Aljamea Nairobi, central courtyard
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Studying the Quran, and Einstein

Jyoti Shelar, The Hindu, May 13th 2017

When it comes to Muslim religious schools, the word that comes to most minds is the madrasa. But that’s not the only way Islam is taught to young minds.

In the Dawoodi Bohra community, more and more parents are sending their children to schools run by the community called Jameas, which offer a holistic education. Students who study here often branch out to the same kind of higher studies students of other institutions would. And like the academically inclined anywhere, some choose to come back to teach in the Jameas.

The oldest Jamea, in Surat, dates back two centuries, and teaches 900 students at a time. The Karachi jamea, started in 1983, has a 480-student capacity and the Mumbai jamea, which started in 2013, has 300.

A typical jamea school-day runs from 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Religious studies form a major part of the courses — time spent memorising the Koran is an important part of the day — but the syllabus also covers all the subjects one would find in a secular school. Students typically join a Jamea after having finished seven or eight years of school, then spend 11 years at a Jamea. The Jamea years are divided into three sections, a basic or primary, for the first four years, years five to seven are secondary, equivalent to an undergraduate course, and in years eight to eleven, students specialise, on par with a post-graduation degree, in one of three subjects with an Islamic focus: law and jurisprudence, literature, or history (which also includes world history).

One in Kenya

The first Jamea outside the subcontinent, in Nairobi, Kenya, started small, with just over 500 students in the past five years. But now, it has opened an impressively designed campus in the posh Nairobi suburb of Karen.

Grounded in faith

The Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Arabic Academy will accommodate 1,000 students and 200 faculty members. The 14-acre campus, which features architectural elements and motifs from North Africa, Egypt, Yemen and India, and sights of the Fatimi masjids of Cairo and North Africa, was inaugurated last month by Mufaddal Saifuddin, the community’s current religious head or Syedna, and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.

It aims to attract students from East Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.

At a time when international schools and colleges offer world-class education, what makes parents choose a more religious form of education?

“The secular studies that you do, all the skills that you acquire, mainly equip you to become a cog in the wheel of the working life. But in Jamea, the education is for you. It is not intended to get you a better job or better money. It is education in its true sense: to lift,” says Rashida Mustafa, a Manchester-based clinical psychologist.

She sent her two sons to the Surat Jamea; her older son, now 38, teaches at the Surat jamea, and the younger one, 25, is pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“He too wants to work in the Jamea but is awaiting an official appointment,” Ms. Mustafa says. She feels that the Jamea experience has helped her sons to have an ‘enviable social group’.

‘All aspects of life’

Sarah and Amina Noman, 14-year-old twins, studied up to the eighth grade in San Francisco, U.S., where the family lives. After which, last year, their father Raj Noman, an IT professional, enrolled them in the Jamea in Nairobi.

“Our community’s fabric is such that religious education is important,” he says. “Both my girls were brilliant students in San Francisco and they will only become better with the Jamea education.” He points out that Jamea graduates have become lawyers, doctors and top-notch businesspersons. Sarah wants to become a surgeon, he says, while Amina is still figuring it out. “The kids not only get knowledge about their religion, they become well-grounded in all aspects of life.”

Fatema Feeroz, 16, whose father is the head of the English department at the Jamea in Marol, Mumbai, studied in South London before joining the Nairobi Jamea.

“Jamea education is all-encompassing, while understanding that everything is coming from Allah,” she says.

“I feel I have matured a lot and accepted my religion much more. While other teenagers struggle with temptations of breaking barriers, I have a better perspective in life.”

Current world view

Schools run by religious communities often face the criticism that their students are unexposed to the outside world. The Dawoodi Bohras say this is a misconception.

“The kind of diversity that we are exposed to is unimaginable,” says Adnan Abidali. “As a student in the Jamea, I was exposed to a Londoner, I interacted with a villager from India as well as a student from Yemen.”

The Surat Jamea alumnus, who later went to Oxford, teaches Economics, English and Arabic literature in the Nairobi jamea.

“A Jamea is not a school for preparing maulvis or the stereotypical type of Muslims,” Mr. Abidali says. “It combines Islamic sciences and theology and other subjects without compartmentalising knowledge.”

He points to the annual oral examinations as an example. At these, the Syedna and four other rectors throw questions at the students about topics ranging from Einstein’s theory of relativity to gravitational fields and how they affect space time.

(The Hindu attended the inauguration on invitation from the management of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Arabic Academy in Nairobi.)