Secularism in Islamic Schools

Sacred and worldly knowledge are not mutually exclusive
Developing Just Leadership

Maksud Djavadov

Rajab 14, 1439 2018-04-01

News & Analysis

by Maksud Djavadov (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 2, Rajab, 1439)

When examining Islamic history, one finds that in Islamic educational institutions, the divide between the worldly and sacred subjects exists only at a very superficial level. Scholars like Jabir ibn Hayyan, Ibn Sina, and Ibn al-Haytham were masters of Islamic sacred knowledge as well as of chemistry, optics, and medical sciences. Even today, when one travels to Morocco or Iraq, one can witness that astronomical observatories are located mostly within the premises of masjids.

With the onslaught of colonialism and imperialism in Muslim lands, the gap between worldly subjects and sacred Islamic knowledge widened. Aggressive colonialism followed by equally aggressive, but more sophisticated neo-colonialism sidelined the Islamic paradigm of knowledge. This led to extreme responses. On one side, some Muslims came to reject everything associated with the so-called Western secular educational system, leading to regressive groups like Boko Haram, and on the opposite side it led to capitulation to Western intellectual colonization embodied through the likes of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

Since 2001 when the US launched its war on Islamic activism under the guise of “war against terror,” the educational realm also did not escape the soft-power onslaught. According to Dr. Saba Mahmood, in 2003, “the White House National Security Council (NSC) formally established a new program named Muslim World Outreach with as much as $1.3 billion at its disposal (and with more allocations to come).” One of the aims of this project was “establishing Islamic schools that counter the teachings of the now notorious fundamentalist madrassas, reforming public school curriculums, and media production (which includes establishing radio and satellite television stations, producing and distributing Islamic talk shows…”

Naturally, many Muslim intellectuals and scholars responded to the challenge of subversion of Islam by not allowing the detractors of Muslims to present Islam on their behalf, but there is still much room for improvement.

Today, most Muslim educators and educational institutions do not realize that theoretical sciences like physics only study the mathematical aspects of material reality. The implicit philosophical claim in many science textbooks is that physics constitutes all of reality, or all that is knowable with certainty. The rest of reality is assumed to be reducible to physics. This essentially implies the following: man is just a bag of chemicals, the universe has no meaning or purpose, quality (including beauty, the sacred, spiritual experience, love, hatred, etc.) are all illusions of the mind and do not exist. These philosophical presuppositions are implanted into various subjects. Even though modern secular schools do not openly state in their science classrooms that religion is foolish and God does not exist, for the so-called political correctness reasons, by negating the obvious signs of intelligent design which point to a Designer, the modern educational system is directly challenging the Islamic paradigm of knowledge and pushing people toward atheism.

Prominent Muslim theologian Sayyid Sa‘eed Akhtar Rizvi when discussing atheism, stated something that today applies to the entire paradigm of knowledge in contemporary educational systems, “As I can ex-plain the working of an automobile and can guess the sequence of its manufacturing, so it is automatically proven that there is no manufacturer of that car.”

As space does not allow to dive into intellectual details, broadly speaking, Islam has a fundamentally different orientation toward reality and views Allah (swt) as the primary Reality, al-Haqq. According to Islamic theory of knowledge everything is connected to Allah, everything is a sign of Allah, everything is in submission to Allah and Allah (swt) moves history and is the primary factor in the lives of both individuals and societies.

Hence philosophical assumptions must be made explicit and worked into a proper Islamic school curriculum, otherwise Muslim educational institutions are implicitly accepting the spiritual disposition and philosophical worldview of another din that Muslims unconsciously import into their classrooms.

Today, most Islamic schools use teaching resources obtained from mainstream corporations and because many Islamic schools underpay their teachers, teachers do not have the time and motivation to integrate the Islamic perspective into their classes. This in no way means that Muslim schools are to redefine the force of gravity or “Islamize” math. There is a limit on integrating Islam into certain subjects, but that limit is not zero.

In most Islamic schools, historical events are at best analyzed within the leftist framework of struggle between the classes. Even literacy classes in the Muslim world use the first few ayat of the 96th surah, mistakenly translating iqra’ (proclaim) as read, to promote reading. Angel Jibril (a) did not come to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with a tablet and asked him to read it. Jibril communicated with the Prophet vocally. The notion of reading during the first encounter with Jibril was popularized by orientalists, which many Muslims picked up due to an inferiority complex in order to present their religion as “pro-education.” There are far deeper and better reasons/examples of Islam being pro-education.

The way education is approached in most Islamic schools today is by reducing it to ritualism and the only Islamic thing about most Islamic schools is the fact that they teach Islamic studies classes. Today, Muslim organizations arrange educational workshops and teachers’ training courses that are very informative, but completely lack the Islamic substance and paradigm of knowledge. One of the crucial ways to change this is to develop our own educational re-sources by integrating Islam into every subject and to maintain the right balance between the worldly and the sacred. Otherwise, Islamic educational institutions will not offer Islam’s total intellectual fulfilment to the young generation that is under constant Islamophobic attack of scientism, atheism, and secularism.

Unless the right balance between the worldly and the spiritual is maintained within the Islamic framework, Islamic educational institutions will fall into what can be defined as the Oprah Winfrey phenomenon, as the 2015 article in the Guardian newspaper pointed out: Oprah recognizes the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment. Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures…”

In today’s highly Islamophobic world, Islamic schools cannot afford to turn into places where the main Islamic aspect of schools are worship, rituals, and Islamic calligraphy on the walls. Islamic schools must provide their students with the necessary intellectual and spiritual tools so that they can live Islam as a lifestyle — and educational classroom friendly tools need to be developed to achieve this.

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