The Malay Heritage Foundation

Sembang Ilmu Series #10 – Asatizah Berwarisan – The Evolution of Islamic Education

The Malay Heritage Foundation‘s (MHF) Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS) concluded the second Asatizah Berwarisan forum in collaboration with the Sultan Mosque Singapore and supported by Wisma Geylang Serai, in June 2023, the tenth in the series. The young panelists discussed ‘The Evolution of Islamic Education’ this time.

Guest Moderator, Dr. Tuty Raihanah Mostarom, setting the context and introducing the panellists. (Credit: MHF)

Saturday, 3 June 2023 – Head of Finance and Human Resources, Masjid Sultan Management Board, Ms. Nazatul Shima, welcome the audience and panellists in Project Studio, Wisma Geylang Serai. She shared briefly about the new lectures series Asatizah Berwarisan, which is a part of the Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS), before introducing and inviting guest moderator Dr. Tuty Raihanah Mostarom, who is the Research Coordinator and Fellow for the Research Programme in the Study of Muslim Communities of Success (RPCPS) at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).

Dr. Tuty shared a brief background about the theme, ‘The Evolution of Islamic Education’, and set the context for the session. She mentioned that Islamic education is an important aspect that shapes its believers’ knowledge and identity while ensuring the continuity of the religion. Dr. Tuty added that a good school and a great scholar have an immense influence over the students in terms of the learning style and education content and will have a significant impact on shaping a person’s knowledge, mindset, attitude and values – either at a personal level or at the institution’s level. She highlighted that the panelists would discuss the evolution of Islamic education from the early days of Singapore to the present day, the current modern technology era, which has contributed to the current state of the believers. Dr. Tuty invited the first speaker, Ustazah Bushra Habibullah, to kick off her presentation on ‘Da’wah and Islamic Education in Singapore Through the Years’.

Ustazah Bushra Habibullah sharing her thoughts about Asatizah Professional Development to enhance Islamic Education. (Credit: MHF)

Ustazah Bushra Habibullah, an Al-Azhar graduate in Islamic Theology majoring in Prophetic Traditions (Hadith), shared that she is a product of 12 years of formal Islamic education and specialising in theology. Ustazah Bushra added that she would touch on how Da’wah (preaching of Islam) and Islamic education in Singapore underwent significant changes. She began with the history of Madrasah and Da’wah after independence. There were around 26 Sekolah Ra’ayat, also known as the Arabic religious schools, with Pondok-style education (huge emphasis on memorisation) and the medium of teaching in Arabic. Close to 4,000 students, the peak number at that time and mostly females, were enrolled in these schools. Shortly after independence, the Administration of Muslim Law Act 1966 (AMLA) came into operation. It provides a centralised system of administration (also forms part of the Singapore legal system) covering all aspects of Muslim life in Singapore. Madrasah came under the purview of MUIS, and numerous reforms were made. Ustazah Bushra highlighted that those individuals involved in integrating the madrasahs understood the true meaning of Islamic education – having Islamic studies and the education elements. For the first time since its formation 39 years ago, Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah incorporated English, Malay language, Mathematics, and Science in its curriculum and offered the GCE O-Level examinations. In addition, Ustazah Bushra mentioned that Madrasah Al-Maarif Al-Islamiah was the first to prepare its students as private candidates for the GCE O’Level and A’Level examinations.

Next, Ustazah Bushra talked about the converts studying Islam at Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah, who initiated forming an Association for Converts, where Islam can be taught in English and look into new converts’ welfare and problems. The group was initially called ‘Kumpulan Saudara Baru’. They were then offered a place at Phen Geck Avenue, called “Rumah Saudara Baru” (Muslim Converts’ Home). Under the leadership of Brother Ridzuan Wu, the group decided to apply for the official registration of the Association with the Registry of Societies. This officially formed the “Muslim Converts’ Association of Singapore” (MCAS). The place will later be known as a Da’wah hub and a one-stop centre to learn about Islam. Ustazah Bushra shifted her focus to the early 1990s when the popularity and demand for madrasah education rose and peaked so much that the number of applications always superseded enrollment. At the same time, number of students had more than doubled as well. A centralised curriculum for madrasahs and the degree of standardisation among full-time madrasahs were established (e.g., the Peperiksaan Sijil Thanawi Empat (PSTE)). She added that MUIS gained control of the registration and management of madrasahs; sweeping reforms were made to “revive interest in the kind of education madrasahs could offer”. The curriculum was revamped to include initiatives from the Ministry of Education, such as information technology and national education. Ustazah Bushra highlighted that there was a mixed response toward the curriculum update. Some madrasahs did not offer subjects like science and geography as part of their curriculum. In early 2000, the National Madrasah Education Blueprint was introduced to inculcate a sense of national identity, the importance of national integration, and the English language as the medium of instruction. She also went on to share about the Da’wah development after the formation of MCAS. Other steps were taken to enhance the quality of Islamic education in Singapore: Joint Madrasah System, International Baccalaureate and Technology Adoption.

