Critical Humanism in Islamic Educational Philosophy

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Critical Humanism in Islamic Educational Philosophy

AZHAR Ibrahim Alwee


The humanistic tradition has a strong presence in classical Islam, be it in the theological, philosophical, ethical, legal or literary tradition. Within the critical philosophical school, the primacy of man's purpose to attain saadah (happiness) has a liberating undertone, mitigating human sufferings and rejecting thoughts t hat fetter his conscience and his freedom to think. This position can be attained through educational exposure and training. Today, this humanistic idealism has found expression among reformist Muslims, who call for the reconstruction of Muslim society through the adoption of critical pedagogy, curriculum re-envisioning, and an educational philosophy that accommodates as well as transforms the present realities.


Whoever wants to be a leader should educate himself before educating others. Before preaching to others he should first practise himself. Whoever educates himself and improves his own morals is superior to the man who tries to teach and train others.

Hazrat Ali

In this essay, I shall delineate the humanism in Muslim educational thought. The humanistic tradition has a strong presence in classical Islam, be it in the theological, philosophical, ethical, legal or literary tradition (Boisard, 1988; Madjid, 2003). In the Islamic tradition, the idea of humanism is best encapsulated in the words of medieval Muslim humanist Abu Hayan al-Tauhidi: “Man has become a problem for man.” The term humanism may have its parallel meaning in the concept of adab. The latter, according to another Muslim humanist, al-Jahiz, refers to “(a) the total education system of (b) a cultured Muslim who (c) took the whole world for his object of curiosity and knowledge” (cited in Khalidi, 1985, p. 57). For Muslims, the humanism that they understand is essentially religious humanism where the affirmation of tauhid (monotheism) is central. By the term critical humanism we mean “reflections on the nature of humanity that theorise what it means, and how it is possible, for interdependent beings to attain dignity, worth, and freedom” (Manzo, 1997, p. 384). The aim of critical humanism in the words of Edward Said (2004) is “to make more things available to critical scrutiny as the product of human labour, human energies for emancipation and enlightenment, and, just as importantly, human misreadings and misinterpretations of the collective past and present” (p. 438). Another writer summarises the task of humanism as emancipating “man from the clutches of ecclesiastical orthodoxy and dogmatism; positively humanism stands for the values like happiness, love, kindness, compassion, tolerance, pleasure, freedom, and removal of fanaticism, rigourism, intolerance, feudalism, despotism, egoism and self-aggrandizement” (Vidyasagar, 2005, p. 60). As a style of thinking, critical humanism gives primacy to man's realisation of his existence, duties and roles, and identifies his strengths and limitations.

Educational Philosophy of Islam

Generally, Islamic educational philosophy is idealistic—normative in its orientation. There is no specific science of education per se, but all major thinkers, be they philosophers, mystics or legal doctors, pronounce their ideas on education in some way or another. This means the vision and objective of education are very much connected to what each thinker believes are the type of human being and of society that Muslims should emulate and nurture. Moreover, the divergence of views and priorities of these schools of thought shows that there is no single or monolithic educational thought that could represent the Islamic education thought. The rich Islamic tradition speaks not only of plurality of ideas but the persistent competition of ideas, since there is a strong conviction to advance the most correct interpretations and meanings to Muslims.

There are several key emphases in the Muslim educational concern in the classical past. The first emphasis pertains to the human soul. Very much in its medieval expression, the human soul is seen as the path to knowledge or perception, for it distinguishes between sensory perception and intellectual perception. The second is on character formation. The third is on infusing God-consciousness, whereby a believer sees that the purpose of his life is to fulfil the amana (trust) of God's steward on earth. This means education should be directed towards making a God-conscious person who fulfils his duties and rights. Lastly, there is an emphasis on the nurturing of moral—ethical integrity through knowledge acquisition, training and socialisation. Seeking of knowledge and reverence for knowledge are central to Islamic doctrinal teaching. As summarised by one Muslim scholar:

Islam gave a great deal of importance to reading, writing and learning. Ilm' (knowledge/science) is repeatedly stressed in the Qur'an…. The Qur'an in fact equates ilm' with nur (light) and jahl (ignorance) with darkness. The Prophet also encouraged learning by his famous saying that the ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr (Engineer, 2001, p. 28).

