Challenges Facing Islamic Education

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Rabi' al-Thani 10, 1426 2005-05-18

Occasional Paper

by Yusuf Progler

Despite the current socio-political tensions between the Islamic and Western worlds, there is a largely unquestioned allegiance on the part of many Muslims to the normative modes of thought and action associated with Western modernity. Since the days of gaining limited independence from direct colonialism after World War II, most discussions on education in the Muslim world have been concerned with seeking empowerment in the modernist world system. However, there is a general lack of awareness that modernity and its knowledge system is situated in Western culture and society. Along with the more obvious curricular and methodological issues relating to modern Western education, significant political implications emerge when one considers Western education as an interconnected series of norms and allegiances. To the extent that Islamic education draws upon modern Western models, it is subject to this normative system. But while Western education works to create allegiance to the norms of modernity, Islam has established its own system of norms and allegiances, and allegiance to the norms of Islamic thought and action provides the basis for a workable social, political, and economic system.

  • A Test of Faith

  • Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

  • Classifying and Prioritizing Knowledge

  • Separating Knowledge and Wealth

  • Building Upon Islamic Knowledge

A Test of Faith

According to the Islamic understanding of the evolution of religions, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) reestablished original monotheism, the primordial religion of humanity, after it had been repeatedly corrupted by worldly desires and human forgetfulness. The Qur’an challenges those who still cling to these corrupted vestiges of the primordial religion and who dispute the veracity of the renewed pristine message:

[This is the truth from your Lord, so be not of the disputers. But whoever disputes with you in this matter after what has come to you of knowledge, then say, “Come let us call our sons and your sons and our women and your women and our near people and your near people, then let us be earnest in prayer, and pray for the curse of Allah on the liars.”] (Aal `Imran 3:61)

To generations of commentators, this was a test of faith after all rational arguments had been exhausted. But the disputers retreated from this clear challenge, kept and developed their own value system, and, to make a very long story short, the resulting Western system is on the verge of ruling the world today, and it is demanding from Muslims, and other peoples worldwide, allegiance to its system of norms, which by Islamic standards are corrupted.

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

Acting within the Islamic system of norms and allegiances can create conflicts of interest for those whose allegiances are intertwined with the currently dominant Western modernist system. For Muslims, knowledge and guidance derive ultimately from a divine source, not from worldly desires or corrupted texts. To know Islam is to express allegiance to its set of norms, but this allegiance can create a dilemma when those norms become deviant vis-à-vis a corrupted yet dominant set of norms. And this is not just a theoretical presumption because the dominating Western normative system threatens to subvert or destroy what it sees as deviant sets of norms in order to maintain supremacy for its own corrupted set of norms. In the Western system, which is based on falsehood and corruption as understood by the Islamic tradition, allegiance to a divine set of norms may come only at great sacrifice, certainly in terms of life and livelihood, but also in terms of faith and practice of one’s religion to the fullest extent of its ascribed potential.

Education is an important site for exploring the interplay between conflicting sets of norms and allegiances. This is especially evident if one views education as a process of becoming, rather than as a body of knowledge with certificates and degrees or as a preparation for a profession or livelihood. When a person seeks an education, that person is in a sense making a commitment to become someone different than when he or she started. Depending upon how much the educational system differs from one’s own system in terms of its norms, this process of becoming can be quite profound. Entering into such an arrangement means that the person who exits the other end will be quite a different person, with various degrees of allegiance to the particular set of norms adhered to and promoted by the system from which they sought their education.

Education is also a two way process. On the surface, a student seeks and obtains some knowledge, training, and certification from a particular educational institution, and a student also contributes to an institutional system in obvious ways, such as through paying tuition and making donations as an alumnus or alumna. But, more subtly, students validate an institution by seeking its form of education over the forms offered by other institutions. Students may also contribute by way of securing awards, patents, or grants for their alma mater, thus bringing heightened prestige for the institution and further validating its normative system. The same can be said of distributing one’s works through various Western university-sponsored academic journals and book publishers, or accepting international prizes and awards; they all serve to validate the system from which they emanate. This is important in cross-cultural situations, where students from one cultural background can contribute to the intellectual validity and prestige of educational institutions in the dominant cultural framework, and at the same time marginalize those of their own cultural background.

