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Religion in Postprimary Schools

Over the long run, the decline in the proportion of the week's classes devoted to religious study at the primary level has been compensated for both by an increase in the number of periods and by a gradual increase in the number of years of postprimary schooling during which religious instruction was mandated. Religion had been emphasized throughout the monarchy in the Institutes of Domestic Economy, and in normal schools for teachers in kuttabs (both male and female), emphasizing the special responsibility of future mothers and elementary teachers in the moral education of the nation,[69] but in 1930, only one class per week of religious instruction was required in the first two years of the secondary curriculum. The content of this curriculum shows clearly the functionalization of religious doctrine and strongly contrasts the ritual-centeredness of either Azhari instruction or of peasant concern. Instead, it foregrounds the psychological, behavioral, sociological, and historical implications of the Islamic tradition. In the first year of secondary school, students were to learn about:

  1. The influence of Islam on self-improvement (tahdhib al-nafs) and behavior; giving examples of the impress of the Islamic religion on the life of the Arabs [such as] their reunification, the refinement of their character and the extirpation of evil deeds that were spread among them.

  2. The Glorious Qur’an: how it descended, the revelation, its collection and recording; a concise summary of what it contains of cultural and personal status matters, with the citation of some verses.

  3. The student memorizes fifteen Qur’anic verses and ten Prophetic traditions on various topics, with an understanding of their meaning.

In the second year of secondary school, five more topics completed the formal contribution of state schools to the religious development of the Egyptian adolescent:

  • [Divine] Messengers and the reason for their mission; their necessary attributes; their famous miracles; Muhammad, may God bless and save him; announcement that he is the seal of the Prophets and the Messenger of God unto all people.

  • The rivalry of leadership between Mecca and Medina; the cultural background of the Hijra.

  • The Way of the Prophet in speech and practice, and its derivation from the [true] religion; the establishment of Islamic jurisprudence; the four orthodox schools; the best-known divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shi‘i).

  • Consultation in Islam; freedom and equality in Islam; the rights of women in Islam, derived from the Book and the way of the Prophet; the various well-known innovations in religion.

  • The student memorizes fifteen Qur’anic verses, and ten Prophetic traditions on various topics, with an understanding of their meaning.[70]

Having mastered elementary doctrine and ‘ibada (worship) in primary school, students at the secondary stage were to devote themselves to character formation, Islamic history, basic religious institutions, and the religious principles that underlay and justified the country's emerging liberal political organization. Particularly worth noting is the manner in which the Qur’an was treated for purposes of memorization. God's revelation was no longer to be taken to heart in its thirty traditional sections and their subdivisions, or even in chapters; rather, each individual verse was to be treated as an entity, and memorized because of its connection to a certain topic. The achievement of understanding the verse, once the subject of an entire science of interpretation in traditional Islamic education, was now implicit in the verse's very selection and use, a clear parallel to European practice. During the two decades preceding the revolution, the amount of time assigned to religious instruction in the post-primary curriculum rose slowly but steadily,[71] and the subject matter shifted toward “concern with religious associations, attention to the location of prayer and the doing of pious works, help for the poor, and other social/religious values that underline the connection between religion as a subject of study and the society in which the student lives.” [72] The political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose support for the revolution was critical early on, manifested itself in the religious curriculum as a growing emphasis on personal piety and social responsibility.[73]

And the curriculum kept changing as new political realities emerged, new university entrance requirements were promulgated, and the demographics of the school system changed. The content of lessons followed that of the elementary schools in supporting socialist values. As Olivier Carré quotes from the preface of the 1958 ninth grade religious studies textbook:

Religious instruction is one of the most powerful factors in the preparation of a virtuous youth, who believes in his Lord and in his country, even as he works for the benefit of his society on the bases of socialism, democracy, and cooperation, all things called for and affirmed by religion.[74]

Religious instruction ensured “the values of loyalty to the nation and to its goals, which correspond to the goals of religion and its struggle in opposition to imperialism.” [75] It sought, as one part of a comprehensive system of public mobilization, to provide an ideological path leading from the filial values of the family unit to the nationalist and socialist values of the various mass organizations into which the Egyptian citizen would be ushered in his transition from the school and family to the workplace. The presence of religious instruction in preparatory and secondary schools beginning in the 1920s and 1930s indicates an important realization on the part of planners and politicians that the absolute distinction between the religious mentality of the Azharites and the modern mentality supposedly inculcated by the modern educationist was perhaps a false one; or at least that it was less important than the potential power of Islamic symbols to carry a number of different meanings, a feature too important to ignore in the age of the newspaper and the radio.

In the early years of the monarchy, too, Islamic culture took on a nationalist tint that it could not have possessed at the time when European-style education was introduced into the country a hundred years before. Its use in the higher schools at that time was at least in part a reaction against the Euro-centeredness of elite education during the later years of Cromer's agency, when “third and fourth-year Egyptian students were following a history and government syllabus that might have come from Eton or Harrow.” [76] By the end of the 1960s the function of Islamic instruction had shifted as the nature of the schools and the demographic characteristics of the students changed. No longer merely for the wealthy, higher schools became the last venue of centrally supervised socialization for large numbers of literate young people about to enter the work force, begin their own families, and become a political force either useful or dangerous to the state.

As the Egyptian educational system continues to expand physically, its supporters grow ever more convinced of its moral impact, as it “rais[es] successive generations of children and youth according to firm fundamentals of science and faith, implant[s] spiritual and religious values, principles and ideals and creat[es] advanced abilities and talents.” [77] The state's responsibility for the creation of individual values is paramount, since values and behavior are intimately linked to economic and social well-being. Egypt's Second Five-Year Plan for Socio-Economic Development described the relationship this way:

The individual is the main focus of any effort to build a society and the most important component of development. The state has devoted special attention to his spiritual and intellectual formation, taking care to place him on the right course to absorb the knowledge and technological achievements of the modern age. Education strengthens and increases the positive traits in an individual's personality and helps him discover and overcome any negative traits he may have.…The state works to integrate the functions of education by imbedding and developing religious values, responsible behavior, self-dignity and sense of individualism…promoting spiritual, behavioral and educational values in the young to provide a basis for future behavior, while implanting national values, loyalty and patriotism.[78]

In the following chapters the focus will shift from the historical transformation of religious instruction in the public school to the institutional context in which Islamic messages are constructed and delivered to the urban Egyptian child. Highlighting how the parental role of the state is expressed in various types of religious education programs, the next three chapters will show how religious instruction has become one of the strategic arenas in which political tensions and conflicts are fought out. Central to these conflicts is increased public discussion of the moral problems and prospects of Egyptian children (awlad) and youth (shabab), which have become, respectively, the primary symbols of the country's long-term aspirations, and of its current political and economic difficulties.

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