Focus

How much Quran belongs in the classroom?

Under an Islamist government, many expect far more religion in the Egyptian curriculum. But the reality of governing has tempered that push.

By , Staff writer , Staff writer

In the cool morning shadows that stretch across Al Redwan Islamic School's courtyard, dozens of youngsters chant, "The prophet is the only messenger."

"We try to teach honesty and justice … and this good behavior will lead to a better country," explains the principal, Mostafa Mohamed Selim, advocating the merging of religion and education.

Awards from the British Council testify to the K-12 school's reputation, which draws not only Islamist families but also parents simply seeking a high-quality education. Only 80 of 600 applicants are accepted each year, and classes have a maximum of 40 students.

But the idea of infusing more Islam into schools is not universally popular.

Already, Quranic verses are peppered into even physics and chemistry lessons, and compulsory classes on Islam offer views that contradict those offered in courses promoting tolerance and religious freedom. Secular activists, liberals, and the 10 percent Christian minority have raised concerns that Islamists could use their new dominance to reshape education in their own image.

Seif-Eddeen Fateen, a Cairo University professor who has advised the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) on education reform, acknowledges that they have publicly espoused such goals in the past.

Now that they are in power, however, the central battle they are waging is less ideological and more existential. "They are thinking as statesmen instead of people of a [divine] calling," he says. "Now you're talking about concrete plans for advancing education and improving quality.... Religion is on the back burner."

But with a Brotherhood man in the presidency and the FJP the largest bloc in parliament, new opportunities present themselves. Public school teachers who are Muslim Brotherhood members can become "an effective force to impart the Brotherhood's Islamic vision, values, and code of behavior," says an August 2012 report by the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Egypt's Ministry of Education denied the Monitor permission to enter a public school, but Al Redwan offers a glimpse into how Muslim values are being applied in class – perhaps one day on a broader scale.

"You don't have to change the curriculum to instill moral values – we can do this in any subject," says Ashraf Abd al-Rahim, a local Muslim Brotherhood leader who says a teacher's example is as important as the class's content. "We want to expand the concept of brotherhood.... This sense of belonging we want to apply to humanity as a whole." He starts his Arabic essay class at Al Redwan with a debate question aimed not only at getting students to think for themselves but also to respect others.

Some teachers say behavior has deteriorated because of a certain rebelliousness related to the revolution.

Proponents of infusing schools with Islam say the religion can help improve the values – and behavior – of the students. "You don't need to increase the dosage of religion because religion is already enough. What you need from religion is the kind of behavior from it," Mr. Fateen says. "What you want from religion is not the quantity in the curriculum but the quality of the behavior and values."

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