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The Transformation of Texts

Since political elites and professional educators alike see religious education as an important applied subject, textbook authors strive in various ways to emphasize Islam's place in the child's daily life. Even sacred history is made immediate by linking events of long ago and far away to the child's own familiar world. One of the earliest lessons in the Ministry of Education's first grade religion textbook is the story of the Prophet Muhammad's early life, and the names and kinship ties of the relatives who raised and cared for him. Introducing children to the Islamic tradition with the simple, accessible vocabulary of kinship terms, the text draws pupils into an immediate relationship with the Prophet, while drawing the family itself into the universe of discourse of the school. Before dealing in some detail with the way textbooks treat family and school as sources of moral authority, let us first examine how functionalization—which we have already examined with respect to institutional transformations—operates on a textual level.

In examining the form of Egyptian religious studies textbooks, functionalization appears as one of four textual processes, along with consolidation, grading, and reinterpretation, which help transform the larger written corpus of Islamic tradition (and local custom) into socially and politically useful forms for use in the public school.[18] Consolidation, like grading, is an editorial process stemming from the need to systematize and simplify the Islamic heritage for mass consumption. One of the more mundane differences between sacred revelation and classroom instruction is that the Qur’an is notoriously repetitive and meandering by contemporary pedagogical standards. Verses concerning a single subject, even a single person, are scattered throughout the twenty-two years of the Prophet's recorded mission, sometimes repeating information, sometimes adding new insights or taking different points of view. For example, in the Qur’an, the twenty-eight-verse chapter called Nuh (Noah) does not contain the most comprehensive account of the title character's life and works. The richer account is given in twenty-four verses in sura 11, Hud (25–49), although there is supplementary information scattered throughout thirteen other chapters as well, in blocks of between one and seventeen verses. The synoptic tale of Noah that the fourth-grader reads is an amalgamation and paraphrase of the Qur’anic revelation illustrated with pictures and a simplified vocabulary.

As important as textual organization is the temporal allocation of knowledge, the very essence of school hierarchy. Grading doles out age- appropriate wisdom at the same time that it reinforces lessons learned in earlier years and builds a foundation for the future. As an example, Egyptian first-graders greet Ramadan officially with a simple nashid:

Come on, brothers, let's come on,
Let's rejoice in Ramadan
Month of fasting and of alms,
In you, goodness and Qur’an
Yours the honor, Ramadan[19]

Next, they find a list of Ramadan activities: the scheduling of meals, listening to the Qur’an, helping the poor and unfortunate. They are reminded that “you learn the fast with your father and your mother,” and boys learn that “you go to the mosque with your father.” An exercise and a color drawing of a neighborhood mosque round out the youngest student's lesson.[20] The following year, Ramadan becomes the subject of a dialogue between a father and his two children, Fatima and Ali, who have all gone to the market on the night of the first day of the sacred month. The children ask how and why Muslims fast, and learn that one must refrain from eating, but also from quarrelling, and they must increase the frequency of prayers. Their father (anonymous, like all textbook parents) explains that “God directed us to fast during Ramadan because it cleanses our minds and accustoms us to patience and compassion for the poor and unfortunate when we feel hunger like them. And so we may all be saved from God's punishment when we enter heaven.” [21] He ends his lesson by quoting from the Qur’an, sura 2, al- Baqara,185: “Ramadan is the month/In which was sent down/the Qur’an, as a guide/To mankind, also clear (signs)/For guidance and judgement (Between right and wrong)./So every one of you who is present during the month should spend it fasting.” In the third grade, Ramadan takes the form of a series of descriptive phrases. Again citing verse 185, the book tells pupils that fasting “benefits the body and makes it strong,” and teaches them the customs and prescriptions that validate or invalidate the ritual. The lesson is completed, as always, by a block of exercises:

  • How does the fast benefit Muslims?

  • Recite the verse that indicates the fast is incumbent upon Muslims.

