What is an Islamic Education?
Quite a few years ago, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) launched a campaign to recruit new teachers into the profession with the slogan, ‘those who can, teach’. Teaching pedagogy confirms that the concept of teaching itself is inextricably linked with that of learning. Both concepts are closely associated with the process of reading-one of the primary means through which learning and teaching occur. Allah (SWT) commanded His Messenger, in the first verse to be revealed, to ‘Read! In the Name of thy Lord Who Created’ (Quran, 96:1). The word ‘Iqra’ literally means to ‘read’, or ‘recite’. The unmentioned object of this proclamation is understood to be the Message of Islam i.e. the Qur’an, but in a more general sense, whenever one begins thinking about education, and its relation to the Deen of Islam, it is this verse which springs to mind. This idea of ‘reading’ in the Name of Allah (SWT), is a complex one, and brings up the serious questions, ‘what is an Islamic education?’, ‘what are the goals of an Islamic education?’, and ‘how does it differ from the concept of education advocated in the West?’ Having taught for some years in the secular, State sector before moving to Ebrahim Academy to teach English to Muslim boys in a purely Islamic environment, I feel these are questions which need to be asked so that as parents and educators, we can begin to think about what sort of upbringing we want to give the men and women of tomorrow’s Ummah.
As we begin thinking about the aims of Islamic education, it may be helpful to turn to the late Syed Ali Ashraf’s essay, The Aims of Education (1979). In it, he separates the concept of ‘education’ from that of ‘instruction’, stating that ‘education helps in the complete growth of a personality, whereas instruction merely trains an individual or a group in the efficient performance of some task’ (Ashraf, 1978:1). He adds that ‘a human being may be a great […] lawyer […] but still remain […] ill-mannered, immoral, unrighteous, or unjust’ (Ashraf, 1978:1). He further presents the idea that a truly ‘educated’ person is one who knows Allah (SWT), and ‘knows and performs his or her duty towards [him]self, family, neighbours, and humanity’, in addition to having ‘acquired’ enough ‘knowledge about how to earn a livelihood honestly’ (Ashraf, 1978:1). Ashraf’s definition seems to be quite synonymous with the concept of refinement, so that when a person enters into the world of work, they do so with sound mannerisms and knowledge of how to maintain their duty to their Creator, and His Creation. Such an education should, I believe, be what Islamic institutions and parents aim to provide their young students and children with. I would add that in terms of the source we should use in moulding our students’ personalities, it must be that of the Messenger of Allah (SAW), for he was Khayrul-Khalq-the best of creation. This should be to the extent that when our students leave our schools they ask themselves at every juncture in their lives, ‘what would my Prophet (SAW) do?’, before answering the question for themselves and acting accordingly.
Such a mindset is also advocated by Sheikh Muhammad Al-‘Abbasy. He is a senior lecturer and Professor in Madinah University, and during my Hajj Pilgrimage this year, I had the opportunity to interview him. When I asked him about his view on the aims of an Islamic education, he stated that ‘the main aim in the secondary schools, and in the University, is to qualify the student to be good Da’iah; a good caller to [the path of] Allah (SWT)’, adding that ‘Ilm is not just for passing exams […] it is to develop the person to be[come] a good man’ (Al-Abbasy, 2011). Clearly, Abbasy too espouses the view that an Islamic education needs to involve a process of shaping the personality of the student to that of the Prophet (SAW). He championed the personality of the Prophet (SAW), saying ‘you have to make Muhammad (SAW) your leader and example if you want the success in your life’, adding that Islam ‘does not only belong in the masjid’, but rather, ‘wherever a person is […they] should be looking to Islam, the Message, for answers’ (Al-Abbasy, 2011). Without mentioning it, the Sheikh is referring to Surah An-Nisaa Verse 59, in which Allah (SWT) states, ‘…(And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah (SWT) and His Messenger (SAW)…’
To this, I would add that students also need to have engrained in their minds the key Islamic concepts, such as Tawhid, Hayat, Akhirah, Dunya, Jannat, Naar, Deen, Munkar, Nafs, Kufr. Sabr, and Fitrah (natural disposition), so that whatever juncture they are at in their lives, our students consider such questions as ‘how does this decision rest in relation to Tawhid, my belief in Allah (SWT)? Does it take me closer to Ajr and Jannat or closer to Kufr and Naar?’
