Excellence in Islamic Education: Key Issues for the Present Time

The ideas in this paper constitute an elaboration of some of the founding principles of the Book Foundation Education Project and will be systematically applied in the forthcoming Book Foundation programs.

1. Islamic Education: Educating the Whole Person

What we are witnessing in the state education system in Britain, and no doubt also in other state education systems in the Western world and in other countries which mimic them, is the progressive destruction of the concept and practice of a holistic system of education - that is, a broad and balanced system of education based on an understanding of the full potential of the human being and a system of pedagogy designed to awaken and develop that potential.
This has been a gradual process of attrition, constriction and ultimate strangulation, culminating in a sterile, standardised, bureaucratic system which stifles creativity and demoralises students and teachers alike. We see the triumph of quantification, league tables, and the proliferation of an oppressive and soulless target-driven regime derived from alien corporate models and control-obsessed managerialism. We see unremitting assessment of uninspiring objectives and dangerously narrow prescriptive content.
What is behind this is an agenda geared almost exclusively to a utilitarian concept of education, a reduction of truly holistic education to a narrow band of skills for the workplace. This a concept of education geared to economic performance, competition and efficiency above all else. The British Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) White Paper,Schools: Achieving Success gives the game away in the first paragraph of the Introduction: "The success of our children at school is crucial to the economic health and social cohesion of the country, as well as to their own life chances and personal fulfilment" (my italics). Notice the priorities which are placed first in this sentence.
It was the promise of "Education, Education, Education" as the "number one" priority which was one of the main reasons why the New Labour Party of Tony Blair was elected to government in the UK in 1997. Now, five years on, and with New Labour re-elected to a second term, Tony Blair has reiterated his commitment to education. But what kind of education? In an exclusive interview reported in the Times Educational Supplement of 5 July 2002, Blair states that "Education is and remains the absolute number one priority for the country because without a quality education system and an educated workforce, we cannotsucceed economically" (my italics). The real priority is clear, and it is the same one (economic power) as that which governs educational policy in the White Paper.
In his publisher's note to New York State Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto's challenging book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, David H. Albert refers to the words of the social philosopher Hannah Arendt that "The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any".
Gatto's indictment of the assumptions and structures which underlie modern state schooling in the USA exposes the same deadening utilitarian agenda which informs British educational policy, an agenda geared to turning children into cogs in an economic machine, children who are dependent, conforming, materialistic, and lacking in curiosity, imagination, self-knowledge and powers of reflection. This is the modern equivalent of the worst of Victorian education geared to the production of a regimented, empire-serving army of uncritical ledger clerks and petty officials.
Supporting the utilitarian agenda in the UK, and also fuelled by pressure to do well in league tables of performance, is a debilitating testing regime perhaps even more excessive than the national obsession with standardised testing in the USA. A national UK newspaper, reporting recent research by Cambridge University for the National Union of Teachers, refers to a testing "insanity" which is gripping primary schools in the UK. Almost half the weekly timetable is now taken up by mathematics and English lessons and thousands of children as young as seven are being tested every week on their reading. The disproportionate emphasis on the teaching and perpetual testing of a narrow band of literacy and numeracy skills, which are deemed to be essential for economic survival, is taking the heart and soul out of education.
The researchers conclude that "the amount of time for teaching each day does not allow for a broad and balanced curriculum", and creative subjects such as art, drama and music are being increasingly squeezed out of the classroom. In response to the report, John Bangs, Head of Education of the National Union of Teachers, said: "What is shocking about the report is the extent to which arts have been eliminated from primary schools. Tests and targets are wiping out pupil and teacher creativity." In some schools, art is now dropped from the curriculum in the last year of primary school (at age 10-11).
History at A-level (university entrance standard in the UK) is now regarded as such a narrow, limited and impoverished historical education that Cambridge University no longer requires undergraduate historians to have it. The head of history at Latymer School in North London described the A-Level course as "history for the MTV generation - know a little but keep on repeating it".
A joint Royal Society and Joint Mathematical Council working group reported in July 2000 that the teaching of mathematics was increasingly being reduced to nothing but numbers, and that the death of geometry, the study of shape and space, in mathematics education could only be to the detriment of visual and spatial intelligence. It takes little insight to see in this entirely quantitative approach a verification of René Guénon's vision of the "Reign of Quantity" as indicative of the profound crisis in contemporary life and thought.
A Geographical Association survey has found that "geography has been dropped as a subject specialism by more than one quarter of initial teacher-training institutions". Humanities simply do not have the status of core subjects such as English, mathematics and science, so "young teachers who want promotion will probably focus on core subjects".
As if the marginalisation and impoverishment of the arts and humanities and the death of geometry were not enough, a survey by the Association of Language Learning suggests that more than 1,000 schools in the UK are planning to drop foreign language lessons for pupils over 14. In February 2002, the German, Italian and Spanish ambassadors had spoken out in an interview with The Independent about the "sad" standard of language teaching in the UK.
