Gaps and Prospects in Contemporary Islamic Education II: The Relevance of Historical Conceptions of Islamic Education for the Contemporary Context

Students in the courtyard of Al-Azhar, Cairo, 1912

Dr. Mujadad Zaman, Lecturer and Research Fellow at the University of Tuebingen, discussed a number of salient theoretical issues relating to Islamic education. Dr. Zaman described trends in contemporary educational thought and what they may mean for school-level Islamic education today.

Modernist and post-modernist conceptions of education have forged a ‘pedagogic traditionalism’ in western discourses on education over the past century which have been heavily influenced by the works of John Dewey, among others. This pedagogic traditionalism is characterized by a constructivist approach towards education and places emphasis on education as ‘doing’ or praxis. However, there is a growing body of literature which is challenging these approaches to education, indicating that a number of practices commonly associated with the pre-modern era, and often viewed as outdated, such as sitting on the floor for a class and reading from a book as opposed to a tablet, are more conducive to positive educational outcomes. There is a perceived rift between the preeminent education discourses, adhering to this pedagogical traditionalism, and traditional approaches to Islamic education. Engaging with these tensions can possibly shed light on how Muslim educators can develop relevant Islamic curricula in the contemporary context that adheres to an authentic Islamic worldview.

Five motivating principles of Islamic education help to understand the implications that traditional approaches to Islamic education can have within a primary educational context. These principles form the basis of a dialogue to address contemporary challenges in the field of Islamic pedagogy in western models of education.

The first, and most essential, of these principles is that Islamic education needs to be distilled from the lived example (sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as has been transmitted through generations of Muslim scholarship. The sayings of the Prophet ﷺ his actions, and directives provide educators with a basis on which to develop sound Islamic educational curricula and pedagogical approaches.

The second principle relates to how Islam describes the nature of children. Within the Islamic paradigm there are assumptions about the nature of the child as being harmoniously composed of a body and soul. The child is seen as inherently disposed towards virtue and not iniquity. An educational curriculum that seeks to teach religion will have to address these twin dimensions of the human being.

The third principle relates to the early formative education of the child. These formative years of education can be viewed as form of balance building (mizan), which acknowledges that the individual has a soul (nafs) that needs to be trained, disciplined, and cultivated. Traditionally this has been achieved through the triad of education (ta’leem), refinement (tahzib), and spiritual rearing (tarbiyah), all underpinned and infused with the moral value of good manners (adab). Practically speaking, this amounts to striking a balance between academic and spiritual training.

The fourth principle views Islamic education as being a continuation of a tradition that viewed education as being the conduit for the Islamic world view. The existence of this principle is evidenced by the continuity and consistency of traditional Islamic centres of learning around the Muslim world for over a millennia.

The final principle contends that Islamic education needs to be viewed as an open ended process which cannot be proscribed or defined by specific measures of the child’s growth and happiness. This is anomalous to a number of contemporary educational models, which are rigidly defined by specific measures and indicators that track progress, growth, and achievement. Hence, the traditional Islamic view of education is not formulaic. Education is an organic process and there are no predetermined end results. The self-actualisation of the individual through education is indeterminate, and cannot be ‘fixed’ and measured through standardised testing.

Understanding these five principles can help ensure that modern discussions about Islamic education do not segregate the historical weight and richness of its own pedagogic discourses. Without an admission for such defining principles any discussion about countering violent extremism and radicalsation through Islamic education will lack vitality and substance. Furthermore, by understanding these principles one can situate, what an Islamic model of primary education would look like within current discussions and debates in the field of education and pedagogy.

An interesting case study emerges in Germany, where we see a synthesis of Islamic education within a western educational context. Germany, a secular and non-Muslim majority nation, presently offers Islamic education in their curriculum for seven of their sixteen federal states. The teaching of religion is pastoral, which means that only people of the faith are able to teach Islamic theological programs. The curriculum is set by religious scholars and includes core Islamic sciences such as legal theory (usul-al-fiqh), Quranic studies and Islamic history. Though these programs are in their infancy stages, they provide a rich and thought provoking discussion about the potentials and limitations of integrating Islamic education within western models to schooling.