Excellence in Islamic Education: Key Issues for the Present Time - Part II

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Posted Jul 6, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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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.

8. Reflection

“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.

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
July 2002

Originally published on the website of The Book Foundation at http://thebook.org/