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Supplements to Public Sector Instructional Media

There are a number of public and private sector publishing companies in Egypt that develop and market religious material for children. Stories about the lives of the prophets are particularly popular, as are manuals for adults on Islamic upbringing. During my stay in Cairo bookstalls carried, in addition to numerous general works on Islamic childrearing, at least four different manuals on prayer. One of these was for adults newly interested in fulfilling their Islamic obligations, one was for older children who could already read, and two were illustrated guides for parents and families on how to teach children to pray properly. Some companies are moving into a more upscale market as well, selling their products to private schools and through selected bookstores. The Safir Publishing Company was established in 1982 to do advertising and publicity (they placed advertising for, among other periodicals, the Muslim Brotherhood's monthly al-I‘tisam). In 1986 they opened a new operation, the design and publication of Islamic instructional material for younger children.

These materials are designed by the Children's Culture Unit (Wahda Thaqafa al-Tifl) in the company's main office in Muhandisin, a modern and prestigious area in Giza that has been the beneficiary of much of the new wealth of Sadat's post-1974 Open Door policy, which substantially liberalized regulation of foreign investment in Egypt. The company has a well-planned and aggressive sales policy, with representatives in each Egyptian governorate marketing their material to local bookstores and private schools. They also sell their products in other countries, both Islamic and non-Islamic (in Britain and the United States, for example), taking advantage of national, regional, and international book fairs.

Karim Shafik, whom we met briefly in the last chapter, had helped found the Children's Culture Unit at Safir before moving on to another publisher. He explained to me that the company had perceived a need for books concentrating on the preschool level, because all of the available ones were too simple. The basic idea behind Safir products was to provide a supplement (idafa) or an aid (masa‘da) for parents and for teachers in private schools, to give children a strong foundation in basic skills. The other goal of the company was to “Islamize the curricula,” since the basis of all knowledge is religion (haqiqat il-‘ilm id-din).

The company felt, he said, that books specifically about Islam should operate through “bab al-idah,” the path of clarification, attending to the child's nature and relying on “tabsit mafahim al-islam,” the simplification of Islamic concepts, by involving children in activities, like games. “I saw children playing some of the games of the kind you have had in America,” Karim said, “and how they concentrated on them and learned from playing them. That was the beginning of games like Battles of the Prophet,” one of the board games the company produced. When the government produces religious books, one member of Safir's staff complained, all they care about is al-hukm (authority, governmental control) and cost; and although Safir tries to produce economical materials, “it's not a charitable institution.” [51]

The company's pedagogical strategy, according to Karim, was rooted in the idea that

the child's capacity for memorization is much greater than his capacity for understanding. The memorization of the Qur’an can do a lot of things. It can improve pronunciation and diction, it can provide a basis for adab. But one thing that the memorization of the Qur’an cannot do, is to change your behavior or your comportment by itself. Because even if it's memorized, it's not understood, and the explanation of the meaning of the Qur’an requires a lot of work, and what modern methods do is to explain the context of the Qur’an in simple terms by breaking it down into principles and dwelling on those. So by the use both of memorization—and I myself have never memorized the Qur’an—and modern methods, we can fulfil all the aims we seek.

For example, we see that in the United States there are all kinds of social problems stemming from sexual excess and perversions, which lead to things like the AIDS epidemic, and we want to avoid that kind of thing here, but how do you explain such things to a child? The answer is that you start out by building a strong foundation based on clear, basic principles. Tarbiya has to do with the sound upbringing of the child (tanshi’a wa salihat it-tifl), to make an individual who is useful to society. You can think of da‘wa as the delivery of information (tawsil al-mafahim), whereas tarbiya is the formation of the human personality.[52]

