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Philippines, Islamic education in the

Jeffrey Ayala Milligan
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Philippines, Islamic education in the

The Islamization of the southern Philippines is generally thought to have been gradual and largely peaceful. It would not be inaccurate to say that the religion was brought by teachers and spread through education, which in all probability settled into indigenous communities as a new layer of cultural and educational practice resting upon pre-Islamic values in a mutually adaptive, syncretic fashion. Quasi-historical accounts of the coming of Islam to the region credit the makhdumin—a term describing a series of individuals respected for their piety who acted as teachers of the faith—with introducing Islam to the region. At least one account in Sulu traditions describes a makhdum teaching children to read and write by drawing letters in the sand on the seashore. The first recorded madrasah, with formal instruction in the Qur’an and hadith, is thought to have coincided with the establishment of the first sultanate in Sulu under Abu Bakr.

Over the centuries of Muslim Filipino independence prior to American colonization in the early twentieth century, formal education in Mindanao and Sulu was more or less institutionalized in what came to be known as the pandita school. Pandita, a Sanskrit word meaning “learned man” corresponding to the Arabic alim, was a name given to individuals who, regardless of social standing, had distinguished themselves by acquiring a superior knowledge of Islam. But in a cultural context in which Islam was believed to govern all aspects of social and individual life, the pandita’s influence was extensive. In addition to being religious functionaries, they served as courtiers of the sultan, judges, scribes, and medical experts. In effect, they constituted a class of indigenous intelligentsia that was a precursor of the contemporary ustadh and ulama.

The pandita school typically consisted of small tutorial classes conducted in the mosque or at the home of the pandita. Pupils would live with or visit the teacher daily, supported by the more prosperous families who wanted their children to learn the fundamentals of the faith. In addition to the rudiments of religion, some children were taught to read and write their native dialects using Arabic script. By the time of the American occupation of Mindanao and Sulu, literacy rates in some areas compared favorably to the rates of Christian areas, despite centuries of almost continual military pressure on Muslim regions from the Spanish colonial government. Well into the twentieth century the writing of Muslim Filipino dialects continued in Arabic script, and Arab cultural influences survived in the customs and practices of Muslim Filipinos.

Pandita schools were relatively widespread and important in the social life of Muslim Filipino communities, where the pagtamat—completion ceremony—was an important event in the lives of the Muslim children. Thus, while Spanish and American accounts of pandita schools are generally dismissive, it is clear that the institution, largely unhampered by three hundred years of Spanish colonialism in the northern and central Philippines, was firmly rooted in Mindanao and Sulu by the dawn of U.S. colonial rule in 1898. Furthermore, the practice of Islam, often disparaged by American observers as a corruption of the religion of the Prophet, remained strong and stood at the center of Muslim Filipino identity. These facts suggest the effectiveness of pandita schools in helping to preserve the cultural and religious identity of Muslim Filipinos against three centuries of Spanish attempts to transform both.

Muslim Filipinos and Philippine Government Education.

Spanish education clearly had little or no impact on the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu. The imposition of American colonial rule, however, profoundly affected indigenous educational institutions by introducing a modern, secular system of education, along with social, political, and economic structures premised on the types of knowledge disseminated in such schools and offering the prospect of social, political, and economic advancement for those who possessed such knowledge. Colonial education, in short, introduced a radically different regime of truth supportive of Western political domination, weakening, though by no means eradicating, traditional ontological and epistemological frameworks. Thus, colonial rule dichotomized religious and secular education, tradition and modernity, in ways quite similar to the experience of other colonized Muslim societies, introducing a tension between Western-educated and traditionally-educated segments of Muslim societies.

The U.S. military and civilian occupation of Mindanao and Sulu from 1898 to 1935 saw the widespread introduction of public schooling aimed at “civilizing” Muslim Filipinos and preparing them for integration into an independent Philippine state dominated by the Christian majority. Reports from the American Superintendent of Instruction in the Moro Province, however, indicate that many of these schools actually served more non-Muslim than Muslim children, so that only the tiniest of minorities among Muslim Filipino children ever received even a primary-school education from the American public school system, let alone the whole scheme of education from primary through secondary school. Successive independent Philippine governments continued the policy of integration through government-controlled education right through the twentieth century. Though this gradual expansion of government education at all levels in the predominantly Muslim regions of the southern Philippines eventually encompassed the vast majority of Muslim children and enabled the academic and social success of many Muslim Filipinos, endemic poverty and isolation, as well as active resistance to what some saw as government efforts to Christianize Muslim Filipinos, ensured that the Muslim regions of the southern Philippines have exhibited some of the lowest levels of official educational achievement in the country to the current day.

