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KISSA AND DAWAT: Balancing Secular Skills and Spirituality for Success in the BARMM

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ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 22 June)—We are done with graduations and enrolment is going on across the country. I was watching an interview on YouTube conducted by Free Malaysia Today (FMT) with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. FMT reporter Imran Ariff pointed out a trend where parents are opting to send their children to international or vernacular schools instead of national schools. In response, the former prime minister acknowledged the religiosity among the Malay population but emphasized that it does not qualify them for the workforce. Mastery of certain subjects, particularly those associated with technology, is necessary for future employment. Mahathir also highlighted the importance of education as a determinant for a country’s development, noting that politicians aim for their constituents to receive quality education while being influenced by popular support[1].

In our region, there is a significant interest in spirituality, particularly for Moro or Muslim individuals, as it is an integral part of their identity and culture. However, it is crucial to strike a balance between spirituality and the practical needs of daily life. With the average lifespan of Filipinos being 72 years old, it becomes essential for individuals in the region to possess secular skills in order to live decently, secure employment, and realize their full potential. While education primarily aims to equip students with the necessary skills for success in the secular world, it is also important to recognize the role of spirituality in personal development.

Mahathir’s perspective highlights the need for a reorientation towards the future, considering both the dunya (worldly) and akhirah (hereafter) aspects. Two strategies that can be implemented in our regional education system to achieve this reorientation are: (1) striking a balance between secular skills and spirituality, and (2) integrating these aspects across the curriculum, co-curricular activities, and extra-curricular opportunities. By finding the right balance and integrating spiritual and secular competences, we can ensure that students are prepared for both the practical challenges of the secular world and the spiritual dimensions of their lives.

The first strategy forward in striking a balance between secular skills and spirituality is essential to foster a holistic education system that addresses the needs of students from all walks of life. The binary approach to education, i.e., to get more spirituality contents and time allotment to the exclusion or disadvantage of secular skills, is not going to work. Focusing only on majority students (Moros), to the detriment of minorities, e.g., non-Moro indigenous and settler-descendant population, is another example of divisive and exclusive action.

Developing the students’ personal character at the expense of secular competence will have long-term repercussion to living standards. Being a Moro region may have deflected issues on the inclusion of spirituality in public schools, but it will also boomerang as the BARMM is both a diverse society and a developing political economy. 

The second strategy involves the need for integration. It is crucial to avoid an approach that focuses solely on one religious or ethnic group while excluding others[2]. Such an approach would undermine the authenticity of the inclusivity slogan promoted by the current government. Instead, what is needed is an inclusive moral education framework that encompasses all religious and ethnic groups. This can be achieved by developing secular ethics or universal values that are shared among these diverse groups. Additionally, it is essential to create a school-community environment that serves as a safe space for the expression of diverse spiritual beliefs. Encouraging inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding and dialogue through the promotion of safe spaces is also vital. By implementing these measures, schools can ensure that all students feel valued and respected, regardless of their religious or cultural background.

Both balancing and integrative strategies are not one-off actions; they are an iterative and ongoing process that requires bridging leadership, an evolving education governance system, and a decentralized organizational culture to start with. The value of spirituality, according to former Prime Minister Mahathir, lies not in the development of superficial and outward manifestations, but rather in the fundamentals that allow for peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society, gainful employment, and reaching one’s full potential while contributing meaningfully to society. Neglecting these fundamentals can hinder the holistic development of individuals.

Indeed, balancing secular skills and spirituality in schools is crucial for nurturing well-rounded individuals who possess the necessary knowledge and skills to thrive in a diverse society. These balanced and integrative approaches not only prepare students for the challenges of the secular world but also acknowledge the spiritual dimension of their lives. By recognizing and incorporating spiritual competences into the educational framework, schools can contribute to students’ overall well-being and fulfillment. It is through these holistic and inclusive approaches that public schools in the BARMM and beyond can foster an environment that embraces both secular and spiritual growth, enabling students to lead purposeful lives and make positive contributions to society.

Finally, in Verse 77 of Chapter 28, Al-Qasas, of the Holy Qur’an, “But seek, through that which Allāh has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet], do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allāh has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allāh does not like corrupters.”[3] We are reminded of the importance of seeking the Akhirah (Hereafter) while not forgetting our share of the Dunya (world). The verse emphasizes the need to do good as Allah has done good to us and to avoid corruption in the land. This verse highlights the intrinsic connection between secular skills and spirituality. Without gaining secular skills, it would be difficult to navigate and succeed in the worldly affairs (dunya), while without developing and growing one’s spirituality, preparation for the eternal life (akhirah) would be incomplete. As Muslims, we must remember that Islam is not merely a religion; it is a comprehensive way of life. Therefore, both secular skills and spirituality hold significance in our journey of faith and in living a balanced and purposeful life.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry—born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-Tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)

[1] “National schools have become religious schools, laments Dr M” (February 11, 2021) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SygT8VmF-Bc

[2] The issue of affirmative action can be raised as an antithesis to integration. However, this argument holds true only if affirmative action is seen as a perpetual strategy. In its essence, affirmative action aims to provide a marginalized group with the opportunity to bridge the existing gaps. It is not intended to create a long-term dependency on opportunities granted by law, to the detriment of other groups. The goal of affirmative action is to address historical injustices and promote equal access to opportunities, ultimately working towards a more integrated and equitable society. It should be implemented as a temporary measure to promote inclusivity and level the playing field, with the ultimate objective of achieving true integration where equal opportunities are available to all.

[3] English translation by Saheeh International – https://quran.com/en/al-qasas/77

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