Education, therefore, takes place within a complex system of intersecting norms and allegiances. First, there is the education of the self. To be a Muslim means to know Islam as a normative system; and to be considered as an educated person in an Islamic system means first and foremost to have allegiance to its norms and to make every effort to exemplify them. Next, there are implications for any particular community of Muslims that may be continuing the norms of Islam along with their local languages and cultural practices. Then there are implications for Muslims worldwide, the Ummah, in terms of making cultural, political, social, and economic connections with other communities, developing over the years into a broad-based Islamic movement.

Finally, there are implications for humanity, involving identifying its problems and hindrances to establishing ethically just societies. Unjust normative systems and their patterns of allegiance feed back into the development of self, community, Ummah, and humanity. In other words, joining a system of norms and allegiances may have potentially profound repercussions for generations to come. This affects not only the practice of one’s religion, but also virtually every other aspect of life, ranging from agriculture and architecture to medicine and science. Western civilization maintains a network of allegiances to its normative system of thought and action, and this network operates through education and its accompanying temporal rewards. Any movement toward liberation, especially one claiming allegiance to divine norms, will have to rethink the purpose of the forms of education it values and pursues.

Like other peoples recently emerging from colonialism, Muslims need to evaluate their own forms of education—including an assessment of community needs—before importing part and parcel an educational system from the West. At best, introducing the Western system is like laying a thin socio-cultural membrane over indigenous societies and norms, creating a sort of cultural schizophrenia. At worst, imposing the Western system of education builds a support mechanism for direct colonization, which has dogged non-Western peoples for several centuries. Ignoring any consideration of these issues cannot be seen as simply remaining “neutral” or “objective.” Rather, in the present climate of dogmatic American triumphalism, ignorance or passivity amounts to self-degradation and tacit support of colonialism, directly or indirectly.

Classifying and Prioritizing Knowledge

The Islamic tradition encourages Muslims to “seek knowledge.” In a series of celebrated hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said, “Seek knowledge even in China,” and “Seek knowledge continuously,” and “Seeking knowledge is incumbent upon all Muslims, men and women.” While Muslims have heeded this call for centuries, recent developments in Western civilization are posing new challenges to seekers of knowledge. Western civilization is rushing headlong into a commodity-driven and individualistic “information age” with little sense of the difference between information and knowledge, and with few criteria other than advertising and desire to make distinctions. In order to avoid drowning in the information whirlpool, some selection criteria seem necessary.

To illustrate just one example, use a large online bookstore or search engine, and type in a key phrase like “child rearing.” Thousands books, articles, and Web sites will immediately appear. In practical terms of time and money, it would be impossible for any seeker to avail himself or herself of what is contained in all of those instantly located sources. Nevertheless, if someone tried to read all those sources, if he or she found some way to not have to do anything else, and just read those sources for the rest of his or her life, perhaps he or she will be “seeking knowledge.” But will he or she then be knowledgeable?

In answering such questions, with respect to the above hadiths on seeking knowledge, a key problem arises in translation of the Arabic word `ilm, which is rendered above as “knowledge,” and which is also often rendered as “science”. But if `ilm is knowledge, then in the Hadith, what is the word for “information”? Do the Hadith and other traditional sources that speak of seeking knowledge also apply to seeking information? Does the Islamic tradition possess the resources for making meaningful distinctions? In Muslim intellectual history, there is a more detailed hadith from the Prophet that can shine light on such questions. Muslim scholars through the ages—ranging from Imam Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) to Mullah Sadra (d. 1640 CE), and, more recently, Imam Khomeini—have commented upon this hadith. The wisdom of this hadith has informed Muslim seekers of knowledge for centuries, although less so among Western-educated technocrats in the modernist and colonialist periods. In the Arabic, the hadith is quite eloquent, a sure sign of its authenticity to historians of the Islamic tradition, and in its English rendition it is as follows:

The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) once entered a mosque where there was a group of people surrounding a man. “Who is that?” inquired the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). He was told, “He is a very learned man.” “What is a very learned man?” asked the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). They told him, “He is the most learned of men regarding Arab genealogies, past episodes, the pre-Islamic days of ignorance, and Arabic poetry.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “That is knowledge the ignorance of which is no harm and the possession of which is no benefit.” Then the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) declared, “Verily knowledge consists of these three: the firm sign, the just duty, and the established practice. All else is superfluous.” (Khomeini)

