Reflections on the value of adornment, reviving blessed traditions in a culturally meaningful way and learning practical life skills whilst preparing for the school's joyous annual event
As the month of Rajab came upon us towards the end of the first half of the Spring Term, the children hosted their first whole-school event of the year. This is an annual gathering of remembrance in thankfulness for one of our Creator’s greatest mercies upon His creation: His sending of the beloved Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, through whom we have the gift of guidance. This is one of the highlights of the school calendar - possibility the highlight - and the weeks of preparation leading up to it fill the school with a buzz of blessed energy. The atmosphere across the school in the lead up to this annual event makes it seem as if the ‘celebration’ is not only in the final gathering itself but present in all the enthusiastic preparation of the weeks leading up to it, as our children channel a multitude of linguistic, artisitic and creative practical life skills towards it. It is, without a doubt, the season of the school calendar which can often bring me the most personal joy. This season at school carries a potent reminder of what may be possible with children when we make the effort to be faithfully creative in bringing the Sacred Tradition to life in an authentic, thoughtful, culturally meaningful and beautiftul way.
The children’s gathering includes recitations from the Noble Qur’an, spiritual poetry in praise of our Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, a recollection of the key events in the blessed Sirah, and a selection of prayers and supplications. Children from Nursery, Children’s House, Lower and Upper Elementary and the Senior School share different aspects of their learning throughout the gathering. The content of the gathering; the collation of texts and materials in it and how it comes together as a whole may make it a somewhat unique children's gathering. It brings together some of the best original works and materials produced in the English language celebrating the Sirah as suitable for the ages which our pupils span. It is often said that one of the signs of the spritual maturity of cultures which have been coloured by Islam through past centuries is the production of 'native language' original works of literature in praise of the Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, and in recollecting the Sirah. There are strong indicators that this is increasingly the case for the English language, in Britain and elsewhere. An important part of our work at Deenway involves keeping up-to-date with the valuable efforts being made and curating these for use with our children at school.
The final compilation recited by our children has come together over a number of years through the work we do at school in helping them study the Sirah, and learn praise poetry devoted to our Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, from the best of the classical spiritual odes in Arabic to original English praise poetry. Extracts from different works have been selected, adapted and organised over the years to contribute to the narration of events in our compilation such that children of different ages and abilities can partake in its recital. Altogether, the recital takes the reciters and their listeners through a journey of remembrance in chronological order, starting before the coming of the Beloved Prophet - the age of the Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him - to the Farewell Hajj, all framed within the setting of longing to know the Beloved Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him. Our school's recital, carefully collated and compiled in this way, is a revival of a blessed tradition of gatherings which would bring to life to almost all the communities who embraced Islam over the centuries, becoming a means to uplift the hearts of the faithful, ingrain love and attain love for God's Beloved, may peace and blessings be upon him. The narrations of events in our school's compilation flow in easy-to-hear, pleasurable and moving English rhymes which are suitable and engaging for our youngest to our oldest pupils, interluded with uplifting songs of praise alternating in Arabic and English in which all can participate. The years of the blessed Sirah during which the Noble Qur'an was revealed are presented in an easy-to-remember way courtesy of the 'Qur'anic Year' learning method created by Dr. Meraj Mohiuddin in his resource 'Reveleation' (2015). This has formed a part of our Sirah teaching at school for the past few years. This year, one of our teachers crafted a creative practical learning tool for the annual event: a re-usable build-as-you-go-along 'Qur'anic Year' display complete with velcro-attached individual year labels, making the children's presentation of this period of the Sirah even more interactive and memorable.
