Excellence in Islamic Education: Key Issues for the Present Time
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
By Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
The Book Foundation
Not for publication or reproduction either in whole or in part in its present form, except with the permission of the author.
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 cannot succeed 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".
"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.
"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.
6. Talk and Play
"The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with objects it loves." (Carl Jung)
"The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play." (Arnold Toynbee)
We develop and refine our own models of reality by interacting with others, by checking out our own ideas and attitudes against those of our peers and our elders. This is mainly done through talk, conversation, discussion, and play, and the need for this is all the more urgent now that children are increasingly mesmerised by screens and monitors which detach them from interaction with real people in three-dimensional space with all the extra gestural and emotional cues which real contact with people offers.
Unfortunately, the rigidly prescribed content-heavy curriculum, narrow band of skills, and over-assessment favoured in certain Western school systems (the British National Curriculum, for example), do not foster a "talking" culture. I also know from my experience observing teachers that a climate of inspection and accountability leads to over-managed lessons which deliberately leave no room for spontaneous and unpredictable events, creative departures (including unplanned digressions) or lively discussions, which might "get out of hand" and be construed by inspectors as a breakdown of effective "classroom management" or loss of discipline. Again and again, despite pleas to teachers not to produce supposedly "model" lessons but simply to show their normal practice, I have observed lessons in which nothing is allowed to happen except the "delivery" of a specific "objective". Questioning is geared only to test that knowledge in conformity with the objective has been assimilated. Lateral thinking and divergent questioning is discouraged. This is playing safe, ensuring that the lesson will be at least satisfactory in the eyes of the inspector.
A specific example will suffice. On a training course for inspectors, one of our tasks was to evaluate a lesson on video according to a scale of 0-7, where 0 was excellent, 4 was satisfactory and 7 was very poor. The lesson was one on "creative writing" for a class of Year 5 pupils (9-10 year-olds). Every moment of the lesson was managed. The topic was chosen by the teacher. Every word the children were to use in their "creative" writing was chosen and written on the board by the teacher. When children tried to suggest ideas from their own personal experiences and words from their own vocabularies they were cut short and re-focused sharply on the "objectives" set out by the teacher. The whole lesson was entirely dominated by the teacher. There was virtually no discussion of the topic, no allowance for the alternative ways in which the topic could be approached. I gave it a grade of 6 ("poor") because it had manifestly failed to foster any creative activity or to engage the children through the medium of their own knowledge or experience.
The inspector leading the session commented on my judgment by saying that we had to give it a grade of 4 ("satisfactory") or better because it was a "well-managed lesson". We can see what is happening here: mediocre education is being promoted by the inspection system, because one of the criteria for success in an undisciplined learning environment is that a teacher at least manages to keep control of the class.
This process of strictly manageable objectives reflects a trend which is now increasingly evident even in the approach to "play" amongst very small children. This is the self-contradictory notion of play with "predictable outcomes", a managed kind of "play" in which the thrills of discovery and the unexpected are replaced by pre-determined "objectives" and "targets", and in which natural and infinitely varied objects like sticks and stones are replaced by plastic components. It is not play at all. It is a totally inappropriate transplantation of a rigid performance management culture. In Britain, teachers are now expected to "assess" pre-school children. Over-management is now a disease in the adult workplace, but to impose it on children in their play is a travesty of the nature of play. I dare to say that adults need to learn to play too.
Play relates to talk too, because playful talk is a creative activity in itself. Play can express itself through talk in a variety of ways: in joke-telling, riddling, parody, satire, repartee, dramatic enactment, mimicry, having fun with language - in all kinds of ways.
We need to foster high quality 'talk', including much oral interaction, questioning and discussion in the classroom. We need to facilitate orderly discussion work, including dialectic and debate, so as to foster confident self-expression, respect for alternative points of view, and receptivity to new ideas. The dumbing down even of science programmes on television (which are increasingly little more than special effects shows) means that students are not being taught how to develop and sustain coherent and extended explanations and logical arguments through the process of discourse (thankfully, the quality science programme "Horizon" still does it but it may not be able to hold out for much longer against the theatrical effects and epic music department of dumber programmes).
An Islamic education system geared to excellence needs to show how its methodology facilitates a vibrant culture of conversation and talk within classrooms and the wider school community.
Such a culture is an active learning culture, not a top-down instructional regime based on what Roland Barth calls the "Transmission of Knowledge Model" with its disproportionate amount of didactic teacher talk. Barth reports the estimate of John Goodlad and others that 85 percent of lesson time in American schools is taken up by a prevailing pedagogy based on teachers talking and students listening, occasionally interspersed with teacher-directed discussion.
As Barth points out, "one of the central reasons for the incredible persuasiveness and pervasiveneness of the Transmission of Knowledge model is that it allows learning to be evaluated and numbers attained" and, through these numbers students and teachers can be held "accountable". Einstein speaks of the way in which mere cramming of content undermined his love of science: "One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year."
A wide survey of British secondary schools has revealed that less than ten percent of teacher talk is concerned with the development of higher order thinking skills. Most of it is directed to mere control and management, including keeping order and giving instructions. The rest of it (apart from the paltry amount involved in getting students to think) is low-level transmission of facts and information.
In all of this, we must be true to our commitment to distinguish real education from mere schooling and instruction.
