The Education of the Heart

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Liberating our Capacity to See and Act

In this and subsequent articles I would like to home in more precisely on what the rich Islamic tradition tells us about those faculties of learning and understanding that have become devalued in modern education.

In concluding my last article, I wrote that "It was Al-Ghazali who said that the way to certitude (yaqin) is through tasting (dhawq)...An authentic holistic education will guide us not to a false 'certainty' confined by fixed ideas, but to the expansive 'certitude' which comes from opening our hearts and liberating our capacity to see."

Al-Ghazali also points out that tasting (or internalisation through experience) is the only way to go beyond the "conventional learning of the age" by which he meant formal religious knowledge without spiritual experience. But these days we might just as well see such conventional limitations in schooling systems that increasingly deny to young people opportunities for experiential learning.

In Hare Brain Tortoise Mind (subtitled Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less) Guy Claxton states that "the original design specification of learning does not include the production of conscious rationales. Knowing, at root, is implicit, practical, intuitive."

Rumi taught that "The Intellect of intellect is your kernel; the intellect is only the husk." Unfortunately, in modern educational systems, it is generally the husk of the lower rational intellect – labelled as 'd-mode' by Claxton to emphasize its essentially deliberative function - which has been promoted beyond its station to masquerade as the pinnacle of human intelligence. Piaget's stage theory of development is partly to blame, demoting as it does the intuitive, practical intelligence to the infantile level of sensorimotor intelligence, to be superseded and transformed in due course by more powerful, abstract, intellectual ways of knowing – notably the "formal operations" of hypothetico-deductive thinking and theory construction.

Claxton points out that Piaget's influence on several generations of educators has ensured that "schools, even primary schools and kindergartens, saw their job as weaning children off their reliance on their senses and their intuition, and encouraging them to become deliberators and explainers as fast as possible."

The faculty of intuition can also be defined as the capacity to apprehend directly or perceive immediately the truth of things without reasoning or analysis. As such, it is a faculty of "intellection", insight, or spiritual intelligence centred in what we might call the "mind-heart" and not an "intellectualising" faculty centred in the brain. Such spiritual knowledge or gnosis (ma'rifa, 'irfan) can be described not only as knowledge by tasting (dhawq) but also as knowledge by presence, knowledge by verification (tahqiq), or knowledge by realisation. It is to see, not to think.

It is striking too that the various words in the Qur'an which denote cognitive and perceptive faculties also carry a profound sense of moral valuation.

Muhammad Asad draws out this moral sense in various notes in The Message of the Qur'an. The word taqwa combines the meanings of consciousness of God with that of being vigilant in guarding oneself from whatever is morally or spiritually harmful. The word furqan means a standard or criterion to discern the true from the false and what is right from what is wrong. The word al-a'raf, distinctively translated by Asad as 'the faculty of discernment', carries the same connotation of 'perceiving what is right', as does the word rushd, 'consciousness of what is right'. The word basirah, denoting the 'faculty of conscious understanding based on insight', also encompasses that moral sense which provides the essential orientation for perceiving the truth. The same applies to albab, 'insight' and 'aql, which Al-Attas defines as "a spiritual substance by which the rational soul (al-nafs al-natiqah) recognises and distinguishes truth from falsehood".

The comprehensiveness of the Islamic tradition adds layer upon layer to our understanding of how we can be faithful to the higher faculties with which we have been endowed. To the layer of moral valuation which is always intertwined with that of consciousness and insight, we can add a further layer of right action, described so simply and beautifully by Thomas Merton: "The activity proper to man is not purely mental, because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts."

The Islamic tradition can enrich all education systems with a vision of the higher faculties of mankind which goes far beyond the current fixation on rational thinking to encompass intuition, experience, moral valuation, and the right and beautiful actions in the world which enable us to embody what we know.

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