Book review: Early childhood education for Muslim children

Note: My colleague Hasina Ebrahim from South Africa invited me to review her insightful book as it was being published in late 2016. I was honoured to have the opportunity to review it and comment on its contribution to the field. Please click on the link or the image below to go to the publisher’s site if you would like to purchase the book.

Hasina Banu Ebrahim’s book, Early Childhood Education for Muslim Children: Rationales and Practices in South Africa, is a fascinating examination of how early childhood education is rationalized and practiced among Muslim minority groups in South Africa.

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In the first few chapters of the book, Ebrahim brings the Islamic worldview to the foreground and establishes it as the main framework within which her study’s findings are to be interpreted. She also grounds her study in the historical and current socio-political and educational context for Muslims in South Africa. The next chapter describes Ebrahim’s qualitative approach, including her reflexive approach, positioning, recruitment, and data collection methods. In the following few chapters, Ebrahim provides descriptions and quotes from her observations and conversations with mothers, teachers, and managers at Muslim early childhood centres, interwoven with her analysis and discussion of themes. Finally, the last chapter consolidates the findings and considers implications for the education of young Muslim children.

Ebrahim’s inquiry stands out for its grounding in an Islamic worldview. Many scholars have critiqued the mainstream discourse in early childhood education for its grounding in the dominant Euro-American paradigms. Ebrahim however takes on the courageous next step of actually centring a marginalized worldview, arduously defining and breaking it down into digestible components, and confidently using it as the main guiding framework for analysis and interpretation. Indeed, Ebrahim convincingly makes the case that an Islamic worldview is not only desirable but necessary to effectively understand and engage with the choices and actions of Muslim communities for their children’s early care and education.

In addition to contextualizing participants’ rationales and practices with Islamic frames of reference, Ebrahim also problematizes the complexities and contradictions inherent in the perspectives and practices of those in her study – such as the incongruity between core Islamic values of community and equity, and a profit-driven business approach to early childhood education centres which generally limits access to middle and upper class families. She also acknowledges that Muslim communities are not homogenous and interpretations of Islam are both diverse and dynamic. However, her description of and references to the “Islamic worldview” do seem to imply that there is one worldview, or one common interpretation of the fundamentals of Islam. This may be due to the study’s limited sample of participants – from a single sect of Islam and a particular socio-economic context, who may have been more similar than different in their interpretation of Islam’s values and practices.

While Ebrahim discusses at length the potential for Islamic care and education to foster children’s faith, identity, and belonging in the Muslim community, I wanted to further explore how such an approach based in values, traditions, and practices might foster children’s resilience, self-esteem, and citizenship more broadly – as outcomes valued by both secular and faith-based perspectives on child development. But perhaps this is precisely the point of Ebrahim’s approach – that she treats the Islamic worldview as sufficient in and of itself as a frame of reference, and does not feel it necessary to validate the findings by focusing on their links with secular child development outcomes that may be more palatable to Euro-American audiences uncomfortable with faith and spirituality.

Overall, Ebrahim’s scholarship is a much-needed and important contribution to the fields of Islamic and faith-based education and care for young children, as well as to the slowly growing literature on alternate frameworks and worldviews in early childhood development. Ebrahim’s study focuses on early childhood education centres serving a specific Muslim minority population in South Africa, but has implications for Muslim populations worldwide as they seek to develop the societal infrastructure and curriculum needed to nurture and educate young Muslim children in ways that are faith-based, socially relevant, and effective. This book will be of interest to scholars and practitioners who are grappling with how to ground early childhood education in faith, as well as to those working with Muslim children and families in diverse contexts around the world.

Sadaf Shallwani

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