After starting the day with prayers and songs in honor of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, the students at the Madrasah al-Irsyad al-Islamiah in Singapore turned to the secular. An all-girls chemistry class grappled with compounds and acids, while other students focused on English, math and other subjects from the national curriculum.
Teachers exhorted their students to ask questions. Some, true to the school's embrace of new technology, gauged their students' comprehension with individual polling devices.
“It's like American Idol,“ said Razak Mohamed Lazim, the head of al-Irsyad, which means “rightly guided.”
A reference to the reality TV program in relation to an Islamic school may come as a surprise. But Singapore's Muslim leaders see al-Irsyad, with its strict balance between religious and secular studies, as the future of Islamic education, not only in Singapore but elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Two madrasah in Indonesia have adopted al-Irsyad's curriculum and management, attracted to what they say is a progressive model of Islamic education in tune with the modern world. For them, al-Irsyad is the counterpoint to many traditional madrasah that emphasize religious studies at the expense of everything else. Instead of preaching radicalism, the school's in-house textbooks praise globalization and international organizations like the UN.
Leaders in Islamic education here rue the fact that, in much of the West, madrasah everywhere have been broad-brushed as militant hotbeds where students spend days learning the Koran by heart. Still, they were relieved that no terrorism suspect in the region in recent years was a product of Singapore's madrasah, though some suspects were linked to madrasah in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. That association deepened a long-running debate over the nature of Islamic education.
“The Muslim world in general is struggling with its Islamic education,” Razak said, adding that Islamic schools had failed to adapt to the modern world. “In many cases, it's also the challenge the Muslim world is facing. We are not addressing the needs of Islam as a faith that has to be alive, interacting with other communities and other religions.”
In Indonesia, most Islamic schools still pay little attention to secular subjects, believing that religious studies are enough, said Indri Rini Andriani, a former computer programmer who is the principal of al-Irsyad Satya Islamic School, one of the Indonesian schools that model themselves on the school here.
“They feel that conventional education is best for the children, while some of us feel that we have to adjust with advances in technology and what’s going on in the world,” Indri said.
Here, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, a statutory board that advises the government on Muslim affairs, gave al-Irsyad a central spot in its new Islamic center. Long the top academic performer among the country’s six madrasah, al-Irsyad was chosen to be in the center as “a showcase,” said Razak, who is also an official at the religious council.
The school's 900 primary and secondary-level students follow the national curriculum of the country's public schools while also taking religious instruction. To accommodate both, the school day is three hours longer than at the mainstream schools.
Mohamed Muneer, 32, a chemistry teacher, said most of his former students had gone on to junior colleges or polytechnic schools, while some top students attended the National University of Singapore.