Battle in Print: An Islamic education for all?

Rania Hafez, 5 November 2010

As a Muslim who was educated in Lebanon in a Francophone system by Catholic nuns, I can speak with some authority on faith and non- faith-based education. Neither the Catholic sisters or the secular, subject-based education affected my beliefs. Schooling in faith schools can still provide a good education.

The debate about ‘faith’ schools is often about the mistaken idea that ‘faith’ in this context is essentially irrational and a matter of indoctrination of children and young people into a set of unreasoned, if not irrational, beliefs. The popularity of faith schools even amongst people of no belief must mean there’s more to faith schools than this. An Islamic education would be superior to what is now generally on offer in British schools.

A reactionary claim?

In the present climate this might be seen as a reactionary claim. A religious perspective (Islamic or otherwise) on education provides us with a paradox.  ‘E-ducere’ from the Latin means to lead out (to liberate) whereas ‘religio’ means to constrain. Thus, religious education has often meant to indoctrinate the young people into the rules of a particular faith. However, education in the traditional Islamic sense, going back to the principles of education in Islamic texts and the practice of Muslim thinkers and scholars in the heyday of Islamic civilisation, far from harnessing the mind to restrict it, frees the mind by harnessing a person’s intellectual and emotional capabilities in a framework of reasoned enquiry and scholarly study.

As a teacher and a teacher of teachers, I know education has been emptied of its liberating potential and instead shackled to contemporary standards and competencies and buttressed by a narrow, instrumentalist view of the curriculum. This has happened within a political climate that demands compliance and marginalises debate as dissent. In this context, religion may offer a potential alternative perspective that seeks to truly liberate. Perhaps religion may offer a way out? 

My approach is that of an Islamic secularist. That’s to say, what I wish to offer is an intellectual perspective that doesn’t necessitate a faith, but has a secular or humanist dimension independent of faith.

A caveat however: I am not here to revisit the clash of culture theme; enough is written about that. Neither am I here to remind Europe and the West of the intellectual and scientific debt they owe Islam: that’s backward looking and consigns Islam and its intellectual power to the dusty archives of history. My purpose is to show that Islam is still a dynamic living powerhouse of intellectual and philosophical ideas that can and should take their place in the arena of modern debate about the many all aspects of social, economic and intellectual life.

What can Islam bring to the education debate?


The fact is ‘education’ has been missing from the debate, despite Tony Blair’s declaration that ‘education, education, education’ was his priority. This was untrue. What he meant by ‘education’ was following a social care and social engineering agenda. What has come to the fore is not teaching children, but minding them, and minding their parents. Control of personal behaviour has been the driving agenda of education with the view that kids are out of control and it’s the job of schools and teachers to make the ‘buggers’ behave. Teachers have lost their autonomy and teacher education has become one of training teachers to perform not to think.

That sounds quite traditional and Islamic…some of you may be thinking. Islam is all about laws - and surely Islam with its rules on dress, food, sexual behaviour seeks to control in a more draconian way? Actually…it’s not the case. I won’t discus dress and sex, that’s for another debate, but as far as education is concerned, Islam is traditional in a way that may surprise you.

Seven Islamic principles of education

In my view, there are seven principles of Islam’s approach to education.

First and foremost, Islam values Knowledge.

1. Knowledge as an objective universal truth, Haqq. It is not bound to a culture, a religion, a particular time. It exists out there and it is there to be discovered. And discovering knowledge is a way of entering faith. Alhaqq is one of God’s names. Alhaqq means absolute truth.  Actually it means more…it means a certainty, an honesty and a right. So there is an objective truth that is independent of faith. The Quran states that those who come to ‘know’ the measure of God are the ‘knowledgeable’. Those who have knowledge.

2. How do we find this Knowledge? Through rational empirical investigation. We have to be active seekers/learners. Again and again God in the Quran talks about his signs. The evidence in the natural world, in our bodies, in the concepts of space and time. We are instructed us to seek truth through a Spirit of Inquiry & Discovery: Wonder, Plan, Investigate, Discover, Reflect, Share, Act. The above seven attributes are characteristics of an active learner consistently looking for knowledge and information. The way to find that truth is not through the holy book. The Holy Books are from god and to be read, learned, and lived that is true. And they do contain a truth, but not one we may readily understand. Holy books are here to support the seeking of that truth and guide to it, if we can understand the guidance.

3. Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every individual. Ignorance is not an excuse. Muslims are encouraged to ‘seek knowledge all the way to China’ – very contemporary! And that seeking of knowledge is already outlined. It’s through systematic enquiry that we enquire that knowledge. And the mention of china is to show that knowledge is not ethnocentric. It is not ‘our’ knowledge; it is universal knowledge that can be accessed by all regardless of time and place.

4. An ethical base, a unity of knowledge. Just like words which are symbols denoting the meaning of things, the objects of the natural world are symbols denoting a meaning. To study the word as word, regarding it as if it had an independent reality of its own, is to miss the real point of studying it; for regarded as such it is no longer a sign or a symbol, as it is being made to point to itself, which is not what it really is. So in like manner is the study of nature, of any thing, any object of knowledge in Creation, pursued in order to attain knowledge of it; if the expression ‘as it really is’ is taken to mean its alleged independent reality, essentially and existentially, as if it were something ultimate and subsistent—then such study is devoid of real purpose, and the pursuit of knowledge becomes a deviation from the truth, which necessarily puts into question the validity of such knowledge, treating the things of the empirical world as ‘words’, as signs and symbols operating in a network of conceptual relations that altogether describe an organic unity

5. The value of the written word and the importance of the book. The first word revealed is Islam was the command ‘Read!’. The Quran is central to every Muslim’s life and as the first of the books, but not the only one, reading is central to the faith. Knowledge is to be found in the scholarly works across nations and ages.

6. Transmission and the centrality of the teacher. Islam states that ‘The best of you are those who learn (a) knowledge and then teach it’. Scholars and Teachers hold a very important social position in Islam. ‘The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.’

7. Action. Knowledge has to be acknowledged by recognising the true nature and relationship of people and things. This means recognition of the truth in both domains, the ontological and the theological, necessitates in the human being conduct that conforms to that truth. Thus Haqq also signifies ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’ that binds in accordance with the requirements of reality and truth. When in Islam we speak of human being as possessing ‘right(s)’ in the sense of just claim or what he is entitled to, we mean by that his duty or obligation as described above. Thus ‘recognition and acknowledgement’ as an element in the Islamic concept of education means ‘affirmation and actualisation’ in one’s self of what is recognised. Wisdom, Justice, Harmony that comes from the pursuit of knowledge should lead to the emancipation of the human.

An Islamic education would focus on knowledge, the need to enquire and experiment. It would make the seeking of objective knowledge a moral obligation on every individual and provide an ethical unity to that knowledge. It would venerate learning from books and the teacher.  Finally, it would necessitate in every individual action to ensure human progress.

Of course, Islamic scholars emphasise that the ethical unity is contained in the faith, but this theological perspective does not impact upon the curriculum.  An Islamic education that reflects the principles from the Golden Age of Islamic thought would be a triumph over the contemporary instrumentalist social engineering that passes for education.  What parent wouldn’t want to send their child to a school organised around the seven pillars of Islamic education?



Rania Hafez, Director of the professional network Muslim Women in Education and was the Chair of the East Midlands Salon Battle Satellite ‘A new age of liberty?’

Festival Buzz

The Credit Crunch Demystified - It's not a recession but a weakened economy

"The Battle of Ideas is where we can step out boldly where the angels – or should that be demons – of conventionality fear to tread."
Nicky Charlish, participant, 2009