In the recent flurry of debate about the pros and cons of faith schools, Faisal Bodi has argued a strong case for Muslim schools, but I have to question the emphasis in his contention that two well-funded Muslim schools in London have turned out to be "factories for university graduates and professionals".
This is of course meant to be a compliment to those schools, which are indeed models in many ways. Now, no one would deny that there is a pressing need for Muslim graduates and professionals, and those who have attained to this status deserve congratulation, but I have spent most of my working life combating the idea that schools should be "factories" geared only to examination results. We need graduates and professionals who are not only successful in their specialized fields and able to advance their own careers, but also creative, well-educated and well-rounded in the broadest sense, with concomitant cultural, moral, emotional, and spiritual development.
In the face of an impoverished curriculum and its associated regime of perpetual testing, it is hardly surprising that "growing numbers of young teachers are quitting the profession because they think schools are becoming results factories, where heads insist targets are met regardless of the human cost".
We need to be very clear that, as a recent MORI poll has reported, the main reasons given for parents supporting faith schools in the UK are: a desire for their children to be educated in the same values and beliefs as their family (35%); good discipline (28%); and religious ethos (27%). Only 10% cited good exam results. Interestingly, and surprisingly, this partly reflects the reasons cited by parents for sending their children to independent schools (reasons strong enough to motivate many of them to make huge personal sacrifices to pay high fees). In a survey carried out by IAPS (Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools in the UK) discipline is given as the foremost reason, but other important reasons include small classes and a broad and balanced curriculum, including the survival of those humanities subjects under threat in the state system, resources and facilities for sports, a wide choice of extra-curricular activities, and opportunities for cultural development, including music and art.
You would think that highly motivated and successful parents would place examination results as a top priority, but they do not. In the case of independent schools in the UK, it may be that they take high academic standards for granted. The gap in academic standards between independent schools and state schools is very wide: in those independent schools which take the government tests at age 11, for example, over 95% of children reach the required level in English, mathematics and science, whereas in state schools it is barely 70%. My own experience at a leading independent school in England confirms that their 13 year-olds were generally two or three years ahead of children of equivalent age in the average state school).
It is also vital to note the differences between reasons given by parents for sending their children to faith schools or independent schools. While both groups give discipline as a key factor, the faith school parents emphasise family values and beliefs and religious ethos and identity, whereas the independent school parents emphasise breadth of education, including sport, extra-curricular activities, cultural expression, and humanities. The best Islamic education will ensure that this breadth of education is added to their ethical and spiritual appeal. Interestingly, a recent report showed that young people who have creative hobbies (e.g. playing a musical instrument, collecting things, model making etc.) are happier than those who do not; they suffer from less depression and engage in less crime than those who can only occupy themselves by watching television, playing computer games, or "hanging around" outside with their friends, so there is a clear connection between extra-curricular fulfilment and the maintenance of ethical values and happy families.
The best Islamic education must encompass the two traditional categories of knowledge, and the hierarchical relationship between them: revealed knowledge; attained through the religious sciences; and acquired knowledge, attained through the rational, intellectual and philosophical sciences. In the worldview of tawhid (Divine Unity), knowledge is holistic and there is no compartmentalisation of knowledge into religious and secular spheres. Both types of knowledge contribute to the strengthening of faith, the former through a careful study of the revealed Word of God and the latter through a meticulous, systematic study of the world of man and nature.
The perfection of the Islamic revelation embraces all the diverse aspects of the life of man and roots all of them in the Unity and Comprehensiveness of God. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains, Islamic education is concerned not only with the instruction and training of the mind and the transmission of knowledge (ta`lim) but also with the education of the whole being of men and women (tarbiyah). The teacher is therefore not only a muallim, a 'transmitter of knowledge' but also a murabbi, a 'trainer of souls and personalities'. "The Islamic educational system never divorced the training of the mind from that of the soul." Islamic education ideally aims to provide a milieu for the total and balanced development of every student in every sphere of learning - spiritual, moral, imaginative, intellectual, cultural, aesthetic, emotional and physical - directing all these aspects towards the attainment of a conscious relationship with God, the ultimate purpose of man's life on earth.
Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas prefers to regard Islamic education as ta'dib, a word related to adab. He defines this term in its true sense (before its restriction and debasement of meaning to "a context revolving around cultural refinement and social etiquette") as "discipline of body, mind and soul" which enables man to recognise and acknowledge "his proper place in the human order" in relation to his self, his family and his community. This order is "arranged hierarchically in degrees (darajat) of excellence based on Qur'anic criteria of intelligence, knowledge and virtue (ihsan)". In this sense, adab is "the reflection of wisdom (hikmah)" and "the spectacle (mashhad) of justice (`adl)."
