International terrorism carried out in cities around the world in the name of Allah is creating a dangerous perception of Muslims as bloodthirsty criminals.
But Ercan Ulgur, principal of the Muslim school Sama in Mayfair, Johannesburg, is emphatic that actions such as the suicide bombings in London in July are inconsistent with the values of his faith. Says Ulgur: “Anyone who commits these atrocities in the name of Islam is misguided.”
This school in Mayfair is one of the two schools in South Africa – the other one is in Cape Town – that carry the name Sama, an Arabic word meaning “heaven”. Both schools are managed by the Turkish-based Fountain Educational Trust, which promotes the teachings of a Turkish spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulan.
The central theme of Gulan’s philosophy, says Ulgur, is “joining religious belief and modern scientific education to create a better world, based on positive activism, altruism, interfaith and cultural dialogue, and the desire to serve others”.
This premise allows for an interpretation of Islam that makes the faith “compatible with modernity, democracy and progress”, says Ulgur. Sama’s vision at Sama is to promote “tolerance and compassion through education and self-improvement”.
This South African branch opened its doors in 2003 and serves 350 learners from grades R to 10. Matric will be offered for the first time in two years’ time. Many of the learners are immigrants from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Iran, Somalia and Turkey, but the majority are South African.
The school offers the usual national curriculum subjects, but prides itself on excellence in maths and science, employing Turkish educators to teach these subjects because they’re better trained, says Ulgur. Their efforts do stand out as exceptional, with the school winning several maths and science education awards.
Charting a progressive religious course in our democratic society means negotiating certain tensions between the tenets of a faith and certain constitutional principles that can seem irreconcilable. But in some instances, religious tradition and the dictates of the Qur’an are inviolable and cannot be challenged. For instance, the girls and boys attend separate classes, “just as men and women do not pray together in the mosque”, says Ulgur. He contends that separating the sexes leads to better academic performance as there is no distraction. Learners also have to stick to the Muslim dress code.
But while the sexes may be separated, it doesn’t mean they’re treated unequally. In fact, if you judge the school’s treatment of gender on the basis of its teaching staff, it would come out very well: out of a total of 23 teachers, 16 are women.
Ulgar also stresses that it is not enough to theorise about the morality preached in the Qur’an – a person’s commitment to Islam is based on deeds, not words and appearance. So to put into practice the philosophy of compassion and caring, the school is involved in a feeding-scheme initiative where it feeds 250 needy residents of Dlamini in Soweto.
Fast facts: Islam