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Are students of I.R.E., Luganda, Fine Art less intelligent?


This question, and various versions of its kind, is not new. In some contexts it pits the social sciences against the natural and physical sciences. It will be recalled that 19th Century Europe widely despised sociology, anthropology and other forms of social sciences as claims that lacked supporting evidence and couldn’t be verified.

These ‘pseudosciences’, it was said, based their conclusions on guesswork, anecdotes and superficial interpretations without thorough experimentation. Their predictions could only be superstitious. In Uganda, this perception has influenced President Museveni’s government to stop sponsoring the humanities at university in favour of programmes that are “critical to national development”, that is to say, the natural sciences.

In other contexts the question about which branch of knowledge is better has pitted some social science disciplines against others in the same field. In much of Africa, academic programmes such as Law and Mass Communication are considered superior – in content and in productivity – to others like Linguistics, Religious Studies or Development Studies. Admission requirements, particularly high school grades, required for so called prestigious programmes are usually higher.  

This disparity assumed a momentous dimension this year when the Makerere University School of Law introduced special pre-entry exams on grounds that not whoever leaves high school with excellent grades is competent enough to study Law. The School argued that many a student previously admitted had registered shocking failures in the programme despite his outstanding high school grades.

The news that students with first-class high school grades have consistently failed at the School of Law or at the Law Development Center has drawn varied speculation that this analysis doesn’t intend to examine. The only speculation that is under scrutiny here is the claim that some high school students, obsessed with the quest for good grades and for government sponsorship, pursue easy-to-pass subjects like Entrepreneurship, Fine Art, Islamic Religious Education, Luganda, Kiswahili, Arabic, French, among others, which are allegedly too shallow to equip the students with analytical skills.

It is claimed that subjects like (English) Literature, History and Economics surpass others in sharpening students’ ability to identify, articulate and get to the bottom of sophisticated as well as simple problems. To dissect this claim we shall start by weighing the content of a ‘sophisticated’ subject – History – against the content a ‘shallow’ subject – Islamic Religious Education, or IRE, as taught in Uganda.

One of the widely taught Advanced Level History papers opens with the 1789 French Revolution and its “child”, Napoleon, goes through the despotism that defined Europe in the 19th Century and closes with the world wars and post war arrangements of the 20th Century.

Another History paper examines the social, economic and political organization of pre-colonial Africa and traces the origin, course and consequences of and response to the colonization of the continent. These are the most popular of the several alternative History papers taught at Advanced Level.  

A study of these two histories, it is presumed, awakens ones consciousness to the problems facing Africa today. Africa is going through some of the kind of upheavals that Europe experienced in the preceding centuries, including tyrannical rule, uprisings and unemployment. Learning how others went through such problems, we may hope, furnishes students with the example and imagination of how Africa can overcome some of her troubles.

The Paper on African History is even more critical since it is supposed to enable students to compare Africa’s present to her past and possibly provoke their minds to devise ways of how the continent can proceed.  

Having seen how these History papers possibly stimulate ones mind to think further, let us turn to IRE. One of the IRE papers explores the History of Islamic Civilization, from the life of Pre-Islamic Arabia to the early barricades raised in the path of the Prophet Muhammad’s message in the Seventh Century. The Paper proceeds to look at how the Prophet turned his early constraints into the acumen with which he conquered the hearts and minds and indeed the territory of Arabia.

The same Paper goes on to explore the making of one of history’s greatest empires, the Islamic Caliphate, at the hands of the successors of the Prophet known as the rightly guided caliphs, and their Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman heirs.

In terms of activating ones analytical instincts, the history of the founding of one of the world’s greatest religions and the building of one of the world’s greatest empires cannot be matched by the history of the chaos that characterized 19th and 20th century Europe. In terms of political strategy and military shrewdness, none of Napoleon Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck or Adolf Hitler, or even the three combined, compares even remotely with the Muslim conquerors of the Byzantine and Persian empires, especially Umar ibn Al-Khattab, in the Late Antiquity. It takes a deeply dull mind to miss the intellectual and practical lessons derived from learning the History of Islam.

If the history of Islam and indeed Islam in general is by all standards an enriching area of study, why, then, are some high school graduates of Islamic studies who join university said to be less proficient in essay writing and comprehension, in self-expression and in general aptitude than their Literature or History counterparts?  

One source of trouble could be the language of education. Whereas university essays are written in the national English language, many Muslim students, from whom IRE draws most of her students, are not as fluent in English as their non-Muslim counterparts. The reason is that many Muslim schools do not attach a lot of importance to this foreign language. In Christian and secular schools students face punishment for speaking vernacular even outside class sessions; in many Muslim schools the language of most spoken communication is usually the dominant native language in the locality.

The little attention some Muslim students and teachers pay to the alien language may demonstrate their pride in their mother tongues. It may reflect their deep sense of nationalism. But it also limits their ability to effectively express themselves in the lingua franca. This language difficulty may not indicate lack of ingenuity, but it certainly affects ones ability to display cleverness both in speech and in writing.

The problem even seems to be much deeper than the ability to effectively express oneself in the official language. The quality of the available IRE literature is as wanting as the standard of the subject teachers. The pamphlets – not textbooks! – on which students are fed, were written by lay Muslims whose knowledge of Islam is not as impressive as their passion for the faith. 