Scholars can produce commentaries on this hadith, and they can do speculative research to help determine what is meant by “firm sign, just duty, and established practice,” but in a general sense what the above hadith says is that Muslims ought to classify and prioritize the knowledge they seek. This seems to be in full recognition of the mortality of the human being, who only has a certain amount of time in this world. One can spend a lifetime seeking knowledge, but without some criteria to classify that knowledge and thus give it meaning, this “lifelong learning” could be construed as spending a lifetime seeking knowledge that is superfluous at the expense of knowledge that is more important and meaningful, as implied by the above cited hadith. When modernist as well as fundamentalist Muslims hear this hadith for the first time, many of them will tend to see it in terms of haram and halal. But the hadith is not really about what is halal and haram in seeking knowledge; it is more about classifying and prioritizing the time and effort spent on seeking knowledge. To put it as simply as possible, this Prophetic hadith suggests that some knowledge is more important than other knowledge, and that there need to be priorities.

During the periods of modernity and colonialism, Muslims abandoned a key part of their tradition: the ability to classify and prioritize the seeking of knowledge as outlined in the above hadith, and as put into practice by Muslims prior to modernity and colonialism. As a result, the West now decides what is important knowledge and what is not, and this is done according to the beliefs and goals of Western civilization. An elaborate system of certificates and degrees, acting like so many rewards and punishments, has assured that the Western system of knowledge is taken as the universal system. This pious fraud is at the core of the challenge facing Islamic education today: that despite what labels Muslims may put on it, most education is West-directed.

Separating Knowledge and Wealth

any modern Muslims who have been cleared by the Western political investment community, and who wield some limited power in their communities, have largely bought into the Western normative worldview. This worldview is based on a utilitarian and economist perspective, which says that the only knowledge worth seeking is the knowledge that is able to generate wealth. The old saying “knowledge is power” has given way to a new saying, that “knowledge is wealth.” But what does the Islamic tradition say about the relationship between knowledge and wealth?

The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) once declared to his Companions, “There are two kinds of greedy people who cannot be satisfied: the seeker of knowledge and the seeker of this world. While the seeker of knowledge receives an increase in Allah’s pleasures, the seeker of this world delves deeply into tyranny.” (Mizan al-Hikmah by Muhammadi Rayshahri)

If we accept, as the Qur’an suggests, that wealth is one of the trappings of this world, then the wisdom of this hadith becomes more apparent, and the Islamic tradition can provide criteria for making distinctions between knowledge and wealth.

The Prophetic recognition cited above—that the greed for knowledge and for this world are both insatiable and that the latter will lead to tyranny—was borne out on several notable occasions in early Islamic history. It is widely accepted among Muslims that the heir to the Prophet’s knowledge and wisdom was `Ali ibn Abi Talib, who, in addition to being the fountainhead of most Sufi orders, is also remembered as one of the “rightly guided” political successors of the Prophet for the Sunnis and as the first “infallible” imam for the Shiah. When Imam `Ali became the leader of the Muslims, he faced the emergence of dynastic rule among the Umayyad clan. The imam had first-hand experience with the relationship between knowledge and wealth, and this had become more acute after his death as dynastic rule solidified under the Abbasids. During that period, many of the great Muslim scholars, like Ja`far Sadiq, Abu Hanifah and Ibn Hanbal, languished in prisons because they exhorted the Muslims to knowledge—as defined by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)—while the dynastic regimes tempted Muslims with wealth and superfluity. Imam `Ali’s reign lies at the crossroads of this fateful shift in allegiance among Muslims, and both his deeds and teachings are instructive for our purposes. On one occasion, he is recorded as having said:

Knowledge is better than wealth sevenfold. First, knowledge is the heritage of the prophets, while wealth is the heritage of the pharaohs. Second, wealth decreases by spending, while knowledge multiplies. Third, wealth is in need of protection, while knowledge protects those who have it. Fourth, knowledge enters into the burial cloth, while wealth stays behind. Fifth, wealth is an occurrence for the believers and disbelievers alike, while knowledge does not occur except to the believers. Sixth, everyone is in need of knowledge in matters of his religion, while no one is in need of the owner of wealth. And seventh, knowledge empowers humankind to pass along the straight path, while wealth blocks it. (Mizan al-Hikmah by Muhammadi Rayshahri)