Within the dual nature of man's own self, the adab of his lower animal soul (al-nafs al-hayawaniyyah) is to recognise and acknowledge its subordinate position in relation to his higher rational soul (al-nafs al-natiqah). In relation to God, mankind has made a covenant (mithaq) and recognised and acknowledged God as his Lord (al-Rabb). His adab in relation to his Lord is to recognise and acknowledge that Lordship and to behave in such a way as to be worthy of approaching nearer to Him. He is motivated by taqwa (consciousness and awe of God) and ihsan, defined by the Prophet as "to adore God as though you see Him, and if you do not see Him, He nonetheless sees you." This spiritual dimension of adab is an "Islamisation" of the original meaning, 'an invitation to a banquet', where the host would be a man of distinction and standing and the guests would be worthy of the honour of invitation by virtue of their refined character and upbringing, expressed in their speech, conduct and manners.
Al-Attas claims that ta'dib is a superordinate concept encompassing not only, 'instruction' (ta`lim) and the idea of 'nurturing', 'rearing', 'nourishing' or 'fostering' (tarbiyah) - i.e. the two elements idenitified by Nasr above - but also 'knowledge' (`ilm). Al-Attas maintains that the coining of the word tarbiyah (which is actually not found in any of the great Arabic lexicons) reflected the Western concept of 'education', which is derived from Latin educare/education and connected to educere (English 'educe', 'draw out or develop from a latent or potential state'). Such education, in al-Attas's view, is "intellectual and moral training geared to physical and material ends pertaining to secular man in his society and state" and cannot therefore describe Islamic education.
The semantic field of tarbiyah also includes minerals, plants and animals (animal husbandry, for example, could be a form of tarbiyah), whereas education in an Islamic sense can only apply to man, who alone of all species is endowed with 'aql. Al-Attas also points out that the concept of 'possession' is implied by tarbiyah in the sense that parents exercise tarbiyah on their offspring and in the sense of 'borrowed possession' in the term rabba applied to men. Only God is al-Rabb, Lord, and, as The Prophet said, "My Lord educated (addaba) me, and so made my education most excellent."
Although al-Attas claims that tarbiyah is subsumed under the over-arching concept of ta'dib, it seems to me important not to marginalize tarbiyah as a fundamental principle of Islamic education. Where al-Attas sees Western contamination in its convergence with the Latin sense of educere ('drawing out or developing from a latent or potential state'), this sense is central to the spiritual dimension of the concept of education developed by the Book Foundation and is elaborated in section 15 below ("The Spiritual Life").
There is also an inherent contradiction in including tarbiyah within the greater explanatory power of ta'dib and yet, at the same time, regarding it as a defective concept "tinged with modernism". Defining Islamic education so strictly in terms of ta'dib and its imperative to "know one's proper place" in the hierarchical order could lead to an under-valuation of two vital aspects of education which are enshrined in the concept of tarbiyah: its "nurturing" function and its role in "drawing out" latent potential.
In a recent paper on the application of religious models to educational administration , Aref Atari has shown how the implementation of both the Christian model of Service-Stewardship" and the Islamic "Khalifah" model "entails a radical transformation in management, thought and practice" away from a hierarchically organised bureaucratic Western model to a what he calls a "caring and sharing spirit". In this climate, trust, love, sympathy, mercy, cooperation, tolerance and altruism are at least as important as efficiency, effectiveness, competition, professional ambition and achievement. The outcome is an organisation which is both "virtue-based and excellence-oriented". Shurah-based management, empowering and working with others, replaces a top-down approach which manipulates, controls and works through others.
Al-Attas himself points out that the "qualitative emphasis of tarbiyah is mercy (rahmah) rather than knowledge (`ilm), whereas the emphasis of ta'dib is knowledge, rather than mercy. We prefer to effect a balance between knowledge and mercy, so that neither is emphasised over the other, for just as mercy without knowledge can foster weakness, delusion, ineffectiveness and foolishness, so knowledge without mercy can lead to egotism, self-aggrandisement, arrogance, intolerance and high-handedness.
A holistic curriculum also aims to reconcile conventional and stereotyped oppositions such as art and science; creativity and rigour; analytic and synthetic styles of learning; logic and intuition; memorisation and comprehension; collaboration and competition; goal-directed learning and exploratory, discovery or investigative learning; innovation and tradition; teaching methods which facilitate learning and those which direct learning; and so on.
Guided by the need for balance, moderation, and harmony, and the existence of complementary pairs of opposites as the underlying fabric of everything in the created universe, it seeks to avoid a vested interest in any one-sided model, paradigm, position conceptual "package", or ephemeral fashion in educational philosophy or methodology. Education is too important a field to be left to the adversarial politics of competing model-builders, for all such models are limited and conditioned human constructions. An Islamic education system must be deeply rooted in a metaphysics derived from the comprehensive and unifying vision of the Qur'an.
