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Islamic Education: Some Reflections on Important Questions

by John Herlihy

Whatever happened to Islamic education? Do we have a need for Islamic education? Can education be characterized as Islamic? If so, what does it mean to speak of an education that is Islamic? Alternatively, we could ask:  Whatever happened to a unified, holistic and relevant education that resolves earthly ignorance, defines and addresses human needs, and relates to universal perspectives? In the following brief article, I hope to outline the bare bones of the issues that deals with these questions.

Islam, after all, is primarily a belief system and traditional worldview that sets forth universal principles for human application and summarizes the perennial mystery that confronts us as humans through the principle of unity that brings together all the conflicting elements of life into a unified Whole. The Quran, as cornerstone and foundation of the religion, speaks of origins, creation, consciousness, cognitive processing and the language associated with it, and ultimately self-awareness (to access our needs) and free will (to make our choices) that ultimately include responsibility and accountability into the mix for who we are and what we do with our lives. In short, the religion, through the words and verses of the divine revelation, resolves all the key mysteries that we face in life with its succinct guidance and clear truths. In attempting to provide answers to the questions that might emerge regarding Islamic education, the principle of unity that Islam invokes in order to characterize the true nature of the reality is a good starting point. As the well known shahadah or profession of faith proclaims that summarizes the essential knowledge of Islam in one brief phrase, there is only one God, one truth, one reality. Every global child in today’s world, whether they are Jewish, Christians, Buddhist or Muslim, needs to know this.

The Islamic shahadah is simple, shattering, profound: Simple in that as a concept worth considering, it is accessible to all as an idea that can make a difference and comprehensible to virtually everyone; shattering because it breaks down our illusions about ourselves and the world around us as the only reality, and profound because it opens our souls onto the broad plain of universal experience and will lead us down the road of our true destiny as mirrors reflecting the qualities of the Eternal (al-Samad) and the Living (al-Hayy). These are the adjectives that characterize the testimony of faith that forms the foundation and summative point of the entire Religion of Islam. Random questions deserve our attention and have a way of insinuating their way into our consciousness sometimes in a manner that is not always convenient to our way of reckoning. As Muslims, we accept a complete belief system whose knowledge finds its source of enlightenment within the sacred verses of the Qur’anic revelation. We follow the divine guidance regarding how we should behave in the pursuit of our lives, establishing choices, making decisions, and living through our actions what we profess to believe. And as Muslims, we have a long list of 99 divine names that make specific reference to the qualities and attributes of Allah that we can find reflected within the mirror of our own souls if we take the trouble to recognize their value as desirable personality traits and incorporate these qualities into our lives as virtue through the individual virtues. Yet, in spite of all we have available to guide our way and show us the light, we still do not put into practice what we profess to believe. A case in point comes to the fore with regard to Islamic education.

As parents, grandparents, pedagogues, educators and students, perhaps no single issue dominates the broad field of our thinking more all-pervasively than that of education and its importance in our lives in giving shape and coloration to our destiny on earth, whether the particular form of education is modern, progressive, traditional, or Islamic. What it means, how we understand its import and significance, and the key factors we should consider in identifying an education system as Islamic in the first place? No single question raises the moon of its inquiry over the horizon of our minds, ready to shine the light that we find readily available within the Qur’an onto the force field of our inquiry, more than the questions and issues raised with regard to education, educating ourselves, our children, our collective national societies and cultures, in a manner that is in keeping with our professed belief system. As Muslims, we have our own worldview, a worldview that is admittedly traditional rather than modern, sacred rather than secular, spiritual rather than material, and inclusive of a traditional science that is not based solely on the physical properties of the universe as merely physical facts, but rather based on the natural and metaphysical laws and principles that lie at the heart of the universal spectrum. As such, when we attempt to integrate them within an educational system that is in keeping with our belief systems, we need to pay attention to the details and utilize what we profess to believe.

There was a time when language did its job and conveyed clear meaning. Words as symbols had messages of intent that were more or less accepted as a means of fruitful communication. But 21st century communication is different; words no longer beam their signal meaning for all to understand; but instead are subject to vast differences of meaning based on different attitudes, interpretations and adopted worldviews that we choose to have faith and believe in, not to mention the personal agendas that drive much of today’s selfish and personal gain-driven world in which words are spun into the likes of cotton candy than melt on the tongue as a sugar rush that soon disappears, making no more impression on us than a passing remark that we don’t take seriously. Take the word science, for example. In the Islamic worldview of the former Golden Age, an Islamic science flourished that was based on the sacred knowledge of the Qur’anic revelation and the universal principles that are sprinkled throughout the glorious book like exotic spices, the term “science” had a different meaning altogether than it does today.

When we think of “science” today or even hear the word, visions come to mind of black holes and event horizons, parallel universes and quantum mechanics, the Big Bang theory and the expanding universe. These modern mental constructions are not only examples of what modern science is capable of, they are also indicative of the kind of success and achievement that modern science symbolizes, a level of success that casts a glow of wonder across the mind of modern humanity. We think to ourselves: This is what we humans are capable of in tracing our way back to the edge of time and down into the center of the nucleus of matter. If we can put a number to the birth and age of the universe and capture the singularity of the Big Bang on giant telescopes that float through the heavens with imperiousness, it leads to the notion that we are smokin’, as the saying goes, and that nothing can stop us; we can do it on our own and without the aid of Heaven. The price we have to pay for this extravagant illusion, however, lies in the loss of our own souls and our ability through the Qur’anic revelation to lift the veil that separates us from the other side, the unseen side (al-ghaib), of the Reality.