7. Cross-Cultural and Inter-Faith Education
Cross-cultural and inter-faith dimensions of education and the inter-cultural and inter-faith sensitivity they promote are of the greatest importance at this time. Despite all the talk about globalisation, there is evidence in many quarters of entrenched parochialism, increasing xenophobia, racial and cultural intolerance and prejudice, isolationism, cross-cultural communication failure, profound misconceptions of other cultures (fed by flagrant misrepresentation in the media) and outright ignorance and bigotry.
This situation is only exacerbated by allegiance to the poisonous doctrine of the Clash of Civilisations, which is easily exploited, either by mediocre minds or by those pursuing an agenda of political, economic, military or evangelical domination, to give credence to an infantile us-and-them, either-you're-with-us-or-against-us, black-and-white, axis-of-evil, good-and-bad-guys, mentality.
We must take every opportunity to enhance cross-cultural and inter-faith understanding and respect for diversity. This is not something only done in personal and social education or religious education lessons and school assemblies but in every subject area and in every aspect of school life, as set out in the new Citizenship component of the British National Curriculum. Art and music are fertile areas for cross-cultural work. It can be promoted in every subject area, including mathematics and science, and no teacher should be allowed to get away with the idea that their subjects are only concerned with a set of prescribed skills or a narrow band of content which has to be "taught" so as to "cover" the syllabus in time for the examinations.
Faith schools must also demonstrate their respect for religious and cultural diversity and true pluralism, in the sense that openness to other faiths and traditions does not necessitate any loss of commitment to a particular faith community. Parochial limitation, narrow affiliation to a single community and exclusion by faith will not build the bridges that need to be built with the wider community of communities. At the same time, we need to understand why many parents prefer to send their children to single faith schools, not least because of the cohesive ethos and coherent system of values they provide.
The best curriculum should aim to encompass a global dimension and extend the horizons of students in all areas of the curriculum, so that, while having pride in their own culture, they will have respect for cultural diversity in all its forms and understand the contribution of all civilisations to the development of mankind.
The curriculum should therefore provide opportunities for the study of world history; world geography, including human geography and anthropology to promote understanding and respect for human and cultural diversity; world civilisations and their contribution to the transmission of sacred knowledge, including the thematic study of comparative mythology and symbolism and their significance for the psychological and spiritual development of the student.
The curriculum should also acknowledge the contribution of Islam to the development of Western civilisation, not in the sense of dwelling nostalgically on "past glories", but in the deeper sense of finding common ground between Islam and the West, and in bringing to light the unique capacity for synthesis characteristic of the Islamic perspective. Islam is, after all, "a community of the middle way" (Qur'an 2:143). The ummatan wasatan represents what Gai Eaton has called "a connecting link and a centre of gravity" in the midst of a world polarized between East and West, and North and South.
As Mona Abu-Fadl has explained, this is not the Aristotelian "mean" based on the idea of "a middle ground arrived at by the elimination of extremes or an aggregate amounting to a moderate stance" which would, by its very nature, be "shifting and defined, moreover, in terms of other positions, not of any intrinsic characteristics." A middle way rooted in tawhid and "deriving its elements from transcendental sources, provides a stable integral core which serves in itself as a point of departure and a referent for defining and qualifying other positions, and not the reverse. In this way, it constitutes an intrinsic core and provides a vertical axis, or a spinal component, round which the diverse elements and modes of knowledge in the circle of consciousness cohere."
The best Islamic education will renew that essentially Islamic capacity to integrate and accommodate diverse traditions in a spirit of pluralism, as embodied in the historical legacy of intellectual giants such as al-Biruni, Ibn al-Haytham, al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Razi and Suhrawardi.
Pluralism is itself an ideal environment in which to project not narrow formalisms but core Islamic values, including the genuinely Islamic concept of human dignity. These core Islamic values are the same universal values that promote unity in the secular world - values such as seeking knowledge, equality, freedom, human rights, justice, and altruism. The principles of a new world order are embedded in the pluralistic vision of Islam and were embodied in the prototype of an Islamic society existing during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) and in al-Andalus - a vision capable of reconciling the demands of diversity and unity in a humane framework.
But let us be clear that such a vision encompasses not only the openness that characterises living traditions, but also a strong commitment to a particular tradition and community. Diana Eck, Director of the Pluralism Project, argues that there is no such thing as a generic pluralist. There are pluralists from different faith communities, and even humanist pluralists, committed to their own tradition, but at the same time willing to encounter one another and respect each other's particularities. The task of a pluralist society, she says, is "to create the space and the means for the encounter of commitments, not to neutralize all commitment," for "unless all of us can encounter one another's conceptual, cultural, religious and spiritual expressions and understand them through dialogue, both critically and self-critically, we cannot begin to live with maturity and integrity in the world house".
A view of pluralism which entails commitment as well as openness and respect for diversity seeks synthesis in relation to a stable, integral core of knowledge, but this is not the same as a syncretic view which tries to fuse or cobble together different traditions - including incompatible principles or beliefs - into a new system. It is not "a global shopping mall where each individual puts together a basket of appealing religious ideas," flattening out differences and reducing every tradition to "the bland unity of the lowest common denominator" or "the nicest platitudes".
Nor is it an attempt to make up an artificial language, to produce a kind of religious Esperanto, a common language made up from words and grammatical structures selected from some of the major world languages. Made-up languages of this kind never seem to work. Apparently, there are more people with an interest in Klingon, the made-up language developed from the Star Trek television series, than Esperanto, because Klingon is a language which dynamically and organically expresses the character of a particular group of people, even though they are completely fictional.