It is therefore important to ensure that the sphere of religious studies is not compartmentalised and cut off from knowledge in the humanities and in the natural and social sciences, which are necessary for it to be a meaningful guide in contemporary life. It is also vital that a false and misleading dichotomy is not set up between a type of education which prepares students for "the life of this world" and that which prepares students for the "Hereafter". This is a recipe for a deeply divided mentality and a troubled soul. Concentration on religious studies alone leads to an imbalance and an unintegrated educational system which does not give man the knowledge and skills necessary for engaging in meaningful activities in this life, which, after all, must determine his station in the Hereafter.
Furthermore, there is an underlying unity between all branches of education and all the human faculties and activities involved in learning, and this unity needs to be reflected in an integrated, holistic and multi-disciplinary curriculum which does not draw rigid artificial lines between different subjects and disciplines. In practice, much of modern education is still based on a machine-age model of separate subject areas which encourage a fragmented view of learning. In the absence of a comprehensive and unifying spiritual perspective, it is inevitable that little more than lip-service is paid to the desirability of cross-curricular themes and links.
Nevertheless, al-Attas has stated that, in effect, secular Western education systems, with their core curriculum, are more well rounded than Islamic curricula, because they have the goal of producing an educated man or woman who is able to think and write effectively; to have a critical appreciation of the ways in which one gains knowledge and understands the universe, society and himself; to be informed of other cultures and other times; to have some understanding and experience concerning ethical and moral problems; and to have attained some depth in a particular field of knowledge.
Another imperative is to realise that we need more than a coterie of professionals and academics in a narrow range of specialisations - i.e. law, management, finance, medicine, computers, academe - the ones that traditionally confer status or high salaries and which seem especially attractive to young Muslims keen to advance their careers. There is a pressing need for people who can engage in an open and creative way with the greater "community of communities". We need visionary thinkers at the cutting edge of discourses which address problems and solutions of universal significance for all communities, who can shake off the yoke of academic jargon to make their ideas accessible, and who can reformulate traditional ideas in fresh, modern language; we need more teachers, writers, presenters. We need environmentalists, people concerned about the planet, not just their own back yards. We need creative artists in every discipline, people who can reclaim beauty for Islam, and express the beauty of Islam for all mankind.
If we dislike hostility to Islam in the media, then we should be working as journalists, writers and commentators to present the best face of Islam to a public hungry for enlightenment; we need more Muslim voices who can match the quality of comment coming from many non-Muslims, or from people who have no faith at all, but may nevertheless have a profound sense of natural justice.
If we dislike the misuse of creativity in the West, as for example in the entertainment and advertising industries and in contemporary art, then we should be mastering these media so that we can produce more uplifting material to nourish the human soul. We need to foster the creative spirit in every possible way, not only in obviously creative subjects like music, drama and art, but in every subject and in every activity.
It would be a great pity if Muslim schools, in their desire for recognition and their anxiety to be seen to subscribe to the performance culture of "success", simply reproduce the innate flaws in the worst of the secular education system. The best schools have never succumbed to these flaws in the first place. They include the majority of independent schools which have been exempt from the statutory Key Stage testing regime and which have been able to pick and choose from the unremitting welter of government initiatives and resist the tide of bureaucracy which has engulfed and demoralised teachers. Muslim schools should not be seduced by the government conception of "excellence" which often has little to do with the conception of excellence (ihsan) as understood in the Islamic tradition.
The danger is that faith schools, including Muslim schools, will succumb to purely pragmatic and utilitarian aims in the service of national "development", rather than base the education they offer on an integrated, Islamic vision of education, in which horizontal and vertical dimensions intersect, and in which the whole curriculum reflects an understanding of the true nature of the human being and the full extent of human capacities and faculties. We already see Islamic institutions of higher education which are overemphasizing the applied sciences over the social sciences and humanities (e.g. the call for the 60:40 ratio for natural and applied sciences to social science and humanities in Malaysian universities, as well as the establishment of specialized technology universities). Such imbalance puts national economic development goals over individual human development, and regards the educational process as a factory for producing human "products" and "resources" to drive up the pace of economic growth and national "success".

2. Nature

"The book of Nature, my dear Henry, is full of holy lessons, ever new and varied; and to learn these lessons should be the work of good education." (Mary Martha Sherwood, 1775-1851).
In the present climate of distancing from nature, fear of even the slightest physical risk, and declining powers of observation of the real three-dimensional world (as opposed to the increasing dominance of screens and monitors mediating and impoverishing our experience), we must nourish by every possible means the connection of our young people to the beauty of the natural world and the rich multi-sensory world of experience it opens to them.
A BBC Radio 4 programme aired on 2 December 2001 described a project developed by a farmer to give children a taste of country life by actively involving them in work experience on his farm. At that time he had given over a thousand children this opportunity. He said that children love the contact with the land and the animals, and above all they thrive in an environment in which they feel useful and where there is communal effort in which everyone's contribution is valued. He said he was saddened by how "spiritually impoverished" was the life of so many young people in Britain today, and he equated this spiritual impoverishment with their alienation from the natural world.
