Is it safe for children to study the Koran online?

Fawad Rana and his son Humza
Image caption Fawad Rana keeps an eye on his son Humza, who is learning Arabic online

More British Muslim parents are turning to online service providers for their child's Islamic education - but this has fuelled concern that members of radical groups, based abroad, could pass on extremist views to children.

Traditionally youngsters have been sent to after-school classes run at madrassas, where they learn to read and write Arabic and recite verses from the Koran.

The madrassas are sometimes attached to mosques or Islamic centres but can also be in a person's home.

An estimated 250,000 Muslim children attend about 2,000 of these religious education establishments in the UK.

But increasingly parents are turning to online service providers who teach children how to recite the Koran using Skype.

Humza Rana, who is eight, eagerly logs on to the computer in his living room, closely watched by his mother.

He enrolled on a course run by the Faiz-e-Quran Online Academy, three years ago.

He receives three 30-minute sessions a week of one-to-one tuition with a qualified Islamic scholar based at a centre in Pakistan.

The lesson is conducted over Skype but without the video and using software that displays pages of the Quran. He reads the verse and is corrected by his tutor if he makes a mistake.

His father, Fawad, says it is an excellent service and, as they live on the outskirts of Birmingham several miles from their nearest Islamic educational institution, it is the best way for his son to learn.

Mr Rana says: "If we took him to a madrassa it would take two hours in the traffic and when he got home, it would be time to eat and then go to bed. It's a quality service at a premium price and we can monitor him at the same time. My five-year-old son is now also a pupil."

Image caption There are about 2,000 madrassas, such as this one in Preston, teaching the Koran using traditional methods

He says his son has made excellent progress. He has almost completed reading, in Arabic, the 30 books of the Koran.

Saima Bibi, from Sheffield, chose the same route for her 10-year-old daughter.

She says: "It's very time consuming, you have to bring the child home from school and then take them out again and it's hard. I also work and I prefer her to be taught in the comfort of her own home, it is much safer."

News of the online service providers spreads by word of mouth and relatives or friends can often vouch for the quality of the education provided.

Indoctrination concern

But there is concern that some of the hundreds of online teachers, who are often based in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, hold radical views and could indoctrinate their pupils.

One online service, Easy Qur'an Memorising, is run by a former member of a banned terrorist organisation. Mian Shahzib was a student activist for Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in Pakistan, an organisation proscribed by the UN.

But, speaking to me on the phone from Lahore, he denied he was still involved with them.

Mr Shahzib says: "I don't talk about jihad, I don't talk about any organisation. I just teach the Koran and nothing else. I am a simple preacher man."

He says he had been a student activist but no longer had any contact with JuD.

There is no evidence he was ever involved in criminal activity.

Imam Salim Ghisa, from the Iqra Education Centre in Preston, is worried about some of the online providers.

Image caption Salim Ghisa says learning the Koran is all about interpretating its meaning

The Iqra centre is a modern madrassa with desks and chairs, interactive whiteboards and other up-to-date teaching aids. It aims to recreate the schooling experience a child has in the classroom.

Mr Ghisa says: "Largely, with Islamic teachings and statements, a lot of it is up to interpretation. That is why we have different interpretations by extremists, they throw a different slant on to a verse from the Koran, so the same verse can be interpreted by a modernist or a traditionalist and have a different meaning."

Sultan Chaudhri, the owner of one online service, Faiz-e-Quran, believes the onus must be on parents to research education providers.

He is a former army colonel and has 47 British children on his books.

Mr Chaudhri says:" Anything which is said by our teachers is recorded by our IT server and we sometimes monitor this. Also, our tutors are all in one small room and are supervised so whatever is said is said in front of everyone. We also encourage parents to take a keener interest in what their child is learning. We find it helps them to complete the course faster."

The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) is a self-regulatory body for about 500 madrassas and mosques in the UK.

Director, Mustafa Field, said:"At this stage, there is little evidence to suggest that Muslim pupils are in danger of being radicalised. What we would say is that children should get a holistic education. They must be able to critically analyse what they are reading and what they are taught."

It is not known if any British youngsters have been led astray through online services run by radicals but it is clear there is concern among some Muslims that it could happen.

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