Ustazah Bushra is heartened to know that more asatizah and students of Islam venture out and expand their education in other areas beyond their Islamic education background. She cited students like Ahmad Abdurrahman and Nur Amalina, among the first few madrasah students accepted into the NUS Medical School. Ustazah Bushra concluded her presentation by saying that as Islamic education evolves, Muslims must understand that, as Muslims, they should be able to contribute to the community at large. Only then will we be seen integrating as contributing members of society.

Mr. Syafiq Mardi giving a brief family background of Ahmed Ataullah Efendi. (Credit: MHF)

The next speaker, Mr. Syafiq Mardi, who completed his A-Levels at Madrasah Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore (NUS), presented on ‘The First Turkish Consul General, Ahmed Ataullah Efendi and Islamic Education’. A recipient of the Turkiye Scholarship, where he earned his First-Class Honours degree in Theology Studies from Çukurova University, Syafiq highlighted that there is no dichotomy between Islamic and secular in Turkey. During his research on Ottoman Empire, he recalled Singapore relations, where his professor asked him whether Ottoman history was Islamic or otherwise. Syafiq also shared that if Ibn Sina were still alive today, the polymath would not just be known or referred to as part of the Islamic Golden Age or History. His impact was way beyond that. This is where we need to shift in mindset where there is no separation between Islam and secular and to look at Islam more holistically. He emphasised that Islamic education is about critical thinking and research and is no different from secular ones. Unfortunately, discussing Islamic education here is only confined to Quran, Hadith, Tafsir, Usul, and the like.


Syafiq introduced the prominent figure Ahmed Ataullah Efendi from the Hanafi mazhab (school of thought), born in 1865 in South Africa. Ahmed obtained his first religious education from his father, Abu Bakar Efendi, a kadi (a judge who presides over matters by Islamic law), and then with Tuan Guru Abdullah Kadi Abdul Salam in a madrasah. An Indonesian scholar, Tuan Guru, was exiled to Cape Town in the 18th century due to the Dutch East India Company’s frustration at Sultan Jalaluddin of Tidore’s apparent alliance with English opposition forces. His mother, Rakea Maker, is British, and due to his diverse family background, Ahmed was appointed the First Ottoman Consul General to Singapore. He was summoned to Istanbul by Ottoman officials Ahmed and was appointed as the state’s first Consul General to Singapore. He was also educated at the Mc Leahlen Academy in Cape Town, continued his tertiary studies in Istanbul, and went to Al-Azhar University. His work focussed more on diplomatic relations and unity among the different races. He met with various societies – Arabs, Malays, Chinese, etc. Syafiq also shared that Ahmed was responsible for introducing passports for hajj pilgrims. A few pilgrims passed on while performing their hajj, and with a passport system in place, it is easier to track and identify them for administrative measures. According to Syafiq, Ahmed was forward-thinking and ahead of his time. As Muslims, we need to get ourselves uncomfortable and be open-minded about other available resources in the quest for knowledge.


During his undergraduate days, he recalled being exposed to modules on Islamic history from the perspective of Orientalists. Syafiq added that he was also exposed to a module on sociology after learning about religious sociology. It is imperative to study all and avoid looking at the two entities as separate – The world is not divided! See the world beyond the theological perspective and discover new ones. Syafiq ended his presentation with a brief history of when Sultan Muhammad al-Fatih, known as Mehmed II, conquered Constantinople, and religious scholars at that time were too focused on the theological aspects. Are we going to be heading in that same direction by concentrating on what is Islamic and whatnot?

