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Dr G.W. Leitner

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Islam and Muhammadan Schools

Letter to the Editor of The Daily Telegraph

by Dr G. W. Leitner

Sir, Having had the exceptional opportunity of studying Arabic and the Koran at a Muhammadan Mosque school at Constantinople, both before and after the Russian War in 1854–56, and having since inspected hundreds of Muhammadan schools in India, not to speak of receiving the detailed reports of several thousands of these schools, I ask leave to protest against certain sweeping assertions lately made to the effect that they are dens of iniquity. It is, as regards these schools, an utterly unjustifiable libel. Deviations from morality are rendered almost impossible in them, owing to both scholastic and family organisation, and the influence of the admirable religious treatises and books on conduct (Akhlaq — qualities) which have to be read by the student. At the first mentioned of these schools primary education was given to both boys and girls together (some of the latter wearing the half veil of betrothal). Precocious as Easterns are deemed to be, there was never the slightest approach to impropriety in the school in question. A few boys once threw stones at some Christian lads, and this misconduct was immediately punished by the Imam of the Mosque, and was not repeated. The youths in what may be called the “higher form” were examples of good behaviour, and, indeed, the placidity of the Oriental temper is generally a sufficient law in itself. Vice is not so alluring as in Europe, and although the ideal in our schools may be higher, the practical purity in Muhammadan schools is probably greater.

In none of the schools that I have inspected in India did I hear of any cases of impropriety of any kind, except in some boarding houses attached to Government schools. In fact, the religious sentiment, the discipline of reverence and obedience, the inter-dependence or co-operation of teacher and parent, seem to me to render departures from morality far more difficult in Muhammadan than in Government schools in India, in which religious teaching is ignored, and even the introduction of a reader on morals and conduct (of little use among Orientals without a religious basis), has only quite recently been ordered by the Government of India. In my humble opinion, our greatest mistake in that country has been our system of secular education, and our displacement of the indigenous schools which ought to have been developed so as to combine ancient culture with modern requirements.

As for the wider question of the respective merits of Christianity and Muhammadanism as civilising agencies, allow me to observe that no person unacquainted with Arabic can discuss, at any rate, the theory of the latter religion, which is far more interwoven with the practice of the everyday life of its professors than, unfortunately, is Christianity. At the same time, there is no reason why, in our relations with Muhammadans, we should not emphasise the points of agreement of our respective faiths, rather than their differences.

Muhammadans recognise Christians and Jews as “Ehl Kitab,” or possessors of a (sacred) book. In the solemn “covenant with the Creator” into which the boy enters on leaving school he confesses his faith in these books. The Koran enjoins the protection of mosques, synagogues, and churches, in which the name of the one God is preached, as the special object of the effort (Jihad) of a true believer. Jesus is called the Spirit and Word of God, and His miraculous conception and glorious return are accepted in a sense which is not irreconcilable with doctrines that have been held by Christian sects. Muhammadans have liberally supported Christian schools and even churches, though few Christians have subscribed to mosques. Under Turkish rule, the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish denominations have preserved their autonomy for centuries. In India the “Kazi” is little more than tolerated, and numerous Muhammadan endowments have been curtailed, mis-applied, or “resumed” — an euphemism for confiscation. These should be restored, and their educational side be developed in accordance with the practical, as well as the religious, requirements of the Muhammadan community.

The social economy of Muhammadans, for which there is scriptural precedent, provides for women, and gives them greater legal rights than are possessed by Englishwomen, even since the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Indeed, nothing, except perhaps the Hindu family life in the higher castes, can exceed the respect, tenderness, purity, and legitimate influence of women in the Muhammadan household. The “beau sexe” forms no subject of conversation among Muhammadan as among Christian youths, and its seclusion is the protection given to what is precious and weak. The pious Muhammadan widow is proverbial as a patroness of education. The kindness of Muhammadans to dependents, their humane treatment of animals, “who also return to the Lord,” their great charity, and the simplicity which characterises the true believer should draw us to Him, and, instead of clamouring against “the false prophet,” our missionaries would do well in cementing an alliance between the sister-faiths of Islam and Christianity. Even now many a good Muhammadan would rather send his boy to a missionary school, “because the Bible, at any rate, is taught there,” than to a Government school, where there is “nothing” (in the form of religious instruction). Indirectly, also, the unexpected effect of Christian teaching in missionary schools in very many places is to increase the conversion of Hindus to Muhammadanism, for reasons which are too long to explain. In my humble opinion we ought to set aside the first hour in Government schools in India to the separate religious teaching of the various denominations frequenting them in their own faiths, the remaining five hours of secular instruction being enjoyed in common by all denominations. Unless we do this we practically condemn the Muhammadan either to give up the worldly advantages of modern education, or else to abandon what he considers most sacred, and that is, his religious training. “Religious neutrality” should mean that “religious impartiality” which gives a share of the taxation of Orientals to what they value most, their religion; and if we wish to attach Muhammadans to British rule, we must give them ‘din wa dunya’ (religion and worldly advantages), and believe, with the Emperor Akbar, that “Government and religion are twins,” for just as no Government can last that destroys the religious sentiment among its subjects, so also can no Government prosper that does not support their respective faith with equal generosity and justice.

It is, however, the special alliance of Islam and Christianity which I would urge, not only from a religious, but also from a political standpoint. There was a time when the Englishman was looked upon as the natural protector of the Muhammadan world, chiefly owing to the traditional friendship with Turkey, the ruler of which is the de facto Khalifa of the Sunni Muhammadans, who also form the majority of our Muhammadan fellow-subjects. This friendship should be strengthened, and among minor measures I would urge the admission of Muhammadan youths (as, indeed, also of Rajputs) of good birth into our military schools, with the view of their being employed, with exactly the same prospects of promotion as European officers, in the Indian army of the future, which will have to be very largely increased.

In conclusion, allow me to express the conviction that to advances such as I have ventured to indicate, made in a true Christian spirit to the professors of a sister-faith, the followers of Muhammad will cordially respond, much to the advantage of real religion throughout the world, and to the legitimate promotion of British interests, which will otherwise deservedly suffer at the hands of a new rival in the affections of Muhammadans.

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