It might be said that a language like Esperanto is a worthy attempt to promote inter-cultural understanding within the "greater common world" which Bacon regarded as the domain of those who had liberated themselves from prejudice, conditioning, and those other "idols of the human mind". But I think this is a profound misunderstanding. Unity cannot be artificially constructed and contrived in this way, because it contradicts the entirely natural multiplicity that is the very matrix of the entire universe. Unity is a state of being within ourselves that enables us to live with paradox, to reconcile opposites, to respect differences, to understand complementarity. It must be first and foremost a spiritual condition. "Verily, never will Allah change the condition of people until they themselves change what is in their souls" (Qur'an 13: 11). This is change based on a spiritual perspective and the striving (mujahada) to master the lower self which must take precedence over a merely sociological or political view, for the relationship with God is the core of what it is to be a Muslim, and, indeed, an adherent of any religious faith.
In the wake of September 11 2001, and all the dangers which accompany a polarized us-and-them outlook on the world, the West should never forget one of the founding principles of its civilisation in the affirmation by Plato that philosophical dialectic, the testing process of critical enquiry through discussion and dialogue, is utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, and this legacy has ultimately ensured that in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages, the word rhetorical almost invariably has negative connotations, implying the abuse of language for self-serving ends.
At the same time, Muslims need to recall that one of the founding principles of Islamic civilisation was a dynamic spirit of open-minded enquiry, which Muslim scholars communicated to the Christian, Greek, and Jewish communities in their midst. As Muhammad Asad has so eloquently written: "[The Qur'an], through its insistence on consciousness and knowledge…engendered among its followers a spirit of intellectual curiosity and independent inquiry, ultimately resulting in that splendid era of learning and scientific research which distinguished the world of Islam at the height of its vigour; and the culture thus fostered by the Qur'an penetrated in countless ways and by-ways into the mind of medieval Europe and gave rise to that revival of Western culture which we call the Renaissance, and thus became in the course of time largely responsible for the birth of what is described as the 'age of science': the age in which we are now living."
And for Muslims, the Qur'an I, par excellence, that transcendental source which provides the qibla or orienting point of reference, the vertical axis and integral core around which all modes of knowledge and all diverse traditions revolve and cohere.
The best cross-cultural and inter-faith education therefore goes far beyond a bland and diffuse medley or recipe of selected traditions and beliefs of different cultures, traditions and faith communities, even though this in itself can help to cultivate the attitude of tolerance which can be a useful starting point. We need to teach our young people more than mere facts about the festivals held by different religious communities, or their religious artefacts, or their rituals and practices, as if they are items of anthropological interest.
"He who knows his self, knows his Lord." (saying of the Prophet)
"One who knows much about others may be learned, but one who understands himself is more intelligent." (Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching)
A recent survey using various test instruments showed that children are now 50% more extraverted than they were in the 1960's. This could be good in some ways, as it suggests greater confidence, but there are some troubling implications. High extraversion is associated with the need for continual external sources of stimulation and the need for external validation from friends and peers rather than through internal validation gained through reflection and self-analysis. High extraversion is also associated with impulsive behaviour and even with criminality. The idea that modern young people are learning introspective skills through solitary engagement with computers is a dangerous myth, because computer games, though often solitary, are not teaching any introspective skills at all, but are simply external sources of high-octane stimulation.
Introspection and reflection are also essential for the development of moral and ethical values because they teach young people to examine themselves, to understand their own motives and the consequences of their actions. Intelligent and purposeful struggle with the lower self is dependent on those qualities of self-awareness and self-knowledge which arise from self-examination.
The curriculum in all its aspects, both in and outside the classroom, must give opportunities for extended reflection. Studies have shown that a calm school environment has a major effect on student behaviour, reducing or eliminating the incidence of bullying and other anti-social forms of behaviour. Conscious relaxation and other calming techniques, including meditation, have been shown to have a positive affect on student attitude, attention and performance in the classroom.
9. Imagination and Creativity
Imagination is in peril in our culture, because little is left to the imagination any more. Young people's minds are subject to a constant barrage of powerful and emotive images, none of which have emerged from the fertility of their own minds but have been handed to them ready-made with all the high-impact gloss and glitter available to the entertainment industry.
However, we can do little to promote imagination in the young if we have none ourselves. The attitude that we have a body of prescribed content to teach and that any excursion outside these narrow limits is an unjustified digression is the antithesis of a broad and balanced curriculum. It is our vision in extending students beyond these narrow limits which goes far beyond the process of constriction which is occurring in state education and which provides the enriched dimension of independent school education. Imagination is not something which should be restricted to subjects conventionally associated with "creativity", i.e. language studies, literature, art, drama. The way we can foster it is first and foremost to increase it in ourselves through the richness of our own interests and aspirations.
I believe that one of the features of the very best schools is their resistance to the erosion of the humanities and the arts. In the case of Muslim schools, I believe this can be a weak area of the curriculum. According to Jean Houston, "arts kindle the imagination, stimulate the brain's connectivity". The arts "make us human". We know from research that only 15% of learners are auditory learners (i.e. absorb information through hearing it). 40% of students are visual learners (i.e. they process information primarily through seeing pictures) and fully 45% are kinaesthetic learners (i.e. they learn best through the immediate sensory stimulation of hands-on experience and action).
