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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January 2004, 09:47 GMT
Inside Britain's Islamic colleges
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Inside the college
The college has 200 students
What goes on in Islamic colleges - and why are they so worried about how they are portrayed?

At the College for Islamic Education and Guidance in Blackburn, it's business as usual. In the main hall, the children are hard at work. They sit on the carpet as the burble of their voices reciting the Koran fills the space.

Welcome to the Jamiatul-Ilm Wal-Huda - perhaps you will recognise it from television coverage late last year.

It was this college that was entered by anti-terrorism police in November following the arrest of one of its students on suspicion of terrorist offences. The search of a dormitory shocked the community and forced the college's governors to publicly defend their way of life and education.

But what happens inside a traditional Islamic college? The BBC has been allowed access to the teachers and students at Blackburn and the larger seminary in nearby Bury, the oldest in the UK.

Life inside Islamic colleges - a guided tour

Islamic colleges in the UK are also known as madrassas or darul uloom (both essentially meaning seminary), depending on the heritage of their patrons.

The first British darul uloom, based on a model found throughout the Islamic world, opened in Bury in 1973.

It set out to provide a high quality education based on Islamic principles - and produce imams - leaders of prayer - as future leaders of the faith in the UK's mosques.

Its founder, Sheikh Yusuf Motala, remains a key member in the movement which has expanded beyond just educating boys (the schools are single sex).

In an Islamic college, the religious component is essential, creating institutions which are first and foremost religious seminaries. Students can join at 12-years-old and can board. Others start in their late teens after finishing ordinary school.

The first half of the day is spent on Islamic studies, from memorising the Koran to studying its legal system. For the younger students, the second half of the day is spent studying for GCSEs or A-levels.

International effect

In Pakistan, madrassas have faced accusations of a narrow education. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others, says they are a primary source of militant Islamists.

If David Blunkett said 10 years ago that Muslims need to integrate more, he may have had a point
Teacher, Blackburn college

This in turn feeds into a fear of guilt by association in the UK, not least because of the heightened sense of terrorist alert in the media and government.

Ismail Amla, spokesman for Bury's college, says the innuendo and negative stereotypes run deep.

"Parents are facing these questions in the home from their own children," he says. "These are questions about their own heritage and faith."

Which brings us to the doors of the colleges. Inside, our guide is Dr Mahmood Chandia, a lecturer at two universities and the first graduate of the Bury college to gain a PhD.

Students who go through the full six years of Islamic education are encouraged to get into higher education or find practical ways to put their faith into action, he says.

"The ethos of the school is character building. When the students study Islamic history and tradition, they are not just learning about the Koran," he says. "The teachers are seeking to develop them as individuals who can interact with wider society."

An imam needs to know how to resolve everyday issues that confront anyone living in Britain
Dr Mahmood Chandia
Blackburn's quietly-spoken principal, Sheikh Abdul Samad, says the approach is "manners and morality".

Students should leave the college with an experience of Islam that informs every decision they make, he explains. And if they properly understand their faith, it means they are committed to improving society.

But do students suffer because only half their day is spent on secular education?

The national league table suggests otherwise. The results at Blackburn's Jamiatul-Ilm Wal-Huda were just above the national average and far better than nearby schools.

At Bury, GCSE passes fell last year, but the trend remains upwards. Its A and AS Level results were substantially better than the national average.

So what do they make of Home Secretary David Blunkett's comments on integration and the language spoken by minority communities?

"He's 15 years out of date," says one of Sheikh Samad's young teachers at Blackburn. "He was so ill-briefed he frankly does not have a clue of what is happening at a local level.

"He says that Muslims need to take greater responsibility to integrate. If he said it 10 years ago, he may have had a point but not now."

Tackling youth problems

At both Bury and Blackburn there is a generation of young teachers, all of whom were trained imams who had worked in mosques. English is their first language and they effortlessly move back and forth into Urdu or Arabic when required for faith-based lessons.

Furthermore, they say the young men becoming imams through the colleges are better placed to tackle ingrained problems of social exclusion in Muslim communities.

One teacher explained how as an imam in a mosque he had found imams from the first immigrant generation asking him for advice on youth problems such as drugs counselling.

Another said he had found older members of the community seeking advice on sensitive matters they would never raise with elder leaders.

"The function of the imam is to speak about the lived experience of being Muslim," says Dr Chandia.

"And this means that you need to know about how to resolve some of the everyday issues that confront anyone living in Britain."


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