On physical abuse at a top Muslim school

A black and white drawing of a man holding a cane aloft about to hit a boy's hand with it.Last week someone posted several accounts on Facebook of physical abuse he suffered at a well-known Islamic school in northern England. This was one of a group of schools that trains boys to be imams and scholars and a large number of imams in British Indian-run mosques come from this school. The abuse was not of a sexual nature; it consisted of beatings for mistakes and such reasons as speaking English instead of Urdu. One particular qari or Qur’an memorisation and recitation teacher was named, although he has since died. The principal, a well-known scholar, is said to have personally opposed this behaviour but left the running of the institution to others who allowed it to continue. He also said that he required hospital treatment as a result of some of the abuse, yet he did not see his parents in the hospital, only school staff who told him to keep quiet or be “cursed by Allah” if it resulted in the school being closed.

The person who posted this was at the school in the early 1990s although another person who was at the school in the late 90s has said he experienced similar things then. During this period, private schools were exempt from the law which banned the use of physical punishment on children in state schools which was passed in the late 80s; the discrepancy was not remedied until after the Labour government came to power in 1997. I was in a private school in the early 90s myself — not an Islamic school of any sort as I was not Muslim then — and public, random violence by staff was a common occurrence. Private schools are of course a mixed bag; they included special schools that often took children with local authority funding, Steiner schools, Muslim and other faith schools as well as fee-paying schools for well-to-do parents which included everything from small independent schools through some better-established local private schools, of which there is at least one in every large town, up to the elite schools such as Eton. Different schools retained corporal punishment to different degrees and I am sure some did not use it at all, while others used it on a day-to-day basis.

I am not naming the school because schools a lot like this were the subject of a campaign to demonise Islamic education in the right-wing press a few years ago and this could lead to a resumption of that campaign. In the comment thread underneath, people have said that the school concerned (and others like it) have changed considerably since and they no longer use these methods, but that they had experienced or witnessed them at other Islamic schools, including evening and weekend schools at mosques. I am sure religious schools of other groups within Islam are guilty of this as well (I recall when a London Islamic primary school was about to become a state school under the grant maintained school system in the 1990s, the loss of the right to use physical punishment was cited as a reason not to join). Recently someone on Twitter opined that she thought Islam as practised in West Africa was how it ought to be done, but this sort of behaviour has been common there too and may still be.

The fact of children being beaten when learning the Qur’an was very well known, even outside the Muslim community. To give an example, the British educationalist A.S. Neill, who was heavily influenced by Freud and founded a school where the rules were set by whole-school meetings of pupils and staff, was asked why some boys only learn when made to feel physical pain and replied, “I expect I could learn to recite the Koran if I knew I would be flogged if I didn’t. One result, of course, would be that I should forever hate the Koran, and the flogger, and myself”. I cannot imagine many children who have been raised Muslim and with the Qur’an coming to hate it, but they may become disinclined to learn it (or pursue any other religious studies) as they associate this with the trauma of the abuse. But it is disturbing that our community is notorious for this abuse of children; that learning to recite the Qur’an is the first thing that came to Neill’s mind when asked about the cane as a “learning aid”.

Child abuse is child abuse, but when perpetrated by men thought to be living saints, men of God, men capable of teaching people to be men of God, it’s an enormous betrayal of people’s trust in them. People sent their children to this school because it was run by someone with immense authority, someone whose main teacher was a very well-known Indian religious scholar. There is no sanction in Islam for using violence on children for reasons as petty as those described; people are supposed to restrain their anger and not hit out in response to trivial provocations, much the same as with secular law. If anyone responsible for this abuse is still living, I hope they can be brought to justice and that the community will support the victims rather than assuming that “mawlana” must be right because of who he is and who his shaikh is.

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