Critical humanism in the Islamic tradition, like in many other religious traditions, affirms the centrality of religion in human and societal enlightenment yet without succumbing to scriptural orthodoxy. Generally, classical Islamic humanism has the following features:

  1. It exalts the purpose of human existence since man is created as God's steward on earth and it becomes imperative for him to fulfil this noble task.
  2. It gives man the task of attaining perfection in this life, where religion should be the guiding light for the individual and his relation with the society he lives in, such that man's perfection can only be possible in his integration with the society.
  3. It recognises that various branches of knowledge are to be appropriated and nurtured in ensuring the cultivation of the virtuous person.

The humanists of classical Islam saw it as the task of Muslims to develop and appreciate further the knowledge, sciences and wisdom that they inherited from ancient societies, whether Indian, Greek or Persian.

Al-Jahiz asserted that “it came down to us and we were the last to inherit it and examine it”, since “mankind will retain their well-being so long as the last learns from the first” (cited in Khalidi, 1997, p. 143).

Recognition of Reason and Happiness

However, if al-Jahiz deemed the ancients as the providers of wisdom, ibn Aqil, a rationalist theologian of classical Islam, cautioned against the problems of strict traditionalism and strict rationalism. “Nothing causes intellectuals”, wrote ibn Aqil, “to err except acts due to hastiness of temper and their being content with the Ancients to the exclusion of the Moderns.” Instead, Muslims, he advised, should see reason and revelation as part of God's grace to mankind, as harmonious and not contradictory to each other since “reason is in agreement with revelation and there is nothing on revelation except that which agrees with reason” (cited in Makdisi, 1974, p. 654).

In fact, one can say that the rationalistic tradition in Islam is the forerunner of humanistic thought (Ali, 1967). As al-Tauhidi reminded us, “The wealth of knowledge or religiousness shall never be sufficient to mould a good and divine human [character] unless with the reasoning power” (cited in Arkoun, 2000, p. 92). The acquisition and mastery of knowledge is only meaningful if it has a purpose to serve. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is criticised, such that al-Ghazali once said, “Be sure that knowledge alone is no support … If a man reads a hundred thousand scientific subjects and learns them but does not act upon them, his knowledge is of no use to him, for its benefit lies only in being used” (cited in Halstead, 2004, p. 520). Within the critical philosophical school, the primacy of man's purpose to attain saadah (happiness) has a liberating undertone, mitigating human sufferings and rejecting thoughts that fetter his conscience and his freedom to think. This position can be attained through educational exposure and training. Man's perfection, through education and spiritual discernment, is central to classical Islamic humanism. This perfection includes the love of common humanity and reverence for human well-being and life, and affirms the exaltation of man's reasoning power, his ethical accountability, as well as his spiritual freedom. This cultivation of morality becomes a fundamental objective of education and forms part of what is known as adab. The latter encapsulates various branches of humanistic science and wisdom, apart from scriptural injunctions, which are invoked to emphasise the importance of man's search for perfection (Sagadeev, 2002).

The aim of happiness takes centre stage in the classical Muslim rationalist philosopher Alfarabi's idea of education, which emphasises the nurturing of the perfect human being (al insan al kamil). Alfarabi's theory of instruction blends the philosophical, psychological, ethical and pedagogical concerns. Techniques of imparting knowledge are given serious attention, where the type of instruction must take into account learners' cognitive ability and their social backgrounds. Alfarabi's learner-oriented perspective puts high premium on the learner's posing questions and the teacher's readiness to respond to the student's needs. Interestingly, apart from elaborating extensively on oral instruction, Alfarabi also noted the importance of critical reading of written works. He rejected submitting to the authority of written words. Subjecting them to doubt is vital since authors may have biases and prejudices, alongside unreliable sources and premises, when writing (Haddad, 1974). Like al-Jahiz, he opposed memorisation in the learning process:

Understanding is better than memorization, because the action of memorization deals mainly with words and expressions, in other words with details … which could go on forever and hardly useful, neither for individuals nor for classes … But the action of understanding concerns meanings, universals and laws—defined matters, finite, and which are valid for all. To exert oneself in these matters is beneficial. This also applies to the actions peculiar to acquiring them, such as analogy, organization, policies and consideration of the consequences. If the human being learns only the details, he is not secure from going astray … When he relies on principles and general concepts, and when some new matter is presented to him, he may refer to his understanding of the principles to compare one thing with another (cited in al-Talbi, 2000, p. 7).