The Survival and Resurgence of Islamic Education.

While Islamic education had been a feature of Muslim Filipino society ever since the arrival of Islam in the fourteenth century, and remained an important feature through the period of U.S. and Philippine control of Mindanao and Sulu, the early 1950s saw an Islamic revival among the new generation of Muslim leaders educated in secular Filipino schools. One consequence of this resurgence was the establishment of formal Islamic schools such as the Kamilol Islam Institute in Marawi City in 1954, which expanded to collegiate level in 1959 under the name Jamiatul Philippines al-Islamia. Muslim missionaries from the Middle East as well as Filipino Muslims educated in Islamic countries contributed to the growing network of madrasahs in the region throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This network provided educational alternatives for those Muslim Filipinos suspicious of government educational objectives and desirous of fostering their identity as Muslims rather than Filipinos. Thus, the continued development of two parallel educational systems—Islamic and governmental—with the contradictory aims of orienting Filipino Muslim identity either towards an essentialized Filipinism or a purified Islamism contributed to the ongoing division of Muslim and Christian Filipinos.

Beginning in the early 1970s, partly in response to the armed conflict between the government of the Philippines and the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front, the number of madrasahs mushroomed from a mere handful to more than a thousand schools. This rapid growth reflected both the efforts of local Muslims and the assistance of Muslim states undergoing their own Islamization movements in re-emphasizing madrasah education. By the late 1980s the Ministry of Muslim Affairs listed approximately 1,100 madrasahs throughout the country. However, if small, less formally organized schools were included, the total number could be in the neighborhood of two thousand. Moreover, roughly half of the madrasahs they reported on, as well as half of the total enrollment in the madrasah system, was concentrated in Lanao del Sur and Marawi City. The vast majority of these schools are small and serve mostly elementary-age children who attend in the afternoons or on weekends, after attending local government schools. In recent years more secondary-level Islamic schools have been established, often with the support of international benefactors. A handful, such as the Shariff Kabunsuan College in Cotabato City, have begun to offer some college-level coursework, but those Muslim Filipinos who aspire to higher Islamic learning typically go abroad to centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East. The fact that Islamic schooling survived and grew in the poorest regions of the country without government support, and often in the face of active attempts to marginalize it, is testament to its enduring importance in the lives of Muslim Filipinos.

Traditionally madrasahs taught the principles of Islam and the performance of its rites, the Qur’an, the life and teachings of the Prophet, Islamic jurisprudence and theology, Islamic ethics, and Arabic language. The legacy of the colonial dichotomization of Muslim Filipino society, however, meant that such traditional Islamic education represented a dead end in terms of social and economic mobility within the larger Philippine society. As a result of this, and inspired by the examples of Indonesian and Malaysian educational systems, a number of Muslim Filipino educators since the 1980s have called for the integration of government-approved curricula into the curricula of the madrasahs. While the government has offered limited support for such efforts, which the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is currently continuing, progress is hindered by constitutional restrictions that prevent direct support to religious schools, the material poverty of most madrasahs and their constituents, who can ill afford the trained teachers and materials necessary for the effort, and the fears of some Muslims that the integration effort might lead to increased government interference in Islamic education.

Private groups have had, in some respects, more success in this matter. In 1995, for instance, ulama involved in madrasah education in Lanao del Sur joined forces with the Ranao Council, an association of Western-educated Muslim academics at Mindanao State University, to create the Ibn Siena Integrated School in Marawi City, which offers the basic requirements of the public-school curriculum as well as the traditional Islamic curriculum of the madrasahs in order to resolve the dichotomy between government and Islamic education in the educational experience of Filipino Muslim children. Within five years of its establishment, the school had grown to an enrollment of two thousand students from kindergarten through high school and was making plans to expand to offer college-level courses. Moreover, its success had inspired the establishment of similar schools in the area.

