that it deadens the mind. I was reminded of this when a stranger, who came from the same school I did, pointed out to me that “religion is not about thinking”. She was evidently very unhappy about my decision to re-think the concepts I grew up with and never questioned. It was a heated discussion, on her part mostly, but it was that one statement that really made me think. It was apparent to me, now, why the system is, for lack of a better term, a failure. It is taught as part of the creed that rational analysis is second to canonical evidence. For some reason, be it a flaw in the methodology or a misunderstanding, it has produced a fear of imposing rational thinking unto any form of sacred text, leaving room only for literal observation. It is a surreal and almost terrifying reality.

I am using this particular incident as a case study to make a point. The uproar was not unexpected, for anger is only a natural response when one feels threatened, and she felt that her belief system was under attack. It was sad to see her desperately preaching verse after jurisprudential verse, and when she ran out of things to quote, resorted to lowly insults. It would only make sense for her to react that way. There was a lot of fear in her, as much as there would be in anyone who was educated the way we were.

This was the same fear I felt growing up. The only thing that kept me compliant to the rules was the fear of disapproval. Such was my lack of self-worth that I only sought it externally. I had to suppress almost all my curiosity and inclinations as they were not ‘Shari’a compliant’. Because of this, I grew jealous of people that were able to do the things that I kept myself from doing. My only consolation was to tell myself that in the end, I will be granted salvation while these people burn in Hell for their so-called sins.

This is a self-destructive thought pattern (therefore it is not limited to people of any specific orientation, religious or otherwise). The mechanics of this sort of thinking all occur on a sub-conscious level, therefore one would not realize the reason he is thinking this way. On the one hand, you have almost no self-worth. On the other, you overcompensate for this lack by convincing yourself that you are better than others. You belittle other individuals to glorify your own piety.

I’d hardly think having a belief system that promotes resentment and anger anywhere near the peaceful, moral ideal of an effective education system. Be it just a hunch, but perhaps enduring years of being taught to suppress and self-glorify is not the best way to produce moral individuals.

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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Rants