  • Put the following words into appropriate sentences:

    Fasting Ramadan suhur

  • Complete: Among the traditions of the fast is the acceleration of the ______ and the delay of the ______, by which the faster ______ his fast.[22]

The fourth grade text places Ramadan in the context of the Muslim ritual year, explaining in detail the conduct of the two Muslim feast days, ‘Id al-Fitr, commemorating the close of Ramadan, and ‘Id al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice during the month of Pilgrimage. The fifth grade book summarizes previous lessons and tells children who is required to fast. Reprising the theme of restraint, “because the fast is not simply a cessation of food and drink, but is indeed an act of worship that refines the character and brings the person to his lord through good works,” the book reminds students to eat the suhur meal (in effect, being moderate even in the fast itself), and to increase almsgiving, prayer, and study of the Qur’an. Then the primary school's treatment of Ramadan ends as it began, with a nashid—this one longer and far more complex—celebrating the growth of faith through contemplating the natural and celestial signs of God's existence and participating in the Ramadan fast.

In the early grades, the meaning and significance of Ramadan is expressed with the formal joy of classroom song and through the ritual fast's place in the life of the family. With time, students begin to learn more about the ritual details of the fast, personal restrictions that are balanced immediately by their beneficial effects on self and others. Next, fast and feast find their place in the yearly ritual cycle of Islam, their importance matched only by the celebration of sacrifice during the season of pilgrimage. And finally, as the child reaches the age of personal participation, learning about Ramadan becomes learning about individual and social responsibilities.

In contrast to the editorial processes of consolidation and grading, reinterpretation and functionalization are authorial processes, shaping the meaning of Islamic history and practice by interpreting them in fresh ways. Although the Qur’an contains its own explicit messages about God's intentions, the social and political use of the Qur’an can require that it bear additional semantic loads. In textbooks, the derivation of additional moral or political lessons from the Qur’an or sunna is accomplished in part through the transformation of sacred text into durus, or “lessons.” Retelling stories from the Qur’an in a straightforward narrative form allows textbook authors to make claims about reality in a way that insulates their own commentary from the sacred text itself. Their interpretations of the story are not tafsir in a strict sense, explanations that seek to illuminate the meaning of the Qur’anic verse in its context, but rather paraphrases and commentaries on the events and personalities that the verses describe.

Take, for example, the story of the prophet Joseph. The story of Joseph in the fifth grade textbook is a ten-page paraphrase of the 111-verse sura 12, Yusuf, in the Qur’an. Aside from shuttling introductory and concluding exhortations off into another section, the schoolbook version is a straightforward paraphrase of the Qur’anic story, with a simplified grammar and vocabulary. Because of his power as an interpreter of dreams and the favor he found with Pharaoh, Joseph was made minister of Egypt and saved the country from famine; even after being reunited with his father (Jacob/Israel) and brothers, he retained his mighty position in the country and instead of returning to Canaan invited his family to settle with him in Memphis. But at the end of the life story of Joseph in the Egyptian fifth grade book, the authors of the text have appended a short patriotic paragraph:

And thus Egypt has always been, and still is, a refuge for the prophets and the illustrious and outstanding people from the Arab nation and the Islamic world, who have been delighted to experience it, always sure of its welcome, and living within its family as beloved brothers.[23]

While Joseph was not an Arab, he was a Muslim, both as a prophet of God in his own right and as the great-grandson of Abraham, builder of the ka‘ba in Mecca (sura 12,101). With this brief paragraph the text's authors have effectively Islamized Egypt twenty-three centuries before Muhammad.[24]

While this reinterpretation constructs readings of history that legitimate the authority of policymakers, functionalization as a specific textual process harnesses divine intention to public policy itself, helping to bring religious instruction into the conscious service of independent social and political ends. To illustrate this process, we can look at the textbooks' use of science, technology, and medicine. On one level, the interdependence of Islam and science is stressed in order to avoid the pitfall of implying that secular knowledge is inseparable from secularism. On another level, though, the linkage is made to bless elements from the religious sphere with the elevated status of science's secular mystique. This interdependence of science and religion is a constant refrain in both public and private sector Islamic literature for all age levels, an important part of a technocratic approach to economic and social policy. It is handled in different ways for different purposes, depending on the nature of the audience, the medium, and the rhetorical goal of the author. But in general, there are three relatively well-defined techniques.

