‘We are teaching you to serve humanity’, British Muslim seminaries and social capital
Religion has always been a vital source of social capital and compassion throughout history. Indeed, before the introduction of The Elementary Education Act 1870 most educational provision in England was provided by the church of England and its associated parishes focused on educating, feeding and assisting masses of the unfortunate English population which had found itself drowned by the ever-rising wave of capitalism.
I attended a traditional Muslim seminary in Lancashire to undertake priesthood studies at the age of 11. Nestled away in the affluent area of Bromley Cross in Bolton, the imposing building resembled something out of Hogwarts and was occupied by 175 eager resident students who had come from far and wide. As a former hospital respite unit for those suffering lung cancer before World War Two, its architecture, grounds and facilities were meticulous. As a shy little boy who had just migrated with his family from the bustle of Birmingham to the quiet shires this was a real eye opener. My father, who was a simple man, felt his younger three children would benefit from becoming ‘people of the cloth’ and not be destroyed by the social degeneration of the city that had impaired the actions of his elder three children. Thus my eight-year journey began.
However, to disappoint many a critic of faith based institutions, my story has a very happy ending. I managed to see the light on the road to Jerusalem. I can confidently say the ethos, role models, learning and solid grounding of faith I experienced have holistically contributed to the man I am today.
One point from my experience was very clear, Traditional seminaries teach discipline, humility, sacrifice and service. These are not abstract terms I band about lightly but terms that I have seen personified in the staff I was fortunate enough to meet over the course of my eight year journey and whom I revere and respect to this day. The staff at the seminary taught these qualities not through rote learning, vague case studies, ‘indoctrination’ or research but through the physical actions, practices and choices made by them as they had given up their own lives in order to make ours better. They served as our role models and beacons of how servitude ought to be practiced.
For this reason, our teachers did not command respect – they earned it. A case in point, many of the staff at the institute taught for free and got by on running their own business or worked in other professions. They made themselves available for over 25 hours of free tutoring (including on weekends) on a weekly basis. They were burning with a ‘spirit of sacrifice’ I have not seen matched until this day – they felt taking financial gains for their work would stain their sincere intentions.
Compare this to the 21,400 teachers who began teaching in English state schools in 2010, of which 30% had quit by 2015 and a further 50% wish to quit in the next five years, citing workload, pay and conditions as factors. (Guardian, 2016)
Whilst at the institute, other staff happily worked and taught for minimum wage for many years (including on weekends) though their level of qualifications and experience meant they could easily have been lecturing in Islamic studies at state run establishments. It is this practical service which should be recognized and shared – it is how social capital and value is built. If only staff in the state sector could take a leaf out of their book.
We learned about the great body of work our staff were doing nationally and internationally. From work helping the poor and needy in third world countries to interfaith forums, workshops and awareness sessions. From building schools, orphanages, roads, hospital and institutions to working with the red cross and United Nations in delivering humanitarian aid to the most needy across the globe. We listened and we wanted to emulate this. I suppose if state school staff had such zeal it may serve as point of aspiration for their students.
The seminaries have been dubbed ‘The Etons and Harrows of the Muslim world’ – nothing can be further from the truth. They are not built on capital and large philanthropic donations. The fees paid to study at the seminary I attended was a mere £1,300 a year, including boarding, food and all related utilities. That equates to £3.56 per day! For that price we were taught Islamic theology, history, jurisprudence, Arabic morphology and linguistics to name a few alongside the core national curriculum. We were taught to respect people of all faiths and none, taught how all of creation was God’s family and the best person in the eyes of God was the one who serves His family well.
We were taught professional interpersonal, communication and soft skills to engage with members of all communities. This was done on a Saturday through Anjuman group workshops where I would stand, aged 11, and address a room of 50 students on a given topic. I shook and quivered to start but became more confident with time. I gained confidence and networking skills which I utilize to this day.
In our final year of study, we were encouraged to go to University and undertake degrees in the social sciences to ‘serve humanity’. I chose Applied community studies, went on to do an MPhil in community cohesion and an MA in social work. I now work in this field.
Though committed to work for the last five years, I have taken a day out every week to help at the seminary, particularly in GCSE English. If state schools could provide such role models and inspirational tutors, perhaps their students would return in droves to volunteer like I do.
I feel that the seminary provided me with a holistic education, gave me the core skills, knowledge and temperament to wisely navigate difficult terrains and landscapes. But most importantly, in a world obsessed with wage rises, promotions, profit and ‘what’s in it for me?’, it taught me to serve humanity. I suppose my simple father gave them a child and in return they gave him a man. ||
Abdul Hafeez Siddique: Muslim chaplain and Director of the Flowhesion Foundation