The Politicisation of Religious Education in Tunisia

2020-07-17    |   

The Politicisation of Religious Education in Tunisia

Education experts present curricula and educational materials as the product of a scholarly effort aimed at developing knowledge and student achievement. For the most part, this statement reflects the driving forces of educational reform projects. However, the question of religious education reveals the role of politicians in formulating educational content and the role that this content plays in shaping political opinion. In Tunisia, the history of religious education is a gateway for investigating the role of politics in the creation of educational content. This article will address the colonial period, when religious education was a tool for preserving identity and creating resistance, and the post-independence state, where religious education turned into a subject taught with limited hours and used unequivocally in government conflicts. Religious education also appears in the Second Republic, where it raises questions about the impact of the inherited and new political usage of religious education on the values of the “civil state” and democratic society’s perceptions of cultural and ideological freedoms.


The Colonial Era: Education as an Arena for Resistance Armed with Religious Identity

On 6 May 1883, Louis Machuel became the director of the Department of Public Education in Tunisia with a specific goal, namely evaluating education in Tunisia and conceiving a way to make it serve the colonial project.[1] The government official capitalized on his specialization in Arabic language and his previous experience in Algeria to form a precise description of the education situation, which included the following observations:

  • In 1897, the katateeb [informal Quranic schools] numbered 1,427. They were spread across all Tunisian villages and neighborhoods and located in unventilated rooms attached to mosques. Each one was supervised by a teacher with limited knowledge who taught adolescents the Quran and the principles of Arabic writing in exchange for trivial monetary or in-kind offerings.[2]

  • The Sufi zawiyas provided religious education to adolescents that improved their religious and language knowledge.

  • Al-Zaytuna Mosque had the ability to conduct religious education and training in Arabic and could develop in a manner that would allow it to preserve the local community’s social pattern while creating cultural frames of reference that would encourage the conservative Tunisians to accept French authority without that placing any responsibilities toward them on the French state.

  • The Sadiki College, which taught students Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence alongside French literature and the sciences in French, provided a significant advantage to the French administration because it would train the translators who facilitate communication between the French and Tunisians and because of the role it could play in gradually Frenchifying society. Given its importance, it should serve as the basis for establishing a system of French-Arabic schools, i.e. schools that combine Arab Islamic culture and French language and that do not permit students who complete their education in them to enroll in university.

  • Tunisia’s Jews relied for their education on biblical katateeb distributed throughout their neighborhoods, which suffer from the same flaws as their Islamic counterpart, and on the Israelite schools,[3] which taught their children using modern curricula.[4] The fact that France helped establish the first of these schools in Tunisia in 1860 confirmed the affinity between France and Tunisian Jews, which should be reinforced via the creation of a conviction among them that they are closer to the Protectorate than the Muslims.

Subsequently, the French ministry adopted three main approaches:

Firstly, the number of French schools was increased, and priority for admittance into them was given to Jews, after Europeans. Tunisian Muslims with influence and social standing were encouraged to enroll their children in these schools, and an incentive in the form of exemption from military service for people who obtained their primary school certificate from them was adopted to achieve this objective.

Secondly, by 1912 the number of French-Tunisian schools had been increased to 60, encompassing 9,000 Tunisian students.[5] The education of Muslim girls was assigned particular importance inside this system in order to change Tunisian society from the inside. Hence, 15 girls’ schools were established.[6]

Thirdly, the reformist current inside al-Zaytuna was supported in its demands for improvement to its education system. The direct effect of this support included the 1912 reforms.[7] As a result, Tunisian religious education had the same outcomes as modern education, albeit with different names and syllabuses.


These carefully considered approaches yielded significant convergence between the occupation as a system of government and al-Zaytuna, which became an institution that appeases the occupier. Some of its sheikhs even obeyed the occupier’s orders.[8] Likewise, some graduates of the French-Arabic schools were integrated into the colonial administration and became agents of colonial rule. Similarly, the colonial administration’s concord with Zionist propaganda led to the separation of most Tunisian Jews from their society and the integration of those of them living in the cities into Western culture in terms of language, discourse, and way of life.