The importance of such projects cannot be over-emphasised. They are truly motivating to young people, who are hungry to be involved in real-world activities and have an innate love of animals. At a time when mass entertainment dazzles and mesmerises us with computer animations of predatory prehistoric monsters and a sensationalized view of natural phenomena which paints a distorted picture of nature as threatening and dangerous, it is vital that children capture a balanced, healing and beneficent vision of the natural world.
This must be an integral part of the best Islamic education, since faith itself is verified and strengthened by our observation of the displayed book of nature, with all its signs of beauty and majesty.

3. Memory and Memorisation

We live in an age where loud-mouthed and vacuous opinions based on no real knowledge are increasingly shouting down the meaningful thoughts of people who actually know something and have something of substance to say. One of the reasons for this is that memory is no longer valued in our secular culture, so people are not taught to substantiate their opinions by reference to the knowledge they might have stored in memory. Instead, people have electronic access to oceans of data which they rarely know how to turn even into useful information through selection of what is relevant, let alone turn it into knowledge or wisdom.
Real education must foster a level of debate and discussion which draws on knowledge and experience, which encourages students to substantiate what they are saying, and which challenges merely vacuous opinions. If one has something stored in memory then there is something there for the mind to process, a framework for new knowledge. Memorisation makes complex material accessible to the brain for subsequent processing and lifelong reflection and therefore provides a potent "database" for cognitive development.
Muslim schools have traditionally kept alive the faculty of human memory, especially through memorisation of sacred text. But we need to be clear about the differences between memory and memorisation. Research shows clearly that the most effective memory is memory for meaning. What is understood most deeply leaves the most prominent and resilient memory traces. Deep comprehension of text, for example, is based on an understanding of the deep structure of the text (its underlying semantic propositions and pragmatic intentions, and the inferences we derive from them), not simply from the surface arrangement of the words. Verbatim memorisation of the text cannot help us to understand it, but processing the text in some other form can (e.g. taking notes, discussing it, making a diagram out of it).
Schools need to reclaim memorisation in those areas where it enhances learning. I have seen shy pupils and pupils with learning difficulties transformed by reciting poetry by heart or singing songs learnt by heart in chorus in musical productions - activities which not only foster expressive skills but also enhance the self-esteem and self-confidence with comes from a tangible achievement attained through effort and practice. In fact, all children, from those with learning difficulties to the bright and gifted, benefit from learning songs and research shows there is a transferable benefit to better mathematics and language learning.
As an amateur musician, I know that the memorisation of music for performance has distinct transferable cognitive benefits in many areas. This personal experience confirms the well-attested research which has found that learning to play a musical instrument can dramatically enhance human intelligence, probably because of the patterning activity stimulated in the brain. The mental mechanisms which process music are deeply entwined with brain functions such as spatial relations, memory and language. Spatial intelligence is crucial for engineering, computational abilities and technical design. Learning poetry also has transferable benefits, because all kinds of verbatim memorisation of complex material are using a variety of patterns and cues - not just the word order, but also the prosodic, metrical and rhyming patterns, and various poetic devices. Some of these, after all, are what facilitate the learning of the Qur'an.
There is an excellent section on the value of memorisation in Jean Houston's Jump Time, which shows clearly how the genius of Shakespeare was grounded in the memorisation culture of Elizabethan England. Imitation, too, was another formative practice in that era. "One studies a great piece of writing by one of the acknowledged giants of the past, enters into a process of internalisation - an alchemising through one's own life and experience - and then creates a poem of other work that is unique to the writer yet has similarities to the original. This practice enriches one's ways of thinking, depends one's ability to allude to other forms, thickens the soup of one's mind…." The best schools will use imitation of great models this way, and not only in literature, but also in art and music. It is important to realise that this is not unthinking imitation, mere reproduction or mechanical copying. It is using a model to catalyse a creative process which draws on a variety of sources, both external and internal.
We need to ensure that memorisation, imitation, dictation, and factual "right-answer" recall in answer to closed questions, are not over-extended as learning strategies to areas where they cannot promote comprehension. Many people now have an image of madrasa education in Pakistan as a process of sheer rote-learning, repetition and memorisation divorced from understanding. Muslim schools, like all schools, need to show that they have developed a methodology of teaching and learning in all subject areas (including religious education) which sees education as an active learning process which promotes deep comprehension through critical and creative thinking skills, discussion, collaborative learning, dialectic, research, questioning, recourse to personal experience, reflection, and contemplation.
4. Seeking Knowledge, Thinking and Active Learning
"Lord, increase me in knowledge." (Qur'an 20:114).
"It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray all night." (The Prophet Muhammad).