It is plausible to read such efforts to “integrate” madrasahs as an educational effort designed to strengthen Islamic identity while eschewing what some see as the more fundamentalist tendencies of the traditional madrasah or of groups like the Jema’at al-Tabligh. Some proponents of the reform, in fact, see it as a mechanism that can enable Muslim Filipinos to participate more fully in Philippine society while retaining their religious identity. The madrasah schools, even the integrated madrasahs, encode a regime of truth quite different from that encoded in secular government schools or Catholic schools. Thus they represent, at the very least, a profound sense of dissatisfaction, if not outright rejection, among some Muslims, of the educational alternatives offered to Muslim Filipinos by mainstream society.

Islamization of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Greater autonomy in educational policy-making, made possible by the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the early 1990s, has led to new initiatives in the education of Muslim children throughout the region. One of these initiatives involves the Islamization of public education in the region. Though the geographic concentration of Muslims in western Mindanao and the growth in the numbers of Muslim schoolteachers since the 1970s has meant that many Muslim children attend majority-Muslim schools taught by Muslims and located in Muslim communities, the historical centralization of policy-making in Manila ensured that curricula did not reflect, and at times conflicted with, local values. Thus the new autonomy to design curricula that reflect local values represents a significant shift in policy. Muslim educators in the ARMM have seized upon that autonomy to infuse Islamic values into the public school curriculum, both in the formal values education program and in the curricula of other subjects. Efforts have been made to write and disseminate textbooks that depict Muslims and Islam favorably and accurately reflect Muslim values. To this end locally respected ulama have been engaged to help review, revise, and write new curricula and textbooks. Arabic language instruction has been expanded as well in order to enhance the opportunities of Muslim children to interact with the rest of the Muslim world as well as enable them to read the Qur’an, the traditional purpose of Arabic instruction in the madrasahs. The goal of these efforts is to make public schools more attractive to Muslim families and thus reduce the incentive to send children to madrasahs outside of government control and susceptible, in some instances, to radical Islamist influences.

A second initiative involves the so-called integration of the madrasahs. Ever since the introduction of government education under the American colonial regime, Islamic education, though respected and supported within the Filipino Muslim community, represented a social and economic dead end for Muslims as citizens of the Philippine state. The vast majority of madrasahs focused almost exclusively on religious instruction; thus, students who attended them did not receive instruction in those subjects that would enable them to attend universities or compete for positions in the larger society. Even those madrasahs that did offer secular instruction were often not recognized by the government or were of such poor quality that their graduates were equally handicapped. Thus graduates of the madrasahs, some of whom do go on to receive an advanced Islamic education in the Middle East, are employable only as poorly paid teachers in Islamic schools. This contributes to a sense of exclusion, frustration, and discrimination that has radicalized many. The aim of madrasah integration, therefore, is to encourage and support madrasahs to expand their curricula to include subject matter taught in the public schools. This would enable those integrated madrasahs to seek government recognition and thus be eligible for limited public support. It would also, theoretically, afford those students who choose a madrasah education a measure of social mobility through the acquisition of knowledge and skills necessary to transfer to public schools, attend government universities, or seek employment in the national economy. In effect, these reforms aim to integrate what for centuries have been two separate systems of education.

Realization of the potential inherent in these public-policy and private educational experiments has been severely hampered by endemic poverty and continued financial dependence on the central government. Over the last decade, however, officials of the Department of Education in the ARMM have begun to articulate policies responsive to the charge to teach Muslim culture, develop consciousness of one’s ethnic identity, and adopt an educational framework that is meaningful, relevant, and responsive to the aspirations of Muslim Filipinos. The general intent of these policies is the Islamization of education in the Autonomous Region. After a century of colonial and postcolonial government efforts to subordinate Islamic identity to national identity and to dismiss it as irrelevant to educational development in the southern Philippines, Muslim educational leaders in the ARMM have placed that identity at the heart of a program of educational reforms they think necessary for the social and economic development of Muslim Mindanao.


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