The implications of this are very clear. The best schools do not rely on predominantly verbal instruction, which is one of the main sources of the pervasive boredom which inhibits learning. To do so would not only ignore the learning styles of the majority of people, but also fail to make use of the full potential of the individual human brain.
The best schools will always balance the seduction of hi-tech by providing highly stimulating visual and tactile environments, and use multi-sensory teaching techniques. An Islamic education system in tune with the findings of contemporary research needs to re-evaluate the place not only of music in the school curriculum, but also the educative potential of movement activities such as dance, which energizes and stimulates the entire mind-body system. Research has shown that test scores in language arts rise in correlation to the amount of time spent in movement activities. I have already referred to the transferable benefits of music education and the well-attested research which has found that learning to play a musical instrument can dramatically enhance human intelligence.
The best schools will also use the power of drama to enrich the learning experience. Through dramatic enactment in theatre, the student explores the many guises of what it is to be a human being, using a rich array of skills - music, movement, rhetoric, expression and feeling - to tour the landscape of human experience. What is more, what is enacted is more readily remembered.
10. Communication and Design Skills
One of the outcomes of an impoverished arts and humanities curriculum can be a failure to develop effective communication skills. In the 1980's, when I was a lecturer at Edinburgh University, I assisted in the training of new faculty members in lecturing skills. Each course member began the course by giving a short mini-lecture which was then evaluated by the rest of the group. It was striking how bad the medical doctors often were in communicating their ideas. Weighed down with factual knowledge, and steeped in cluttered medical terminology, they had little idea how to organise it or to make it accessible, and even less idea how to use visual aids, interpersonal skills or variety in their approach (e.g. using anecdote, story, analogy) to engage the interest of an audience.
My experience of presentations by many Muslim speakers at conferences is that their mode of delivery can also lack expressiveness, modulation, nuance, subtlety, colour, dramatic variety, visual support, and awareness of audience. Even "questions" asked from the conference floor can be lengthy, dry, inaudible monologues which show a peculiar lack of sensitivity to the needs and interests of the audience as a whole. Perhaps this can also be attributed to a lack of development in the arts and humanities. Such skills are developed as much through music, art and aesthetics as through literary studies. Understanding of human psychology (e.g. perception) also plays a part in refining these skills.
The same can be said about design skills. Many Muslim publications are crudely presented, with a poor appreciation of the use of visual elements and design subtleties (including colour, layout and fonts) and how such visual elements engage interest and attention.
The best Islamic education needs to ensure that the curriculum gives opportunities for development of spoken communication and design skills. Students should be taught how to give spoken presentations within clear time limits and with visual support, and expressive speech can be developed through drama, reading aloud and poetry composition and recitation (The Prophet said: "God has treasuries beneath the Throne, the keys to which are the tongues of poets.") Story telling should be cultivated.
Students should also be taught how to chair meetings and conferences, how to elicit the opinions of others, how to motivate, encourage and support others through praise, how to resolve conflicts and arguments, and other interpersonal skills which enhance communication and harmony.
It is vital too that students are taught how to use language as an instrument for building bridges rather than as a means of erecting walls. Many Muslims who have spoken publicly since the events of 11 September have come across as harsh, dogmatic, ranting and uncompromising, and have unwittingly reinforced the Islamophobic stereotypes of Muslims which they seek to overturn. They fail to modulate their language according to the needs of their audience.
I am not suggesting that Islamic education should teach students to value the container over the contents, the jug over the water, and to value spin, presentation and production values over substance and truth. I do not hold with the advice given by an eminent publicity consultant on one of television programmes in the BBC Islam UK series screened in 2001 that Muslims should try to improve their image by getting more "celebrities" to represent Islam in the media. Muslims do not have to sell out to the celebrity culture. What I am saying is that people often cannot hear the truth if it is communicated in such a bald way that it arouses no sense of beauty; if it makes no allowance for the contemporary mindset; if it is conveyed only in granite - in heavily formulaic utterances and foreign terms which make no connection with our life experience; if it cannot recast ideas in fresh, modern language; and if it can only brow-beat and harangue rather than persuade. The Prophet said: "He dies not who gives life to learning".
The curriculum needs to ensure that students learn how to use language to win friends through the Truth rather than make enemies; to persuade rather than repel; and to warm the heart.
There is also a pressing need to enhance communicative competence in written language, especially in the field of creative writing. Methods need to include the practice of non-literal and non-expository forms of conveying meaning, such as poetry, analogy, allegory, metaphor, illustrative story-telling, and personal reflections. Expository writing could be improved through the practice of summarising and paraphrasing skills, and the use of drafting and revising to elaborate and refine ideas and enhance structural coherence.
11. Character and Ethical Values
The Prophet said: "The Qur'an was revealed for the acquisition of good character, not for chanting written chapters".
It is not difficult to find examples of increasingly materialistic, grasping, self-obsessed and self-serving behaviour in our society, in which there are many signs of regression by adults into infantile behaviour. Such signs include the very obvious expressions of rage and insatiable greed which are a disfigurement and debasement of the true nature of the human being.
In this climate, students need, above all, role models of adult behaviour who actively embody in their lives a conception of what a true human being is, in its totality. For people of faith, this is a spiritual matter, but for others who may not hold any spiritual beliefs it still operates at the level of an ethical or moral vision, a belief in standards of conduct which are not abandoned because of the effort or will needed to uphold them, nor for the sake of pandering to lower standards because that is what everybody else does in today's world.