On the Curriculum and Pedagogy

The constituents of the curriculum that were delineated by al-Jahiz, an eminent litterateur and philosophical theologian, demonstrate the humanistic concern in education. Al-Jahiz's treatment of education differed very much from the legalistic school of thought, such as that represented by ibn Sahnun, where religious subjects were made the priority above everything else, accompanied by a teacher-oriented pedagogical style (Ismail, 1995). In the curriculum set by al-Jahiz, as elaborated in his book The Teachers (cited in Günther, 2005), the obligatory subjects to be taught included reading and writing, arithmetic, the essentials of religion, literature and literary theory, logic and disputation, and accounting. At the advanced level, the curriculum should include hunting, sports and martial arts, music, astronomy, medicine, geometry, and training of animals of labour such as camels and horses. For the lower strata of society, the teaching of farming, trading and other crafts was essential.

Besides the curriculum, another focus of al-Jahiz's book was on pedagogical style and the treatment of students. Teachers need to be cognisant of their students' ability to comprehend their teaching by using an appropriate level of language and treating the students gently and lovingly. The purpose of reading should be made clear so that it is the meaning and ideas in the book that become the primary focus and not simply its style and language use, since “he who looks into these books simply to learn [more] words pursues the wrong course” (ibid., p. 119). Students must be taught to write with clarity and brevity, giving emphasis to content over style or form and avoiding pretensions and “meaningless elegance” (pp. 119–120). Al-Jahiz's critique of memorisation as hampering deductive thinking in learning is perhaps still relevant today, albeit couched in medieval expressions:

The leading sages, masters of the art of deductive reasoning and [independent] thinking, have been averse to excellence in memorization, because of [one's] dependence on it and [its rendering] the mind negligent of rational discernment, so [much so] that they said: “memorization inhibits the intellect.” [They have been averse to it] because the one engaged in memorization is only an imitator, whereas deductive reasoning is that which brings the one engaged in it to the coolness or certainty and the strength of confidence…. when [a student] perpetuates learning by memorization … So when he neglects rational reflection, ideas do not come quickly to him (ibid., pp. 120–121).

Similar to al-Jahiz's pronouncement is that of Burhanuddin az-Zarnuji, who wrote the famous tract Ta'alim al-Muta'allim (Instructions to Students), in which he highlighted the importance of problem posing in educational endeavour. He objected to rote learning. Instead, students should reflect and meditate, pose questions to their teachers and friends, and write down what they have learnt only after they have understood and reflected on what they have been taught (Abel & von Grunebaum, 1946). To socialise with men of great learning is crucial; he enjoined students to seek “knowledge by questioning and listening to venerable and intelligent individuals wherever they may be” (ibid., p. 68).

Ibn Khaldun, a prominent medieval Islamic historian and sociologist, also spoke against the dominant pedagogical practices during his time, which he thought would hamper the development of society's intellect and overall humanity. In the context of the religious conservatism that prevailed then, he criticised the practice of providing Muslim children with Quranic instruction only. He made this point when comparing the educational approach practised in the Maghrib (Western Islam) with that in Muslim Spain (Andalusia). In the latter, he noted, the comprehensive training of language, poetry and rhetoric, apart from the study of Quran and the prophetic tradition (hadith), resulted in an environment which was conducive to intellectual growth. He agreed with the Muslim mystic and philosopher ibn Arabi on teaching children poetry and philology first, followed by arithmetic before proceeding to the study of the Quran, as this would make it easier for them to understand the Quran (ibn Khaldun, 1967).

Ibn Khaldun outlined a number of educational practices for achieving the desired goals in education. Some of the key practices are as follows (ibid., pp. 416–428):

  • Teachers should match their teaching method to the level of comprehension of students. The method must be gradual, accompanied by revisions to give students a good grounding in the subject matter.
  • Memorisation should be avoided.
  • Subjects should not be taught in a broken sequence.
  • Subjects should be taught in appropriate depths.
  • Two subjects should not be taught together to avoid incomplete mastery.
  • There should be interactions with scholars elsewhere so as to learn from them.
  • Theoretical learning must be accompanied by practical application, as education must be practical rather than theoretical.