Hence, the occupier exploited the weapon of knowledge and religious education, which helped its policy in Tunisia of linking the entire social structure to its authority succeed for a while without it bearing any subsequent social burden. This was noticed by the pioneers of the nationalist movement, who responded using the same weapon of education and its religious content. Examples include the role that al-Zaytuna students played in mobilizing the street against the Eucharistic Congress in 1930,[9] as well as the way that the nationalist movement’s leaders who had graduated from the Sadiki College used religion to thwart the French naturalization policy.[10]

In this regard, on 25 June 1958, just two years after independence, President Habib Bourguiba acknowledged the role of religious education and the Zaytuna establishment in the national movement in both Tunisia and Algeria for standing against the Frenchification of the community. However, he quickly backtracked, stating that, “This education still clings to the past and is outdated” as it no longer “concords with present life and the cadre and qualifications it demands”. This statement paved the way for a new conception of religious education’s place in shaping society, the details of which would be determined by the first education law in the post-independence state.[11]


The Modernity Battle Following the Independence Battle: Lighter Content

The post-independence state set as a goal for its education process building the individual student by developing their skills and building the citizen student who is in harmony with modernity and whose identity is defined by a sense of belonging to the Tunisian state.[12] One effect of this functional conception was that all the previous religious education was reduced to a subject termed “Islamic Education” and taught for one hour per week. According to State Secretary for Education, Youth, and Sport Mahmoud Messadi, who engineered the reform, the subject featured “content lightened in a manner that spares the student the strain of memorizing things he does not understand”.[13] This content involved certain Quranic verses and rules of worship, in addition to financial contracts in Islam.[14] Hence, religion was not among the foundations of the conception of the post-independence national character, so a large recession in religious education was necessary. However, this reduction did not last: the same state, still under Bourguiba’s rule, would soon after charge Islamic education with a political role and rely upon it to shape the upstanding citizen that it sought to create.


Invoking Religious Education Against Leftist Thought: Islam is a Religion of Life

The 1970s witnessed a large decline in the ruling Socialist Destourian Party’s ability to attract student youth, who gravitated toward leftist thought. Awareness of this issue seems to have prompted the Ministry of Education in 1978 to revise the syllabus of the Islamic Education subject to be a means of protecting the youth from attraction to Marxism and to help form a citizen who is “a clean slate in the structure of his righteous Islamic society” and “preserves religion as a component of the structure of his Tunisian community”.[15] Hence, it adopted the following approaches:

  • Teaching Year 5 secondary students Islam’s system of governance “so that they learn that we should not seclude ourselves from life; rather, we must live life in a system on which we have a say, and an approach for following this system is set out in scripture”.[16]

  • Teaching Year 6 secondary students about the Islamic reform movements and the thoughts of their pioneers, as well as teaching them the importance of faith in achieving mental balance and universal security in order to show them, while they were at the outset of their search for intellectual reference points, that Islam provides them with choices that can be adopted.

  • Dedicating the major part of the Year 6 and Year 7 Islamic syllabus to atheistic trends and refuting them with religious evidence, showing their danger to the Muslim community and humanity, and explaining Islam’s stance on people who adopt them.[17]

  • Creating a Baccalaureate of Sharia Sciences “to bolster trust in the foundations of religion and because Islam is a religion of life that need not be looked at through a historical perspective and is valid for a person in all eras and places”.

  • Asking Islamic education teachers “to try to convince their students – each in accordance with his mental faculties – that religious principles are correct and religious teachings are relevant to life, to be familiar with youth problems and respond to them in an Islamic spirit incidentally during the lesson, and to be aware of the misleading currents and factors they encounter and strive to promptly limit their effect”.[18]

A few years after this reform and in the wake of cultural and political developments, particularly the development of Political Islam in Tunisia, the Ministry of Education decided to abolish the Sharia Sciences branch. This partial reform did not affect the landscape. The people associating the Islamist movement’s development with education argued that a new reform in religious education was needed, a reform focusing on critical thought and aiming to dry up the sources of Political Islam.


Reform, Reform, Reform: Seeking to Dry Up Political Islam’s Sources

The political and economic crisis that Tunisia witnessed in the mid-1980s ignited a conflict between the government and the Islamic Tendency Movement. The first legislative elections that occurred under Tunisia’s new president in 1989 revealed the rising influence of Islamists. At this point, the government decided to uproot this influence in order to settle the conflict with them once and for all. In this context, educational curricula emerged as the backdrop of a battle to dry up the sources. At the time, the reform front was led by Minister of Education Mohamed Charfi, who was one of the left’s top leaders and assumed the ministry to pursue this reform without belonging to the ruling party. When presenting the part of his vision pertaining to Islamic education, Charfi explained that the material students were being provided terminated their ability to think and encouraged them to follow and believe in axioms that reject differences and create intellectual extremism. To escape this predicament, he determined that religion would be taught in two stages:

  • The first, which pertained to primary and middle education, would be called “Islamic Eeducation” and dedicated to teaching worship, the foundations of belief, and morals as a human value established by Islam.

  • The second, which pertained to secondary education, would be called “Islamic Thought”. The goal of its syllabus would be to encourage students to think critically. Charfi also saw the need to end the integration between Islamic and civil education within the school. The teaching of civil education by an Islamic education teacher could give it a fundamentalist dimension, which would deprive students of the ability to comprehend the inevitability of the historical development of ideas and institutions.

