From The Daily Mail U.K.
Inside the Muslim Eton: 20 hour days starting at 3.45am with the aim of producing Muslim elite of leaders
By Edna Fernandes
Last updated at 10:53 AM on 20th June 2010
The clock strikes 11am and boys spill out of classrooms into the corridor to move on to their next lesson.
There is no noise and no jostling. Instead they walk in an orderly manner, heads bowed respectfully and eyes downcast to avoid my gaze. The boys, all aged between 13 and 19, are dressed in ankle-length white salwar kameez and white skullcaps.
Their feet are bare. For this is no ordinary school. This is Darul Uloom, a Muslim madrassa or religious school, set in the pretty Kent village of Chislehurst. It is one of 166 Muslim schools in Britain today.
Of those, 26 are Darul Ulooms, religious seminaries rooted in the Islamic orthodoxy of sharia. According to an ICM poll, almost half of British Muslims wish to send their children to Muslim-only schools.
‘Our parents represent the cross-section of British Muslim society,’ the mufti – an Islamic scholar – of one leading school in northern England told me. These parents include teachers, doctors and shopkeepers.
Secretive and protective, Darul Uloom schools have been operating in Britain for 25 years. But since 9/11 they have faced closer scrutiny by police who fear they may be academies of radicalism – something the headmasters deny.
Now, for the first time, a Darul Uloom has opened its doors to a British newspaper and allowed The Mail on Sunday exclusive access. Most Britons may have never heard of such schools. But their significance in the Islamic world is paramount and it is shaping young Muslims in Britain today.
Islamic experts regard Darul Uloom as the second most important Islamic academic institution in the world after Cairo’s Al Azhar university. The schools aim to create new leaders of the Islamic world.
In terms of its significance, Darul Uloom is no less than the Eton of Islam. The first Darul Uloom or ‘House of Knowledge’ was set up in Deoband, northern India, in 1866.
Nine years after the Indian Mutiny, when Muslims and Hindus lost their first battle for independence against British rulers, a group of Islamic leaders retreated to the Indian village to build a school that would eventually become a global movement in the Muslim world.
A haven of Islamic purity where they could live unpolluted by other faiths. Today Darul Uloom is more than just a school. It is a global school of thought based on Deobandi Sunni Islam.
Its purpose is to see a return to the ways of the Prophet Mohammed, to when Islam was born in the 7th Century AD.
Darul Uloom’s brand of Islam has spread from India, across Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa and into Britain’s educational establishment. Its alumni are some of the most important and influential Muslim leaders in the world: imams and scholars who help shape Muslim opinion.
Yet some in this movement are anti-Western and against integration with other cultures, which they view as anti-Islamic. One such former student is Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who attended a Deobandi school on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, known as the ‘university of jihad’.
In April 2001, Mullah Omar addressed a conference in Pakistan and paid tribute to the founding madrassa in India. Faced with a backlash, Darul Uloom in India issued a fatwa condemning terrorism and violence. But by now, the pupil had outgrown the teacher.
Deobandi Islam had spread and, in some cases, fused with a new violent political ideology. It is a long way from the wind-swept wilds of Peshawar to leafy Chislehurst.
But inside the Kent-based school, the religious ideology remains, even if the rhetoric is moderate by comparison.
I had come to spend the day at the Eton of Islam. Why the comparison?
Because Darul Uloom is about creating an Islamic elite who will rule the Muslim world. It is about offering a classical education and its very name inspires awe among the Muslim community.
On entering the school, I was instructed to remove my shoes and cover my head with a scarf before being led to a bare room overlooking the playing fields.
The boys are allowed to play football and cricket in their spare time but such encouragement of sport is unusual – more hardline schools frown upon games.
The headmaster, Mufti Mustafa, is in his 60s, and has a grey beard and penetrating eyes. He greets me with hands joined together in a salaam.
It was Mufti Mustafa who first had the dream of setting up the school in London 20 years ago. He bought his first premises in Forest Gate, East London, in 1990 before moving to the current site in 1993.
His was the second Darul Uloom in Britain – the first was in Bury, Greater Manchester. The Chislehurst site used to be an Army barracks. When the MoD decided to sell, the Mufti struck a deal, buying the complex for £2.7 million.
‘As I wrote the cheque and counted off the zero, zero, zero, zero, my friend said to me “Where will the money come from to run our school?” I told him, “The money will come from Allah.” And so it has been.’
