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A Note on the Madrassah Abuse Report

2023-11-03  Shaykh Uwais Namazi

A recent BBC investigation has found a growing number of child abuse cases in Madrassahs across the UK, ‘more than 400 cases in the last few years’ to be precise, which has been understood to represent the ‘tip of the iceberg.’  The same issue was covered not long ago by Channel 4 Panorama, which, with its categorically glaring stereotypes and biased clichés, stirred much-heated discussion and paved the way for a barricade of anti-Muslim abuse.

The BBC report’s findings were shared in most, if not all, national newspapers and were given air time on the radio, too.  It spoke of how the BBC contacted 200 councils nationwide to share information regarding child abuse cases.  The report notes that only 191 obliged, meaning that the numbers would have increased had others complied. It also spoke of how so few of the offenders were successfully prosecuted or convicted.  Out of a total number of 30 Madrassah abuse allegations throughout the past three years, a meager four were prosecuted, and only one was convicted. These figures are compared to a nationwide total of 421 physical abuse cases, from which only ten went to court and two were convicted.  The report even suggests a statistical increase in cases.

The facts and figures of this report led its author, Sir Roger Singleton, to hold other Madrassahs suspects, too. This is because, in his words, “that does lend weight to my view that we’re not just dealing with isolated instances.” His implication was made explicit in newspaper articles through the use of other soundbites that called for ‘urgent measures,’ ‘caution,’ and ‘government intervention.’

The purpose of our discussion here is not to downplay or discredit the findings. Instead, it is to occasion with some of the more reductionist and polemical Muslim voices that only aggravate the problem.  Statements like “we are basically destroying the lives of young people”-which is synonymous with the statement ‘Madrassahs destroy the lives of our young children’ are more inflicting than, say, Sir Singleton’s statement above.  

Furthermore, critical narratives forwarded by Muslims, like the one cited in the last sentence, almost invariably uphold the implicit assumption that current values are untouchable. It also implicates the Islamic past of these institutions and dismisses it with phrases such as “these institutions are primitive, backward, barbaric, and abusive.”


The Use and Abuse of Religious Sources

It is becoming commonplace for individuals not grounded in the Islamic tradition, with expertise in other disciplines and who are well-versed in Western theories and methodologies, to couch their preferred theories and biases in religious language for mass appeal. This is achieved through partial readings of the core Islamic sources (Quran and Sayings of the Prophet (SAW) and maliciously dismissing/demeaning other valid positions.

An argument repeatedly forwarded against physically reprimanding children is that it is “un-Islamic,” “against Islam,” or “unheard of in the Quran and Hadith.” It must be mentioned here that Islam does not tolerate any sort of abuse, physical or mental. What is untrue, though, is that Islam is against all sorts of physical reprimanding. That this is necessarily not the case is demonstrated clearly through the citation of two Hadiths below.

The Prophet (SAW) is recorded to have said, “Order your children to perform Salah when they reach the age of seven, and smack them for [missing] it at ten.” (Narrated by Abu Dawud)

Asma bint Abu Bakr (RA) narrates that she had set off for Hajj once with her father Abu Bakr (RA), her sister ‘Aisha (RA) and the latter’s husband, the Prophet of Allah (SAW). The Prophet (SAW) decided to stop for rest at one point, on which Abu Bakr (RA) did the same.  The Prophet’s (SAW) luggage and Abu Bakr’s (RA) luggage was laden on a separate camel which was given to a child to look after.  Abu Bakr (RA) waited for him to arrive. He did eventually but without the luggage-laden camel.  Abu Bakr (RA) asked him, ‘where is your camel?’, to which he replied, ‘I lost it yesterday’.  Abu Bakr (RA) replied, ‘only one camel to look after and you lost that!?’ And then began to smack him at which the Prophet (SAW) smiled and said, ‘look at this man in the (hajj attire of) ihram, what is he doing?!’ ‘The Prophet (SAW) did nothing other than repeat his words. (Narrated by Abu Dawud)


The citation of the two Hadiths above is not to endorse defiance or breach of the law of the land but to counter the argument that any sort of physical reprimand is “un-Islamic” because this then leads to the employment of various readings of Quranic verses and Ahadith geared towards discrediting our past and indeed our present.  My criticism here is directed at individuals whose moral compass lies outside the moral framework of Islam, who then go on to pass evaluative judgments like physical reprimands are ‘backward,’ ‘primitive,’ and, more audaciously, ‘un-Islamic.’ The dangerous nature of their words is that they are, ultimately, speaking out against the actions of both Abu Bakr (RA) and even the Prophet (SAW), who witnessed Abu Bakr (RA) and did not prevent him from physically reprimanding the child.


Aside from the above references to physically reprimanding a child, it is worth noting that the Prophet (SAW) is not known to have ever physically reprimanded a child. His nine-and-a-half-year serving assistant, Anas ibn Malik (RA), recalled how the Prophet (SAW) never even uttered ‘uff’ upon him openly rejecting his orders or a ‘why did you do this?’ ‘why did you not do this?’ despite not having followed orders properly (Narrated by At-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud). His example is indubitably the best of examples.


