Islamic Education

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Islamic Education

A lifelong pursuit of learning is a characteristic ideal of Islamic piety. It underlies the concept of "Islamic" education. While the primary focus of this concept is the nurturing of religious belief in the individual, its scope broadened to incorporate various secular disciplines, literary and scientific, as it aimed at developing within the community fully integrated personalities, grounded in the virtues of Islam. This approach relates to the theory and practice of both primary and higher education. It is evident not only in the Koran and the literature of Prophetic Tradition (hadith), but also in countless proverbs, aphorisms, and wisdom sayings; and in poetry and prose texts of the Middle Eastern literatures including, in particular, the numerous medieval Arabic works devoted to pedagogical and didactic issues.

Pre-Islamic Arabia

Arabian society on the eve of Islam was largely but not exclusively nomadic. It was, however, tribal and its cultural life was conditioned by tribal conflicts. Lyric poetry represented the summit of its artistic and intellectual attainment. This poetry was a highly developed art, conveyed orally. This tradition of oral transmission was to continue in the Islamic period. The use of writing and written materialalso due to the material conditions at that timeplayed a minor role, even though the "art of writing" was already known among the Arabs and used, for example, by tradesmen and in the large settlements.

The Koran

At the beginning of the seventh century c.e., Muhammad, a native of the city of Mecca, was called to communicate the Word of God: the Koran (meaning "[Scripture] Reading," or "Reciting"). Shortly after his death, the individual parts of the Koranic revelation were collected from both oral and written sources, arranged in one text, and published by an authorized committee of learned Muslims. Thus the Koran became Islam's first and only holy book.

Sura (chapter) 96, traditionally considered as the very first revelation to the prophet Muhammad, starts with the divine command to "Read" (or: "Recite"/"Proclaim" words of the holy scripture). It stresses that God "taught Man that which he knew not" and that God did so "by [the use of] the pen"suggesting that God taught humankind "the holy scriptures," or "writing." These verses seem to highlight that Islam, from its very beginning, expressly prioritizes the imparting and acquisition of (religious) knowledge, learning and education; and that God is humankind's undisputed supreme teacher.

Like the previous prophets, Muhammad was called to proclaim the Word of God as contained in the heavenly archetype of the holy book. However, he was also ordered first to listen to the revelation. Only then was he to recite and read the divine text himself, to learn of its meanings by way of explanation, and eventually to convey and teach God's message to others: in Sura 75:1518, for example, one notes the powerful way in which the Koran addresses the oral components of receiving, listening, learning, and setting forth the Word. This, as it appears, "divinely inaugurated" method of instruction had a significant impact on the transmission of knowledge and on education in Islam in general.

Further notions on teaching and learning are to be found at Sura 2:282283, which deals with the establishing of legal matters and explicitly refers to the need for people who are able to write, to the importance of written documents, and to the practice of writing and dictating; detailed instructions are even given on how to proceed. Sura 3:79 then reminds the "masters [in the Scripture]" and "followers of the Lord" (rabbaniyyun) of their twofold obligation: to teach and to continue studying. Other pedagogical elements in the Koran extend to issues such as: the developmental stages, habits, and socialization of the human being; ethical norms and values related to education; and human psychology.

The Prophetic Tradition

The high esteem that knowledge and education are granted in Islam is also evident in such maxims of prophetic traditions as: "To acquire knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim, male or female"; "Seek knowledge from the day of your birth until the day of your death"; and "Seek knowledge, even if it is in China."

The Prophetic Tradition (hadith), that is, the authoritative religious literature in Islam, owes much of its vital educational potential to the "model character" of the events and messages emerging from reports and short narratives believed to preserve everything the prophet Muhammad said, did, or condoned.

Oral Instruction and Books

Between the seventh and the ninth century c.e., as Islam was spreading among diverse peoples, education came to be recognized by the Muslim community as a proper channel through which the universal and cohesive social order, in the way the Koran commanded it, could be established. This resulted in a rapidly increasing need for accessible and effective formal education at both the primary and higher levels.