The Muslim community raised the money and today 155 boys board there, although there are plans to raise that number to 225. The school charges £2,400 a year, which covers tuition fees, books and meals.
It is extraordinarily good value when compared with Farringtons School, a mixed-sex independent boarding school nearby, where annual fees are £17,000. So where does the money come from, I ask.
‘Everywhere. Britain, overseas. We have donations from around the world, just as our students come from around the world – Britain, America, Pakistan, India, Africa, Saudi.’
One businessman in the Midlands even remortgaged his house to give the school £150,000. Unlike other schools in Britain, Darul Uloom offers a classical Islamic education in the mornings and National Curriculum subjects in the afternoons.
The choice of curriculum subjects available is tailored to comply with sharia obligations. ‘Our aim to is educate our students in a sharia environment,’ said Mufti Mustafa.
‘We teach in the same way as the Deoband madrassa in India, except here we teach the children for GCSEs and A-Levels as well. The English education system doesn’t offer this combination.’
The aim of this private school, however, is not to groom students for British universities and then enter mainstream professions. It is for students to devote their lives to Islam by becoming scholars, imams and religious leaders.
However, Saiyed Mahmood, an adviser to the school and a community liaison officer who showed me around the building, conceded that a number of pupils are drawn to jobs in IT or engineering.
‘More important than exams is the learning of the Koran, the Hadith [ways of the Prophet] and Islamic law,’ said Mufti Mustafa. ‘It is the obligation of every Muslim to live according to sharia.
‘As Muslims, we’re not interested in an education that is simply about getting a job. We’re not on Earth for this reason. We live on this Earth merely with a view to the next life.’
Preparing the boys for the afterlife means having a gruelling timetable in this one. What struck me on entering the school was the discipline. The boys work long hours, abstain from trivial pleasures, they are polite and dedicated to their work.
The boys display monastic-like control. Hard work is a given. I met one young boy of about 13 who had already memorised the entire Koran. I saw another cleaning the library carpet during his break.
The day starts at 3.45am when students attend the first of five daily prayer sessions. They return to their dormitories at 4.30am and rest. Breakfast is served at 7.30am and lessons begin at 8am.
Throughout the morning, the boys learn how to read, write and speak Arabic. They also study Islamic jurisprudence or Fiqh, Tafseer (the translation of the Koran), Hadith and memorise the Koran.
Lunch at 12.30pm is taken in the assembly hall. Pupils sit cross- legged on the floor, with food served on a white cloth on the ground. I was not permitted to join the students for lunch because women are not allowed.
Instead, I was served lunch in a room alone, with the door closed. The head and his teachers ate separately in the next room. But lunch was very good: chicken curry, chickpea rice and chips – a rare example of Muslim and British fusion.
After prayers, lessons in National Curriculum subjects begin at 1.30pm until 4.30pm.
The subjects deemed acceptable include English, science, IT, history, geography and art. Exactly what periods of history they study are unclear and I was not permitted to ask for details.
Music, drama and modern foreign languages are banned and deemed un-Islamic. In some cases, Shakespeare is seen as a source of evil because his plays deal with issues such as love, revenge, adultery, murder and betrayal.
However, the school vigorously encourages IT skills and study of sciences, and it plans to raise millions to build a new science block in the future.
Recreation time lasts until 7pm but this is a group of boys for whom the iPod, Facebook, mobile phones and Harry Potter novels are banned, along with surfing internet sites other than those approved by imams.
Adviser Saiyed Mahmood explained: ‘Music is haram (forbidden) for the children. There are things in it that can cause children to go haywire. It is not permitted. As for Facebook, there one can find the good, the bad and the filthy. Our job is to teach the boys morality.’
After more prayers, students revise and do homework until 9pm when dinner is served. Final prayers are at 10.30pm and bedtime is 11pm. The boys’ day has lasted almost 20 hours. I was given a guided tour of the school.
There are classrooms on either side of the main corridor, while a larger room is used as a mosque. It is painted green, and light pours in through huge windows to create a feeling of serenity. The classrooms on one side of the corridor contain desks, chairs, computers, whiteboards and overhead projectors.
These are where the students study National Curriculum subjects in the afternoon. Those on the other side of the corridor contain only low-level reading lecterns. These classrooms are used for Islamic studies.
