22.- 25.9

Challenging Notions of Education and Knowing: Islamic Practices of Teaching and Learning across Africa

Convenor: Anna Madeleine Ayeh, University of Bayreuth/Cluster of Excellence ‘Africa Multiple’


23/09/20 2 – 3.30 pm Room HZ 11 (Hörsaalzentrum)


Short abstract:

Islamic teaching and learning continue to challenge global perceptions of education and knowing. This panel explores epistemic, practical, and organizational aspects of Islamic knowledge transmission with a special interest in their underlying (gendered) moralities and concepts of future.

Throughout the past century, colonial administrations, national governments, and global institutions of ‘development’ have attempted to streamline and secularize African educational landscapes with the primary goal of enrolling as many (especially female) children and young adults in formal schools. Institutions of Islamic  learning were for the most part seen as hindrance on this perceived singular path to modernity.

Despite a host of campaigns against (or for the ‘modernization’ of) Islamic teaching and learning, its classical tenets and practices are still highly relevant and its institutions are thriving. Some of them have retained their century-old ways of producing and transmitting knowledge, others have been merging Islamic learning with formal school curricula, providing both religious and secular learning. Islamic secondary, boarding and professional training schools across the continent meet the needs of contemporary national job markets in accordance with Islamic beliefs. Informal contexts of teaching and learning play an important role in continuously updating constructions of Islamicity. Therefore, Islamic educational practices in Africa challenge unilinear notions of modernity, ‘development’, and futurity.

This panel invites conceptual and empiric contributions on Islamic teaching and learning practices from multidisciplinary perspectives: What are their epistemic grounds? Which conceptions of knowledge transmission do they reflect? What kind of future(s) and (gendered) moralities to they produce? How do they relate to the overall educational landscapes they are located in? In which ways is Islamic teaching and learning organized, governed, and contested? How is the rise in Muslim female authority reflected in education and what are its implications?


There is a consensus among Muslims that Islam is a religion that encourages the pursuant of knowledge because Prophet Muhammad’s first commandment from God was to read, Iqra. This directive is interpreted as instructing Muslims to pursue all forms of education, both religious and secular. This paper, therefore, seeks to demonstrate the role of the competing Islamic-integrated schools and the madrassa’s educational system in the production and transmission of religious knowledge in Kenya. In Kenya, Muslims believe that their religion demands from them to pursue religious education to enable them to comprehend and practice their faith in accordance with God’s decrees. For a long time, Muslim’s education in Kenya has been associated with the Qur’anic schools (madrassa; also the basic ones known as chuo). Even with their longest period of existence in the country, lack of uniformity poses the main challenge to the madrassa system of education. In addressing this shortfall, I will show in this paper how sections of Kenyan Muslims are working on the possibility of standardizing the madrassa syllabus to improve its quality of education, and the challenges encountered in the process.

Since this effort focuses only on religious education, Muslims are also concerned about the community continuing lagging behind in secular education. As a response, Muslims have adopted a two-prong approach as a way of reforming the madrassa education. They have adopted a model that seeks to make the madrassa education taught alongside secular education, either through a system that in this paper would be referred as the ‘Shela option’, or by interweaving the religious and secular education in a same institution as illustrated in the Islamic integrated schools. Such efforts by Muslims are intended at reforming the madrassa system, making both religious and secular education accessible to the community in the country. Informing these reforms is an increasing sense of the significance of secular education in economic terms. This conclusion by Muslims is based on the realization that equipped with secular education will make them competitive with the rest of Kenyans when it comes to securing employment. But significantly, paper will analyze the role of the Islamic integrated school in the transmission of Islamic knowledge.

Therefore, this paper will first examine the reconstruction of Islamic education and learning in Kenya. Secondly, it will examine the competing Islamic-integrated schools (secular) and madrassa (religious schools) in the production and transmission of Islamic knowledge, focusing on the standardization and consistency in curriculum delivery in the two systems of education, and the value of certificates attained from them. Some of the questions that would be raised by this research tract include: What are the reasons for lack of standardization? How drastically different are sufi and salafi run madrassas? What efforts have been made in attaining standardization of madrassa education? Are integrated schools addressing the deficiency in religious education or secular education?

Hassan J. Ndzovu is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Theology, Moi University, Kenya.