"All men by nature desire knowledge." (Aristotle)
A blunt new report by Arab intellectuals commissioned by the United Nations warns that Arab societies are being crippled not only by lack of political freedom and the repression of women but also by intellectual stagnation and the stifling of creativity arising from isolation from the world of ideas. The survey, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, was released on 2 July 2002 in Cairo. A telling statistic, according to the report, is that "the whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates". In the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, it concludes, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year.
A vision of a truly Islamic education sees the best schools as "thinking schools" and "active learning environments" which uphold the sacred trust to seek and acquire knowledge, and that through the quality of their education they dispense with the false idea that "faith" is somehow in opposition to "reason", and that the knowledge attained through divine revelation is somehow in opposition to acquired human knowledge.
The Prophet said: "God has not created anything better than Reason, or anything more perfect, or more beautiful than Reason; the benefits which God gives are on its account; and understanding is by it, and God's wrath is caused by disregard of it".
It is also related that a group of people once commended a certain man in the presence of the Prophet, praising him excessively. Thereupon the Prophet said: "What kind of intellect does he have?" But they replied, saying: "We tell you about his diligence in prayer and about the various good works he does, and you ask about his intellect? The Prophet answered and said: "The fool does more harm through his ignorance than do the wicked through their wickedness."
Of course, we must not restrict the pedagogy of thinking and learning only to the skills of logic and reasoning. These skills are, of course, fundamental and especially important in educational environments which have over-extended the pedagogy of imitation, repetition and verbatim memorisation, but we need to extend them beyond the conventional, 'convergent' thinking skills which have been over-emphasized in our Western machine-age education model. Einstein said that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them" and, according to J. K. Galbraith, "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking". Ultimately, we must extend thinking to encompass the more comprehensive view of the human intellect embodied in the Islamic concept of 'aql, which has a moral and spiritual dimension as well as a narrowly cognitive one.
'Aql is a faculty which is hard to translate into English. Its Arabic root has the sense of 'binding' and 'withholding', i.e. the faculty of judgment, discrimination and clarification and the intellectual power of speech (nutq) which enables man, the "language animal", to articulate words in meaningful patterns. To Adam was imparted the Names (Qur'an 2:31), and in one sense this knowledge confers on man the faculty of logical definition and the making of distinctions which underlies abstract, conceptual thought. But 'aql implies more than a strictly logical ability. It is a combination of reason and intellect, and in its highest sense, as Titus Burckhardt explains, it is "the universal principle of all intelligence, a principle which transcends the limiting conditions of the mind". It is therefore closely related to the Heart (qalb), the organ of spiritual cognition.
There is some convergence here with the notion of nous (intellect) in Orthodox Christianity (Hesychasm), which defines intellect as the highest faculty in man, through which, if purified, he knows God or the inner essence or principles (logoi) of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Again, this system equates the higher Intellect with the Heart, a faculty which dwells in the depth of the soul and constitutes the innermost aspect of the Heart, the organ of contemplation, even described in very Islamic terms as the "eye of the heart" in the Makarian Homilies. As such, nous is distinguished from dianoia, the faculty of mere discursive reason, whereas both intellect and reason are combined in the organic unity of 'aql.
Our conception of thinking and learning must embrace not only conventional logical and analytical skills but also skills such as those utilized by:
  • Active and skilled readers who employ a range of reading strategies according to purpose and genre, including close reading, scanning and skimming, and who make inferences and predictions based on context and background knowledge so as to go beyond the information given;
  • Clear thinkers, able to select what is relevant and accessible and avoid unnecessary complexity and repetition in transmitting ideas to others;
  • Independent, critical thinkers and decision-makers;
  • Curious, questing, adventurous thinkers (the Prophet said: "Seek knowledge, even unto China"; "Whoever goes out in search of knowledge is on the path of God until they return.");
  • Questioning thinkers, always seeking new evidence and able to resist premature closure and fixed conclusions. "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality" (Albert Einstein). The Prophet said: "Asking good questions is half of learning".
  • Discriminating and discerning thinkers, able to use valid criteria (including the criterion, or furqan, of the Qur'an itself) to sift the false from the true, identify weak assumptions and presuppositions, expose false premises, distinguish fact from unsubstantiated opinion, and make sound judgments. A well-attested characteristic of bright and gifted students is that they ask awkward questions, undermining shallow presuppositions and even questioning the hidden premises behind other people's questions. Good teachers are never threatened by such students.
  • Focused thinkers, able to formulate clear and specific definitions and categories and resist "woolly" thinking;
  • Reflective thinkers, able to ponder deeply and resist hasty and impulsive conclusions;
  • Unitive and synthetic thinkers, able to employ dialectical thinking to resist one-sided, polarised, paradigmatic thinking and reconcile and unify dichotomies and oppositions; able to affirm and incorporate logical polarities rather than seek to avoid contradiction and paradox through one-sided adherence to a single perspective. In the field of developmental psychology, Klaus Riegel identifies the ability to accept contradictions, constructive confrontations and asynchronies as the highest stage of cognitive development, and James Fowler associates dialectical thinking with the development of faith. It goes without saying that the dialectical process is not one either of compromise or loose relativism, but one of creative tension which ultimately transforms contradictions into complementarities, releasing the open-minded thinker from ingrained habits and conditioned patterns of thought, established affiliations, fear of change and instability, and reluctance to approach anything which may be threatening to one's sense of "self".
