TUNISIA. The face of religious education in Tunisia is changing. With more and more Islamic schools opening across the country, an increasing number of families are placing their children in these institutions to better their knowledge and Arabic language skills.
Experts in religious education from the Arab world and Africa met in Tunisia recently to discuss the challenges of modern Islamic schooling. At the close of the workshop on 8 April, participants concluded there is a need for a more rational education methodology and to improve schooling for young children and online religious education.
The workshop, organised under an initiative from the High Institute of Religious Rules in co-operation with the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO), covered the realities of religious education in the Islamic world, methodology, training for religious educators, and ongoing programmes.
In his opening remarks, Lazhar Bououni, Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Technology, stressed the "need to develop religious education in the Islamic world and to explore its horizons by adopting methodologies and programmes based on adaptations between originality and modernity".
To this end, he said, states should "provide the necessary requirements for this development....qualifying the experts with the necessary skills and knowledge".
Tunisian authorities undertook a modern experiment in religious education more than seven years ago in which four ministries work together to recruit graduates into the sector from universities specialising in religion sciences.
This is unlike the old practice, where sheikhs in charge of Qur'anic schools would identify new personnel despite a lack of necessary scientific and pedagogical efficiency. This is in addition to the lack of necessary facilities.
According to sources in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the goal is "creating a generation filled with the values of moderation and tolerance, by teaching them the Islamic arts and making them memorise a significant part of the Holy Qur'an and hadiths, as well as developing the ability to listen".
The Ministry of Religious Affairs also undertook a training programme in conjunction with the Ministry of Employment, which will prepare a new generation of instructors with bachelor's degrees in Islamic sciences.
These instructors attend annual courses given by the High Institute of Sharia, where they take lessons in educational psychology, children's psychology and health, as well as other subjects that help instructors understand and stimulate children's development.
According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the number of Islamic schools has tripled since 1987, with a 400% increase in enrolment. Under the current plan, there will be 1,000 such institutions in Tunisia by year's end.
Islamic schools in Tunisia are also seeing resurgence in affluent areas, where they had fallen out of favour.
Mokhtarben Bechir, who runs a religious school, said in an interview for Magharebia that the number of students at his school is increasing daily.
"They are of different age groups," he said. "They desire to memorise the Qur'an in a correct way. In addition, some parents make their children receive religious education in order to improve their Arabic language skills."
Many successful schools are also now run by women. Manel, a graduate of Zeitouna University, said she has achieved good results, both financially and morally. She declined to discuss financial details, saying only, "Everything is fine. I'm completely satisfied with what I'm doing, which will benefit me both in this world and the afterlife."
Tahar Rgoubi welcomed many of the changes. "The time of the instructor who would whip us with his long stick is gone," he said. "Religious education has now entered into the era of computer."
One education official had reservations. Tawfik Mdini said the state should undertake a modern pedagogical approach to religious education, and provide job opportunities for graduates in Islamic studies.
"However, we have to be careful and we need to continuously monitor what's going on behind the walls of these schools so that they may not turn into incubators for producing intolerant people whom we don't need."