Aside from acquiring specifically moral skills, the company expects children to benefit in other ways from using such products. In the introduction to one of their coloring book series, the editors explain that, since childhood is the time when the basic features of the human personality are set in place and the faculties of the child develop quickly, it is important to pay close attention to these processes. The use of these coloring books will “improve the capabilities of the child” through helping him develop nervous and muscular coordination, an appreciation of beauty, “a sense for the harmony of spaces and sizes and colors,” and artistic ability. Furthermore, it “plants divine doctrine in the child's emotional life by tying together the whole universe with its Creator, who has command over everything he created.” The job of the teacher or parent is to demonstrate to the child “God's abilities and his wisdom in the creation of the various creatures presented in [the] book.” And finally, by coloring the pictures himself, the child learns self-confidence, and the importance of caring for his own property.[53]

These goals are pursued skillfully in a number of series of books and other materials. Unlike cheap public sector religious textbooks, Safir's materials are of the highest quality, using well-printed colored pictures on slick paper stock, clear line drawings, and calligraphy. In addition to board games, of which the company produces at least three, there are several series of coloring books, flash cards, paper models of Islamic monuments, illustrated stories, books on adab and on the principles of Islam, capsule summaries of famous Islamic books, and workbooks for different subjects, from religion to arithmetic and English. Safir also sells Islamic jigsaw puzzles and produces posters with Islamic themes, all printed in color on heavy card stock, and a line of Islamic greeting cards. Various outside consultants, including educators, psychologists, and religious scholars cooperate in the conception, design, and writing of the books and other materials.

By and large, the books are quite close thematically to the products of the Ministry of Education. Stories illustrate basic rules of faith and behavior: put your trust in God during times of adversity, keep the streets clean, obey your parents. Model social practices are described in stories of model—and not so model—children as well. In one story a young boy learns through a painful experience not to disobey his parents.[54] In another, a series of annotated cartoon panels shows us “A Day in the Life of a Muslim Child.” Like the government, private sector publishers functionalize Islamic teachings and practices, reading divine intention from the shape of the social and natural worlds. Just as the government books teach that daily prayers “invigorate the body,” and “accustom the Muslim to organization, and respect for appointed times,” [55] Safir produces materials like the illustrated story book al-Sufuf al-Munadhdhama (Orderly Lines), which emphasize that “al-nidham min al-iman,” orderliness proceeds from faith. The book's pictures and text compare alternate realities on facing pages. On one page, a clerk at a service window waits on patient men standing in a neat, quiet line, while on the facing page an employee in a different office serves a pushy, unruly, and ill-mannered crowd whose own behavior undermines his ability to attend to their requests. The first line proceeds in an orderly manner, each petitioner's papers being processed quickly and efficiently, while in the second scenario, men butt into the front of the line, fights break out, a wallet is stolen in the confusion of pushing and shouting. Soon the first employee has finished his work and can break for lunch, while no work at all has been completed in the second case.

In the final illustrations, the clerk in the first picture steps out of his office and begins to lecture to the assembly on the facing page. “If only you knew the lesson that we learned from prayer,” he says. “During collective prayer we must straighten the rows, just as in all our lives, we must have order, order…” In the ensuing conversation he informs the crowd that God will not look favorably at prayer rows that are crooked, because Islam is a religion of order and discipline (al-islam din al-nidham wa al-indibat). Order saves time and ensures fairness, and the men of the crowd finally realize that God teaches us through everything, and that the straight rows of prayer teach us that order and discipline will help tranquility and satisfaction to prevail in all human endeavor.[56]

The proposition that “Islam is a religion of order and discipline,” and that the straight rows of prayer are part of a divine pedagogy, contrasts sharply with the colonial perception of Muslim ritual behavior (whether prayer or the rhythmic rocking during kuttab study) as a primitive feature of a backward faith. It places Islamic rituals on a par with the disciplinary technologies of the school, as described by Foucault and Mitchell, borrowing a modern European conception of self and projecting it backward in time, so that the Muslim umma becomes, once again, the historical antecedent and type specimen of civilized community. One interpretation of this statement might take it seriously in a Bourdieuian sense, and posit that the straight lines of prayer are one manifestation of a pervasive but implicit habitus that causes Egyptians to experience spatial and kinesic regimentation as natural, simply by living it in their everyday lives.[57] The mental habits and the physical skills of prayer, taught implicitly at home and then explicitly in the religion class, and displayed publicly there in the form of recitation, response, and even on-demand display of proper prayer positions (rehearsed and mastered, at least in pantomime fashion, in the first grade), could be seen as part of the habitus.