Students traveled far and wide in "the quest for knowledge" (Ar., talab al-'ilm ) and to study under the supervision of a well-known scholar. "Sessions" (sing., majlis ) and "circles" (sing., halqa ) were held by Muslim scholars for the purpose of teaching. These scholarly sessions took place at public places such as mosques but also, privately, at the homes of scholars. Oral instruction was the primary technique for imparting (religious) knowledge ('ilm ), soon to be used in all branches of Islamic scholarship.

This strong emphasis on the oral component of learning did not exclude the fact that Muslim scholars in early Islam also based their teaching on written material such as collections of data and lecture scripts (often organized in notebooks), and notes used as memory aids. In the course of time, these thematically organized collections of data gradually gained more definite shape and came to be fixed (in writing, or memory, or both). Some old collections became known as the literary or scholarly "work" of the scholar who had prepared them initially and had then "published" them in his lectures; others were revised, edited, and formally published first by a scholar's student(s). Scholars preparing such written collections and lecture scripts, however, were not deprived of authorial creativity altogether: for they expressed their individual opinions and convictions through thematic selection and arrangement of the material they included in their works. Beginning in the ninth century, there was a steady increase in the number of scholars who were writing books, editing them definitively, and publishing them themselves.

Educators and Institutions of Primary
and Higher Education

During the first four centuries of Islam, the storyteller (qass ), the poet (sha'ir ), and the transmitter of poetry and narrator (rawi ) main representatives of the oral tradition in Arabia before Islamcontinued to fulfill their educational function. Now they did so, however, along with the educators of the new Islamic society such as the reciter (i.e., teacher) of the Koran (qar'i ); the elementary schoolteacher (mu'allim ); the instructor/educator (of upper class children; mu'addib ); the scholar ('alim; pl., 'ulama' ), the expert in religious law (faqih; pl., fuqaha' ), and the master or professor (shaykh ) in one or more branches of scholarship.

In the early period of the Umayyad dynasty (ruled 661750), the elementary school (kuttab, maktab ) for pupils starting at the age of six to seven is already found to be firmly established. The education of young princes had reached a high standard of excellence and the educator was a figure of some standing at the royal court.

Under Abbasid rule (7501258), learning and studying in the humanities and natural sciences advanced remarkably, in addition to intensive studies in the religious disciplines. This was the time when the civilization of Islam became what is called a "learning society," with the written word as the basis for knowledge. In Baghdad, the "House of Wisdom"a famous translation academywas officially sponsored by the caliph al-Ma'mun (ruled 813833) to prepare professional Arabic translations of philosophical and scientific works, particularly those in Greek. The translation movement was carried for the most part by Christian Syriac scholars. It advanced significantly the Islamic scholars' creative adaptation not only of the Hellenistic heritage, but also of the Byzantine, Iranian, and Indian. In Cairo, the Shiite Fatimids (ruled 9091171) founded academies, at which not only Shiite theological tenants but much of the intellectual heritage of the Greeks and Persians was studied. The famous Al-Azhar in Cairo was founded in 970, eventually becoming the principal religious university of the Islamic world. High schools conducted on Sunnite principles followed under the Ayyubids (twelfth to thirteenth century). Major centers of learning also developed in cites such as Damascus, Aleppo, Basra, Kufa, Qom, Mashhad, Isfahan, and Farghana in the East; Qayrawan, Tunis (with its famous mosque-university, the Zaytuna), and Fès (with its Qarawiyyin mosque) in the West; and Córdoba, Sevilla, Toledo, Granada (and its Alhambra) in al-Andalus (Islamic Spain).

The natural sciences were practiced and taught in laboratories, observatories, and hospitals, such as at the famous medical schools in Gondeshapur (Iran), Alexandria (Egypt), and Harran (Iraq). Great achievements in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry/alchemy, medicine, pharmacology, optics, physics, engineering, architecture, irrigation, and agriculture attest to the industriousness of medieval Muslim scholarship in observation, experimentation, and theoretical consideration. Indigenous thinking is also evident in the narrative and descriptive disciplines such as history and geography, in the codification of the law, and in the development of comprehensive systems in philology and grammar. Classical Islamic philosophy demonstrates originality and brilliance in abstract thinking. Sufi (mystical) orders had a very significant share in the transmission of knowledge ('ilm ) as it was generally considered a prerequisite for gnosis (ma'rifa ); and influential scholarly families played a decisive role in recruiting, funding, and controlling the intellectual elite of medieval Muslim society.