Who then, does the responsibility for this ‘education’, this moulding of the students’ personality fall upon? Undoubtedly, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the Muslim teachers in the Islamic learning institution. In the Chapter entitled, ‘What Do Teachers Do?’ contained in Learning To Teach In The Secondary School (2009), its co-authors Andrew Green and Marilyn Leask state that ‘you have responsibility for both the academic and the pastoral development of your pupils’, outlining the ‘pastoral’ role as ‘registering the class’ and ‘liaising with parents’ (Greek and Leask, 2009:13).
Clearly, with regard to ‘pastoral’ work, there is no teaching of what is morally right, or wrong, let alone any association with religion. From my own experiences as a secondary school teacher in the state sector, I have found that there may be some mention of those things which are universally rejected in PSHE (Personal, Social, and Health Education), such as murder, drugs, and under-age drinking, but, such things are presented as things which should be avoided for reasons of health, happiness, and well-being. There is no sense of accountability to Ar-Raqeeb (The Watchful), Allah (SWT).
The Islamic concept of Tarbiyah is more inclusive of the concept of nurturing. Students will be told of those things which stain the heart, and put a person’s Akhirah at risk. They will be told that there are legal risks involved in the commitment of crimes but that even if they do not feel the long arm of the law, ultimately, Allah (SWT) is Ever-Watchful of what they do and that if He wills, He can punish them for that which they do in the darkest room on the blackest of nights if it is something He has forbidden.
In reference to this, Sheikh Al-‘Abbasy stated that in Madinah, ‘the teachers teach, and give Taribiyah [nurturing and edification] too […] this is done through the good example [of the teacher] and the good books of Tarbiyya’ (Al-Abbasy, 2011). Indeed, Green and Leask state that ‘above all, pupils respond to individuals […] one of the first things your pupils pick up on is you as a person’ (Green and Leask, 2009:10). This concept is widely accepted among those involved in teaching pedagogy, and clearly shows that Muslim teachers, parents and guardians aiming to ‘educate’ young Muslims need to first themselves be the embodiment of the personality of our beloved Prophet s(SAW).
This crucial role of the Muslim teacher has been expanded on here because in the last 20 years, the definition of ‘education’ has become increasingly focussed on improving grades rather than the personalities of the students- even in certain ‘outstanding’ schools in London. This is something which has been problematized even by Western thinkers. Paul Black and Dylan William, in their well-known collaborative work Inside The Black Box (1998), state that one of the ‘negative impact[s]’ of ‘assessment in classrooms’ is that ‘the giving of marks and the grading functions are over-emphasised, while the giving of useful advice […is] under-emphasised’ (Black and William, 1998:4). The mark of a ‘good teacher’ has become more about how much ‘value’ have they ‘added’ to the pupil’s grades. This is not the way forward. Young people need model examples to follow to shake them out of apathy, and this has to be personality of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
In drawing this study to a close, it is clear that when it comes to the aims of Islamic education, we have set our aims high. So we should. It is also true that the responsibilities on the Muslim teachers in Islamic institutions and academies are great. So they should be. Success will never be achieved if we set our sights any lower than on the personality, path, and conduct of the Messenger of Allah (SAW)-the most influential man in history. Indeed, who is there that can argue, when the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth Himself declares in Surah Al Ahzab verse 21, ‘Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah (SAW) an excellent example/pattern for him who hopes in Allah (SWT) and the Last Day and remembers Allah (SWT) often’. After moulding ourselves on the Prophet’s (SAW) personality, imparting the rationale the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) on our students must be the primary aim of Islamic education, with subject related knowledge coming second. What is the aim of Islamic education? It is to educate, shape, and mould ourselves, then our children and students into the example of the most blessed man to walk the face of the earth: Muhammad (SAW), the Khayrul-Khalq.
By: Aslom Ullah