  • Thinkers who employ strategies for memory and verbatim memorisation including the identification of organisational and cohesive features (propositional structure; rhyme, rhythm, other poetic devices), finding connections with existing knowledge, paraphrasing and summarising, visualisation, mnemonics, etc.;
  • Flexible thinkers able to use a range of thinking skills and strategies appropriate to various tasks, and able to transfer knowledge in innovative and creative ways;
  • Multi-sensory learners, able to use all their senses to acquire knowledge;
  • Nuanced and multi-layered thinkers, able to encompass subtle distinctions of meaning, appreciate different levels of description, and evaluate which level is appropriate in a particular context;
  • Creative thinkers and problem solvers, able to explore and initiate alternative, divergent and lateral approaches to the solution of problems;
  • Non-literal thinkers, comfortable with symbol, metaphor, allegory and analogy;
  • Fair-minded and open-minded thinkers, able to resist prejudice and bias, and able to counterbalance culturally motivated distortions of fact;
  • Cutting-edge thinkers, able to pioneer new departures and developments;
  • Visionary thinkers, those who see to far horizons, reach to the heart of the matter and penetrate to the key issues and underlying trends;
  • Metacognitive thinkers, able to analyse their own thought processes;
  • Self-motivated learners, who are not over-reliant on extrinsic motivation (motivated by external factors, such as financial reward or accountability to managers) but can call on intrinsic motivation (e.g. love of learning for its own sake);
  • Lifelong learners, who persevere in their studies and have developed effective study habits, including organisation of time and resources, research skills, active reading, note-taking and note-making, listening, self-evaluation.
  • Learners who are able to transmit, use and apply knowledge for the benefit of others: There are many sayings of the Prophet on the "negligent scholar": "A pious, unlettered man is like one who travels on foot, whilst a negligent scholar is like a sleeping rider". The Prophet also refers to the "scholar without practice" as a "tree without fruit" and a "bee without honey".
  • Learners who embody, realise and actualise knowledge - deep learning (i.e. true education) goes beyond theoretical knowledge or knowledge which is merely "academic" in its pejorative sense; it must involve confirmation and realisation (tahqiq, derived from haqq, truth, reality) of knowledge in one's own self, which also inspires action (`amal). In Islam, knowledge and action are inextricably intertwined, and there is no worthwhile knowledge which is not accompanied by action, nor worthwhile action which is not guided by knowledge.
Above all we should aim to cultivate 'thinkers' who use 'aql in its sense of "mind-heart", and tafakkur, in its sense of a cognitive-spiritual activity in which the rational mind, emotion and spirit are combined. These faculties, in their higher sense, are, of course, more than 'thinking' in the sense that the Western mind often understands thinking as an exclusively mental activity distinct from the workings of the heart. Essentially, this is the contemplative state of Islamic worship, in which the truth of revelation is verified through the organ of spiritual cognition (ma`rifah). "Soon we will show them Our signs in the utmost horizons of the universe and within their own souls until it becomes manifest to them that this revelation is indeed the truth" (Qur'an 41:53). The Prophet said: "An hour's contemplation is better than a year's (mechanical) worship".
The awakening and development of these higher contemplative faculties must be considered within the context of a natural developmental process which governs the gradual maturation and unfolding of human capacities. This process starts with concrete sensory experience and observation, progresses to the use of the mind as a tool for abstract thought, logical reasoning and analysis, and culminates in the awakening of the Heart and the attainment of spiritual insight.
At present, the pinnacle of cognitive development in Western secular education is the attainment of formal reasoning (Piaget's "formal operations"), hypothetico-deductive thinking and theory construction. It is significant, however, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest constructers of scientific theory warned against the over-valuation of the rational mind: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
The development of the rational mind has had obvious consequences in terms of scientific and technological progress, but it has also inhibited man from progressing further to the attainment of spiritual insight, and even undermined those capacities which he naturally possessed at earlier stages of development, such as the capacity for awe and wonder in the face of mysteries which are inaccessible to the mind.
The senior curriculum therefore needs to make students critically aware of the limitations of formal reasoning, and the blindness of dogmatic scientism and reductionism which teach that observable reality is the only reality and that there is only one level of description applicable to all phenomena. Students should also be informed of the spiritual beliefs of famous Western scientists, such as Newton, Faraday and Einstein.