To meet the growing need for skilled personnel, colleges specialized in legal and religious instruction were established: the local "mosque" (masjid ) college dating back to the eighth century; the law school/college (madrasa ) from about the tenth century on; and the "shrine" (mashhad ) college. The most important type of college, the madrasa, flourished in the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, with the famous Nizamiyya in Baghdad, founded in 1057 by the vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), being the most notable example. The madrasa college became a characteristic feature of Islam's culture and civilization. It was often financed by a pious endowment (waqf ), supporting both faculty and students; built close to a large mosque, combining living and teaching accommodations; and led by an imam-professor. The curriculum was largely confined to: religious law (shari'a ) and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh ); the Koran and Koranic exegesis; theology; the Prophetic Tradition; along with Arabic language and literature, and logic (the latter two disciplines were considered as "instrumental," one for the accuracy of expression, the other for the correctness of thinking). With the rise of an extensive network of these institutions of Sunni higher learning in the Eastern Islamic world, the religious scholars ('ulama' ) by then thoroughly professionalized under state patronageand their restricted madrasa curriculum came to have a far-reaching impact on the overall cohesiveness and unity of Islamic thought. To be sure, this also led to conservatism and, among certain scholars, to an opposition to secular learning.

The Concept of Adab

The humanist concerns of classical Islamic education are epitomized by the Arabic term adab. Initially, the concept of adab related to the "rules of conduct" and the "customs" as inherited from one's ancestors, revered as models. From about the eighth century on, it stood for the "ethical and practical rules of proper conduct" deemed praiseworthy in the medieval Muslim world. Additional connotations of adab include: the knowledge necessary for a certain profession; good breeding (proper upbringing of children, their morals, and their good behavior); courtesy; etiquette, and refined manners; aristocratic learning; and urbanity. Adab also designates the main form of classical Arabic belles-lettres, which explicitly aims at both the education and the entertainment of the reader. (The "Mirror of Princes" literature in Arabic and Persian, providing political and ethical advice to rulers, is a fine example in this regard.)

Pedagogy and Didactics

Educational thought as such found its literary expression in Arabic texts devoted to teaching and learning: that is, in works focusing on rules of conduct for teachers and students. Based on issues raised in the Koran and the literature of the Prophetic Tradition, these works explain and analyzein an erudite and often literary mannerteaching methods, the ways in which learning takes or should take place, the aims of education, as well as the ways in which such goals may be achieved. These include: the ways in which teachers and students act and behave, their (moral) characteristics, their relationship with one another in the process of education, didactics (including the organization and contents of learning, and the curriculum), and the means and methods of imparting and absorbing knowledge.

Concerning these medieval educational texts, the following can be noted: (a) Elements of Arabian and Persian culture and, most importantly, the Hellenistic heritage, were creatively adapted to the Islamic educational theory, especially in the works of Islamic philosophers who deal with the various stages of development of the human character and personality, child education, and higher learning. (b) Islamic education in the Middle Ages correlatedpartly in beneficial mutual exchangeswith medieval Jewish and Christian views and practices of learning. (c) From the eighth to the eighteenth century, there was a continuous tradition of Arabic-Islamic scholarship dealing with pedagogical and didactic issues, regardless of the individual scholars' theological and juridical stances, ethnic origins, or geographical affiliations. Muslim scholars writing on education included jurists, theologians, philosophers, littérateurs, hadith scholars, and scientists, many of them teachers themselves.

One of the very earliest handbooks for Muslim teachers at elementary schools was written by Ibn Sahnun (d. 870), a Maliki jurist from Qayrawan (Tunisia). The curriculum he indicates is representative to some degree of the medieval Islamic elementary school; it includes obligatory topics to be taught such as: (a) the precise articulation of the Koran, along with knowledge of reading, orthography, and grammar; (b) the duties of worship; and (c) good manners, since these are obligations toward God; and recommended topics such as: (a) the basics of Arabic language and linguistics; (b) calligraphy, writing letters; (c) poetryif the verses are decent, proverbs of the ancient Arabs, historical reports and legends of their battles, and sermons; and (d) arithmetic. The author also makes it clear that physical punishment was part of rectifying a child's behavior in Islam in the Middle Ages, leaving, however, no doubt that it should not cross the line, and that the child should not be seriously harmed: on the contrary, basing himself on prophetic traditions, Ibn Sahnun emphasizes that modesty, patience, and a passion for working with children are indispensable qualifications for teachers.

