– S. Sajjad Hussain & S. Ali Ashraf
Islamic Education And The Concept of Man
Education, shorn of all frills and furbelows, signifies the transmission of experience from one generation to another. What is transmitted in an organized society with a history is not individual experience as such but the cumulative experience of past generations enshrined in folklore, traditions, customs, poetry and the like. These in their turn crystallize around — and also mirror — the basic concept of the place of man in this universe that a society has developed and cherishes. This is as true of Islamic society as of the West.
The real nature of a system of education and its difference from other systems can be understood properly only when the concept of man underlying it is analysed and examined. In what respects then does the Islamic concept of man differ from other concepts and to what extent is it mirrored in the system of education that we call Islamic?
The first thing worth bearing in mind is that Islam subscribes to no theory of original sin; it does not believe that man has a basically tainted nature and spends the whole of his life struggling against it. The story of the Fall of Adam is part of the common heritage of Islam and Christianity, but Islam does not interpret it to mean that corruption and evil are inherent in Adam’s descendants. On the contrary, Islam emphasizes that every child, like his primordial grandfather, is born in a state of innocence and if it succumbs to evil later, it is because of its failure to rise above temptation. But for every one man who yields to temptation, there are scores who do not, a fact which points to man’s capacity for good.
It is no accident that time and again in the Quran man is described as Allah’s vicegerent, as the crown and chief of His creation. Intelligence and knowledge are spoken of as His greatest gifts — received from God — which he is called upon to utilize in the service of his Maker. These gifts and the tremendous power they confer on him render him accountable to God for all his actions, for the important as well as the unimportant ones: indeed distinction which he might wish to make between the two is illusory; he will be held responsible for every detail of his life, for the manner in which he employed his gifts and the use to which he put his intelligence and knowledge.
Now, this conception of man’s responsibility shows education in an Islamic society to be an activity unlike any other, either within its limits or in any other society. It is assumed to have unlimited potentialities in the matter of moulding character and elevating man to the highest rank in God’s creation of which he is capable. Islam does not believe that some children are doomed by reason of their birth and race to exist at the level of beasts whilst some others, again by virtue of their birth and race, are predisposed to excellence. Born without any inherent handicaps genetic or racial — they attain or fail to attain a full flowering of their faculties according as their parents or their society educates them.
Aims of Education
But what are they expected to receive from a process of education? The content of education which as we have said earlier means the transference of experience, can be divided for a Muslim into two categories: experience in the form of skills or technical knowledge whose nature varies from age to age and which is bound to change constantly; and experience based on certain constant or permanent values embodied in religion and scripture. These latter consist of those eternal verities which are not subject to change, and which for a Muslim are defined in the Quran and Sunnah in the clearest possible terms.
The system of education which has been characteristic of Muslim society down the ages, whether it was what the West calls liberal education or technical education (Islam recognizes no distinction between the two as regards the problem of values), has always attempted to uphold the premises referred to above. The essential goodness of human nature, man’s accountability, his commitment to a set of God-given primordial values — these formed the foundation of whatever education a Muslim youth received. The result, it has been rightly claimed, was the growth of a society in which different generations and occupations and strata lived in harmony with one another, bound together by a common faith.
Believing as it does that the true aim of education is to produce men who have faith as well as knowledge, the one sustaining the other, Islam does not think the pursuit of knowledge by itself without reference to the spiritual goal that must try to attain, can humanity much good. Knowledge divorced from faith is not only partial knowledge, can even be described as a kind of new ignorance. The man who has lost his faith in God is not recognized by Islam as a man whose knowledge can be described as deep. Such a person, however extensive acquaintance books, has but acquired only a fragmentary view of the universe.
What is more important from Islam’s point of view is that he may sooner or later find himself committed to courses of action which are bound to be immoral, unethical and socially dangerous because subversive of those laws which hold society together.
Islamic education consequently insists that piety and faith must be clearly recognized in syllabuses as an aim to be systematically pursued. The test of any syllabus must be whether it brings the learner nearer to an understanding of God and of the relation in which man stands to his Maker. The subject the learner studies may be any one of the numerous subjects that universities teach; it could be something other than the conventional. But in each case the test of its validity and effectiveness will be whether it fosters a deeper awareness of the Divine Presence in the universe. If it does not it should be clearly understood to be at variance with the Islamic notion of education.
It is from this premise that insistence on the study of scripture as first step in education springs. The word of God, properly studied, can be relied upon to strengthen the foundations of faith, and once this has happened, the learner can proceed to explore the world without fear of losing his spiritual bearings.
Thus what distinguishes the Islamic system of education from the modern Western system is the importance it attaches to faith and piety as one of its fundamental aims. In the West, the aim of education is spoken of as being to produce a good a good of which aims Islam can accept. But having secularized education completely, the West fails to indicate how in the absence of a set moral values, either of those aims can be realized. Western society is today in danger of disintegrating. There is nothing to hold it together except state laws, and when the justice of the state laws is in question, moral anarchy and urban lawlessness are the response.