But things are not as simple as this. While the practice of prayer might install the habitus of prayer, there is no reason to believe that this habitus becomes a generalized behavioral template, extended indefinitely to other realms of experience. The significant feature of this discourse of order and discipline is, instead, its framing of ritual behavior as a code that should be read rather than merely a habit that should be cultivated. In learning that “Islam is a religion of order and discipline,” through the example of the straight lines of prayer, the child is prompted to interpret aspects of social reality as having meanings beyond those that they proclaim or manifest directly. I would argue that contemporary pedagogy implicitly instills this habit of interpretation, this tafsir of the phenomenal world, in effect democratizing the creation of political ideologies, even if this means merely bringing implicit assumptions into the realm of the spoken.[58]

Through the school, students learn to derive ideologies from the observation of social practices or natural phenomena. Egyptians do not carry the hexis of orderly prayer into other areas of their lives. It is context-bound, and only the symbolic elaboration that has come with the functionalization of the religious tradition allows the reading of a portable “order and discipline” into it.[59] In fact, as John Bowen has shown in the case of Indonesia, the Muslim prayer ritual “cannot be “decoded” semantically because it is not designed according to a single symbolic or iconic code. In particular times and places Muslims have construed the salat as conveying iconic or semantic meanings, but as part of particular spiritual, social and political discourses.” [60]

In any ritual there are a number of features that can be made to signify. In Bowen's Indonesian example, local communities, governments and Islamic reform movements make specific aspects of prayer (e.g., its formality and periodicity, its communicative functions, its public nature) express ideal models of society, political divisions, theological notions, and community structure. Muslims elsewhere sometimes interpret the straight rows of prayer as battle lines arrayed against the forces of evil.[61] The ritual is a rich source of alternative meanings that can be foregrounded and mobilized by specific groups. But underlying those specific mobilizations is the explicitness of the interpretive framework encouraged by an educational discourse centered on the abstraction of “principles” from the turath, the Islamic heritage.

Two things should be emphasized here with respect to the Egyptian case. The first is that the preoccupation with function is a general cognitive framework for the interpretation of social objects and events, an intellectual practice that is applied publicly both in strategic educational planning and in the mundane communication of subject matter in the classroom. Again, to take the example of ritual ablutions, educators use the connection between cleanliness and the Islamic tradition to encourage hygienic behavior, advising students that hygiene is the primary intent of the ritual. In learning this lesson, children learn both the explicit message that Islam looks after the individual's health and the implicit message that Islamic practices are to be examined for their latent functions and their social effect. In essence, the intertextual structure of “traditional” Islamic scholarship, which linked primary texts with written commentaries and glosses, has been broken. For in schoolbook discourse, sacred texts are linked with the observable world, both natural and social, as both their referent and their best proof. The ordinary educated Muslim need not master a complex body of legal or philosophical material in order to participate in functionalist discourse; the physician, the engineer, and the bureaucrat are equally well-equipped to bring their experiences of social, mechanical, and natural order into the discussion of God's nature.

Second, this functionalization occurs without the desacralization of the material, so that the process Durkheim described early in this century as one of the goals of the modern educational system is subverted.[62] Naturalistic and materialistic explanations coexist with supernatural ones, for Muslims perceive the two as noncontradictory. The “real” reasons for religious practices do not strip off their theological cloaks. Since God is concerned with the welfare of the Muslim community, the prescriptions of Islam are not only beneficial, but manifestly rational. What is left is to see how these utilitarian ideologies are consolidated and maintained in public culture after the child leaves the elementary school's moral assembly line.

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