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PREMIÈRE PARTIE - Vivre l’école : dynamiques plurielles de construction des savoirs et des identités
Partie 3 : Vivre des éducations plurielles : une double injonction identitaire

The “Light of Grammar”. Learning to Read between State School and Religious Education for Muslim First Italian-born Children of Migrants in Lonato del Garda (Italy)

La « lumière de la grammaire ». L’apprentissage de la lecture entre école publique et enseignement religieux pour la première génération d’enfants de migrants musulmans nés en Italie à Lonato del Garda (Italie)
نور النحو. تعلّم القراءة بين المدرسة العمومية والتعليم الديني لأول أبناء المهاجرين المسلمين المولودين في لوناتوديل غاردا (إيطاليا)
Gabriele M. Masi
p. 145-164


Cet article analyse les expériences d’apprentissage de la lecture à l’école publique et à la mosquée d’enfants musulmans nés en Italie de parents migrants à Lonato del Garda, une petite ville du Nord de l’Italie. S’appuyant sur une observation ethnographique, l’article s’intéresse à la lecture comme pratique sociale, impliquant nécessairement une question identitaire. Pour ces enfants de migrants musulmans nés en Italie, apprendre à lire signifie aussi vivre l’expérience de leur identité hybride. Dans un contexte où l’école publique et le centre islamique ne parviennent pas à construire des stratégies efficaces pour relier les différentes expériences d’apprentissage, les enfants finissent par apprendre également à gérer des « pratiques de frontière » qui caractériseront leur vie dans le multiculturalisme quotidien de la société italienne contemporaine. Cependant, l’observation ethnographique montre que les pratiques pédagogiques ne sont pas imperméables les unes aux autres : le modèle de l’école publique a un impact sur l’enseignement religieux et, d’autre part, les enfants peuvent utiliser des habitudes d’apprentissage développées dans le contexte de la mosquée comme moyen pour faciliter leur apprentissage de la lecture à l’école.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 All names in the article are pseudonyms, in order to protect the persons observed and interviewed i (...)
  • 2 Following the Italian school system, this is the second year of primary school (“scuola elementare” (...)

1Mohammed1 is a seven-year-old boy. He is attending teacher Elena’s Monday reading class in second grade.2 His textbook is resting on the desk in front of him. One of his classmates is reading aloud, and he silently moves his lips, miming the text and moving his torso back and forth rhythmically. Like all his classmates, he is seated on his wooden chair, with his feet on the ground. Suddenly, Mohammed moves his legs under his buttocks and kneels over the chair. “Please, Mohammed, put your feet on the ground and follow without distracting your classmates by repeating each word aloud!”, teacher Elena gently reproaches him.

2I witnessed this episode during my fieldwork observation in 2016 in Lonato del Garda, in Lombardy (Northern Italy), while I was studying Muslim first Italian-born children of migrants (mentioned as MFIC below) during their education. At first glance, this scene might seem insignificant, however, it offers a good point of entry to observe the everyday multiculturalism (Colombo and Semi, 2007; Wise and Velayutham, 2009) experienced by these children in a context like Northern Italy as early as their first years of schooling.

3Although a change “from the Italian religion to the Italy of religions” (Saggioro, 2020) has occurred in Italy in the last twenty years, several factors still deeply affect the everyday life experience of MFIC: the peculiar Italian “Catholic model of secularism” (Pace, 2005); the law on nationality – which still makes it very difficult for foreigners to acquire Italian citizenship (Frisina, 2010) –; the complex process of legal representation and recognition of Muslim communities; and the rise of “exclusionary populism” which has made Islamophobia the primary populist “anti-paradigm” (Ricucci, 2018; Cervi, 2020), as in other Western countries (Breen, 2018; Miah, 2016; Berglund, 2018, 2021; Burdett, 2016; Farooqui and Kaushik, 2022). These factors are the background where hybrid Muslim identities (Evolvi, 2017) and everyday tactics and strategies are modelled to resist Islamophobia, negotiate Italianness, and claim citizenship (Frisina, 2010), re-shaping “their fathers and mothers’ recognition demands” (Ricucci, 2018) and claiming a presence in the public arena (Regalia et al., 2016).

4How do these conditions, tactics and strategies impact MFIC in Italy? How do seven-eight-year-old MFICs experience this ‘boundary work’ (Frisina, 2010: 559) in their everyday lives? The purpose of this article is to show how the different ways of learning to read in religious and state school contexts constitute the background where hybrid identities are made.


5This paper is mainly based on ethnographic observations which took place in Lonato del Garda (Italy) from September 2015 to May 2016. During this period, I visited the local Masjid Ennour Islamic Centre three/four times per week, witnessing afternoon lessons, attended both by girls and boys aged from six to thirteen, while observations in the state school were limited to one or two mornings per week, following the teacher’s schedule. Formal consent was requested both from the leaders of the mosque and from the headmaster. Besides direct and participant observation, I conducted more than thirty structured and semi-structured interviews, as well as numerous informal discussions with teachers and the leaders of the mosque. Interviews were all in Italian, I then translated them for the purpose of this publication. Given that time has passed since the observations, and that I have already shared data and results with the actors involved, I have decided not to anonymize the locations, only the persons’ names.

Learning to Read, Anthropology of Reading and Hybrid Identities

6According to the definition of the body technique given by Mauss – “the ways in which men, society by society, in a traditional way, know how to use their body” (Mauss, 1968: 365) – the learning of reading can be considered as the training of a particular body technique. As all literacies, it is “situated, […] located in particular times and places and […] indicative of broader social practices” (Barton et al., 2000: 1), and it is part of the creation of disciplined bodies (Foucault, 1977) and educational habitus (Rowsell and Pahl, 2007: 391). Learning is a social practice (Street, 1995; Barton and Hamilton, 2000) as it implies the “(re)production of regional and national senses of belonging and identification” (Benéï, 2008: 15; Pellegrini, 2019, 2020). The study of trends in the achievement of reading literacy in primary schools across nine countries, conducted by the cross-national International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, has defined reading literacy as “the ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual” (Mullis and O’Martin, 2016: 12). Literacy practices – as a process of socialization – are embedded in a multiplicity of culturally defined norms and rules (Kumar, 2001) and entail a constant identity negotiation and construction (Gee, 2007; Leigh, 2014; Frankel, 2016; Wagner, 2021). Schools, religious organisations, and families differ on what counts as literacy and how it is practised (Barton et al., 2000). Hence, the concept of identity becomes valuable “to think about the purposeful ways in which individuals endeavour to position themselves through (and/or in conjunction with) literacy practices in social and cultural fields” (Bartlett et al., 2011: 157). Fuelled by important scholars’ works, such as Ugo Fabietti and Francesco Remotti on the anthropological concept of identity, Italian sociocultural literature has produced many interesting studies on education in an increasingly intercultural context since the 1990s (Gobbo, 2012: 155).

7These ethnographies underline “the difficulties in communicating, understanding and adapting to interaction with peers” (Fabietti and Remotti, 1997: 65), highlighting how teachers, while “delving into children’s strategies for learning”, struggle with “taking into account the social and communication skills those children have learned at home and demonstrate in the classroom” and how the difficulties were often conceived “in terms of problems of conflict to be solved” (Gobbo, 2012: 157-160). Although the Italian State is secular as a constitutional principle (decision 203/1989 of the Constitutional Court), Italian society has undergone its own process of secularisation (Garelli, 2014) and “religious sense of belonging is still configured as a factor of challenge [...] and constraint” (Granata, 2020: 60).

8Well explained by Boursin-Lekov (2007), the concept of identity is crucial to understand the purpose of Islamic religious education, as its goal is the “islamization of the individual through the acquisition of dogmatic knowledge, religious practice and guided behaviour” in a process that “appeals to a common Muslim ethic” (Boursin-Lekov, 2007: 384). Learning to read and memorise the Qur’ān is a crucial part of this process: The Arabic language participates in the construction of Muslim identity, and through collective lessons, children learn to be and think like a Muslim in the presence of a group of peers and to participate in the construction of the Muslim community.

The Primary School and the Masjid Ennour

  • 3 Data on immigration in the Brescia area for the period of my research are available on the website (...)

9The area of Brescia area has seen an important phenomenon of immigration in the last thirty years,3 mostly due to the arrival of foreign unskilled labor. In Lonato del Garda, a town of little more than 16,000 inhabitants, an old agricultural shed hosts the Masjid Ennour Centre, located away from the town centre at the border with the industrial area. The building has no external sign indicating either its religious purpose or the presence of the Muslim community and many of Lonato del Garda’s residents ignore its location and even its existence.

10Although it is not officially recognised, the local Muslim community considers it a mosque to all effects. For them, the Masjid Ennour is “the place where children really learn education”, as Abdelhadi, one of the leaders of the religious community, once told me.

They cannot learn education outside, they need a point of reference where they can have a level of education that is good for them first, and then is good for their parents, and then for our community.

11State school is seen by the Masjid Ennour community as the place where children learn to become Italian citizens and as a future economic-social elevator, while the Islamic Centre is a place where children learn to be part of the local and international Muslim community. When talking to me, Abdelhadi always emphasises the importance of the state school, stating that children are requested to do all their homework before coming to the Islamic centre.

12However, this point of view is challenged by several schoolteachers, such as Amelia who laments “that students tend to spend more time in the Islamic centre than they do in school, and they do not have time to do their homework and to study”. Moreover, they underline how school-family relationships are also strongly conditioned by the parents’ lack of familiarity with the school system and its procedures, which results in the weak monitoring of their children’s progress, as well as the lack of effective support for homework and study at home. This is made even more problematic by the socio-economic conditions of the families, which does not allow for the organisation of private lessons, a common practice in Italy to support students with poor school results.

13Abdelhadi’s statements, and those of the teachers, demonstrate the problem of mutual representation “at a distance”: No dialogue is carried out between the Masjid Ennour community and the primary school on how to help children in their double learning process.

14The only contact between these two realities is made through the Muslim children’s mothers, who are the ones that help them with homework, prepare their backpack, and go to school to meet the teachers.

15The main involvement of the mothers ends up feeding misrepresentations and prejudices: Understood as “women who need to be saved” (Abu-Lughod, 2013), mothers of Muslim children are often portrayed as unaccustomed to Italian social life (due to the isolation imposed by their men), unable to help their children with homework (due to language barriers and their illiterate background), and unable to manage their child’s school career (due to ignorance on how the procedures of the Italian school system work). For these reasons, mothers are targeted for literacy courses as a means of improving Muslim children’s school results, although teachers denounce the limited impact of these initiatives, due also to the lack of funds and continuity.

Learning to Read in Masjid Ennour

16The main purpose of the learning process for children attending the Masjid Ennour is to learn as many suras of the Qur’ān as possible by heart, according to their abilities and willingness. In Islamic education, memorization of the Qur’ān is generally considered the first step in the process of understanding (Boyle, 2006), as the approaches to knowledge acquisition “start with the very specific (i.e., the Qur’ān) and, throughout the course of their studies, increase their focus to include a broader and broader range of topics” (Boyle, 2006: 485). Memorization is part of “the acquisition of a know-how, that is to say the assimilation of a conduct and of a thought that would be Muslim” (Boursin-Lekov, 2007: 371). Learning to read and to memorise is the first step in learning the practice of good prayer, along with the acquisition of the correct ablution, gestures, and wordings.

  • 4 Here I retain the original transcription which uses “oo” for و and “aa” for the alif ا.

17Before handling the Qur’ān, children are provided with a small manual to learn to read the Arabic of the Qur’ān, called Noorani Qaaidah4 (“The light of grammar”), a 64-page small and handy textbook, written by Pakistani Imam Muhammad Daud in three languages: Arabic, Urdu and Italian. The text does not have a publisher but it is distributed within the circuit of Italian Islamic cultural centres through an informal network. The Italian translation is often not perfectly understandable and a teacher’s explanation is necessary in order to understand how to pronounce the letters correctly.

Fig. 1. Two pages of the Noorani Qaaidah

Fig. 1. Two pages of the Noorani Qaaidah

Gabriele M. Masi, 2016

18Several parts of the text are dedicated to explaining the correct reading for the correct recitation of the sacred text. For instance, in explaining the length of the vowels, the Noorani Qaaida describes the duration of an alif as “the time it takes to open or close a finger”. An example of the Noorani Qaaidah commentary is the following:

    • 5 In the Italian text, “le lettere madd” mean “long vowels”.

    When a hamzah (ء) appears after one of the madd letters5 (alif ا, wau و, ya ى), the madd is known as Madd-e-Muttasil and has a duration between 2 and 2 ½ alif.

  1. When a hamzah appears in the next word after one of the madd letters (alif ا, wau و, ya ى), the madd is known as Madd-e-Munsafil and has a duration between 2 and 2 ½ to 4 alif.

  2. When a sukūn or tashdīd appears after one of the madd letters (alif ا, uau و, ia ى), it will be known as Madd-e-Lazam and will last between 3 and 5 alif.

19Children start to learn to read at a very young age (a few of them were less than five years old), before they start the Italian state school: As soon as the child does “not keep crying, just wanting to play and disturb”, as Abdelhadi states.

20Learning to read appears primarily as an education of the body, a discipline of precise movements aimed not simply at learning the correct pronunciation, but also at incorporating the text: The mind must learn by heart, the body must move back and forth to beat the rhythm, fingers must beat the duration of sounds and signal to the mouth the correct words one must pronounce.

21The process of learning is carried out individually, even though sometimes the teacher asks children to help one another or allows them to pair and repeat the lesson. The atmosphere is pervaded by the continuous shouting of children, kneeling on the green carpet, rocking back and forth to mark the rhythm of their recitation. They kneel in lines, sharing long white benches where they lay their books: the Noorani Qaaidah for those who are starting to learn to read – generally for children aged five-six – and the Qur’ān for those who are more advanced. Boys and girls keep on repeating aloud verses of the Qur’ān while staying side by side in the same room. Normally, children group together by gender themselves, but as long as they do not become distracted or start chatting, girls and boys are allowed to sit next to each other. Children are not divided according to their level, due mainly to the continuous arrival of new children, the still low number of students, and the lack of adults with enough time and knowledge to teach in the afternoon hours. The pupil’s continuous reading is interrupted only by the evening adhān (call to prayer) that radiates from the loudspeakers inside the cultural centre. After having listened to the adhān silently, the teacher asks pupils to repeat it several times chorally, following the leading voice of one of them. This learning technique is also used for learning the sūra Al-Fātiḥa, or the rhyme of the rules for performing ablutions correctly.

22Usually, the class lasts one and a half hours. In that time, students must learn by heart a new part of the Qur’ān – the dars (دَرْس) – and then review what they have learnt in the previous lessons – the murājaʿa (مُرَاجَعَة). The number of lines to be memorised for the dars varies in length, depending on the commitment, willingness and ability of the child.

23The teacher tests all the students individually, stopping the student in case of a mistake to rectify incorrect pronunciation, or sometimes to correct other students practising by themselves, after having overheard a mistake.

Fig. 2. A sketch outlining the position of a student in front of the teacher during the class in Masjid Ennour

Fig. 2. A sketch outlining the position of a student in front of the teacher during the class in Masjid Ennour

Gabriele M. Masi, 2015

24In case a pupil stumbles or has a small memory gap, the teacher is patient and allows him/her to start again. Sometimes, when some students are memorising the same text, he tests them together. The youngest are encouraged to gather in small groups of three or four sitting in a circle with one standing and reading aloud the letters written in the Noorani Qaaidah, and the others repeating after him/her. Once they have proven they know the letters, children are required to learn syllables and words. They are asked first to spell a word, and then to read it in one piece, as in the following example: “hamzah-fathah-alif- / a: /; ba-fathah-alif- / ba: /; zaa-fathah- alif-daal-: / za: d /”. When a student is considered to be advanced enough in reading, he or she can start with the Qur’ān.

25Once the teacher has listened to the dars, if the student is good enough (four or five small errors of pronunciation are considered acceptable), he assigns the work for the following lesson, pointing in the Qur’ān to the endpoint of the following part to be learnt. After having tested everyone, the teacher agrees to listen to those who want to repeat the murājaʿa to him.

26During the classes, the teacher does not explain the meaning of the words to the children, but just verifies the formal correctness of the part they recite by heart. The memorization of words is considered sufficient: The meaning of the text is considered by adults too advanced to be taught, and memorization (together with practical knowledge related to prayer) is thought to be sufficient for basic religious education, a goal “already to be proud of” given “the limited time that children can dedicate to religious learning”, as Abdelhadi tells me.

Learning to Read in the Public School Ugo da Como

27Textuality is physically present in teacher Emanuela’s classroom. At the entrance, the task board defines the roles pupils have for the week (class leader, library, postman, classroom cleaning). Alongside, sheets with the letters of the alphabet, and two posters recall the correct spelling rules of the sound: / kw + vowel / (words written with “cu” and not “qu”) and / kkw / (as in the Italian word for water acqua). The text is always accompanied by images that are intended to facilitate the learning of reading and writing, and to relate words with the reality they represent. Reading here has a different goal compared to that of the religious education I have described before: Here language is used to describe, organise, and interpret the surrounding world, not to (learn to) reproduce, embody, and perform a religious identity. The focus is on the signified, while, in the Masjid Ennour, it is on the signifier.

Fig. 3. Detail of the wall of the classroom of the Ugo da Como Institute

Fig. 3. Detail of the wall of the classroom of the Ugo da Como Institute

Gabriele M. Masi, 2016

28Following the Annals of Public Education 2012, reading must encourage pupils’’ reflections on the world and themselves (Boda, 2012). Italian language is considered as a key part of the linguistic-artistic-expressive field in the school curriculum, a key to access new knowledge in the future, interpret reality, interact in the social context, and fully exercise citizenship.

29In the observed classrooms, the first hours of Monday mornings are dedicated to testing the children’s reading abilities using written texts they have already practiced reading at home. The teacher divides the text into three or four parts, asking every child to read some lines. When the text ends, another child starts from the top. This single performance is part of a collective action: The text is read several times by different voices while the other students must follow along and keep on practising simultaneously.

30The body discipline is very different from the one performed in the Masjid Ennour: Children are required to stay still, resting against the back of the chair, slightly bending forward to better visualise the lines of the text, and guide the movement of the eyes with their finger underneath the lines. The voice is neither monotonous nor chanting, but expression is required to reproduce meaning, as well as the expression given by the punctuation.

31Furthermore, the atmosphere is very different from that of the Islamic Centre: At school, silence is mandatory and there is no background noise overlapping and clashing as everyone is working on the same text.

32However, practices are not impermeable to each other. For instance, memory also plays an important role in the school learning process. Children use different strategies to deal with reading tests. As the text is assigned to them three days earlier, memorisation is a way to satisfy the teacher’s requests, especially for Muslim children. The method of relating to textuality that they have learned in the Masjid Ennour is used in school for a practical goal: receiving a good mark. However, memorization is gradually discouraged at school and the teacher asks pupils to start reading from different points of the text in order to discourage memorization. Moreover, reading abilities are also tested using texts that students have never read before.

33In this regard, the first reading session I observed – Leggere è magico (Reading is magical) – is a good example of how texts at school also have the function of transmitting ideas and practices regarding the practice of reading. The short tale tells the story of a child who spends most of his time in an attic, “where absolute silence reigns”, “lying in the hammock” in the company of several books that allow him to “make fantastic journeys wherever he is using his imagination”.

34Once the teacher has assessed the level of a pupil, she calls another student to continue, while the one who has just stopped gets up and goes to her desk where she puts a stamp with her signature on the book: A blue stamp rewards a good work, a red one indicates that reading needs some improvements.

35Eventually, the impact of the law 170/2010 also needs to be taken into account as it regulates the school approach to specific learning disabilities. Learning to read has undergone a process of medicalization: Students’ learning difficulties have started to be analysed and compared with scientific standards and statistical models. Those who do not comply with standards might be recognized as students with DSA (Specific Learning Disorders), a spectrum that also includes dyslexia. Too early to detect cases of dyslexia, the so-called “MT tests” are organised in second grade to identify students with potential dyslexia, dysorthography, dysgraphia or dyscalculia. MT tests show if the children comply with accepted standards in reading, writing and making calculations. Regarding reading, children are expected to read a certain number of syllables per second, within a set number of mistakes and to have a sufficient level of understanding of what they are reading.

A Constantly Changing Method

36State school is experienced by children’s parents, who have never attended Italian schools as students, as an important reference point to reshape the ways of teaching at the Masjid Ennour.

  • 6 Abdelhadi told me that once, in another Islamic centre, a teacher was accused and sued by the teach (...)

37The first changes concern the relationship between teacher and pupils. Although being slapped by teachers or being subjected to forms of small humiliation, such as standing behind the blackboard in front of the whole class, are part of the memory of older generations of Italians, today scolding through physical contact is forbidden. This change of attitude is countered by the media which often present Islamic centres as places where children are frequently subjected to great stress and physical violence. This was also the image that many school teachers had during my fieldwork, and which the adults of the Masjid Ennour were most concerned about, given how easily they could be targeted by the local and national press, or reported to the police.6

38However, the attitude of the 24-year-old teacher in the Islamic centre is very affectionate towards the children. Students who do not engage in reading and memorising activities are verbally reprimanded and sometimes asked to stand up in order to stay focused, but all children are able to find moments to relax and laugh, especially when the teacher leaves the room. Sometimes chips and candies are also brought as a reward for those who have been good and have managed the dars well.

39“You cannot use hard ways to learn the Qur’ān!”, the old member of the community, Abdullah Tiff, explained to me:

First of all, because of the law, then because it is not effective. We want a method that is similar to what there is here [at school]. For example, I give my sons some money as a reward and they use it every summer when they go down to Morocco. They make 150, 200 euros per year! This is a lot of money there.

40Some learning experiences from the adults’ childhoods in their home countries are re-enacted, as with the periodic Qur’ān recitation competitions. Others are abandoned, since they are considered ineffective, such as the simultaneous learning of writing and reading Arabic. Moreover, there is a constant comparison with the experiences of other Islamic cultural centres in the area:

Once we organised the school only on Sunday mornings and we also taught them to write, as they do in other Islamic centres. Then we saw that this was not effective and that children did not learn properly. So, we started doing every day from Monday to Friday, and we kept Saturday and Sunday to rest. We only teach to read. We have seen that it gives more results.

41I found evidence of this constant reshaping of pedagogical methods and goals in notebooks kept in a small bookcase in the class. According to Abdelhadi, these notebooks date back to 2014 when “while we were looking for a proper teacher, we ourselves taught the children, and we started teaching them a little bit of writing”. This period seems not to have lasted for long, as the notebooks have no more than eight written pages. Some pages show the focus on the handwriting of some letters, such as the practice with the letter mīm as below. Moreover, the alternate use of a blue pen for exercises and a red pen to highlight titles and rules recalls a common practice in state primary school, as well as using marks out of 10, something typical of the Italian school system.

Fig. 4. Detail of a notebook found at Masjid Ennour

Fig. 4. Detail of a notebook found at Masjid Ennour

Gabriele M. Masi, 2016

42Other models that influence the teaching methods come from the different national and international experiences shared through the Tablīgh network (see, for instance, Masud, 2000; Mamun, 2019), and, in particular, the model of the brotherhood in England (see for example Siddiqi, 2017), as Abdelhadi clearly told me:

In England there are proper schools, like the private ones you have here, but Islamic ones! There are statistics that say that the students at these schools are always first in all national tests. Sometimes, during the Tablīgh meetings we meet those who teach in these schools and we try to follow what they say. One day, in shāʾ Allāh, we hope to have schools like this here in Italy too. Moreover, the Tablīghi who travel all over the world, when they come to visit us, they tell us how they manage to get on with their children [in learning religion] and to let them study at the same time.

43Periodic meetings with communities or family members who live abroad become “scapes” (Appadurai, 1996) for imagining the future and acting in the present.

44The evolution of teaching methods is also evidenced by the change in the learning environment. Nowadays, the classroom of the Masjid Ennour appears as a totally different place. Already in March 2017, I witnessed consistent changes. Some were purely aesthetic and functional: the benches were cleaned, smoothed, and painted, as were the walls; large stickers with different Arabic writings started to decorate the walls; hangers were placed for children to hang their jackets; and the plastic shoe rack was replaced by a larger wooden one.

45A more interesting change has been the layout of the class due to the introduction of a whiteboard: From a scattered or U-shaped arrangement, pupils are now seated in rows of benches similar to the typical layout of a school class. Although the teaching method has remained mostly the same, the whiteboard gives the opportunity to expand on some topics, such as group lessons for grammar or pronunciation, which students are invited to attend silently. Furthermore, the rows of benches make the gender division more evident: The left rows are occupied by girls and the right ones by the boys.

Fig. 5. The lesson room of the Masjid Ennour, November 2016

Fig. 5. The lesson room of the Masjid Ennour, November 2016

Gabriele M. Masi, 2016

Fig. 6. The lesson room of the Masjid Ennour, April 2017

Fig. 6. The lesson room of the Masjid Ennour, April 2017

Gabriele M. Masi, 2017


  • 7 Frisina defines “boundary work” as the way “young Muslims experience and negotiate cultural and rel (...)

46For Muslim first Italian-born children of migrants, learning to read is also about the experience of their hybrid identity. In a context where the state school and the Islamic Centre fail to build an effective dialogue and strategies to connect the different learning experiences, children end up learning to deal with the “boundary work”7 that will characterise their life in the peculiar everyday multiculturalism of contemporary Italian society.

47The state school model has an impact on the Masjid Ennour as several changes have been made to adapt learning practices and, most importantly, to try to prove wrong external biases and misrepresentations given by the media. On the other hand, the state school seems to fail in its goal to enhance the experience and knowledge of pupils by implementing “adequate interventions with regard to diversity to avoid that they become inequalities” (Boda, 2012: 34). The mnemonic approach developed by Muslim children in learning the Qur’ān is not taken into account. Hence, as already noted by Valenzuela in the ethnographic observation of Mexican American students, schooling risks being a “subtractive process” that “divests these youth of important social and cultural resources, leaving them progressively vulnerable to academic failure” (Valenzuela, 1999: 3).

48Eventually, the movement Mohammed made on his chair, as well as his memorisation of the text in the state school context, are tactics to bridge a gap, to unify his life experience. As Anna Granata noted, in Italy, building a school as “a space of belonging and freedom [still] appears as a great challenge” (Granata, 2020: 67). Regarding primary school, intercultural pedagogy studies often focus on questions linked to “gender promiscuity in gyms and school trips, as well as the [...] attempts of children to anticipate the experience of Ramadan fasting or the choice to wear the veil” (ibid.). However, as this article shows, the ethnographic observation can help to underline how it is in micro-practices, such as the ones that constitute the learning of reading, where children experience the challenges of everyday multiculturalism and of their hybrid identity.

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1 All names in the article are pseudonyms, in order to protect the persons observed and interviewed in a context such as the small town of Lonato del Garda (16 000 inhabitants). As a few years have now passed and I have already made a public restitution of my research at the school and at the Islamic Centre, I have decided to mention the name of the town, the school, and the Islamic Centre.

2 Following the Italian school system, this is the second year of primary school (“scuola elementare”).

3 Data on immigration in the Brescia area for the period of my research are available on the website of the municipality:

4 Here I retain the original transcription which uses “oo” for و and “aa” for the alif ا.

5 In the Italian text, “le lettere madd” mean “long vowels”.

6 Abdelhadi told me that once, in another Islamic centre, a teacher was accused and sued by the teachers from the school because a child had reported that he had been beaten during the lesson. Similar cases have been periodically reported in newspaper articles in Italy, contributing to the representation of Muslim religious education as characterized by violent methods that do not respect the physical and psychological integrity of the child. I also encountered this representation of Muslim religious education in the state school in Lonato del Garda.

7 Frisina defines “boundary work” as the way “young Muslims experience and negotiate cultural and religious diversity in order to legitimise their presence and be allowed to also feel at home in Italy” (Frisina, 2010: 558).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Two pages of the Noorani Qaaidah
Crédits Gabriele M. Masi, 2016
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Titre Fig. 2. A sketch outlining the position of a student in front of the teacher during the class in Masjid Ennour
Crédits Gabriele M. Masi, 2015
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Titre Fig. 3. Detail of the wall of the classroom of the Ugo da Como Institute
Crédits Gabriele M. Masi, 2016
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Titre Fig. 4. Detail of a notebook found at Masjid Ennour
Crédits Gabriele M. Masi, 2016
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Titre Fig. 5. The lesson room of the Masjid Ennour, November 2016
Crédits Gabriele M. Masi, 2016
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Titre Fig. 6. The lesson room of the Masjid Ennour, April 2017
Crédits Gabriele M. Masi, 2017
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Gabriele M. Masi, « The “Light of Grammar”. Learning to Read between State School and Religious Education for Muslim First Italian-born Children of Migrants in Lonato del Garda (Italy) »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 154 | -1, 145-164.

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Gabriele M. Masi, « The “Light of Grammar”. Learning to Read between State School and Religious Education for Muslim First Italian-born Children of Migrants in Lonato del Garda (Italy) »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 154 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gabriele M. Masi

Università di Milano Bicocca

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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