Ms.Nur Syafiqah Mohd Taufek going through the different eras of Madrasah – the highs and lows. (Credit: MHF)

Ms. Nur Syafiqah Mohd Taufek, who completed her A’Levels at Madrasah Al-Ma’arif Al-Islamiah and an NUS graduate majoring in Political Science and minoring in Religious Studies, was introduced as the final speaker. Currently, a master’s student at NUS in the Department of Malay Studies and the recipient of the ISEAS Tun Dato’ Sir Cheng Lock Tan Scholarship, Syafiqah shared her reflections as a madrasah graduate and her educational trajectory. She underwent madrasah education from 2003 to 2014 (Primary 1 – Pre-University 2). During this phase, Syafiqah was mainly exposed to theology and jurisprudence (core tenets of Islam). She then went to NUS for her tertiary education, where she learned about new perspectives on Islam as a phenomenon – sociologically and historically and its development, especially issues confronting the communities. Her educational background has allowed her to grasp different outlooks and enriched her point of view. Syafiqah next touched on Islamic education, and when we talked about the subject, our imagination focused only on the six madrasahs in Singapore. Over a century ago, madrasahs were non-existent, and religious learning was more informal through Quranic classes. In the early 1900s, madrasah education was introduced and became normalised. Hence, fast forward to the present day; it is hard not to think of the six madrasahs when discussing Islamic education.


Syafiqah next shared about the development of Islamic education (the rise and fall). The era of the 1930s to 1960s, known as the peak of madrasahs and religious education, produced many religious scholars, teachers and elites. This took a turn after independence. The enrollment numbers in madrasahs dwindled due to the emergence and formation of national schools. Hence, only six madrasahs remained by the 1980s. Moving on to the late 1980s to 1990s, there were talks about reforms in madrasahs, mainly due to the government’s pursuit of economic progress and nation-building. Education is seen as a means for students to participate in the economy after graduation. While a handful of madrasah students excelled in their studies, there were more dropouts—the curriculum needed to be reviewed to address this gap to fit the nation’s more extensive economic pursuit. The Compulsory Education Act was implemented to address this. Syafiqah mentioned that as a madrasah student in 2003, her batch was the first to sit for PSLE under this new Compulsory Education Act. This moment was indeed stressful for the community in general.


Moving on to the 21st century, many challenges confronted the community. These include the 9-11 incident, Global War on Terror, and many others. Due to this, the community was put under the spotlight, and religious education was questioned. So where do we proceed from this predicament? Syafiqah asked the audience, ‘How can madrasahs produce students capable of contextualising religious knowledge in the context of change and development?’ She added that one needs to understand the dynamics that shape the religion. In terms of the legalistic approach to studying jurisprudence and theology, it can be further improved to prevent a lack of context. Syafiqah cited a relatable example by exploring the different firqahs (sects) devoid of their complexities. One needs to understand the political factors affecting its emergence and the profound philosophical debates at that time instead of studying the different doctrines and identifying their flaws. Another reflection shared, whether full-time or part-time madrasahs, literature is absent on the development of Islam in Southeast Asia in the curriculum – history and discourse. There is also a lack of exposure to local and regional thinkers. Syafiqah also stressed the importance of questioning in religious learning in intellectual development. Some teachers often do not like their students to ask what is being taught, which inhibits critical thinking and does not promote intellectual capacity. In summary, Syafiqah stressed that the approach adopted in religious education is essential to producing students who are intellectually critical and capable of contextualising religious knowledge. In addition, emphasis on context and the complexities when learning religious knowledge is one way to equip students with such a skill. She also compiled a reading list on Islamic education for the audience to reference –

Panellists addressing questions from the audience during the Q&A segment. (Credit: MHF)
A group photo with panellists and the audience in attendance. (Credit: MHF)

The forum concluded with a Q&A segment where the panellists were invited to answer several questions from the on-site audience. Dr. Tuty rounded up the discussion with key takeaways – (1) Making the ecosystem attractive – low salary as a critical factor, (2) Do we need to relook at the purpose of madrasahs today? and (3) What are we going to do about the attrition? Two more sessions of SIS’ Asatizah Berwarisan are planned for this season. SIS is a discursive platform for our youths and young professionals to deliberate and discusses issues relating to the socio-cultural development of the Malays in Singapore from a contemporary perspective. SIS supports and provides a platform for youths to discuss these issues and topics with MHF and its partners.

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