A recent BBC London News investigation has shown that a number of schools have allowed Muslim children to be withdrawn from music lessons by their parents. This is in spite of the fact that the subject is a compulsory part of the national curriculum. Cue a flurry of media reports on the issue, clarifying that parents are only legally permitted to withdraw children from sex and religious education. It is important to assess in our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural educational institutions, what unfairly makes music an exception to this rule and why this needs reconsideration.
This concern, as presented by various national newspapers, was sparked by a primary Muslim-populated south London school. Eileen Ross, head of Herbert Morrison Primary School in Lambeth, where almost a third of children come from mainly Somali Muslim families, said: “There’s been about 18 or 22 children withdrawn from certain sessions, out of music class, but at the moment I just have one child who is withdrawn continually from the music curriculum,” she said. “It’s not part of their belief, they feel it detracts from their faith.” Although Herbert Morrison Primary School is an exception to the general rule, one doesn’t need to look far to find qualms about settling religion in the classroom.
The Muslim Council of Britain in turn stated that 10% of Muslims, an obvious minority, would subscribe to the view that music is haraam (forbidden). While there is a plethora of scholarly opinions on this issue, it is extremely telling that Dr Diana Harris, author of the book Music Education and Muslims, told the BBC: “Most of them really didn’t know why they were withdrawing their children. The majority of them were doing it because they had just learned that it wasn’t acceptable and one of the sources giving out that feeling was the Imams, particularly Imams who had come over from Pakistan, didn’t really speak English, and felt threatened. I think they were adhering to very strict lines about what was acceptable.” These parents most probably thought they were doing ‘the right thing’ by removing their children from music lessons, not realising the wider implications for the education of minority communities in Britain.
British Muslims for Secular Democracy released a guidance booklet in February 2010 for teachers, to help them address cultural and religious issues affecting Muslim pupils. We assert that creativity is considered to be a divine blessing in Islam, and while conservative Muslim scholars prohibit the use of instruments with the exception of basic percussion, it is important to remember that there is no specific Qu’ranic proscription of music. There are many scholars who state that as long as the songs in question do not promote obscenity or immorality, music is not outlawed in Islam.
Of course, it is not just educators who need to equip themselves with the skills to teach in a multi-faith environment. Muslim students and their parents also have a responsibility to learn how to adapt to them. And with British schools and teachers under increasing scrutiny, teachers may often be inclined to acquiesce to every cultural or religious demand from pupils’ families. However, this is not a satisfactory solution, particularly when certain parents do not really know why they are making the demand in question.
While practices and beliefs which define groups and individuals are indeed precious, they cannot become the sole basis for educational policies. This approach will increase resentment in the future. Cultures are continually evolving and schools need to reflect this by being flexible enough to treat all pupils equally. This, in fact, is the real test of commitment to tolerance and understanding.
It is crucial that our children are raised as well-informed individuals with open minds, and it is equally important that they make the effort to adapt to their society and their school environment. The true meaning of multi-culturalism is people living side by side under one shared identity, whilst proudly holding on to their own so that nobody feels resentment or a lack of belonging. With this vision we can fight back against fringe groups that insist that Muslims and Islam are “incompatible” with Western democracy, and it starts with the education of children. By encouraging all students – including Muslim students – to view each other as equals, we can take steps to correct the disengagement that has been felt by many British Muslims for far too long.
Tehmina Kazi took is Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.