Secularization of Education in the West and its Impact on Muslim Society
The decay of Islamic civilization and the rise of the modern West have been marked by the acceptance of doubt and skepticism as the basis of intellectual advancement and consequent rejection of most of the values which Islam cherished.
The West has to its credit great achievements in science and technology which have made terrestrial life safer and more comfortable. The aeroplane, the telephone, radio, television, computers – to mention a few things — each symbolizes an advance in material progress of which the ancients had no conception. Yet this material progress — which is within reach of common people — is not matched by any spiritual development. On the contrary, spiritually man today is much less happy than his predecessor two hundred years ago. Disharmony and tension have ruined his mental peace, rendered his social life infernal and deprived his existence of all meaning and purpose. The more the West reaches out for a solution without spiritual values and faith, the greater is the confusion, the greater the agony. Bizarre philosophies like existentialism and logical positivism try to discover a meaning in existence within the stuffy atmosphere of a Godless universe, but the more they seek to evade the central and crucial problem of faith, the more dreadfully they fail to provide a satisfactory answer to the problems of life.
But why, it may be asked, should this affect Muslim society? The answer to this question lies in a paradox.
Much as the Muslim, anchored in faith, disapproves of the spiritual nihilism of the West, he himself, because of his neglect of science and technology, has created around his society a suffocating atmosphere as oppressive as the spiritual sterility of the West. Want and poverty, disease and epidemic, colonialism and economic humiliation have forced him to realize that it is only by mastering science and technology that he can escape these problems. But when he turns to the West for his knowledge of science and technology, he finds that the whole of it is riddled with premises antithetical to his faith. Modern science and technology would lead him to banish God, to renounce faith, and to commit himself to the pursuit of mindless materialism.
The need for science and technology has, however, been so urgent for him that ever since he first became conscious of the disparity between himself and the Western world he has been desperately trying to master its secrets, copy its methods, emulate its examples, without waiting to consider the risks inherent in the process. The move towards the adoption of Western ideas began in the nineteenth century in many Muslim countries. The results which have manifested themselves in the course of the last fifteen decades or so have begun to frighten many Muslim thinkers. Are we, they ask, travelling the same path as has led to the purposelessness of the West?
Modernization and Cultural Identity: the Process of Reconciliation
But how to avoid the risks without having to renounce modern knowledge? Can we discover a means of isolating the sterile values which have so warped Western life from the knowledge which they corrupt? Knowledge, Muslim scholars believe, cannot by itself be harmful or dangerous. It is the extraneous values and assumptions which man imparts into it which cause it to produce a spiritually harmful fall-out.
This is the nature of the crisis that Muslim societies which have embarked upon a programme of modernization face. They are anxious not to lose their identity, nor to lose their distinctive religious outlook, and not to be infected with Western spiritual diseases. In order to steer clear of these dangers they must scrutinize what they learn from the West and search in their text books for those basic assumptions which they cannot afford to accept except at their own peril.
Now for the purpose of isolating spurious values from real knowledge, Muslim scholars need to re-examine the commonly accepted Western classifications of knowledge in the light of the Islamic fundamentals. For no branch of knowledge, whether it is philosophy or physics, epistemology or economics, can be wholly divorced from underlying value-judgements. The differences between the pure sciences and the humanities is from this point of view a difference of degree. The scientist who declares himself a non-partisan observer of phenomena has to start from or rely on hypotheses, and these spring from sources saturated with non-scientific values. The Western world has been trying, at least since the birth of rationalism, to explain the universe without reference to God, and the assumption that it will eventually succeed in doing so has coloured all its findings. No Muslim could accept such an assumption. Consequently, the first task facing the Islamic world is to discover those hidden assumptions which have little do with science but which are mistaken for scientific by the unwary.
This task has not been undertaken in the recent past or where undertaken not performed with the thoroughness it demands. This is how the dual systems of education found in most Muslim countries was no duality of this kind in the heyday of Islam, when in the van of scientific progress, and Muslim thinkers and philosophers set the pace for the world in all fields of knowledge. Having by their own neglect and backwardness allowed this position to change, that they advances discovered painfully on waking up from their slothful slumber that advances had taken place under the leadership mainly of the West in science and technology which left them far behind. And when they sought to acquire the new science and technology and also the new advances in other areas of knowledge, they did so at first by superimposing the Western system of education on their own; but the two did not fit in with each other and were in consequence left to function independently. This worked to the disadvantage of the old, traditional system, and the tendency arose for a new generation, versed in the new knowledge of the West, but cut off from their own past, to grow alienated. This phenomenon has manifested itself in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and all those other countries where Muslims tried to face the challenge of the West.