Preparation for and execution of this annual event usually becomes an opening for creative energies and a focal point for the practice of a range of creative skills, time management skills, logistical and organisational skills, cooperative skills and many more in the preparation for practical life - all coming together for the production of something ‘real’ and meaningful: a beautiful output shared between the children and their school community. Then, there is the greater purpose: the critical learning present in revisiting the blessed Sirah and raising voices in prasie and remembrance together week after week. Practice sessions become more than just 'rehearsal'; each is a blessed gathering in itself, carrying tender moments when particular points of wisdom in the Sirah become particularly striking to a student or teacher. Children begin preparing for this event by learning their portions of recitals individually and in their class groups before coming altogether as a whole school intermittently to begin observing how all their different portions fit together. Practice in clear articulation and elocution, projection of voices and appropriate intonation ensue. Inshad - the art of sacred singing - is an integral part of the school’s culture and children sing devotional songs in praise of God Most High and in praise of His Beloved Prophet, may peace and blessings be upon him, weekly and more-than-often spontaneously. In the weeks leading up to this gathering, practice in Inshad intensifies with particular selected portions rehearsed time-and-time again by children to help their collective voices come together beautifully. Children try out daff beats to match their selected melodies and practice new ones in coordination with each other. Walking around the school during this time of the year, it is difficult to miss the pleasant sounds of singing practice coming from somewhere or the other as children hum away or sing away as they carry out chores at the end of their morning Work Cycle, or as they move around the school. Sacred singing uplifts the soul and brings the hearts of those who share in it closer together; no doubt its intensified presence in our school in these weeks contributes to the palpable joy in the atmosphere at school during this time.
Aside from the practice and preparation of content, there is also preparation for the decoration - the adornment of the gathering - and the sharing of gifts at the gathering. At Deenway, we place great value on all things handmade and the children take pride in producing things from scratch. This includes original decoration; from cutting, sewing and stringing together fabric buntings to the drawing and painting of canvases. For many of our older children who have been with us since their early years, these advanced practical life skills along with other essential skills required in the hosting of community events have been a part of their curriculum of learning from an early age in the Montessori classrooms. They can now excel in these and do not shy away from the challenge of daunting quantities or limited resources and facilities. It is often this time of the year where their ability to exercise tremendous dedication, hard work and group effort becomes wonderfully apparent.
Then, there are the sweet treats to be prepared for sharing as gifts: the school’s beloved date and honey cake! This is a special sugar-free cake recipe baked with Ajwa dates which originate in the city of the blessed Prophet - Madinah al-Munawwarah. Food preparation, from the simple preparation of snacks to baking and cooking are one of the most enjoyable amongst Montessori practical life activities and for many of our younger children this is a part of weekly activity at school. Our children love baking in particular and this time of the school calendar presents the ultimate intensive baking challenge for them. Preparation for this baking challenge involves calculating amounts of ingredients needed by working backwards from the final number of cake gift boxes desired and the number of small cake pieces required to fill each box. This year, with a whole-school contribution from Nursery to the end of Senior School, the children baked 25 complete cakes altogether over two and a half days. They assembled over 120 boxes as gifts for all members of the school community, prepared ribbon and decorative items appropriately for these boxes and crafted handmade gift tags adorned with beautiful handwritten calligraphy, personalised for each student and their families, and more to spare for other guests. The other blessed food gifts prepared are typically Palestinian Medjoul dates presented as roses crafted from red and green tissue paper, and this year, the Elementary children prepared over 50 roses to present to parents.
This year, the event was hosted at our local Quaker Meeting Hall. Desire for some adornment of a gathering or event which is meaningful to us seems innate to human beings. Simple efforts to make our surroundings beautiful, make what we do pleasing to the senses and draw people to it, may be instinctive or natural, whilst extravagence and excess remain a warning to heed. People can spend an incredible amount of time, effort and wealth in the beautification of gatherings which celebrate the 'special' moments of their lives; weddings, birthday parties, graduations, baby showers, anniversaries and other personal joys. This is more and more the case nowadays across all cultures and children observe this around them, learning from what they see. It is thus a blessing to be able to think of celebration as far more worthwhile beyond the milestones of our individual lives and to channel our time and effort in celebrating a more lasting universal joy. It is a gift - an increasingly rarefied opportunity - to spend time and effort in preparing for and beautifying a gathering devoted solely to the praise of God Most High and His Beloved Messenger, may peace and blessings be upon him. As educators, it is yet more of a blessing to share this with children as a practical learning lesson - 'learning through doing' - intending that the effort in preparation and beautification nurtures love for such gatherings in the hearts of the children and makes these the most special, the most beautiful and the most beloved of all to them.
Allahumma join us with your chosen Prophet on that day
When the world is resurrected with the souls in disarray!
If we fear that our good deeds are few and sins stacked high above
Our last hope is as he told us you’ll be with the one you love!
Because loving is believing and our faith is not yet whole
Till we love him more than parent child and every single soul!
- The Sirah Song, Abdullah Anik Misra