First, new technologies or techniques are used to help maintain the religious reference system. Using loudspeakers for the call to prayer, cassette tapes to record famous Qur’an reciters, or observatories to determine scientifically the exact times of dawn and dusk prayers are all pragmatic applications of science and technology to aid worship, education and da‘wa (Islamic outreach activities). Second, new technologies are legitimized by Islamic principles. This practice supports new medical technologies such as in vitro fertilization, plastic surgery, and birth control programs, which potentially threaten the integrity or function of God's creation. When properly bounded within certain limits, such practices can protect or further divine interests by correcting accidental errors or by satisfying other legitimate goals of the individual, the family, or the community.[25]

Finally, Islamic concepts and practices are corroborated by modern science. Scientific research, particularly from foreign countries or international agencies, is cited to show that secularists are finally discovering those truths that Muslims have known all along. This process is not limited to government-issued textbooks, but is a general feature of the production of contemporary genres of Islamic literature. Some of the best examples of the use of medical knowledge to further faith, in fact, are from the private sector, as in the following report in the July 1989 issue of Zamzam, the children's supplement to al-Mukhtar al-Islami (The Islamic Digest), a monthly magazine associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Presenting a picture of an EKG chart, the article begins,

If you look carefully at this picture, you will see that it repeatedly draws a specific word; scrutinizing the letters of every word, you will see that every word is made of the letters A L L H, written in the Arabic language in raq‘a script; indeed, it is the term of Majesty.…And this picture that you see was not drawn by a human hand, but by a machine, a medical instrument made by a man who didn't know Arabic. The machine was not intended to write this word or any other, but is used to show the beating of the heart (that is, its pulsations) and to turn it into a picture on paper.…Scientists didn't know at first that this drawing resembled a word in Arabic, but finally the great discovery was made that every beat says, in this drawing that an EKG makes of every human heart, every beat says in the testimony of this electrical device, “Allah, Allah, Allah.” [26]

God has literally written His name upon the hearts of His creation, an act revealed by the use of technology. This natural theology attempts systematically to read God's presence and characteristics from those of the natural world which He created, using the hidden rhythms of the body itself as a measurable record of His existence.[27]

The use of science or natural phenomena to reinforce faith finds its way into the official religious studies curriculum as it did in the science curriculum, by binding science and religion to national progress. In the fifth grade class discussed in the last chapter, the class reading that was interrupted by the noon call to prayer had come from the section of the text on “cleanliness:”

Cleanliness is next to Godliness [al-nidhafa min al-iman], and…distinguishes a Muslim person, because our Islamic religion…impels the Muslim to it, even making cleanliness of the body and clothing one of the basic rules of prayer. Cleanliness includes that of the body and the clothing, and of food and drink, and cleanliness of the home and school, and mosque, and street, and so on. And on top of that Islam makes us desirous of personal adornment and sweet fragrances and the choice of good clean clothes. God (may He be exalted) says in verse 31 of Sura al-A‘raf, “Oh Children of Adam! Wear your adornment at every place of worship.” And the Messenger, may God bless and save him, used to wear white scented garments on Fridays and the two feast days, and he loved sweet-smelling things. Cleanliness… is a token of advancement and civilization, strongly bound to the progress of peoples, for advanced peoples are cleaner in their attire than others, and in their food and drink, and their streets. Islam had preceded all advanced nations by ages—in its call for cleanliness—and it made “cleanliness next to Godliness” when the Messenger, may God bless and save him, says “God is pleasant [tayyib] and loves pleasant things.” Perhaps the wudu’[ritual ablution before prayer] clarifies best the scope of Islam's interest in cleanliness, since it is part of prayer…and—there's no doubt—it cleans man's body, and the modern physician has established that the wudu’ a number of times a day brings health and keeps away skin diseases, just as he has proved that the istinshaq [the inhalation of water through the nostrils during the wudu’] protects people from the various respiratory diseases, and just as in rinsing there is a cleaning of the teeth guaranteed to freshen the breath; this had been mentioned in the noble Hadith: “Not to burden my people, I ordered them to use the siwak [a short stick for cleaning the teeth] at every prayer.” And that because in the use of the siwak or the toothbrush there are clear effects in the cleaning of the teeth and their whiteness, and in killing the germs that cling to them due to the food that is found between the teeth if they are not cleaned well, which has caused teeth to fall out, creating horrible breath. And among the manifestations of Islam's concern with cleanliness: that it calls on us to bathe for prayer on Fridays and on the two feast days.… And the modern physician agrees with Islam in this, for doctors call on us to bathe at least once a week, guarding the body's cleanliness and freeing it from diseases.…The conclusion is that whoever wants to maintain the teachings of his religion looks after cleanliness. And whoever wants people to love and respect him is neat and clean, for Islam is a religion of cleanliness, and therefore it's a religion of advancement and civilization.[28]