The school literally has the two sides of learning – British and Islamic – segregated. Walls in the corridor are lined with posters telling students how to behave by listing the ‘aadaab’, or etiquette, for various situations.
For example, the aadaab for treatment of parents, leaders and elders says: ‘Never show disrespect. Obey all lawful things, be humble, polite and do not raise the voice.’ Another circular outlines a three-strikes policy for children who disobey.
If any child gets three ‘bad lives’ over the course of a fortnight, they face detention at the weekend. If a boy’s room is unclean, or he is absent from lessons or prayers, that is three lives. Scrutiny of madrassas intensified after the September 11 attacks.
Mufti Mustafa said the British media portrayed Islam as a religion of violence and terror and stressed that his school’s message offered the truth about Islam – a message of tolerance and peace.
Indeed his school instils the kind of old-fashioned discipline and respect for elders of which many British headteachers would be proud in an age of Asbos and classroom violence.
The code of behaviour here is exemplary. Unlike some other Darul Uloom schools, the Mufti at Chislehurst has worked hard to connect with the local community, inviting locals to tea and setting up competitions where non-Muslim children from other schools are invited to send in projects on Islam.
The winners are awarded prizes at a special ceremony held once a year. He showed me some of the competition entries – beautiful pieces of work, lovingly created and showing a genuine interest in the faith and its people.
None of the winning entries discuss issues such as sharia’s rulings on capital punishment or women’s rights. ‘Our Koran teaches us to respect the earlier prophets and the earlier revelations of the Bible and Torah,’ he told me. ‘If you do not believe in Jesus or Moses, you cannot be a true Muslim.’
Indeed, posters depict the 25 prophets, including both Christian and Jewish names as well as Mohammed.
And Darul Uloom in India emphasises the importance of religious tolerance, a message of Islam that has been lost along the line. But tolerance can be a one-way street.
While children from local state schools are invited to learn about Islam, Darul Uloom pupils would not be permitted to enter a church or synagogue, as it would be seen as haram. I asked the Mufti why many thought these schools were linked to a fundamentalism among young British Muslims.
He said while Deobandi Muslims believed in the sharia way, they also understood it could not be adopted by a country that is not an Islamic state. As for extremism, he replied: ‘We’re not here for that reason. Jihad. We don’t get involved in politics.
‘Two officers from the Metropolitan Police came here to find out my views on Iraq and I said to them, “Look. This is a school. We have no interest in politics, we’re interested in education. What goes on outside, we don’t know.” ’
‘What did they say?’
‘They said to me, “What about student politics?”
‘I told them the same answer I’m telling you. My boys aren’t interested in Afghanistan or Iraq.
‘We live here surrounded by non-Muslims. Our duty is to explain our way of life. That’s our mission.’
After the Mufti left the room, I met a number of hand-picked interviewees.
One pupil, Hasan, 16, was careful to give formulaic replies. ‘We’re here to acquire knowledge of our religion, to teach Islam to the community and benefit the world,’ he told me several times.
But Muhammad Hussain, who teaches GCSE Arabic at the school, was more illuminating. He explained why he came to the school: ‘I wanted to be a better Muslim. I can do that here rather than in a state school.’
What about fears of radicalism? He admitted young Muslims were politically aware and the subject came up regularly: ‘Students are not blind to what some of these radicals are preaching. They claim this is true Islam. We have to counter
Saiyed Mahmood claimed that Muslims were now all viewed as terrorists or fanatics. The only way to change minds was through engagement.
‘I was walking through Chislehurst the other day and two boys shouted, “Oi, are you Bin Laden?” I said, “Yes”. Then they laughed, came over and started to chat. In society, everyone is different.
‘Some are doctors, some are geniuses and a tiny minority are fanatics. It’s the same with our community.’
The school in Chislehurst is one of the more benign in the Darul Uloom family. But there is evidence that others are less so.
In 2009, think-tank Civitas conducted the first major analysis of Islamic schools in Britain. Report author Dr Denis MacEoin said that younger British Muslims were more hardline than their elders, partly because such schools encouraged a separatist mentality.
‘These schools are about producing more imams, more muftis. Their teaching is based on a 17th Century system. Very few secular subjects are taught and the aim is to prepare them not for life in the wider world, but to give them an existence inside the Muslim world.’