In a climate of self-interest, it is schools which are increasingly going to have to counter the negative trends in society, and schools which promote the highest standards of conduct and character, which demand the best of what a human being can be, and at the same time engage in a process of education which makes students think and feel why such conduct is better - these are the schools which responsible parents are going to want to send their children to, not the ones which merely promise advantage, achievement and success above all other things. But policies cannot ultimately achieve this; it is only a common vision, shared values and consistent application of principles and policies by every member of staff which creates and sustains these standards.
I would emphasise also that the introduction of Citizenship into the curriculum, while a step in the right direction, may not go far enough. The objective of Islamic education, and, indeed, all systems of education which are based on an understanding of the full potential of the human being, is to produce a good and complete man or woman (in the sense of balanced intellectual, moral and spiritual excellence, with refinement of culture and character), not merely a compliant citizen of a secular state.
The notion of "citizen" here reflects the British government White Paper, Schools: Achieving Success, which, as I have already pointed out, regards "the success of children at school" as being "crucial to the economic health and social cohesion of the country". Social cohesion is undoubtedly important, as long as it is not founded on mono-cultural conformity, but rests on the respect for diversity, inter-faith tolerance and inter-cultural sensitivity which is an element of the Citizenship programme. Faith schools, whether single-faith or inter-faith, as well as secular schools which teach religious education, contribute to this process by showing how the development of character and ethical values also goes beyond utilitarian citizenship and is based ultimately on our correct spiritual relationship to God (adab), not merely on a functional relationship to the state.
It is vital, however, that faith schools show how this concept of the precedence of God does not have to be associated with a severe clash of loyalty between the secular state and religious beliefs. This is especially important in the context of the current fears about a "segregated" mentality, disaffected youth (wrongly associated with faith schools) and extremists engaged in a war against the West (whose anti-secularism is seen to emanate from religious instruction).
I would offer one caveat: I doubt if there are any "secular" schools which have a mission which does not include a moral dimension, if not a spiritual one. Phillips Exeter Academy in the USA, for example, has a mission founded on the idea that Knowledge Without Goodness is Dangerous. John Phillips wrote this in his original deed of gift in 1781: "But above all, it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character; and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind."
This academy is founded on "humanist", "utilitarian" philosophy, and has no explicit religious orientation, but it cannot be denied that the above statement accords with one level of Islamic values, even if it does not encompass the ultimate source of knowledge and goodness. The transmission or possession of knowledge without the appropriate moral and spiritual qualities is considered dangerous in Islam too, and Sana'i, the Persian poet, describes a person having knowledge without virtue as a "thief". The Prophet said: "The worst of men is a bad learned man, and a good learned man is the best".
The emphasis on the "usefulness to mankind" of knowledge is also wholly consonant with the supplication of the Prophet that God protect him from "useless knowledge". The Prophet also said: "The knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure from which no charity is bestowed in the way of the Lord".
Faith schools should not believe that they have a monopoly on moral and spiritual values. The most coveted student prize at the school where for many years I served as Director of Studies was not an academic, cultural or sports trophy but the one that was presented last as the climax of the day: it was for the three C's, Courtesy, Consideration and Community Spirit, and the school prided itself on the way it fostered these virtues in all areas of school life.
I wrote the Mission Statement for the same school and it went like this:
"Our mission is to educate the whole child by providing unparalleled opportunities in breadth and depth for the concurrent development of academic, cultural, spiritual, moral, sporting and practical dimensions of school life."
The statement goes on to set out the principles underlying this mission, which include "the discovery and development of the unique talents and abilities of each individual" and "a forward-looking and innovative approach which reflects our awareness and anticipation of current and future trends but does not sacrifice traditional strengths."
It concludes by saying that the school aims to accomplish its mission "within the framework of a secure and caring community based on:
A code of conduct which encourages co-operation, courtesy and common sense, promotes mutual trust and respect, and rewards responsible behaviour.
A common purpose which actively promotes the importance of personal, social, moral and spiritual values.
A climate of open, friendly communication which creates a vibrant and happy atmosphere.
An awareness of the wider community and the value and uniqueness of the school environment."
I once gave a paper on Islamic education at a conference on Islam and Social Responsibility and began by displaying this mission statement. No one in my largely Muslim audience dissented from my point that this statement, though not explicitly Islamic, was fully in accord with Islamic principles. We might object, of course, that this is the statement of an essentially secular school paying lip-service to spiritual values, and that there is no over-arching, spiritual dynamic, no vertical axis which should inform and permeate all the horizontal dimensions of human development the school claims to encompass. This is a valid objection, and essential to an Islamic perspective.
Nevertheless, we need to consider very seriously al-Attas's point (to which I have already referred) that, in effect, secular Western education systems, with their core curriculum, are more well-rounded than Islamic curricula. I would actually contest this generalisation at this time in the light of the progressive narrowing of the curriculum to serve utilitarian ends which is constricting state education in many of those Western education systems and in other countries which have adopted them or been heavily influenced by them. The best of secular Western education has been, and still is, well-rounded and has sustained its commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum and to the development of character, but in Britain at least this kind of education is often only provided by independent schools which have been able to preserve relative freedom from the statutory obligations imposed by the National Curriculum on state schools. Parents are aware of this, and it is well known that if independent school fees were more affordable, their children would be taken out of the state education system in droves.