The Qur'an is a "book for those who believe in the existence of that which is beyond the reach of human perception" (Q. 2:3). Muhammad Asad comments on this verse: "Al-ghayb, commonly, and erroneously, translated as "the Unseen" is used in the Qur'an to denote all those sectors or phases of reality which lie beyond the reach of human perception and cannot, therefore, be proved or disproved by scientific observation or even adequately comprised within the accepted categories of speculative thought: as, for instance, the existence of God and of a definite purpose underlying the universe, life after death, the real nature of time, the existence of spiritual forces and their inter-action, and so forth. Only a person who is convinced that the ultimate reality comprises far more than our observable environment can attain to belief in God and, thus, to a belief that life has meaning and purpose."
True as this is, it is important to add that we need not become disillusioned with science because of the myopic vision of scientism. As al-Ghazali warns, laborious study of the sciences dealing with fact and demonstration is indispensable if the soul is to avoid imaginative delusions masquerading as spiritual enlightenment. It is also the case that some of the best cutting-edge modern science is also providing us with persuasive and compelling evidence, from a strictly scientific perspective, of the existence of a divine principle of meaning, purpose and order at work behind all aspects of existence , which is testimony to the Qur'anic statement that "Everything have We created in due measure and proportion". (54:49) This kind of empirical verification, with its power to demonstrate the unity of science and religion, is far more convincing and impressive to modern students than contrived attempts to find a convergence between Qur'anic ayat and the specific findings, for example, of physical or chemical research. The Qur'an should not be limited to the status of a scientific text book.
Just as we need to bring to light the difference between scientism and true science, we need to ensure that the process of education teaches students not to equate other limiting ideologies with potentially constructive tools and concepts. For example, fine thinking demands that we distinguish between nihilistic relativism and the valid attempt to find relationship or use context to inform meaning. In the same way, we need to distinguish between absolutism as an unbending frame of mind and the absolute and the immutable truths given to us through divine revelation.
Such distinctions can be carried further to encompass the difference between individualism and individuality, between communalism and community, between modernism and modernity, between fundamentalism and a commitment to fundamentals, between libertinism and liberty, and between syncretism and synthesis. Most importantly, there is a pressing need for education in the difference between secularism as a godless ideology and the intelligent appreciation that we live in the "present time" (Latin saeculum) and therefore need to attune ourselves to its particular needs, conditions and ways of thinking if we are ever going to be able communicate effectively with the contemporary psyche.
The Islamic perspective, always seeking unity, proportion, harmony and balance, is able to encompass many levels of description and apply each one in its appropriate domain. It does not conceive, for example, of analysis and synthesis as conflicting styles, the former to be superseded by the latter in the revolutionary school of tomorrow, but as complementary capacities, each with its appropriate domain. If the left side of the brain is overused, as it may well be in much Western education, the corrective is not to go overboard for "right-brained" thinking and consign "left-brained" thinking to the garbage bin but to seek a balance between the two sides. It is not a question of one mode of thinking being "better" than another, or one mode of thinking becoming obsolete, but of having the intelligence to realise that all modes have their place.

5. Striving

"Striving is the ordinance of God and whatever God has ordained can only be attained through striving". (The Prophet Muhammad)
"There has never yet been a man in history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering." (Theodore Roosevelt)
"Without labour, nothing prospers." (Sophocles)
"An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox." (Mexican proverb)
Since man is endowed with the special privileges corresponding to his status as khalifah (vicegerent, trustee), he is all the more accountable. However, given the limitations of man and the extent of God's Mercy, which "covers everything", it is the conscious intentions of men and women which will be judged, for "nought shall be accounted unto man but what he is striving for" (Qur'an 53.39).
An Islamic vision of education should therefore lay particular emphasis on sincere effort, on the inevitability and value of failure as a means of learning, and on the avoidance of excessively competitive, win-at-all-costs and achievement-driven criteria for success which may lead to inflation, egoism, self-aggrandisement and lack of compassion. This insatiable need to win, and the vices of character which can grow from it, is especially apparent in contemporary sports culture, in which sport has been desacralised. There is a pressing need to reclaim the sacred origin of sports.

Due regard for intention, effort and striving implies that the assessment system should not be excessively focused on quantitative measures of achievement, and the proliferation of statistics and "targets", which often merely reinforce failure, disillusionment and disaffection. The assessment system needs to be based on the premise that every student is worthy of respect and every pupil has something positive to offer and some achievement to celebrate. Such a system may include self-assessment, portfolios of work, and presentations.
The qualities of perseverance, patience and determination go hand in hand with the quality of striving. Persistent efforts are better than erratic ones, even if the latter are mighty ones. As the Prophet said: "…the best deed is a continuous one, even if it be but a small one."
The greater striving (jihad) is, of course, the struggle to master one's own lower self. As the Prophet said: "The most excellent Jihad is that for the conquest of the self". The best schools must themselves strive to inculcate in their students the qualities of character, including modesty, self-restraint and self-control (without repression!) which will serve as the foundation for this lifelong struggle.