His research showed many of the Darul Uloom schools in Britain resisted cultural integration. Instead, sharia values on issues such as women’s rights, homosexuality, segregation of men and women, and capital punishment were being inculcated in children from a young age.
‘It means no child attending a Muslim school of this kind will ever visit a gallery, attend a concert of classical or non-classical music, pass an evening mesmerised by Romeo and Juliet performed by the National Ballet. No Muslim girl will become a ballerina,’ wrote Dr MacEoin.
I looked up a couple of the Darul Uloom alumni to see where they have ended up. One of Chislehurst’s finest scholars now runs a website called MuftiSays.com, which he describes as ‘one of the fruits of Darul Uloom’. Darul Uloom teachers are cited on the site for their support.
The advice given is far from the tolerant ethos espoused by Mufti Mustafa. One Muslim asked if it would be acceptable to attend a wedding in a church, synagogue or temple. ‘Such places are the gathering places of devils,’ was the answer.
In another exchange, a student of aeronautical engineering asked if it would be OK to work for a Western defence company to ‘gain knowledge that would be useful for the defence needs of the Ummah’.
The answer from MuftiSays was: ‘This is permissible.’
These are not the most extreme views given by Deobandi alumni. The leading voice in Britain is Riyadh ul Haq, a graduate of the Darul Uloom school in Bury. Aged 36, ul Haq is seen as the dominant influence on Deobandi mosques in Britain, which account for 600 of Britain’s 1,400 mosques.
His sermons are often inflammatory. On Jews, he has said: ‘They’re all the same. They’ve monopolised everything: the Holocaust, God, money, interest, usury, the world economy, the media, political institutions . . . they monopolised tyranny and oppression as well. And injustice.’
And on integrating in Britain he has said: ‘We are in a very dangerous position here. We live among the kuffar [unbelievers] . . . And anyone who thinks that they can work with the kuffar, associate with them, mix with them, stand and sit with them, move among them and not be affected, is in denial and is a liar to himself.’
Ul Haq is not only the leading voice of Deobandi in Britain, he is invited around the world to speak, where he openly attacks British culture, Jews, Christians and homosexuals.
He is an example of the most extreme face of the Darul Uloom culture, his voice louder than the clerics in India who have now issued their fatwa against terrorism and a plea for tolerance.
Critics of the schools warn that it is time for the Government to wake up to the reality of what goes on in the world of the madrassas in Britain, where our way of life is deemed incompatible with that of the orthodox Muslim.
Dr MacEoin, himself an Arabic scholar, argues that the schools watchdog Ofsted often visits such schools and gives them glowing reports, focusing merely on their academic results and not the ethos of separatism.
‘Again and again we are finding youngsters are becoming more hard-line than their parents,’ he said. ‘It’s the opposite of what we expect as these boys are British-born and bred.
‘Part of the answer lies with these schools. Deobandi is geared up to shape the Muslim leadership of tomorrow. That’s why this matters.’
Chislehurst’s Darul Uloom is interacting with the local community and working hard to build bridges. Its reputation with locals is exemplary, say Bromley police, while Ofsted ranked it as a ‘good school with some aspects outstanding’.
And these religious schools are now part of the fabric of Britain’s education system. There is much to admire in the more moderate examples: the instilling of respect, discipline and dedication to scholarship.
But the risk lies in allowing such schools to become islands of Islam within Britain. To avoid tomorrow’s generation of Muslims retreating into a separate world, greater integration and a respect for core British values is key.
In 2005, I spent a week at the founding madrassa in India. Ironically, I found it more open, less restricted and more tolerant than some of the sister schools in Britain. While staying at their campus, I was given a copy of the history of Darul Uloom.
Inside was a quote dating from 1866, from the founder of the Darul Uloom movement, Qasim al-Ulum, who received a vision from Allah in a dream to set up a school where Muslims could learn, untainted by other faiths.
‘I am standing on the roof of the Noble House of Allah and canals are flowing from the fingers of my hands and feet and are expanding in all directions of the world,’ he said of the dream.
That 150-year-old dream is now a reality in Britain. Darul Uloom is controlling the way many British Muslim children think. It is shaping their future relations with the rest of British society.
Edna Fernandes is the author of Holy Warriors: A Journey Into The Heart Of Indian Fundamentalism (Portobello Books).