Saying the Koran

It’s Ramadan at the moment, and for one class of grade one students at Pelican PS it turns out that means murmuring prayers from the Koran intermittently throughout the music lesson. It started when the class arrived at the music room door – one of the boys was speaking very quickly in Arabic, and it sounded to me like a learned prayer. I asked him what he was saying and he said it was the Koran. Another began to join in, enthusiastically. “It’s the Koran, he’s saying the Koran,” other children informed me. They spoke very fast, like it was a race, and I remember when I was child going to Mass how some of the longer prayers like the Creed (do we call that a prayer? I don’t know…) sounded like incredibly fast and complex whisha-whisha whispering, and it seemed amazing to me that people could remember all those words in order.

In that class, we started with some circle games to get the focus settled and then began to sing a song, one that they already knew. But after the first verse I realised there was something odd in the sound, and it took me a while to adjust my ears and work out what was going on. Someone was saying the Koran (I’m describing it as “saying the Koran” because that is what the children called it) while we were singing.

This hasn’t happened before. I figured it probably had something to do with Ramadan. I stopped the song and asked the children concerned what they were saying while we were singing. I assured them they weren’t in trouble, that I had noticed they were saying something else and that I was interested to know what it was.

This question led to a stream of information about Islam and being a Muslim, in the words of emphatic, intense grade ones. They told me about how there is the God Allah, and about how Adam was the first prophet and he “made everything”. One boy went off onto a kind of tangent after mention of Adam, about how the aim was to get to the place where everything was perfect, all green fields, beautiful mountains and where you no longer had to do anything, you didn’t need to eat, you could just be there… I must have looked puzzled, because one of the girls then chimed in, helpfully, “It’s kind of like paradise”.

I was intrigued. The children went on to talk about the evils of a character called ShayDan (I may have remembered this name incorrectly, and I have no idea how to spell it), who might “come up and whisper in your ear, tell you to do bad things, like, he might tell you to go up to this other kid and bash his face in!” One boy re-told a story he had been told at the mosque about a young boy and girl who had been going to the mosque to pray, but ShayDan had come up to them and gone into their ears, and then they didn’t go into the mosque they went away and started behaving very badly, and this was because of ShayDan.

All very interesting. I never quite worked out why they had started saying the Koran during the song, as most of the Muslim children had been happy enough to sing along. I suggested that we sing the song again, and that children who wanted to say the Koran could say it after the song was finished. And if they didn’t want to sing with us today, they could just stay silent. What was interesting this second time through was that pretty well all the Muslim children now wouldn’t sing, and took the option of being silent. One girl started to sing, but had a stern finger wagged at her across the circle by one of the boys, and though she protested, saying, “What?” and gesticulating back to him, she stopped singing too. It ended up being a rather feeble rendition of the song, with the remaining non-Muslim children looking a little confused about what was going on.

Anyway… I draw no particular conclusion from this lesson. I’ve taught lots of Muslim children before, and taught during Ramadan, and never had anyone start ‘saying the Koran’ during a song before. I know that there are many groups within the Muslim community who hold different views on the place of music, and on participation in music, and I’ve been in schools that respond to these concerns in different ways. That day at Pelican I went back to the staffroom and asked if anyone had had children start reciting Koranic verses in the middle of classes before and no-one had. Sometimes I know that teachers wonder if the children create new rules for themselves of what they can and can’t do at school, knowing that the non-Muslim teaching staff won’t know which are real rules and which have perhaps been invented by the child, or are exaggerated or misinterpreted…. It can get very complex. I need to do a lot more investigation, so please forgive the scant attention and uninformed deliberation I am giving this topic tonight, and consider these thoughts as my initial entrees into a complex area for discussion! Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear of other people’s experiences of opposition to music or songs for reasons of religious belief.

This Music Education forum in the United States discusses the issue of children not participating in music classes, and points out that there are other groups (such as Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventist groups) who may abstain from music involvement. And this article draws upon one music teacher’s experiences in the British education system.

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