Yet, the question remains to haunt us: What is the good of standing on the edge of time, if we have to give up the promise of eternity in return?

When the term science is invoked within the Islamic context, it is above all a traditional science or sciencia sacra (sacred science) that finds its roots in the verses of the Qur’an. It is traditional and by correspondence sacred and universal, because it is based on principles that are unchanging and metaphysical, beyond the horizon of the physical world that reach into the world of the Unseen (‘alam al-ghaib) for their inspiration and source. The true origin of all knowledge, no matter what its level of manifestation, is both sacred and original, sacred because it reflects something infinitely more than itself that it only gradually discloses, manifesting through a veil as it were, and original, not because it is first or new, but rather because it is a faithful image of the Origin and originates in the One Reality. “To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth.” (6: 101) The point of departure of the traditional approach to understanding the true nature of the reality and the pursuit of knowledge is the same in all religious traditions, despite the wide diversity of the religious experience and the historical development of a variety of traditional civilizations. Knowledge, including the scientific knowledge of today’s modern worldview, is understood in the traditional context as proceeding from a prime cause or first origin. This first cause is identified as the Transcendent with regard to the unveiling of the creation and the Center with regard to its presence within existence.

For now, we need to come to terms with the notion of a modern-day education that not only serves the needs of the emerging younger generation, but that also provides them with the knowledge and skills that will empower them in a 21st century world. Briefly and speaking in broad terms that can bring together the key issues into a single, unified package, we need to consider three significant questions. Firstly, if we are going to be teaching our youth a body of knowledge that will be considered the foundation of the adult life and the pursuit of a career that will serve the community, what then are the sources of that knowledge. Are they reliable, credible, and do they provide certainty about what we profess to know. Secondly, is there a belief system or worldview that is comprehensive, conclusive, and comprehensible, providing answers to the fundamental mysteries that we are confronted with in life and thus giving our young people the tools to deal with a broad spectrum of issues that must be resolved in their destiny. And thirdly, are their modes of behavior and qualifying virtues that come in the forms of clear guidance that can enlighten our youth and show them their way into the future of their lives?

We know that the body of knowledge we accept today de facto finds its source in the modern, scientific basis of inquiry and that is enveloped within the fold of an all-encompassing modern, scientific worldview which is secular, matter-based and progressive, built upon the premise that an evolutionary scale of human development moves upward and progressively forward in the interests of humanity (survival of the fittest!). Also, modern philosophies of education may vary in their details; but now generally rest on a solid core of what are referred to as 21st century skills that are considered to empower the young people of today to deal with the issues and challenges they will meet in today’s immediate future. I believe that the effective integration of the age-old, traditional (and revealed) body of knowledge and guidance regarding one’s personal behavior combined with the vision of a 21st century person effectively equipped with 21st century skills will go a long way in creating an integrated, unified, and complete person fully empowered to make a difference in this world in whatever way his or her destiny may lead.

When most savvy educators speak of 21st century skills for the emerging adults of tomorrow, they are referring to what are called the 5 Cs of Core Subject Knowledge, Cognitive (reasoning) skills, critical skills (alternatively known as problem solving), the highly important communication skills (including speaking, listening, writing and a variety of study and soft skills) and finally collaborative skills that are required for team work. Beyond the horizon of these vital skills lies the ever-valued creative and innovative skills that are the result of creative thinking and that makes good use of the knowledge that a person has at his/her disposal. Two final components round off the thinking when it comes to equipping today’s growing child to meet the challenges of our complicated and often unpredictable world. Firstly, young people need to be aware early of the importance of the protection and maintenance of their health through sound nutrition and regular exercise together, and secondly, they need to assume the responsibility of understanding the value of money, its importance in the pursuit of a reasonable life of success and comfort. Finally, we live in an advancing technological world. Young people need to become adept with the ever-changing technologies as a matter of course; but they also need to put the electronic devices at their disposal to good use to improve their lives and help them pursue their goals, and not use them just as idle and superficial forms of distraction that weaken the mind and lead young people in directions they should not go.

We like to think of Islamic education as a composite rock made up of various, crystalline elements: 1) the depth and beauty of a traditional belief system and worldview based on the revelatory verses of the Qur’an that combines all the elements of human nature and the natural order into unified body of knowledge that is revealed and irrefutable, 2) a model of behavior and living that reflects the light of a true knowledge based on universal principles and that manifest here on earth as human virtue, 3) the precision and factuality of the core body of proven scientific laws and facts of nature that allow us to build a world that is compatible with our practical needs and desires, and 4) the skills and abilities that will allow us to adapt to the changing times and the demands and challenges that comes with a progressive and fast-changing world.

If today’s youth and the adults of the future have this composite rock in their back pocket, along with the rabbit’s foot and bird feathers of their childhood dreams, they can trust in themselves and in God to lead them into a destiny they were meant to live, armed with an education that reflects the true nature of reality that Islam has come to proclaim.

— John Herlihy