Al-Jahiz (d. 869), a man of letters and theologian of Basra (Iraq), highlights the significance of the teachers' work by stressing that writing has had a fundamental impact on human civilization, and that writing and recordingalong with calculationare "the pillars" on which the present and the future of civilization and "the welfare of this world" rest. He notes that independent thinkers and researchers dislike memorization, and that relying on it would make "the mind disregard distinction" and, in fact, neglect thought. Al-Jahiz points to the fact that there are teachers for everything one needs to know: writing, arithmetic, law, the pillars of religion, the Koran, grammar, prosody, and poetry. Further subjects that are to be taught include: polo, hunting, horsemanship, playing musical instruments, chess and other games. Interestingly enough, he emphasizes that the schoolteachers are superior to all other categories of teachersan appreciation put into perspective by the low social status of schoolteachers in medieval Muslim society.

In this context, it should be noted that the Islamic philosophersalthough concerned with logic, natural science, and metaphysicsdid not neglect the need for educating the young. Ibn Sina (Avicenna; d. 1037), a physician and philosopher born near Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan, for example, recommends that the instruction of young children should start when they are perceptive enough, both physically and mentally.

Ibn Sina's main critic, the celebrated theologian and mystic Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), is noted for accepting Greek logic as a neutral instrument of learning and for recommending it for theologians. It is, however, in his mystical writings that are encountered two things of significance to education: the first is his incorporation of basically Aristotelian ethical values into an Islamic mode, representing them as Sufi values; the second is his insistence that the path to mystical gnosis must begin with traditional Islamic belief. Al-Ghazali is considered as one of the intellectual masterminds behind Islam's classical educational philosophy and ethics. His understanding of education as "guidance" rather than "rectification" of the young is a major pedagogical principle that recurs in most classical writings on Islamic education.

Abu Bakr ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1148), a judge from Seville (Spain), stresses the physical aspects of education, maintaining that students harden their bodies by physical exercise and a "Spartan" lifestyle. Burhan al-Din al-Zarnuji (first half of the thirteenth century), a Hanafi scholar from Iran, provides detailed pious advice on the study of theology, including the first steps in studying; the amounts of material to be mastered; and the need for repetition of what was learned. He emphasizesas many scholars of his and later times dothe integrity and purity of the transmission of the knowledge that has already been definitely established.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), a Shiite philosopher-vizier and scientist from Iran, suggests that education is a process involving the student, the teacher, and the father of the student. He maintains that the process of obtaining knowledge is in itself a pleasure and that it can lead to everlasting happiness. He says that knowledge is rewarded twice: by God in the afterlife, and by humans in this life who remember and honor scholars even after their death. Al-Tusi also provides practical advice regarding the procedure for selecting the appropriate branches of knowledge to study, and the most suitable teacher and companions to study with, rules on punctuality and scheduling time for study, and other matters such as food and a healthy lifestyle that help retain or increase a good memory.

Ibn Jama'a (d. 1333), a Shafi'i chief judge in Egypt and in Syria, and al-'Almawi (d. 1573), a Shafi'i scholar and preacher in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, strongly promote the idea of books being indispensable tools for learning. Much advice is provided on the ethics and the techniques of written text transmission. Al-'Almawi suggests, for example, that it is "more important to spend your time studying books rather than copying them," and to pay due respect to the text of the manuscript, for caution is needed so as not to alter hastily what might be the correct wording.

These and other late medieval works appear to sum up much of the educational thought of the preceding generations. However, as Franz Rosenthal put it, "it would seem that a steady refinement and completion of the relevant material took place until it took its final form" (p. 8) in these valuable documents of medieval Muslim scholarship.