My point here is that faith schools can learn from the best of secular schools, as well as from each other, in the way that a well-rounded education, which encompasses good behaviour and refinement of character, is nurtured in the school community. Credibility for faith schools is enhanced when religious values are not merely intoned but actively expressed in the way people treat each other. That necessarily implies courtesy and consideration to all people, of all cultures and faiths, and all occupations. The prophet said: "Kindness is a mark of faith; and whoever has not kindness has not faith" and "All God's creatures are His family; and he is the most beloved of God who does most good to God's creatures."
12. High Expectations
I find it astonishing what low expectations can be held of young people. In a way this is symptomatic of a culture which itself has dismally low expectations of what a human being is, and projects this onto the young because the adults themselves are incapable of rising to higher expectations of themselves. Young people are never to blame because of the poor standards they are expected to reach. The idea that students can only learn if they are being subjected to trivial entertainment is a denial of human capacities and an impoverishment of their learning experience.
Young people have a fierce hunger for the truth and all of them respond to the message which is pitched at the highest level if it is delivered with sincerity and passion as well as obvious depth of knowledge and understanding. They home in immediately on second-class goods, they see through those who try to patronise them, and they are not truly inspired by styles of delivery which dilute, sanitise or prettify the message in order to make it apparently more palatable.
I believe that young people are often grossly underestimated in our educational systems, and that their hunger is not being fed because of a failure to speak directly to their hearts, which is actually a failure to speak the truth. Leaders in so many areas (politics and education included) have lost the will and the courage to engage directly with the truth, and in so doing to speak directly to the core of human beings. The worst of our education systems is in essence a ministry of disinformation, a covering-up and denial of the truth. Young people can respond directly to the strength and clarity of the unadorned message.
13. Charity: Values and Ethics in Action
I strongly believe that the most effective way to engage the whole being of anyone is to involve them in service to others. We live at a time when self-interest increasingly demands that a tangible reward is given for every supposedly "good" act, but what this does is actually to destroy the goodness of the act by turning it into a manifestation of greed. Everything becomes reduced to a profit and loss account, in which nothing is ever done for reasons other than self-gratification or personal gain and advancement.
Involvement in active charitable work or community service which brings together different communities, both the haves and have-nots, is immensely enriching to all. The poor, deprived or needy may be materially enriched, but the givers also benefit immeasurably because of what they learn about the human spirit, the joy of selfless giving without hope of reward, the development of compassion and empathy, direct insight into the way of life of others, and an understanding of the roots of true happiness. My experience is that young people are hungering for involvement of this kind, because it is part of their innate humanity, and it is an obligation on us to provide them with a context for its expression.
It is important to understand the Islamic concept of charity has a wider application than that of charitable "work" and "service" in the conventional sense: The Prophet said: "Doing justice between two people is charity; assisting a man upon his beast and lifting his baggage is charity; and pure, comforting words are charity; and answering a questioner with mildness is charity; and removing that which is inconvenience to wayfarers, such as thorns and stones, is a charity". The simple act of "smiling in your brother's face" is also charity.
The best Islamic education will cultivate leadership in the area of active charitable work and in the many expressions of a charitable heart. For Muslims, according to sayings of the Prophet, "Charity is proof of Iman (faith)" and is "a duty unto every Muslim".
14. Contemporary Issues
I have reiterated in the above some concerns about the state of the contemporary world, and I believe we must give our young people opportunities to develop discernment and insight into what is happening around them. However, this should not be a pessimistic litany of everything that is wrong with the modern world, as if we are all hurtling towards the Last Days. Such a view is hardly likely to win the hearts and minds of young people, who are more likely to respond to a hopeful and merciful evaluation of the society in which they live, even if, at the same time, we want them to develop critical insight about it.
Students are naturally interested in topical issues, but what usually goes on in so-called "current affairs" discussions is the airing of typical clichés and conventional, unimaginative "issues" like the pros and cons of fox hunting or school uniform. A set "current affairs" slot for contrived discussions hardly ever works. We have to get away from this idea that only a current affairs teacher can teach this "subject". Discernment about the modern world can and should be developed in all subjects, but it only happens if we can rid ourselves of the idea that we teach a "subject" and a subject alone, and that subject has no connection with any other subject or any other educational purpose apart from covering a "syllabus" in time. Students are likely to be far more responsive if they feel that an "issue" has emerged from a real context.
The same applies to aspects of Islamic Studies, which need to connect with the personal lives of young people and how they live their lives in the modern world. This connection needs to be made through establishing a methodology which engages and motivates through fostering personal reflection and open discussion instead of exclusively didactic teacher-centred instruction.
One of the programs being developed by the Book Foundation is the Book of Contemporary Issues. The broad themes we have identified include:
Islam and Spirituality (there is often over-emphasis on social and political issues amongst Muslims as a means of addressing contemporary problems)
Islam And Peace
Islam and Pluralism (multiculturalism, diversity, intercultural sensitivity, inter-faith dialogue, engagement and participation, etc.)