This tradition makes a strong case that knowledge cannot be wealth. In fact, wealth is a sort of dwindling and even corrupting burden, while knowledge is a growing and at times regenerative ease. It also suggests that knowledge and wealth be kept separate. With the Western system increasingly being exposed as the spinner of inequality, greed and destruction in terms of the health of humanity, and with utilitarian and economist views of knowledge being wielded by the same powers, the mental as well as the environmental health of the planet and its inhabitants may depend on the abilities of Muslims and other non-Western peoples to mine their own traditions and try to configure another way, based on deeply-rooted teachings like the ones cited here. This alternative way would have to first recognize the relationships between knowledge, power, and wealth, by forming a critique grounded in Islam, within which may also lie a regenerative vision.

Building Upon Islamic Knowledge

Let us conclude with a look at the outcomes of the Western educational system, and compare them to those expected by the Islamic system. In the West, it is possible for someone to complete a rigorous course of study in higher education, but to emerge as emotionally impoverished and morally bankrupt. A school or university graduate within the Western modernist system could receive high honors and yet still be an apostate, disbeliever, atheist, or Satanist. Though such people may be able to function perfectly well as bankers, business executives, and politicians in the West-directed world order, to Muslims such educational outcomes would indicate that either the student has failed miserably, or that the educational system itself is severely dysfunctional. With this in mind, there are two other famous teachings of Imam `Ali that suggest what the outcomes of an Islamic educational experience ought to look like, and what they ought not to look like. When asked by one of his companions about how to recognize a knowledgeable person, or what we might understand as someone who is well educated, the imam replied:

To those who are seekers of knowledge, knowledge has many merits. Its head is humility, its eye is freedom from envy, its ear is understanding, its tongue is truthfulness, it memory is research, its heart is good intention, its intellect is knowledge of things and matters, its hand is compassion, its foot is visiting the learned, its resolution is integrity, its wisdom is piety, its abode is salvation, its helmsman is well-being, is mount is faithfulness, its weapon is softness of speech, its sword is satisfaction, its bow is tolerance, its army is discussion with the learned, its wealth are refined manners, its stock is abstinence from sins, its provision for journey is virtue, its drinking water is gentleness, its guide is Divine guidance, and its companion is the love of the spiritually elect. (Mizan al-Hikmah by Muhammadi Rayshahri)

Conversely, a teaching of the imam that illustrates the outcome of seeking this world provides clues as to the undesirable educational results for someone who has pursued the wrong course:

The people of this world are excessive in eating, laughing, sleeping, and anger. They find little satisfaction and do not apologize to whomever they offend, nor do they accept apologies from whoever has offended them. They are lazy in their obedience but courageous in their disobedience. They are not responsible for their inner desires. They are of little advantage to anyone, yet they are excessive in speaking. They have no need for piety or fear, and yet they show great enthusiasm in consuming. The people of this world are not thankful for their prosperity, nor are they patient in times of distress. They praise themselves about that which they do not deserve, and they speak often about that which they desire. They readily expose other people’s negative shortcomings while they often conceal other people’s positive attributes, and they are not modest to those whom they meet. (Mizan al-Hikmah by Muhammadi Rayshahri).

In addressing the challenges for Islamic education, those who do not exhibit the attributes of a “seeker of knowledge” as suggested by Imam `Ali’s saying above, or who cannot discern knowledge from superfluity as defined in the previously cited Prophetic hadiths, are not likely to be considered as knowledgeable or well-educated people. Similarly, those who exhibit the above noted attributes of the “people of this world” can be understood as having been miseducated.

To those rooted in the worldview of Islam, who accept its system of norms and allegiances, there is a profound schizophrenia in the West today, which promotes the highest forms of intellectual achievement side by side with the basest and most selfish forms of injustice, frivolity, and greed. Living in such a world, participating in its educational systems, Muslims who are serious about Islamic education face a challenge from the hadiths and teachings cited above, in which specific forms of knowledge can take precedence over others, in which distinctions can be made between seeking knowledge and seeking the life of this world, and in which there is a normative emphasis on creating piety, ethics, humility, and responsibility, all of which must be among the earmarks of a knowledgeable person. An education that neglects this knowledge will be, in the end, defective.


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