Education of Women

Most medieval texts deal exclusively with the education of boys and male students, despite well-known traditions such as the one stating that whoever "teaches his daughter good manners, educates her in the best possible way, and spends on her from the blessings God bestowed on him, will be spared from Hell." There is also clear evidence (especially in historical and biographical sources) suggesting that girls and women were at no time completely excluded from elementary or higher learning, nor were girls always confined to moral education provided within their families. This view is supported furthermore by data on women who were well-respected in medieval Muslim society for their share in the study of the Koran and the transmission and dissemination of prophetic traditions; for their fine poetry; for their talents as copyists, musicians, and singers; or as mystics and spiritual guides.

Reform Movements and the Print Revolution

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by reform movements and secularizing nationalists. With the presence of European colonial powers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, an era of intensive contact and a flow of ideas between the Muslim world and the West began, with far-reaching impact on the Islamic societies. Educational reforms were implemented to raise the standard and widen the scope of learning: in Egypt by Pasha Muhammad 'Ali (d. 1849), and in Turkey by Sultan 'Abdulmajid I (d. 1861). In India, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), an educational reformer and founder of Islamic modernism in India, established in 1878 an Islamic Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh (modeled after the universities in Oxford and Cambridge), which was raised to the rank of a university in 1920; in 1886 he instituted the Muhammadan Educational Conference, with annual meetings in various cities.

In the Arab world, the intellectual reform movement of the Nahda ("Awakening") aimed at reconciling traditional and modern (Western) areas of knowledge in a spirit of openness to the world, yet without destroying the values of Islam and Muslim identity. In Egypt, Muhammad 'Abduh (d. 1905), a Muslim theologian and founder of the Egyptian modernist school, called for an educational reform and the reformulation of Islamic doctrine in the light of modern thought; and Qasim Amin (d. 1908) campaigned for the liberation of women. Similar attempts were made in Tunisia by Muhammad Bayram (d. 1889); in Iraq by the Alusi family; and in Algeria by Ibn Badis (d. 1940), an intellectual educational reformer and founder of an orthodox reform movement for the renewal of Arab-Islamic culture. In Turkey, major steps to secularize education were taken as a result of the establishment of the Turkish nation state in 1923, when the Kemalist concept of secular nationhood in an Islamic country was implemented.

One must not neglect to mention the educational activities of Christian missionaries, especially in Lebanon and Syria, and at institutions such as the Syrian Protestant College opened in 1866 (later the American University of Beirut) and the introduction of printing to the Muslim world: in Calcutta (with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu printing) from the 1780s onward; in Teheran, Tabriz (Persian), and Istanbul (Turkish) in the eighteenth century; and in Beirut and Cairo (Arabic) in the nineteenth century. The latter made possible the production of a number of important educational journals.

Secular Education and the Revival of Traditional Islamic Learning

On account of the struggle between secular and Islamic ideologies throughout much of the twentieth century, global socioeconomic, political, cultural, and environmental challenges, and a new politicization of Islam in large parts of the Muslim World since the 1970s, (populist) discourses over the meaning of "modernity" have had a serious impact on the concept of Islamic education. These complex developments seem to have provided the ground for a revival of "traditional" Islamic (that is, religious) education in new guises in recent years.

In addition to well-known and reputable secular universities in the Muslim world, based on internationally accepted educational principles, institutionalized Islamic learning today is associated above all with the traditionally highly respected centers of religious scholarship in Cairo, Mecca, Medina, Najaf, Qom, and Hyderabad. New international Islamic universities were established, for instance, in Islamabad, Pakistan (1980), and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1983), both also admitting women.

More specialized religious learning and the training of imams is taking place in seminaries and collegesthe madaris ; singular., madrasa with each branch of the Islamic faith having its own chain of such institutions. This notion would exclude certain institutions (in Southeast Asia) apparently misusing the name of the madrasa for purposes other than religious. In essence different from those latter, the academically oriented madrasa of our days understands itself as an heir to the medieval college, and to the industrious spirit and the tradition of fourteen hundred years of Islamic learning.

See also Islam: Shii ; Islam: Sunni ; Law, Islamic ; Philosophies: Islamic ; Sacred Texts: Koran .


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Sebastian Günther

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