Islam and Gender (embracing issues for both men and women)
Islam and the West (including issues of identity, assimilation, and integration for Muslims living in the West)
Islam and Modernity (including secularism, relativism, individualism)
Islam and the Environment
Islam and Education (including the purposes of education)
Islam and Science and Technology (including issues of ethics and social responsibility and the use of Information and Communications Technology)
Islam and Creativity (including issues around divergent and lateral thinking, cognitive flexibility, open-mindedness, spirit of enquiry, risk-taking, enterprise)
Islam and the Creative Arts
Islam and Family Values
Islam and Leadership
Islam and Human Rights
Islam and the Shari`ah (including issues of interpretation, context etc.)
Islam and Personal Freedom
Islam and the Media (including advertising)
Islam and Mass Entertainment
Islam and Globalisation
Islam and Sport
Islam and Health (including mental health, drug addiction, eating disorders etc.)
Miscellaneous aspects of contemporary life for critiquing and discussion: e.g. the 'celebrity' culture; the 'style' culture; the 'blame' culture; the 'quantification' culture; the 'control' culture; the 'safety' culture; the 'thrills' culture; the 'theme park culture'; the new 'rages', etc. Opportunities present themselves here for updating material by creating a portfolio of newspaper and magazine cuttings, audio material and video clips which show awareness of current socio-cultural trends and developments.
15. The Spiritual Life
A recent survey of spiritual beliefs in the countries of the world revealed that the UK is the most secular society in the world. It is not clear whether this conclusion is based on affiliation to institutionalised forms of religion, or on the incidence of spiritual beliefs. The distinction is crucial, as I suspect that there are a great many people in Britain who hold personal spiritual beliefs but who may not count themselves as affiliated to any faith community. Whatever the case, it is still clear that the students British teachers are trying to educate are living in one of the most materialistic cultures in human history, and the challenge is not so very different in many other Western secular societies.
I believe that, in spite of the deeply impoverished culture of empty consumerism and hedonism we see all around us, people are actually desperately hungry to discover deeper purpose and meaning in their lives and to have a reference point which is greater than themselves and their own selfish interests. It is also axiomatic for Muslims that such a hunger is innate in all human beings, young people included. I have always been deeply moved by the natural inclination (fitra) young people have to help others, if only they are given the opportunity. More often than not, we, as adults, fail to give a means of realization or a domain of positive action for this natural altruism, which if not nourished and channelled in the right direction, can easily turn to anger and be captured by violent causes, especially in young men.
I believe that the size of people's hearts is directly related to the breadth of their horizons. The most constricted and stony heart is the one whose horizons extend no further than himself and the satisfaction of his own needs and desires. As the human being develops, his horizons progressively extend from self to family, from family to social circle, from social circle to class to tribe, and from tribe to nation state.
Other people define themselves according to their occupations, or sometimes, in today's world, according to their designer labels. Most people find it difficult to progress further, and are forever confined by their tribal, nationalistic, occupational or "life-style" perception of themselves. I saw a programme recently about a couple on holiday who decided who was worthy of getting to know by the shopping bag they carried. Someone with a Marks and Spencer bag was avoided, but someone who carried a Gucci bag was cultivated as a social contact. This is the ultimate reduction of the human being, defined no longer by the old questions ("Where do you come from and what do you do?) but by the pressing modern question: "Which shopping bag do you carry?"
The development of mankind has always been in the progressive expansion of boundaries, such that more and more people see themselves today as members of a global community rather than citizens of a nation state. It is therefore logical to suppose that the destiny of man is to inhabit the larger universe, to find his relationship with the whole of creation and ultimately with the origin of that creation. Some people think that this connection with the universe (if not with its origin) will eventually be literally accomplished through space travel, but the deeper reality is to find that relationship within ourselves.
"The truth is out there" says the X-Files, and as educators we certainly want to encourage human curiosity and wonder about the world in which we live, and other worlds too, but the deepest, the most essential Truth is not out there at all, but within ourselves. "He who knows his own self", said the Prophet, "knows his Lord", confirming the ancient Greek injunction to "Know thyself" and the saying of Jesus that "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you". No matter how far man actually travels in his physical engines, if he has not developed in himself the higher faculties which make him truly human, if he has not made that inner journey, his outer journey will lead only to further technological advancement which, as always, can be used either for good or evil.
The trajectory of the person of goodwill is the widening of his horizons to fellow human beings, first to his family, then his friends, and ultimately to all human beings and all life on earth, no matter where they come from; but, for people of faith and spiritual insight, there is a further horizon, beyond that of the earth, which takes in the whole universe, and which all young people, if given the opportunity, always respond to instinctively with wonder. Direct observation of the night sky ought to be on every science curriculum, not simply to satisfy curiosity about the workings of the universe (as if the universe can be reduced to self-sufficient laws and mechanisms) or bizarre and inexplicable phenomena, but as a means to evoke wonder and holy awe.
It is that sense of wonder and unfathomable mystery, and the humility which goes with it, which is a vital dimension of spirituality. As well as the night sky, it could be the morning mist hanging on the meadows, or that sense of limitless multiplicity which anyone who looks at nature can perceive in every shifting scene, but whatever it is, it is a point of reference with something infinite, unfathomable and limitless, which is far beyond the practical, and even the moral, dimension of human affairs.
Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder a stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: he eyes are closed."