Many teachers of the IRE Qur’an Paper cannot recite the short Opening Chapter of the Glorious Book by pronouncing every letter with its attributes, as laid down in the rules of recitation, or Tajweed. These are teachers who have never embarked on any rigorous Islamic course in any serious Islamic academic institution; they learnt Islam merely as a subject offered by the shallow secular Uganda Education Curriculum. Their knowledge is comparable to the knowledge of a senior two student of Bilal Islamic Institute in Kakiri.

This is not to say that the country is short of people who are sufficiently knowledgeable on Islam. For decades, Islamic Universities of the Middle East and North Africa have been churning out graduates, including hundreds of Ugandans.  These graduates, sadly, have not written books that suit Uganda’s IRE syllabus, save for booklets that teach fresh Muslim coverts how to perform wudhu, or ablution.

In part this failure to write is rooted in their limited ability to write in English. In part this failure to write is an exemplification of Africa’s reluctance to read and write. The shortage of relevant Islamic literature greatly affects the quality of our IRE and in turn affects the quality of our students. Such half-baked students eventually graduate as IRE teachers, perpetuating a cycle of mediocrity.   

It should by now be evident that what partly makes some IRE graduates seem to exhibit little mental nimbleness isn’t the shallowness of IRE as a discipline; it’s the poorness of the quality of the IRE that is taught in Ugandan schools.

This view is indirectly supported by the plain intellectual ineptness seen in almost all graduates who have gone through schools, including many Universal Primary/Secondary Education schools, whose standard of education is generally poor. A combination of poor teachers and poor reading material is a perfect recipe for mediocrity.

The same can be said of Arabic and other languages (except English) taught in Uganda. Whereas Arabic is rich and enriching, and whereas her literature continues to be the subject of far-reaching analytical studies, the quality of Arabic taught in this country is too amateurish to nourish critical thinking. A Sudanese professor who visits Makerere University as an external Arabic examiner was never mistaken when he remarked, “In Uganda they don’t teach Arabic; they teach about Arabic.” 

With this quality of Arabic and IRE, it could be true that the graduates of these courses, like the graduates of other poorly-taught courses, walk away with little intellectual substance. Remedies should involve developing the IRE literature to reach reasonable standards. Graduates of reputable Islamic universities – excluding, of course, Uganda’s substandard Islamic University – are needed in this effort.

At the same time international Islamic universities should start equipping their students with additional skills that would enable them to play more creative and more useful roles in their respective countries of origin. English, teaching, and writing skills, for instance, would empower sheikhs to take their vast knowledge of Islam and Arabic beyond the confines of the mosque.


0 #1 Abu Musa 2012-06-02 13:52
The state of our UMEA schools is horrible, why those aging leaders of institutions like UMEA, UMYA dont give chance to the youth who are energetic and more educated than them, the problem we have many people do not want to be advised, ''Omukulu tatunulwa mu kamwa'' our muslim schools/institu tions are in total mess, how many mediocres i know around owning islamic schools and no person to confrot them, so if the foundation is poor what do you expect to find at the higher level, tell me any Arabic institute in Uganda, Mbale Univ could be having one by now? and people claim to be teaching Arabic, the sudanese Doctor got it right, in Uganda we learn about Arabic just, so we have to wake up and stop fighting for mosques..
+1 #2 Lukooya Shaban 2012-06-03 11:59
Thank you brother Yahaya Sseremba for this provocative article. I don't know which schools in Uganda you went to but if my guess is right you are a product of the same system you have deeply written about. Many scholars like you have written provocative articles about Muslim education but what baffles me most is the fact that you stop at writing. Pardon me if i have judged wrongly but i believe the best way would be that those of you who have been able to go through our poor system should find practical solutions other than merely lamenting in academic articles. As Bismark said, the great questions of the day shall not be resolved by mere writing but through practical contributions. IUIU, substandard as you branded it, has at least laid the foundation for correcting the wrong that our fore fathers suffered during the unfair political systems. My humble appeal to you is, you should come out and join your colleagues to turn IUIU into some thing admirable and of good standard.
0 #3 Rashid Kins 2012-06-03 15:53
I don't understand what is at the back of minds of those people with a view that IRE/Arabic/Fine Art e.t.c. make students less intelligent, but for whatever reason, I have a strong feeling that it was targeting Muslims. As you may recall, it used to be said that Muslims were illiterate, but today, anyone would feel embarrassed to make that statement. The issue now is quality. That is expected and insha'Allah we shall improve and overcome it. But it needs a combined effort of you and me to make a move. I wonder what you meant by "reputable Islamic universities – excluding, of course, Uganda’s substandard Islamic University" could you please clarify on the statement, because as of now, I find that a right minded Ugandan, especially those involved in higher education cannot make it.
0 #4 Abu MUSA 2012-06-04 09:16
It is high time we looked for a practical solution to our problems as Muslims, let us stop accusing and blaming the past systems as the South Africans are doing to Apartheid up to date, 'bwoofiirwa tosula ku malaalo' the problem is with us the Muslim, we must blame our selves too not the unfair political systems, was it not a Muslim who lied and reported to his god that IUIU is training rebels? we have also to appreciate other peoples contributions writing inclusive, the article is not provocative i think, let the truth be the truth, the writer included the solutions in his article.
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