Baa baa black sheep, do you pray to god?
While the BJP recently took objection to Indian kids having to recite 'Jack & Jill' and 'Mary had a little lamb', toddlers in some Mumbai schools have long discarded these colonial relics. Instead, they recite 'Three good girls' instead of 'Three Blind Mice' and 'Baa Baa Black Sheep/ Do you pray to God', to the delight of their parents.
"When she says, 'Twinkle twinkle little star/ Allah made you what you are', she learns that the Almighty has made everything, while learning English," beams Tanveer Ahmed Shamsi, whose seven-year-old is a student of the Al Muminah Girls High School.
Islamic values through English
Al Muminah is one of the earliest of the half-a-dozen Islamic English schools that have come up in the last five years—mostly in the old Muslim areas—aimed at inculcating Islamic values while offering an education comparable to good English schools in the city. Toddlers in these schools memorise a slightly different version of the alphabet song. It goes 'A for Allah, B for Bismillah, D for Doomsday, H for Heaven'. Since simple visual representations are difficult for some of these terms, the illustrated version of the alphabet substitutes these with other, equally significant words such as 'B for Book/ Allah's Book' and 'H for Hand/ A Momin's hand'.
Most of these rhymes have been adapted by American Muslims, and a few by Mumbai's own Muslims. Apart from these adaptations, new rhymes have also been composed such as 'In the name of one Allah/ Bismillah Bismillah/ Mohammed Rasulallah'.
The perfect package
Most parents are thrilled at the package deal their kids are getting: religion, rhyme and English together. As Zarine Naseem Shaikh, principal of Babyland Nursery says, "When children recite these new rhymes, parents too learn from them." However, not all such schools agree that nursery rhymes should be adapted. "These are internationally accepted rhymes," reasons Suhail Shaikh, another pioneer in this field, who now runs two Islamic schools. "Changing them will have limited impact. Generations have been reciting them. Besides, they are not anti-Islamic." But Shaikh's students do sing the Islamic alphabet song.
Many Muslim parents are a little wary about Islam-ising English from its very foundation. Some, who have opted for Islamic schools, also teach their kids the regular nursery rhymes, so that they don't feel embarrassed while playing with others their age. Other parents are worried that the child may end up confused. Haseena Vora recounts how her six-year-old wrote English in the Arabic style (from right to left) and ended up getting a zero in her Abacus test, though her answers were correct.
"She wrote 06 instead of 60, because she's also learning Arabic in the religious class to which I send her." But says principal Zarine Naseem Shaikh, "Children are so curious to learn new things; their brains are really advanced in these days."
Education or alienation?
Are parents who have chosen Islamic English schools comfortable with the concept of Hindu students learning Hindu-ised English rhymes and Muslim students Islamic ones? Here, the BJP's track record makes their motives suspect. "It depends on the aim with which these changes are being introduced. It should not be hatred for other religions," says Shamsi.
Parent Anees Ahmed links the BJP's opposition to English nursery rhymes with its hatred for all things Christian. He feels the answer to culturally alien nursery rhymes is primary education in one's own mother tongue, but he wonders at its practicality.
However, Ahmed is equally critical of Islamic schools. "When society is so polarised anyway, why should Muslims isolate their children at this level? Schools can set aside time to teach religion, but they shouldn't touch the syllabus.
Our children have to mix with others. They can become the butt of jokes, if not get totally isolated. What effect will this have on their growth?" Haseena Vora points out that English itself is not an Indian language. "The BJP should solve that problem first. Maybe they should ban English in schools in their states, instead of objecting to what are basically neutral and creative ways of learning the language."
Vora voices another worry. "In today's competitive world, religious knowledge isn't what's going to get you ahead. It is very important though, and that's why I plan to continue sending my daughter to her religious class till she's in the IVth. By then, she would have learnt the basics. The rest she will pick up at home." Asks Ahmed, "Religion and values are the family's responsibility. Why are Muslims outsourcing them?"
But Shehnaz Shaikh, principal of Al-Muminah, points out that few Muslims know Islam. As for the fear of isolation, says Suhail Shaikh: "Islam says we are all part of one human family, children of one father and mother. This is what we teach our students. Our aim is not to build a good Muslim student alone, but a good Indian student."