Muslim Education in Britain: Lessons From Colonial India

Robert Ivermee
SOAS, University of London 

In contemporary Britain, the subject of Muslim education provokes regular, often ill-informed, media and policy-level questions like “Do Muslim schools fuel extremism?” or “Are they compatible with British values?” Muslim institutions are widely assumed to provide education of inferior quality, and to reinforce social segregation and traditional gender roles. Public funding was first awarded to British Muslim schools in 1997. However, the number of Muslim state schools remains very small: in 2012, just 11 out of more than 6,500 state-maintained faith schools in the United Kingdom were Muslim. As an historian of British imperialism in India whose research focuses on colonial and Muslim education it is hard not to be struck by the parallels between later nineteenth century South Asia and Britain today.

In India, the British government ruled over a population of diverse races, ethnicities and creeds, including a large but ethnically heterogeneous aggregation of Muslims. Colonial officials fretted over the loyalty of their Muslim subjects and assessed the compatibility of Islam with Western-style government and social pluralism. Simultaneously, however, Muslim institutions were brought within the educational system established by the British, while Muslim pupils attended state-managed colleges and schools. Exchanges between Muslim and British parties on the subject of education in colonial India offer a set of lessons for policy-makers and a wider public concerned for (or about) Muslim education today.

Exclusivity and pluralism

Perhaps the main argument against the state funding of Muslim schools in contemporary Britain is that they are exclusivist, admitting only Muslim pupils and disseminating values and ideas incompatible with pluralist British society. This, critics suggest, damages Muslim children and society at large, encouraging ignorance of other cultures and long term social segregation. Recent research has begun to challenge these ideas, showing how British Muslim schools draw pupils from multi-ethnic backgrounds and diverse social and economic circumstances, while propagating interpretations of Islam sensitive to different schools of Muslim thought and wider social surroundings.

In colonial India, many British officials were similarly suspicious of Muslim schools. One described them as “nurseries of disaffection” fostering “religious and political hatred” while another, concerned for the security of the British Indian state, contended that “to whatever extent we encourage Muslim learning we raise up a class of persons who are, from feeling and principle, the despisers of our learning and the enemies of our rule”.

However, more astute observers knew otherwise, recognising that Muslim schools on the subcontinent had long admitted Hindu pupils, with higher class Muslims and Hindus together pursuing scientific and literary studies through the Persian and Urdu languages. When Muslim schools were incorporated into the colonial educational system in 1875, fears that they would exclude non-Muslims and propagate ideas divisive of Indian society were dispelled. The first institution under Muslim management to be awarded state funding was the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh.

Aligarh Muslim University, founded in 1875 as the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College (author’s collection)
Aligarh Muslim University, founded in 1875 as the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College (author’s collection)

Hindu pupils were welcomed into the college as boarders and day students and in higher level classes consistently outnumbered Muslims until 1889. At Aligarh, Lahore, and elsewhere British administrators came to admire Muslim institutions for their ability to combine an Islamic ethos, religious teaching and the instilling in students of a wider sense of social responsibility.

The quality of education

Contemporary observers commonly assert that the quality of education in British Muslim schools is poor, a conviction that persists in spite of recent evidence that Muslim institutions in many instances outperform other schools in their local authorities. In nineteenth-century India, similar arguments were made; observers elaborated at length upon the educational “backwardness” of their Muslim subjects, accentuated by poor quality Muslim teachers and curricula in Muslim schools focused on memorising the Qur’an rather than encouraging students to think. When the granting of state funding to a substantial number of small Muslim schools in rural Punjab was under consideration in the early 1880s, British administrators spent much time designing systems of examination and inspection to ensure that the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic would be effectively taught.

Buried within the pages of colonial records charting Muslim educational “backwardness,” however, are examples of striking success stories for Muslim colleges and schools. The Anjuman-i-Islam of Bombay established a school in 1874 that within several years was preparing students to sit examinations for degrees awarded by the University of Bombay.

Anjuman-i-Islam school, Bombay, founded 1874 (author’s collection)
Anjuman-i-Islam school, Bombay, founded 1874 (author’s collection)

The Mahomedan Anglo-Arabic School at Patna flourished as an institution combining Islamic education with a European-style scientific and literary course. Increasingly, British educationalists lauded Muslim schools for their instilling in students of moral and ethical values, contrasting them favourably with state-managed institutions in which the teaching of religious subjects was banned. Muslim schools, they recognised, provided a holistic education focused on more than intellectual development alone.

