Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

The Path of Clarification

Family and School as Sources of Moral Authority

This authority is clear in the textbook treatment of the family and the school as sources of moral knowledge.[36] The image of the family in the contemporary textbook is ambiguous, for although parents, siblings, and other relatives are portrayed as central foci of the child's own moral duties, they are hardly ever portrayed as sources of moral enlightenment. That place has been usurped by the public functionaries of the school itself. As we saw at the end of the last chapter, this symbolic confiscation of moral authority feeds back into the constant media representation of the ideal family, making the family the target of moral development rather than the source. For the textbook to be used as an authoritative source of knowledge, it must help to define its institutional context as authoritative. We have already seen that lessons have sometimes been altered in newer textbooks to move away from stories and plays, but this has not been the case universally. It is still an important pedagogical strategy not to set out moral precepts in isolation, but to nest them within an image of idealized life, whether within the family, on the streets, or elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, such images often include the school as one of the primary characters, as we saw in the story of Sa‘id and his father earlier in this chapter. In these images the school is not only one of the arenas of the child's day-to-day life, it is portrayed as the source of the child's most elementary articulable moral knowledge, a knowledge that the child proudly carries back to his or her grateful family. In primary school textbooks it is also the sole representative of the state. The very first lesson on adab in the second grade book provides a fine illustration of this technique. In the story, ‘Abir returns from school to find that her mother is preparing food for her father and some of his friends, whom he is bringing home after work. ‘Abir volunteers her help with food preparation and cleaning the reception room, and volunteers her brother Muhammad to go to the store and pick up some things. When the evening is over, their father sits with them and commends their behavior, thanking them for cleaning, preparing, and for serving the guests.

‘Abir said, “This is my duty towards my mother and my father, and we learned in school today a great lesson about loving one's parents and cooperating with them, and we memorized [part of] the glorious Qur’an and a noble tradition [of the Prophet], and I want you to hear them, father, and you, mother. [God] said, may he be exalted, “Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good to parents” [sura 2, 36]. “A man came to the Prophet, may God bless and save him, and said, O Messenger of God: what person is most deserving of perfect friendship? [The Prophet] said, Your mother. [The man] asked, Then who? [The Prophet] said, Your mother. [The man] asked, Then who? [The Prophet] said, Your mother. [The man] asked, Then who? [The Prophet] said, Your father.” ” [37]

The story is followed by a drawing of ‘Abir and Muhammad helping their parents with the guests, and a short nashid about loving one's parents: “What pleases God except what pleases [your] parents/What is the beauty of life but the affection of [your] parents/Love your parents to live in happiness/And [if you] offer [your] spirit as a sacrifice to them, you will find good reward.” [38]

Given the importance invested in the child's duties toward the family, it might seem surprising that parents are only rarely depicted as founts of religious or moral counsel. Children are advised always to help and obey their parents even if they have differences of opinion with them, “because [your parents] both love you and wish only the best for you always, and never think of anything but your happiness.” [39] But children are sometimes portrayed as the wiser parties in moral quandaries. A story in the third grade book tells of how ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, the companion of the Prophet and second caliph of the Muslim community, was wandering the streets of Medina before dawn one day when he heard a conversation between a mother and daughter. The mother instructs the daughter to water down the milk the girl has just brought, so they can sell it for a greater profit. The girl reminds her mother that Islam has prohibited such a practice, and what would the Commander of the Faithful say? The woman replies that neither the Commander of the Faithful nor anyone else can see what they are doing, but the girl counters that God can see them, and that they must please him both in secret and in public.


Do what I tell you, sweetheart.


Should I obey you and disobey God, dear mother? Certainly not.


If you don't mix the milk with water, we won't make any profit.


If we please God, he will bless us with profit and expand our subsistence.


God bless you, daughter. You are better than I, and have just taught me a great lesson.[40]

‘Umar is so pleased with the young girl that when he goes home to tell his sons the story, he asks which of them will marry her. His son ‘Asim volunteers, noting that ``such a girl will make a virtuous wife.'' The reward for virtuous behavior is material and immediate, as in the example below of telling the truth about a low mark at school.