Quranic schools, or ‘maktab’ (pl. makatib) as they are called in the South African setting are part of the everyday religious life and upbringing of South African Muslims.  The maktab is viewed as a space in which values and conducts are shaped and through which children are initiated into the discourses, traditions and practices of their respective Muslim communities. My research focuses on the network of such institutions affiliated to the Johannesburg based Jamiat Ulama South Africa, a Sunni, Hanafi theological institute that extends across the country. Scrolling through the education section of their website, the  following sentence stands out, ‘Such a monumental undertaking is fit to be the work of a governmental department of education’.  indeed, this organisation has been instrumental in instituting a standardized maktab system bridging classical religious education with modern pedagogy in the English language.

Since its introduction into makatib  in the 1990s, the curriculum has spread beyond its original community borders into the wider Southern African region and other parts of the world. Regular supervision, workshops and seminars for parents, staff and makatib committees as well as regular reviews of the curriculum and centrally-set examinations are part of the process of maintaining a standard of Islamic education across their affiliated makatib.

Yet, Islamic teaching and learning practices differ within and across Muslim communities and the attempt to standardise and transform maktab education are not without their challenges. This paper focuses on the case study of Cape Town, and the interventions into maktab education from the Jamiat Ulama. Historically, makatib in the city have operated individually  and with flexibility in transmitting religious knowledge that serves the needs of their specific communities. The arrival of a standardized and systemized maktab curriculum has re-conceptualised the nature of maktab education and the debates around what constitutes ‘essential Islamic education’, the role of teachers and the maktab institution itself. The Jamiat’s emphasis on regularization of teaching methodology and practice includes supervision of both learner and teacher, along with the structuring of time and subject matter within the maktab. Implementation, however, has not always been a smooth process and drawing from empirical data gathered in five makatib in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, this paper explores how this transformation of maktab education is negotiated and contested amongst the communities of these makatib.

Yasmin Ismail is a PhD student at Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

In the zongos – Muslim communities in Asante (Ghana) –, the malams (Islamic scholars) stand and act as religious authorities by “speaking for Islam.” As they relate the Islamic scriptures and tradition to the lives of their fellow Muslims, they are able to make consequential pronouncements on Islamic matters and have a strong impact on how Islam is lived and debated in their communities. As decisive voices in the “discursive tradition” of their religion, the malams embody and deploy Islamic knowledge (ʿilm), and the people accord them the authority to “speak for Islam” based on their ʿilm and ādāb (demeanour). Yet, the malams not seldom disagree in their Islamic discourses and practices and constantly debate or contest their divergent tenets, claiming that the others “do not know.” Thereby, ʿilm emerges as a diverse and contested field.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, I portray three malams in a zongo in Asante with their distinct claims to ʿilm and show that ʿilm is not an abstract body of Islamic knowledge but engrained in people, discourses, and practices. These malams pertain to different Islamic groups and have acquired their ʿilm in disparate formations. Malam Hussain has been trained in locally established traditions of Islamic learning. He acknowledges and promotes “scriptural” (al-zāhir) as well as “spiritual” (al-bātin) aspects of and accesses to ʿilm, but he does not belong to a Sufi order. Malam Mudasir, who also recognizes both aspects of and accesses to ʿilm, is a Tijani. Besides his intellectual studies of the Islamic scriptures and tradition, he regards the tarbiya (training) and wird (litanies) of his Sufi order as indispensable in his quest for ʿilm as these enable him to apprehend its “spiritual” aspects. Both malams differ in their (claims to and epistemes of) ʿilm but find themselves equally criticized by Malam Hamid, a reformist Islamic scholar, who upholds and propagates a solely “scriptural” ʿilm, refusing any “spiritual” aspect to it. Thus, not only the Islamic knowledges of these malams differ but also their Islamic epistemes. Accordingly, I consider ʿilm as a diverse and contested phenomenon and trace the divergent Islamic epistemes and knowledges of these malams as well as their disparate discourses on ʿilm. According to my interlocutors, ʿilm derives from their Islamic formation and engagement with the Islamic scriptures and tradition. This is not a simple implementation or apprehension of a given Islamic knowledge but a complex process of relating the Islamic scriptures and tradition to people, their lives, and matter to an ongoing discourse. Accordingly, ʿilm does not emerge as a given body of Islamic knowledge but as a shifting and contested field in which the malams strive to position themselves and to acquire the authority to “speak for Islam” to their fellow Muslims. Their varied claims to Islamic knowledge and authority are thus at once caught up in and contributing to ongoing shifts and contestations about what is or is not Islamic.

Benedikt Pontzen is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Center for Global Islamic Studies, University of Florida, USA.

Britta Frede is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany.