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The Nature of Islamic Education

Mohamed Bhabha

"Read: In the name of your Lord who created, Who created man from a clot. Read: And your Lord is the Most Generous Who taught by the pen; Who taught man what he did not know."

(Quran, 96:1-5)

It is significant that among the first words of the Quran to be revealed to the Prophet, Muhammad (s), in the cave at Hira was the command to "Read" - an instruction to engage in a learning activity. In fact, the first five ayah of surat al alaq- those that the Prophet(s) received in that historic first experience of Divine Revelation - contain the words "read", "teach" and "pen", all related to learning and all exalted wherever they are found in the Quran.

In Surat al Baqarah, ayah 31, we read, "And He taught Adam the names of all things ...". According to commentators of the Quran, this is a reference to the acquisition of knowledge that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and which establishes the superiority of humans over all the creatures of the earth. Having taught Adam (a) "the names of all things", Allah tested the angels by asking them to tell Him the names of things placed before them. The angels answered, "Glory toThee: of knowledge we have none, save what Thou has taught us..." (2:32). Then Allah asked them to bow down in respect before Adam (a) who had been choosen - together with his progeny - to be the recipient of the Divine gift of knowledge.

The Prophet (s) made it incumbent on Muslims to acquire knowledge. He said:

"Acquire knowledge, for he who acquires it in the way of Allah performs an act of piety; he who speaks of it, praises the Lord; he who seeks it, adores God; he who dispenses instruction in it, bestows alms and he who imparts it to others, performs an act of devotion to Allah."

(Hadith: Bukhari, Muslim)

Knowledge is, indisputably, a commodity much valued in Islam. Not only is it the duty of a Muslim to acquire knowledge but it is equally important for Muslims to be involved in other areas of the acquisition or dissemination of knowledge. If not actually able to teach a topic, subject or skill, then it is the duty of Muslims, within the limits of their capabilities, skills and interests, to promote learning by assisting in some aspect of the planning, organization, delivery, maintenance or logistical support of learning activities.

With the relatively large-scale migratory movement of Muslims to the "new world" of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, beginning in the "sixties", a great deal of energy, thought and resources went into the establishment of mosques where none existed before. This was in the tradition of the Prophet (s) who, following the Hijra - first in Quba, then in Yathrib- constructed a mosque as the first order of business. Also of note, however, is the importance that the Prophet (s) placed, at the same time, in selecting and instructing some of the sahabah to train and guide Muslims in outlying areas of the emerging Dar-al-Islam. Of particular significance is the fact that after the Battle of Badr, in the year following the Hijra, pagan prisoners of war who were unable to raise the price of ransom - but were literate and qualified to teach - were contracted to work off their ransom by teaching Muslims for a specified period of time. Judging from this, it is evident that the provision of education to Muslims - in all its aspects - was high on the Prophet's (s) list of priorities for the nascent ummah in Medina.

Unfortunately, it does not appear that Muslims in the "new world" have expended the amount of energy and resources in the field of education that they have in building mosques. Undoubtedly, there were exceptions, but the general pattern observed in the past seems to have been that the best and brightest of community members were selected to work on the "glamorous" aspects of mosque building, maintenance and operations. The task of educating the young was swiftly assigned to an education committee strung together haphazardly with earnest, well-meaning but untrained and ill-equipped individuals - usually women who did not work outside the home.

Fortunately, there are signs that this is changing. The attention of the ummah in the "new world" is now beginning to concentrate on questions relating to the education of their young. Questions are being posed in khutbas (sermons), conferences and - as illustrated by this issue of Insight - in thoughtful articles and papers. Answers are being sought to questions such as what type of education is suitable for young Muslims; how should it be organized and who can best deliver it: how is the curriculum to be organized and what professional development is required for teachers or volunteers. At this stage of the development of the Muslim communities in the "new world" it is necessary to give to Islamic education the importance that the the Prophet (s) gave to education in his time and, in so doing, it is necessary to start with a consideration of some of the basic elements of Islamic education.

Allah says in the Quran:

"Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, in the disparity of night and day, in the ship which runs upon the sea for the profit of humanity, in the water which God sent down from the sky thereby reviving the earth after its death, in the beasts of all kinds He scatters therein, in the change of the winds and the subjected clouds between the sky and the earth, here are signs for people who are wise."

(Quran, 2:164)

Islam does not breed in its followers a fear of knowledge: nor does Islam create a cult of mystery around what exists in the universe or beyond. On the contrary, as illustrated by this ayah, Allah invites Muslims to adopt open, enquiring minds: to explore the physical world around them; to observe, to record and to draw meaning from it all. This is the seed that sprouted the scientific method of modern scientific inquiry. Inspired by the Quran and the exhortations of the Prophet (s) Muslims were driven to develop the sciences by systematically examining the subtle movements of heavenly bodies and the mysteries of earthly phenomena: they began the process of learning the intricacies of economic principles from the merchant navies that plied the trade routes of the vast oceans; of chemistry from the study of plants in the wild and meteorology from changes exhibited by the wind and the clouds.

This was not the aloof, intellectual speculation of the Greeks that kept the limits of learning within the boundaries of the classical Greek paradigm. This was a new mindset inspired by Divine Revelation that launched - in a huge burst of creative energy mushrooming exponentially at an astonishing rate over a period of several centuries and spanning the continents - the greatest advance in learning in the entire history of humanity. It was the spark that freed the minds of humanity from the intellectual bondage of earlier civilizations and ushered in the modern world of hypothesis, observation and experimentation that eventually enabled the west - through the transfer of knowledge - to attain its present high level of scientific and technological progress.

In Islam the scope of knowledge is as limitless as the universe itself, but the purpose for which we educate ourselves is singular in nature. For a Muslim the overall objective of education is to develop taqwa - a highly developed and profound awareness of Allah - which motivates the Muslim to desire only to please the Almighty and to avoid, at all costs, any hint of displeasing Him. Allah says in the Quran, "Only those of His servants fear God who have knowledge." (The Angels, 35:28).

For a Muslim there is no distinction between religious and secular education. A Muslim approaches all learning - whether it is a study of fiqh or a doctorate in quantum physics - from the perspective of developing taqwa. Both Qur. anic learning and the physical sciences, for example, should equally promote and inculcate Islamic values.

Unfortunately, most countries with majority Muslim populations - the so-called Muslim states - have adopted western, secular systems of education in place of an integrated Islamic approach. The fact that these school systems may accommodate subjects such as Quranic studies or tajweed make them no less secular. The standard for a sound Islamic education system is not the grand total of Islamic subjects that are included in the curriculum but the overall content of the material that is taught, the point of view of the subject matter and, in the final analysis, the values that are inculcated through the learning experiences provided by the system.

In countries where Muslims are a minority - the so-called non-Muslim countries - most Muslim students have access only to secular schools. The challenge for them is quite different from those faced by students in Muslim majority countries. In the case of the latter, reform of existing systems is a realistic possibility, although the will to initiate change may be lacking on the part of the governing elites. In the case of the former, however, there can be no question of reform. For Muslims in these countries - and perhaps, as well, for their peers in Muslim majority lands - circumstances make it imperative that alternative full-time programs be developed where feasible, and part-time programs where not, to ensure that young Muslims receive a broad-based Islamic education - not one that is secular, value-neutral and, possibly, Islamophobic or one that goes by the guise of religious training, concentrating only on rituals and recitations.

Within the overall objective of developing taqwa, programs for young Muslims should aim to accomplish the following:

  1. Facilitate experiences through which knowledge of Islamic faith and practice may be acquired.
  2. Develop the skills required for reading, memorizing, comprehending and applying the Quran and Hadith.
  3. Develop an awareness of the legacy of Islam as expressed through its history and culture and inculcate the values of the belief system promoted by that legacy.
  4. Encourage the development of an Islamic personality so that the disposition to act in accordance with Islamic principles and values is displayed habitually.

These aims are framed in terms of learning and experiencing as opposed to teaching and telling. We know that students learn best when they are actively involved in discovering things for themselves rather than being treated like receptacles into which as much knowledge as possible is stuffed in the time available. Just as force-feeding is likely to result in the food being thrown up, studies show that the rate of retention for passive learning is negligible. The challenge then is to create environments in which learning may take place. The "lecturer" becomes instead a facilitator, resource and guide in the learning process. The emphasis shifts from the feeding of information to the development of learning skills.

As for educational content - for young Muslims born and growing up in the "new world" - there is the added urgency of the need for developing an intimate knowledge of the lives of Muslim personalities of the past and of the momentous events that forged the glorious history of Islam. Surrounded by images, symbols, heroes and legends alien to Islam these Muslims will know more about Michael Jackson or Madonna than about Taric Ibn Ziyad or Sumayah Bint Khubat. It is important for Muslim children to know more about their heroes and heroines; to be able to recount vivid details from events in their history and to hold a world-view that is from a Muslim perspective. They will not be able to do so if they are not enjoyably immersed in Islamic history and steeped in its culture to a much greater extent than they have ever been.

As for the role of parents, the responsibility for the education of their children rests primarily with them. It is the responsibility of parents to ensure that the home environment is conducive to Islamic learning through example and encouragement. From the initial, rudimentary teachings provided to their infants, the parents' responsibility extends, as the children get older, to ensuring that the best possible arrangements are made within the community to facilitate quality Islamic learning.

Too often, parents mistakenly feel that once the job of educating their children has been entrusted to professionals or volunteers they are absolved of their responsibilities. However, as mentioned earlier, they have ongoing responsibilities which they may discharge by, for example, assisting teachers and administrators in developing and implementing educational programs; monitoring their children's programs; by offering support and encouragement and, most importantly, by reinforcing the learning at home.

The challenges are plentiful. But if history and the example of our forebears are any guide, Muslims are equipped to take on the challenges head-on and not yield until success is achieved. The perceived existence of barriers to the advancement of Muslims in the "new world" may actually be unique opportunities for making a fresh start, free from accretions of inappropriate and irrelevant ways of thinking. The ongoing discussions around education are a promising start. May Allah give us the wisdom and the strength to fulfill our responsibilities to our future generations in this regard.

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