Egyptian schoolboys study tolerant Islam at Al-Azhar
By Assaad Abboud
Egyptian schoolboys, wearing red caps wrapped in a swathe of white, their blue cloaks over white robes, rose to attention when the principal of their Islamic theology school marched into their classroom.
“Keep your eyes on the blackboard. Don’t look at the cameras,” barked Sheikh Saad al-Qadi, 55, as he entered with two journalists.
“Here, we teach the real principles of the Muslim religion, so that there is no deviation or bigotry contrary to the essence of Islam,” Sheikh Saad said at his school in the poor northern Cairo suburb of Shubra al-Kheima.
A group of police escorted the AFP journalists into the school.
The school is one of thousands that come under the authority of the government-controlled Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent place of Sunni Muslim learning founded in Cairo more than 1,000 years ago.
Sheikh Hesham Mohamed Khaled, who is in charge of religious schools in Shubra al-Kheima, said “the pupils who learn at Al-Azhar benefit from combining the traditional school curriculum with religious instruction.
Such instruction, he added, “is very moderate.” Sheikh Hesham said “the pupils at Al-Azhar are well-balanced because they study authentic religion, without bigotry and without deviation.
“Our curriculum is not influenced by what happens abroad,” he added.
He then condemned “the anarchy which reigns in religious teaching,” citing the audio and video “cassettes that one finds everywhere as well as the books which twist the teachings of religion.” The sheikh of Al-Azhar itself, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, has often stated that his millennium-old institution “follows the moderate path of Islam.”
Al-Azhar’s sheikh is named by the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a strong adversary of Islamic fundamentalism. The Egyptian government fought an armed conflict against Islamic militants in Egypt in the 1990s.
The schools under Al-Azhar follow the Egyptian public school curriculum for the sciences, English and civic education. Pupils are in addition taught the exegesis of the Quran and Hadith, collections of the Prophet [PBUH]’s sayings, and the recitation of the Quran.
The apprentice sheikhs have 150 mosques in Shubra al-Kheima where they can learn how to recite the Friday prayer, said Sheikh Hisham, who also runs the neighbouring girls school.
“Worshippers are very receptive to this idea, because the young sheikhs are more steeped in religion than they are,” he said.
In Shubra al-Kheima alone there are 13 Al-Azhar schools which teach 14,000 pupils between the ages of 10 and 18, with around 90 percent of them finishing with a diploma, Sheikh Hisham said.
The president of Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Omar Hashem, told AFP that one million pupils study in 5,000 Al-Azhar secondary schools in Egypt.
Tuition, books and other costs are free, with each student paying only 25 Egyptian pounds (just over five dollars) for health insurance.
The religious schools have also introduced computer instruction.
In a small room of the school here, the boys — most of them smooth-faced, though some of the older ones sprouted the first hairs of a beard they will eventually have as sheikhs — sat quietly before 10 computers.s.
However, the computers are not linked to the Internet, because of a lack of telephone lines, said the head of the computer program, Mohammed Abdel Aziz.
“We were surprised by the enthusiasm of the pupils and we don’t have enough computers to meet demand,” said Abdel Aziz, 25.
Around three-quarters of the graduates pursue their religious studies at the prestigious university of Al-Azhar, which has nearly 200,000 students, with thousands from abroad, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria and other countries.
Others choose to pursue studies in science, while still others decide to become policemen, Sheikh Hisham said. —AFP