Patchwork solutions have been tried by combining traditional knowledge with courses in new subjects. But the combination does not work satisfactorily, for the values which inform the Western systems of education subtly penetrate the minds of our youth and throw them off their guard.
This is how the need has arisen for a serious examination of the whole of basic knowledge, of the concept of man from which it derives and which it sustains. The true Islamic man — the Insan Kamil (The Perfect Man) — it is realized, is different in conception from man as conceived by the West. Born in freedom, that is to say, without the handicap of original sin, this Islamic man never loses sight of his relation to his Maker, and education for him is an unfolding of those strengths and sensibilities which draw him nearer to God, inspire in him a consciousness of his obligations as the vicegerent of God, and teach him to treat the world as a great trust which must not be abused. He opposes such modern evils as abortion and vivisection, permissiveness and perversion, not on a consideration of the rights and wrongs of the issues in a given temporal context but on the grounds that they are contrary to God’s injunctions. Freedom and bondage, justice and injustice, are matters which likewise are viewed by him sub specie eternitatis. The test he uses of the soundness of any educational system is whether it helps to kindle that spark of’ God-consciousness without which man remains a brute, and so judged, the system currently in vogue in the West, despite its manifold achievements is woefully deficient. It is to the removal of this deficiency in the light of Islam that we must bend our energies.
In the extracts that follow, a number of eminent contemporary Muslim scholars have discussed the aims or Islamic education and the concept of man which it mirrors from a number of points of view. They represent far-flung areas of the Muslim world, but what is remarkable is the unity of their outlook and the uniformity of the emphasis on the need for a new approach to the problem of education in the light of the fundamental concept which the Quran teaches. The fons et origo of Muslim thought is the Quran, and quite appropriately they have said time and again that no system of thought or education can be acceptable to Muslims whose tendency is to divert man from the highway of knowledge and wisdom which the Quran has charted for all time to come.
1. To Form the True Muslim
(i) Good and righteous man: Conference Book, pp. 76—78
The basic approach of 313 Muslim scholars who met at the First World Conference on Muslim Education held at Mecca in 1977 has been enunciated in the following paragraphs.
Concepts and attitudes
The aim of Muslim education is the creation of the ‘good and righteous man’ who worships Allah in the true sense of the term, builds up the structure of his earthly life according to the Shari’ah (law) and employs it to sub serve his faith.
The meaning of worship in Islam is both extensive and comprehensive; it is not restricted to the physical performance of religious rituals only but embraces all aspects of activity: faith, thought, feeling, and work in conformity with what Allah (Praise be to Him) says in the Holy Quran, ‘I have created the Jinn and man only to worship Me’ and ‘say, O my Lord, my prayers, my sacrifice, my life and my death are for Allah, the Lord of the Worlds Who hath no peer.’
Therefore, the foundation of civilization on this earth, the exploitation of the wealth, resources and energies that Allah has hidden in its bowels, the search for sustenance, the measures by which man can rise to full recognition of the ways of Allah in the Universe, knowledge of the properties of matter, and the ways in which they can be utilized in the service of faith and in the dissemination of the essence of Islam and in helping man to attain to a righteous and prosperous life — all these are considered forms of worship by which scholars and God-seekers come into closer contact with Allah. If such is the Islamic concept of worship, and if from the Islamic point of view the object of education in the most comprehensive sense of worship is the upbringing of the true believer, it follows that education must achieve two things. First, it must enable man to understand his Lord so that he worships Him in full conviction of His Oneness, observes the rituals, and abides by the Shari’ah and the Divine injunctions. Secondly, it must enable him to understand the ways of Allah in the universe, explore the earth, and use all that Allah has created to protect faith and reinforce His religion in the light of what Allah has said in the Quran,
‘It is He who hath brought you from the earth and made you inhabit and inherit it.’
Thus the sciences of the Sharia (Islamic law) meet other sciences such as medicine, engineering, mathematics, psychology, sociology, etc., in that they are all Islamic sciences so long as they move within the framework of Islam and are in harmony with Islamic concepts and attitudes. All these sciences are necessary in reasonable degree, for the ordinary Muslim, while they are in a much more specialized form required and sought by scholars, mujtahidun and jurists of the Ummah (the nation).
The Islamic concept of science does not impose any restriction or limitation on theoretical, empirical or applied sciences except for one limitation which pertains to the ultimate ends on the one hand and their actual effects on the other. In the Islamic sense science is a form of worship by which man is brought into closer contact with Allah; hence it should not be abused to corrupt faith and morals and to bring forth harm, corruption, injustice and aggression.
Consequently any science which is in conflict with faith and which does not serve its ends and requirements is in itself corrupt, and stands condemned and rejected and has no place in God’s injunctions.