Aside from the story about Ramadan discussed above, the only sustained example in this series of books of parents serving as a source of moral instruction occurs in the fourth grade. The story is an interesting one in that it combines several of the themes we have been discussing, and reminds us of the real-life story at the end of the last chapter, of the young girl's electronically mediated knowledge of the Qur’an. This story deals with Ahmad and his father.

Ahmad was used to turning on the [radio] broadcast of the Glorious Qur’an every morning upon waking up. For he loved always to begin his day by listening to some verses of the book of God (may He be exalted), and his father encouraged him in this good habit. A lot of times, Ahmad asked his parents, when the family gathered together over breakfast, about the meaning of some Qur’anic words and verses he had heard.[41]

This particular morning, Ahmad asks his father about verse 185 of the sura ’Al ‘Imran, “Every soul shall have a taste of death, and only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense.” When will the Day of Judgment come, he asks, and what will happen then? His father explains what the Day of Judgment is, but says that only God knows when it will be. Ahmad, assiduously thanking his father for each answer, still doesn't understand the meaning of one of the terms his father has used, “yawm al-ba‘th,” the Day of Resurrection, but his father doesn't have time to explain it before school, so promises Ahmad he will give him a book about it later that day.

After school Ahmad flips eagerly through the book and realizes that it contains all the information he needs about the resurrection and judgment. He agrees to his father's suggestion that he divide the book into sections, reading just one part each day for a week, so as not to interfere with his schoolwork. At the end of the week, he delightedly gathers excerpts to share with his classmates at school by publishing them in the class newsletter “so they would benefit from the good religious information he had.” [42] This story brings together the father, the Qur’an, radio broadcasts, religious publications, and the school newsletter as sources of religious instruction. The lesson ends by quoting Ahmad's excerpts on death, resurrection, and judgment, but its didactic purpose is not defined merely by their presentation. Like the newspaper story about the virtuous village family memorizing the Qur’an in the last chapter, this fable provides an idealized model of the Muslim family in which parents and children cooperate to strengthen family piety with the help of social institutions responsible for publishing books and broadcasting the Qur’an. This strength and motivation is then transferred to the public domain of the school, just as in the example of ‘Abir and her brother, moral lessons from school were transferred to the home.[43]

In the fourth grade book the school reappears in the very next lesson about a schoolteacher teaching his students about proper Muslim forms of greeting after having them practice their ablutions in the school mosque,[44] and then again where a section on the names and occupations of the angels is framed by a story about the teacher leading his pupils together in the noon prayer:

And the teacher had been used, from time to time, after doing the prayer, to give each one of them a book from the library of the prayer area, to read for a little while, then he directed a little talk and discussion about the topics they wanted to investigate and understand, and to answer their questions, and point them to those things that were right and beneficial in this world and the next.[45]

But the textbooks portray school not just as a place to discover ancient moral truths. School is, in proper Deweyan fashion, a miniature moral universe where looking after one's classroom and one's books, and remembering one's lessons, is one way in which the child serves God.[46] School is like life, with the year-end test differentiating justly between the diligent and negligent students just as God's just accounting on the Day of Judgment will differentiate between people who do good and those who do evil.[47] A section on telling the truth uses a school example to show the child that lying only hurts the liar, and that the rewards for good behavior are immediate and material as well as deferred and spiritual:

For example, if you got a low score on one of your subjects, you have to tell your parents, without exaggerating or minimizing; and you know that truth will benefit you in this case, because when your father learns that your score is low in a subject, he'll help you until you're strong in it, and you will excel among your classmates; truth makes you a winner, and lying a loser.[48]

This passage reveals an interesting idealization of parental behavior keyed to the middle-class home (where, to be sure, the parents are just as likely to hire the pupil's teacher to give after-school lessons, as to help the child themselves). Going to school is the child's job, just as the peasant, the truck driver, and the parent all have their employment, without which society, imagined as an organism very much like the human body in the differentiation and interdependence of its parts, could not function.[49] Islam is the charter for the function of modern society and requires attentiveness to work and mutual cooperation. Even the Prophet, one story shows, worked hard to accomplish group tasks, and refused to eschew manual labor or to be marked with special privilege.[50]

The Path of Clarification

Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.