The passage is striking in its equation of the ritual purity of the wudu’ with the physical purity of a secular bath, a hygienic practice within the domain of the physician rather than the theologian. The sacred requirement of ablution has been functionalized, implying that the reason for the prescription is its presumed effect on health and well-being, rather than to mark a separation between sacred and profane.[29] The passage then forges further linkages between cleanliness (e.g., of streets) and civilization, creating a hierarchy of peoples in which the Islamic community is historically the first, and placing the sunna of the Prophet in the domain of the urban planner and the public health official.[30]

The treatment of the wudu’ throughout primary school texts consistently stresses its hygienic aspects. A note to the teacher in the first grade text, for example, advises her to demonstrate the ablutions to her pupils and watch them perform it, explaining “the benefits of the wudu’ and the importance of its repetition to the maintenance of cleanliness, that this cleanliness induces health and vitality in the pupil, just as it produces pleasure in social intercourse with people, and not estrangement from them.” [31] In the second grade, pupils learn that “the wudu’ is cleanliness”; that it “protects you from illnesses” and “invigorates the body and protects it from diseases.” [32] In the fourth grade pupils are introduced to the istinja’, the cleansing of the excretory regions of the body: “Islam… calls on us always to bathe twice, or at least once a week.…The person must purify himself of remaining traces of urine or feces, and clean their outlets, until there isn't an unpleasant smell, and one doesn't run the risk of diseases.” [33] Praising soap and water, the lesson ends with a set of exercises including these two items:

  • 7.

    Write the following statement in beautiful script: “The clean person washes his hands with soap and water when he emerges from the bathroom.”

  • 8.

    Your little brother exits the bathroom and hasn't washed his hands—what do you say to him?[34]

Presenting moral lessons in the context of activities or hypothetical situations is intended to raise them above the level of mere memorization, phrasing rules in terms that the child can not only remember, but remember to apply in everyday situations. Significantly, this specific equation of moral and hygienic behavior is of long standing in Egypt; both are considered applied subjects in which the real test is the conduct of life rather than performance on written examinations.[35]

Logically, if not psychologically, this functionalization is a two-step process. First, social functions (increased health, cleanliness, order) are attributed to Islamic practices. Then these functions are interpreted not only as effects, but as the primary intent of given practices, and therefore divinely sanctioned themselves. Moreover, as in the case of ablutions, additional terms can be added to the formula. In stressing cleanliness both as a contributor to individual health and a token of social progress (‘unwan al-ruqiy wa al-hadara), the text closes the causal circle. Since advanced civilizations are noted for attention to cleanliness and the Islamic community is the first among peoples, then physical cleanliness must be the primary function of the ablution.

If reinterpretation is an anachronistic reading of historical events, functionalization is in part a recontextualized rendering of divine intention. These two methods help shape the content of classroom texts, while consolidation and grading affect their format. There is, finally, a fifth process at work in the composition and use of these texts. That is the process of ritualization, which does not figure in the transformation of scripture into lesson, but in the resacralization of the lesson itself. Structured recitation and memorization of the textbook in anticipation of examinations, periodic in-class quizzing, the regular appearance of activities and exercises for which determined responses are often expected, and the implied double audience (text for students, footnoted instructions for the instructor) build around the textbook a congregation engaged several times a week in its ritual appreciation. The textbook provides the liturgy for ritual dramatizations of the moral authority of the state.

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