We need to evoke this sense in our students, as well as expound the tenets of the faith. To do so we need to awaken in them their inner spiritual capacities and help them to embody and express the divine qualities or attributes as well as instruct the mind and plant the garden of virtues. The Prophet said: "Be ye imbued with divine qualities". This will depend on an educational process which encompasses an experiential dimension, a process of applied spirituality which gives opportunities for inner work and training. This alone can bypass the over-emphasis on "personality" and the forms of conditioning and ingrained habits and patterns of thought that obscure the human soul or essential Self, and this alone can turn latent (often atrophied) faculties into functioning ones. Such obstructive forms of conditioning may be psychological, social, cultural, intellectual, or, indeed, religious, and we need to realise that academic and religious institutions can also compound the effects of conditioning through conventional intellectuality and religiosity.
Unlike the best faith schools which have never divorced the training of the mind from that of the soul, Western secular education, despite its undoubted strengths, has neglected the human soul, and little knowledge remains of how to nourish it.
The highest level of education requires a psycho-spiritual approach which is based on a clear understanding of the nature of the human being, including the hierarchical structure and dynamics of the human psyche and its key elements - spirit (ruh), heart (qalb), intellect (`aql), and the self or soul (nafs) ranging from its lowest level (ego; the "commanding self", an-nafs al-`ammara, totally under the control of the passions and therefore blind to any higher reality), through intermediate stages of struggle, to its highest state (the "self at peace", an-nafs al-mutma'inna.) This depends on a consistent language, a carefully defined spiritual vocabulary in English, informed by the essential, objective Arabic vocabulary of the Qur'an.
Elements of spiritual practice to be explored in such a program of applied spirituality will include: intention, attention, presence, self -awareness, mindfulness, will (irada), reflection and contemplation (tafakkur), spiritual insight (basirah, albab, ma`rifah), remembrance (dhikr) of God (the Prophet said: "There is a polish for everything, and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God"), prayer, worship, and the attainment of certainty (yaqin). Al-Ghazali says that the only way to approach the Islamic sciences is to be fortified with yaqin, and that the way to yaqin is through "tasting" or "spiritual savouring"(dhawq). This is the activation of the primordial capacity to perceive the truth intuitively and the internalisation of the forms of religion as direct spiritual experience. The same connection between wisdom and direct experience is preserved in the origin of the English word "sapience" (wisdom) which is derived from Latin sapere, to taste.
The importance of dhawq is recognised at an earlier stage in the curriculum through an emphasis on concrete sensory experience rather than arid repetition and imitation. This was precisely what was behind the reform of educational practice in the 17th century in England - the realization that medieval scholasticism had given rise to a completely arid process of abstract logical reasoning. This was the time of the scientific revolution - the realization that truth could be found out through actual observation rather than recourse to authority. What went wrong was that the notion of "experience" as the ground of truth was narrowly applied only as "experimentation", which gave rise to the fallacy that the only reality was the observable world.
It is important to reiterate that the ultimate precedence of spiritual insight as a means of acquiring knowledge does not imply the under-valuation of reasoning and thinking in the curriculum, because reasoning and thinking are an obligation for the believer; but this reasoning should serve the quality of understanding and knowledge which is able to verify universal truths through proof and evidence (the "signs" within ourselves and in Creation) rather than through idle speculation, conjecture and the superficial chattering of the rational mind. "Leave them to play at their vain talk." (Qur'an 6: 91)
I recently heard a discussion in the BBC radio 4 "Moral Maze" series about the advantages and disadvantages of faith schools in which a well-known atheist "thinker" said that he thought teaching religion in schools was "intellectual abuse". I would say that the real abuse is to deny to young people the spiritual dimension in their lives, to give them no means of expressing the natural wonder they have in their souls and no means of activating and developing their highest spiritual capacities. We only have to look around ourselves to see the consequences of this deprivation in our contemporary culture.
The assertion of the atheist is also contradicted by new research by the Professional Council for Religious Education published in September 2001. This showed that among secondary school students aged 11 to 18, those who enjoy religious education (RE) and see positive benefits for their own lives from studying religion outnumber those who are negative about RE by four to one.
The report also gives examples of statements by students which show that many students also like RE because of the opportunities it gives for expressing opinions, improving communication skills, acquiring knowledge of other faiths, developing inter-cultural awareness and sensitivity, developing the skills of philosophical enquiry and reflection, and pondering the meaning and purpose of life.
From this, it appears that is it generally the adults in our society who openly mock and vilify religion, or equate religion with indoctrination, not the young.
16. The Outcome
There is no "final" outcome from a system of education, because if we have accomplished our goal of creating lifelong learners then our students will continue to learn throughout their lives. By definition, a Muslim is always a learner.
The cumulative effect of an integrated system of Islamic education should, however, prepare young people to become:
True Muslims, who act in accordance with the innate disposition of the human being (fitra) and strive to embody the divine attributes in the conduct of their lives;
Thinking and thoughtful people who embody, as far as their capacity allows, the qualities of reason, intellect, intelligence and understanding identified in section 4 above;
People of insight, discrimination and psychological awareness, able to resist unconscious and conditioned impulses and responses and assume conscious control of their own development;
Well-rounded individuals who show balanced development of spiritual, moral, academic, cultural, physical and practical capacities and abilities;
Kind, compassionate and tolerant individuals able to build bridges of mutual understanding and goodwill between people of different cultures and traditions;
Responsible and exemplary citizens of the world;
Self-motivated, lifelong learners, who actively seek, transmit, and apply knowledge, and are responsive to changing conditions;
Self-directed and inspiring leaders;
Effective communicators with good interpersonal skills;
Well-informed individuals with an understanding of pressing contemporary issues.