This reform was one of the causes of the regime’s violent confrontation with the Islamists, who deemed that it targeted Islam. The reform also met opposition from part of the ruling party on the basis that it targeted the values of the community’s Islamic character. This opposition showed once again that the government lacked a clear vision for the content of religious education, and this phenomenon continued after the revolution.


A Decade After the Revolution: The Margin Seizes the Religious Education Issue

The revolution and the subsequent decline in the culture of prohibition and suppression was coupled with the emergence of what could be called parallel education with a religious character. Its most important manifestations include:

  • The proliferation of Quranic schools that do not conform to the Ministry of Education’s official syllabus and are not subject to its oversight.

  • The initiative by al-Zaytuna Mosque’s leadership to revive the institution’s role in providing unofficial religious education overseen by its “Grand Sheikhdom”. This education is not regulated by any official text and the body overseeing it has no legal status.

  • Tunisian society’s realization that the standardization of education did not result in state oversight over the biblical schools as they still apply gender segregation in contravention of the gender equality principle imposed in education policy.

This religious education developed within frameworks that are not subject to official pedological oversight and that are governed by the teacher’s ideology and possibly their politics. Consequently, this education has, in many of its details, come into conflict with the values of the education process and the principles of the Second Republic. To overcome this situation, we must ask what conception is needed for religious education in the Second Republic. This conception should be governed by the values of the Constitution and free from political considerations, which have shown their shortcoming on multiple occasions.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Keywords: Tunisia, Education, Religious education, Political Islam


[1] Sraieb Noureddine, “L’idéologie de l’école en Tunisie coloniale (1881-1945)”, Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée, n°68-69, 1993. Etats modernes, nationalismes et islamismes. p. 239-254.

[2] “al-Katatib qabla al-Himaya wa-ba’daha”, website of the Tunisian Museum of Education.

[3] Les écoles de l’Alliance israélite universelle.

[4] In 1910, there were five of these schools. They were located in three cities, namely Tunis, Sousse, and Sfax, and taught a total of 3,560 students.

[5] Amal Mousa, al-Burqiba wa-l-Mas’ala al-Diniyya, p. 67.

[6] Tahar Haddad, Imra’atuna fi al-Shari’a wa-l-Mujtama’.

[7] In September 1912, a new regulation governing al-Zaytuna education was issued, dividing it into three stages: the primary stage, which resulted in an Ahliyya Certificate; the intermediate stage, which ended with a Tatwi Certificate (which was called a Tahsil Certificate after 1933); and the higher stage, which resulted in an Alimiyya Certificate.

[8] For example, in 1896 Sheikh Muhammad bin Uthman al-Hashayishi, one of al-Zaytuna’s senior scholars and jurists, journeyed to eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) and southern Libya to promote French control over Tuareg, Chaabna, and Sudan. See al-Jilani bin al-Hajj Yahya’s introduction to Muhammad bin Uthman al-Hashayishi, Tarikh Jami’ al-Zaytuna.

[9] The Eucharistic Congress was held during May 1930. Students of al-Zaytuna Mosque led protests against it in Tunis, claiming that it was a crusade that aimed to spread Christianity in Tunisia.

[10] On 20 December 1923, The French authorities issued a law easing the conditions for Tunisians to obtain French nationality. The leaders of the national movement sensed the danger that this law posed to the demand for independence and insisted that naturalization is synonymous with apostasy from Islam even though then-Shaykh al-Islam Muhammad al-Tahir ibn Ashur issued a fatwa denying this. Ultimately, in 1930 the nationalists led a large movement that ensured that a naturalized Muslim would not inherit nor be buried in Muslim graveyards, bringing them much popularity.

[11] Law no. 18 of 1958, dated 4 November 1958.

[12] Article 1 of the law stated that the goals of education are:

  1. To develop the character and the natural talents of all students.

  2. To contribute to work to advance the sciences and enable all students to enjoy the benefits of this advancement.

  3. To help develop the national culture and render it prosperous for both males and females without any discrimination on a gender, religious, or social basis.

  4. To prepare the child to perform their role as a citizen and person and train the cadre fit to ensure the growth of the various facets of national activity in all fields.

[13] This phrase appeared in a press conference held by Mahmoud Messadi in his introduction of the education reform project, which to this day is known as his law.

[14] In his speech on 15 October 1959, Bourguiba deemed that the teaching of these contracts was unnecessary as they are among the civil transactions regulated by law. Nevertheless, they were left to Islamic instruction.

[15] The official syllabus for secondary education, Islamic and national education 1978, Ministry of National Education.

[16] Ibid.

[17] These topics were the theory of evolution, historical materialism, sexual interpretation of human behavior, materialism and the danger it poses to spirituality and humanity, secularism and Islam’s stance on it, and atheistic existentialism.

[18] The official syllabus for secondary education, Islamic and national education 1978, Ministry of National Education., p. 9.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Right to Health and Education, Tunisia

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *