Thinking Outside the Box
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
In this column in the previous issue, I appealed for a revival of an understanding of the higher faculties of mankind.
I suggested, too, that through the awakening and nurturing of the full range of human capacities in young people, Muslims can not only transform education in the Muslim world but, through engaging positively and sensitively with mainstream educators in other traditions, can also make a real contribution to the revival of a truly holistic educational experience within any education system in the wider world.
The increasing dominance of narrow utilitarian models of schooling and the disorientation, demoralisation and loss of soul they bring in their wake gives faith-based educators an extraordinary opportunity to re-ensoul educational practice. Given that Islam is under the spotlight worldwide, Muslims not only have that opportunity for increased exposure but also a pressing responsibility to share what their tradition teaches about the best education for all humanity. The Prophet said: “The perfection of piety is to teach one who does not know.”
The wisdom given to us in the Islamic revelation is not the exclusive, inward-looking and parochial property of Muslims, to be jealously defended and set apart from all other formulations, or retreated into as a sullen refuge for a victimised minority, but is a universal gift to all mankind.
We need to offer this gift with an open hand, taking the trouble to find the right language which can express the underlying harmony between Islamic educational principles and the very best educational practice wherever it can be found.
But we can and should do more than find where our own principles converge with the best principles in other traditions, even though that in itself is an essential task if we are to achieve credibility and impact in mainstream education.
The validation of our own professional competence in the field of education is a vital task, well overdue. The lack of such competence amongst Muslims opens the door to the wholesale export of Western utilitarian models of education under the guise of “excellence” and “quality assurance”. Captivated by this “professionalism”, secularised Muslims, even in Muslim lands, become further alienated from the wisdom their own spiritual tradition has to offer in the field of education.
At worst, Muslim educators, like Muslims in so many other fields, frame their mission as a lame-duck enterprise of perpetually trying to “catch up” with “superior” Western developments and advances.
At best, Muslim educators will do what catching up is needed, and this is no mean task, but at the same time, they will be fully aware of a more pressing and more sublime mission. Islamic civilisation has more to offer the world than apologetic imitations of the worst aspects of utilitarian education systems, even if the best aspects of any system can serve to remind Muslims of what made their own civilisation a great one.
We need to have the humility to realise that we can indeed reclaim and revive forgotten or stagnant aspects of Islamic tradition through dynamic contact with other intellectual and pedagogic traditions which have partially carried the underlying Qur’anic spirit of inquiry into the modern age.
But we also need to realise that we can and must do more than take back what has been lost. This is by no means a one-way street. Islam has something precious to give to the West again. It once gave to the West an intellectual enlightenment. It can now offer the greater prize of spiritual enlightenment, and by so doing it can restore to the West the connection between the intellect and the spirit which Western science, despite its achievements, lost sight of.
We must regain a mature sense of what our tradition can nurture on a global scale.
If understood properly and communicated effectively, it has the power, with God’s grace, to create radical improvements in mainstream educational practice. Let us not forget that the vast majority of Muslims in Europe and America attend mainstream, not Muslim, schools.
We can offer a conception of excellence from Islamic tradition which goes far beyond the one-sided and impoverished solipsism of personal mastery and success in the world to reflect instead every facet of the spiritually and ethically aware human being.
In order to do so, we need to think outside the box, and, in the spirit of our Prophet’s admonition that Muslims should seek to be of benefit to all mankind, go beyond stale, outmoded and strident formulations which imprison and disempower the message by failing to connect in an intelligible and palatable way with universal human needs in different contexts.
© Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
First Published in Islamica, Issue 16 2006.