Why my madrassa-educated father is not a fanatic

My Sudanese father, now in his mid-80s, grew up without access to public education. The ruling British authority hadn't yet built a public school near Argo, his hometown on the Nile River in Northern Sudan, south of the border with Egypt. They did build one there later, however, and I became the first in my Bedouin tribe to receive a formal education, which eventually lead to a graduate degree in America.

By Mohammad Ali Salih (First Person)

Published: Sun 6 Jul 2008, 10:36 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

Still, my father became the first in the tribe to learn basic reading and writing, thanks to a madrassa (a religious Islamic school) in the nearby Wadi Haj village.

In spite of his tribe's objection, he was driven by a desire to escape a life of herding camels and renting them out for local transportation. And so, at the end of each day, he would take the three-mile trip by donkey from the tribe's camp to the village madrasa for a few hours of study, returning shortly before midnight.

A hospitable family near the madrassa noticed his dedication and sacrifice and offered him a bed whenever classes ran late. Gradually, he moved away from Bedouin straw huts and well water and "moved up" to the mud houses and Nile water in the neighbouring village. His tribe objected once again when he married one of the family's daughters (who later became my mother). They boycotted the marriage ceremony, telling him he shouldn't marry outside the tribe.

Similar to the images we may have of madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where students dressed in white clothing squat on the ground in rows and read aloud from the Holy Qur'an, moving their heads up and down in unison, my father's schooling was all about the Qur'an.

The Qur'an taught him how to read and write. It taught him classical Arabic, as well as the history of past prophets. Most importantly, it was his ethical guide, teaching him integrity, responsibility and hard work.

The madrassa was also a social centre. Married couples and newborn babies received blessings from the village sheikh. And when a villager died, mourners stayed in the madrassa, sleeping and eating, sometimes for 40 days.

Thanks to the madrassa, my father grew up to become a village shaman, or spiritual doctor, and a Qur'anic scholar who would issue local fatwas, or religious legal opinions.

I remember villagers coming to our house to complain of headaches. My father would take them to a quiet place and place his right hand over their head, whispering verses from the Qur'an.

If a person complained of a stomachache, my father would stack half a dozen white china plates, and using an organic black ink, write Quranic verses on them. The patient would pour water in each plate to dissolve the writings and then drink the black solution.

Make no mistake about it, my father's madrassa education was very conservative. It taught him that people were divided into Muslims and non-Muslims. That God's messages to Jesus, Moses and other Biblical prophets were recognised, but that His message to Muhammad, peace be upon him, superseded them all.

And that the best Muslims were those who sacrificed with their lives against injustice, calling that the "top jihad."

But while the madrassa made my father religious, it didn't turn him into a fanatic.

He was able to separate the Christian heritage of our British rulers from their achievements, eagerly enrolling me and my 12 siblings in the newly constructed British school. He appreciated the health clinic they built, their post office with Morse telegraph, and their ships carrying people and goods up and down the Nile.

He, like the rest of us, was fascinated by the power embodied in the British local administrator. In fact, he even nicknamed me "Greenfield", after a local British administrator.

Now, half a century later, my father accepts — and is proud — that I am living among Americans, whom he knows are free and highly advanced. At the same time, he is very angry with America because of what he strongly believes is its global war against Islam and Muslims.

Mirroring his attitude towards the British, he thinks building schools and hospitals is no excuse for America to occupy Muslim countries. And that Muslims in those countries have the right to declare a war against the intruders, driven — like him — by both nationalism and religion. I envy his strength, conviction and serenity.

Today, cell phones have reached my father's village. A feeling of calmness surrounds me when I hear, from 6,000 miles away, the faint voice of a man praying for me at the end of each conversation: "May God protect you; may God guide you; may God defeat your enemies."

Mohammad Ali Salih is the Washington correspondent for the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service

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