In short, the cultivation of the ability to think is very much emphasised by ibn Khaldun. Not only did he lay the fundamentals of and the correct approach to learning, he also reminded teachers of psychological impediments which should be taken into consideration:

Severe punishment in the course of instruction does harm to the student, especially to little children, because it belongs among (the things that make for a) bad habit…. It makes them feel oppressed and causes them to lose their energy. It makes them lazy and induces them to lie and be insincere. That is their outward behaviour differs from what they are thinking, because they are afraid that they will have to suffer tyrannical treatment (if they tell the truth). Thus, they are taught deceit and trickery. This becomes their custom and character. They lose the quality that goes with social and political organization and makes people human, namely, (the desire to) protect and defend themselves and their homes, and they become dependent on others. Indeed, their souls become too indolent to (attempt to) acquire the virtues and good character qualities. Thus they fall short of their potentialities and do not reach the limit of their humanity. As a result, they revert to the stage of the lowest of the low (ibid., pp. 424–425).

Humanistic Thought in a Critical Position

Today, this humanistic idealism has found expression among reformist Muslims, who call for the reconstruction of Muslim society through the adoption of critical pedagogy, curriculum re-envisioning, and an educational philosophy that accommodates as well as transforms the present realities. Indeed, modern-day Muslims need nourishment from their own humanism (Rahman, 1984). If the nineteenth-century reformist Jamaluddin al-Afghani was known for his clamour for the reinvigoration of the philosophic spirit, his ablest protégé, Muhammad Abduh, “preached a liberal and humanistic Islam, free of traditional formulations and invigorated by rational and historical methods of criticism. He advocated belief in Man as part of the greater belief in God, on the assumption that human values are largely formulated by earthly experience” (Vatikiotis, 1957, p. 126). But Abduh's clamour for the restoration of the humanistic tradition was not an easy one. Indeed, as Mohammed Arkoun, a contemporary scholar on Islam, notes, it is “very difficult to bring back all the humanistic concerns that have been developed in the history of Islamic thought from the seventh century to the twelfth century” because of the rise of orthodoxy and structural realities that no longer support the flourishing of the humanist tradition. Moreover, the growing religious revivalism with its exclusivist stance is “more an obstacle than positive support to the emergence of a new, active humanism” (Arkoun, 1993, pp. 19–20). The writings of traditionalist and neo-fundamentalist Muslims of today are evidence of their rejection of the idea of humanism by perceiving it as a Western import and anti-God, infused with materialism, individualism and many other negative connotations.

In highlighting certain aspects of critical humanism as encapsulated in the Muslim educational philosophy of the past, we should be able to appreciate some of the perennial educational concerns and issues, as well as their relevance in the present context. Most importantly, appreciating classical Muslim educational humanism cannot end with a romantic glorification of the past. There should not be a reductionistic view that sees the Islamic tradition as monolithic in all its orthodox and medieval vestiges, a view that is not uncommon in Western orientalist and fundamentalist Muslim discourses. Moreover, in highlighting the role of religion in human educational endeavour, it should become clear that, in a secular educational context, the fear of religious perspectives in education, deemed as non-scientific or parochial, is no longer tenable. Indeed, it is crucial to recognise that “religious values in the service of humanity do not undermine secular humanism; they simply deepen those compassionate and critical values that affirm the social contract between the citizen and the state that lies at the heart of a substantive and inclusive democracy” (Giroux, 2004, p. 423). Today, Muslim reformists see the humanistic dimension as central to religious education among Muslims, as well as to changing Muslims' attitude towards modern knowledge and education. This requires a consistent and persistent recognition of human reasoning power, especially in light of the firm grip that scriptural/textual authority holds on people's religious imagination (Hanafi, 2000). It is only with the recognition of the power of human reasoning, along with an intellectual openness that enriches the Muslim intellectual culture, as well as the consciousness to fulfil the task for humanity, that Muslims would be able to appreciate the tradition of critical humanism which was once explored and developed in the classical period. This is only possible if Muslims, in the words of Indonesian scholar Soedjatmoko (1985), “work towards cultivating certain traits, such as the courage to live, willingness to stand on their own, taking initiative, sensitivity towards others' rights and the common needs of humanity, and willingness to cooperate for the common good, in the continuous process of social change, without fear of the changes taking place” (p. 275).


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Further Reading

Arkoun, M. (1994). Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers. Translated and edited by R. D. Lee. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Khalidi, T. (1994). Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kraemer, J. L. (1986). Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: The Cultural Revival during the Buyid Age. Leiden: Brill.

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