The Underlying Assumption of Such Narratives

The current education system is in shambles, not least due to the more recent austerity cuts and rise in fees. Student behavior and teacher abuse, although not like in America, are becoming more of a kind. Governments have had to create incentives to get people to entertain teaching as a career. A similar study to that of the BBC on student behavior, and perhaps performance, is bound to reveal unsatisfactory results. Take, for example, the case of the 15-year-old that abused and raped his teacher in the classroom at a school in Victoria – a stone’s throw away from Number 10 Downing Street.

The motive here is not a cheap tit-for-tat, nor is it to hold the Madrassahs aloof of criticism and reform, only that the nature of criticism and the motives behind it should be duly considered before subscribing to the rhetoric.


The Teacher Student Relationship is Sacred in Islam

The teacher-student relationship is sacred in Islam. Suffice it to note the oft-cited hadith ‘The best amongst you is he who learns and teaches the Qur’an’ (Narrated by Al Bukhari), for the wealth of reports addressing this theme need not be repeated here.  Similarly, a binary process of respecting seniors and caring for juniors has been sanctioned, which addresses both students and teachers alike: ‘he who does not respect his elders and care for his juniors is not amongst us’ (Narrated Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi). The teacher has to treat his students as his children, if not more, and for the students to treat their teachers with the respect of their parents if not more.

It would be most shameful if the teacher-student relationship is reduced to unnecessary regulations, especially when Islamic education is predicated upon character development, counsel, and activity outside of the classroom. Parents and the community should resist attempts to mar this sacred relationship as well as ensure nothing stands in the way of this privileged relationship being abused. As a matter of principle, parents should not be sending their children to teachers they do not trust.

Parents must also come to terms with child discipline and Madrassah teacher expectations.  The teacher is but an individual of society, and children can only digest so much within a short period of class.  The actual onus of child discipline and upbringing lies upon parents, and that requires them to become the change they want to see in their children.

The Madrassah institutions are indispensable to this country. For many, it serves as the only direct exposure they receive to Islam.  Their faith and understanding literally depend on it.  If the Madrassah organizers, teachers, and parents could realize the serious potential of the Madrassah institution, they could envision unprecedented positive change.

I conclude this brief note with an analysis of child beating by the 8th-century polymath Ibn Khaldun, reminding readers of the Prophet’s example, the child abuse laws of this country, and a short reminder of how there are numerous disciplinary methods other than beating children.


Ibn Khaldun’s Analysis as Conclusion


39. Severity To Students Does Them Harm

This comes about as follows: every punishment in the course of instruction does harm to the student, especially to little children, because it belongs among [the things that make for a] bad habit. Students, slaves, and servants who are brought up with injustice and (tyrannical) force are overcome by it. It makes them feel oppressed and causes them to lose their energy. It makes them lazy and induces them to lie and be insincere. That is, their outward behavior differs from what they are thinking because they are afraid that they will have to suffer tyrannical treatment if they tell the truth. 

Thus, they are taught deceit and trickery. This becomes their custom and character. They lose the quality that goes with social and political organization and make people human, namely, (the desire to) protect and defend themselves and their homes, and they become dependent on others. Indeed, their souls become too indolent to (attempt to) acquire virtues and good character qualities. Thus, they fall short of their potentialities and do not reach the threshold of their humanity. As a result, they revert to the stage of “the lowest of the low.”

That is what happened to every nation that fell under the yoke of tyranny and learned through it the meaning of injustice. One may check this by (observing) any person who is not in control of his affairs and has no authority on his side to guarantee his safety. One will thus be able to infer (from the observable facts) that things are as I have stated. One may look at the Jews and the evil character they have acquired, such that they are described in every region and period as having the quality of khurj, which, according to well-known technical terminology, means “insincerity and trickery.” The reason is what we have (just) said.

Thus, a teacher must not be too severe toward his pupil, nor a father toward his son, in educating them. In the book that Abu Muhammad B. Abi Zayd wrote on the laws governing teachers and pupils. He said: “If children must be beaten, their educator must not strike them more than three times.” ‘Umar said: “Those who are not educated (disciplined) by the religious law are not educated (disciplined) by God.” He spoke out of a desire to preserve the souls from the humiliation of disciplinary punishment and in the knowledge that the amount (of disciplinary punishment) that the religious law has stipulated is fully adequate to keep (a person) under control because the (religious law) knows best what is good for him.

One of the best methods of education was suggested by Ar-Rashid to Khalaf B. Ahmar, the teacher of his son Muhammad al-Amin. Khalaf b. Ahmar said: “Ar-Rashid told me to come and educate his son Muhammad al-Amin, and he said to me: ‘O Ahmar, the Commander of the Faithful is entrusting (his son) to you, the life of his soul and the fruit of his heart. Take firm hold of him and make him obey you. Occupy in relation to him the place that the Commander of the Faithful has given you. Teach him to read the Qur’an

Instruct him in history. Let him transmit poems and teach him the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW). Give him insight into the proper occasions for speech and how to begin a (speech). Forbid him to laugh, save at times when it is proper. Accustom him to honor the Hashimite dignitaries when they come to him and to give the military leaders places of honor when they come to his salon. Let no hour pass in which you do not seize the opportunity to teach him something useful. But do so without vexing him, which would kill his mind. Do not always be too lenient with him, or he will get to like leisure and become used to it. As much as possible, correct him kindly and gently. If he does not want it that way, you must then use severity and harshness. ”

2023-11-03  Shaykh Uwais Namazi