The education of girls

During the first half of the nineteenth century British officials in India paid very little attention to the education of girls. In part for fear of offending religious and social sensibilities, and no doubt because of the scarcity of Indian women in the public domain, efforts to establish colonial schools for the instruction of female pupils hardly got off the ground; the instruction of Muslim women during this period was largely a domestic and familial concern.

In the establishment of schools for Muslim girls later in the century, middle class and predominately urban Muslim elites played the pivotal role. From the early 1880s organisations such as the Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam of Lahore and Anjuman-i-Islam of Bombay established girls’ schools; colleges for female students followed at Lucknow and Aligarh, while the semi-independent Muslim state of Hyderabad adopted the advance of female education as one of its goals. Associations of Muslim women were later formed to carry on this work.

The curricula of Muslim girls’ schools were undoubtedly a product of their time. Instruction was offered in house-keeping and maternal responsibilities, alongside reading and writing, more often confirming than challenging traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, inroads were made into the instruction of Muslim women: the first graduation of a Muslim woman from the University of Calcutta took place in 1922.

To recall these pioneering efforts is important today, at a time when the value placed on female education in British Muslim communities is often called into question. Contemporary research suggests that female Muslim pupils in Britain perform far better when educated in Muslim faith schools than secular state ones. Just as in India at the turn of twentieth century, educational progress appears to depend on the balancing of state and community, secular and religious, concerns.

Statutory and actual provision

Of course, not all Muslims in Britain today favour the instruction of their children in distinctly Muslim schools or argue for an increase in the number of state-funded Muslim institutions. Some suggest that the accommodation of particular Muslim requirements in community or other faith schools is a better policy to pursue, to counter misperceptions and encourage greater understanding both within and about British Muslim communities. For others, however, there are specific Muslim educational requirements that only Muslim schools can meet, including the teaching of religion from a committed faith perspective and the integration of Islam with the wider life of the school.

In debates over the award of state funding to Muslim and Hindu schools in colonial India, the distinction between statutory equality and equality of provision that policy-makers in Britain must now consider was at the fore.

As in nineteenth-century England, government funding in India was from 1854 theoretically available to a school under the management of any persons so long as a proportion of the school’s budget was raised by voluntary subscription and “secular” subjects were taught to the required standard. A school receiving a public grant might offer religious instruction alongside its secular course but the teaching of religious subjects would not be examined, assessed or funded by the state. For twenty years after the introduction of this funding system, termed “grants-in-aid”, the gap between law and administrative practice was vast: almost all state money was awarded to European-led Christian missionary organisations, on the grounds that only schools under their management applied or qualified for state aid.

Though legally correct, the claim of the British Indian government to religious “neutrality” in educational matters was little more than a smokescreen. Between the years 1875 and 1900 rules governing the award of grants-in-aid were relaxed and an increasing number of schools under Indian management began to receive state funds. The success of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, for instance, inspired similar smaller Muslim initiatives to establish schools and colleges, often with government support. By the turn of the twentieth century hundreds of elementary Muslim schools and a select number of higher level institutions received state aid. The motivations behind this shift in official policy were complex but included the growing recognition that, while reducing the burden on public revenues, Muslim schools and colleges could offer boys and increasingly girls living in a pluralist society an education matching or exceeding that found in institutions under direct government control.

The history of education in colonial India highlights that the number of state-funded Muslim schools must be increased to strengthen a British social order that is inclusionary and harmonious, and that also celebrates difference. The legal possibility of granting state funding to schools of all faiths and denominations, in place now for more than fifteen years, must be accompanied by a resolve to distribute public funding equally to representatives of all religious communities and none.

Ivermee bookDr Robert Ivermee completed his doctorate in the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kent. He works at SOAS, University of London. His first book, Secularism, Islam and Education in India, 1830-1910, will be published in Pickering & Chatto’s Empires in Perspective series in spring 2015. Follow him on Twitter @RobertIvermee.

2 thoughts on “Muslim Education in Britain: Lessons From Colonial India

  1. An interesting article. In the mid 19th century in India even those in charge of British missionary schools sometimes had to work hard to wrest funds from state governments. When my ancestors were educated at the Madras Asylum for Boys the school governor, tried to persuade the state governor at Fort St George to release a few more rupees so that six disabled pupils, without hope of obtaining work, could be kept on for a while. He was ordered to submit a full report of all the school’s pupils, more than 200, giving personal and educational details of each. He did so – but still the government held out. Eventually the Asylum created its own income by taking on printing jobs and it became the Madras Press.

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