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What is an Islamic Education?


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What is an Islamic Education? The Shaping of Tomorrow’s Vicegerents Today. The Islamic concept of Tarbiyya is more inclusive of the more important aspects of nurturing, such as teaching the students the differences between what is righ, and wrong from both the legal sense as well as the Islamic sense.

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What is an Islamic Education? The Shaping of Tomorrow’s Vicegerents Today
Aslom Ullah
Quite a few years ago, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) launched a campaign to recruit new teachers into the profession with the slogan, ‘those who can, teach’. Teaching pedagogy confirms that the concept of teaching itself is inextricably linked with that of learning. Both concepts are closely associated with the process of reading-one of the primary means through which learning and teaching occur. Allah commanded His Messenger in the first verse to be revealed, to {Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists),} [Al-‘Alq 96:1]
{اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ} العلق: 1
Transliteration: Iqra biismi rabbika allathee khalaqa
The word ‘Iqra’ literally means to ‘read’ or ‘recite’. The object of this proclamation is understood to be the message of Islam, but in a more general sense, whenever one begins thinking about education, and its relation to the deen of Islam, it is this verse which springs to mind. This idea of ‘reading’ in the Name of Allah is a complex one and brings up the serious question: ‘what is an Islamic education?’ Related to this question are another two: ‘what are the goals of an Islamic education?’ and ‘how does it differ conceptually from the concept of ‘education’ advocated and applied in the West?’ Having taught for some years in the State sector before moving to Ebrahim Academy to teach English to Muslim boys in a purely Islamic environment, I feel these are questions which need to be asked so that as parents and educators we can begin to think about what sort of upbringing we want to give the men and women of tomorrow’s Ummah. Such questions therefore lie at the heart of this discussion, which will draw on various critical essays on Islamic education, such as the late Syed Ali Ashraf’s The Aims Of Education (1979) as well as an interview I undertook with the respected Sheikh Al Abbasy, a senior lecturer at Madinah University.
As we begin to think about the aims of Islamic education, it may be helpful to turn to Ashraf’s essay, The Aims Of Education (1979). In it, he separates the concept of ‘education’ from that of ‘instruction’. He posits the view that ‘education helps in the complete growth of a personality, whereas instruction merely trains an individual or a group in the efficient performance of some task’. He adds that ‘a human being may be a great lawyer, but still remain ill-mannered, immoral, unrighteous, or unjust’.[1]He further presents the idea that a truly ‘educated’ person is one who ‘knows and performs his or her duty towards [him]self, family, neighbours, and humanity’, in addition to having ‘acquired’ enough ‘knowledge about how to earn a livelihood honestly’. I would add that first and foremost, a person needs to know his or her duty to the Creator, Allah. Ashraf’s definition seems to be quite synonymous with the concept of refinement- the idea that a young person’s education involves a process of moulding their personality as well as their intellect so that when they enter into the world of work they do so with sound mannerisms and knowledge of how to maintain their duty to their Creator and His Creation. Such an education should, I believe, be what Islamic institutions aim to provide young students with. I would add that in terms of the source we should use in moulding our students’ personalities, we need to refer to the Sunnah. The personality (right down to the tiniest mannerisms) we should try to impart on our students must be that of the Messenger of Allah (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him), for he was Khayru-l-Khalq (the best of creation). This should be to the extent that when our students leave our schools they are able to think for themselves, being able not only to ask themselves at every juncture in their lives, ‘what would my Prophet do?’ but also be able to answer the question for themselves, acting accordingly.
Such a mindset is also advocated by Sheikh Muhammad al-Abbasy. He is a senior lecturer and Professor in Madinah University, and during my Hajj Pilgrimage this year, I had the opportunity to interview him. When I asked him about his view on the aims of an Islamic education, he stated that ‘the main aim in the secondary schools, and in the University, is to qualify the student to be good da’iah; a good caller to [the path of] Allah’, adding that ‘knowledge is not just for passing exams, it is to develop the person to be[come] a good man, a good Muslim, so that after that, they can pass the message to the others’. Clearly, just as we are arguing, al-Abbasy too espouses the view that an Islamic education needs to involve a process of shaping the personality of the student to that of the Prophet (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him). Indeed, later on in my discussion with him, Abbasy championed the personality of the noblest of ‘caller[s]’ to Islam: Muhammad (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him). He stated that ‘you have to make Muhammad (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) your leader and example if you want the success in your life’. He added that ‘in every action, you have to follow the example of Sayyidina Muhammad (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him)’ because Islam ‘does not only belong in the Masjid’ but ‘wherever a person is […they] should be looking to Islam, the Message, for answers’. Without mentioning it, the Sheikh is referring to Surah An-Nisaa (verse 59) in which Allah states, {… (And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him),…} [An-Nisaa 4:59]
{فَإِن تَنَازَعْتُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّـهِ وَالرَّسُولِ} النساء: 59
Transliteration: fain tanazaAAtum fee shayin faruddoohu ila Allahi waalrrasooli 
What can be argued at this point in the article is that the aim of an Islamic education should be to impart on students the personality of the Prophet (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him). I would add that they also need to have engrained in their minds the key Islamic concepts of Tawhid, Hayat, Akhirah, Dunya, Jannat, Naar, Deen’, Munkar, Nafs, Kufr, Ajr, Sabr, Fitrah, and so on, all of which rule our lives. This is so that whatever juncture they are at in their lives, our students consider such questions as ‘how does this decision rest in relation to Tawhid, my belief in Allah?’ ‘Does it take me closer to Jannat or closer to the fire?’
Who then, does the responsibility for this moulding of the students’ personality fall upon? Undoubtedly, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the Muslim teachers in the Islamic learning institution. In the chapter entitled, ‘What Do Teachers Do?’ contained in Learning To Teach In The Secondary School (2009), its co-authors Andrew Green and Marilyn Leask state that ‘you have responsibility for both the academic and the pastoral development of your pupils’, outlining the ‘pastoral’ role as ‘getting to know the pupils’, ‘registering the class’, ‘reinforcing school rules’, and ‘liaising with parents’.[2]
Aside from the school rules, there is no teaching of what is morally right, or wrong, let alone any association with religion. From my own experiences as a Secondary school teacher in the State sector I found that there may be some mention of those things which are universally rejected in PSHE (Personal, Social, and Health Education), such as murder, drugs, and drinking, but even then, such things are presented as things which involve a little jail-time, which will only be the case if they are caught. There is no sense of accountability to Ar-Raqib (The Watchful), Allah.
The Islamic concept of Tarbiyya is more inclusive of the more important aspects of nurturing, such as teaching the students the differences between what is right, and wrong from both the legal sense, as well as the Islamic sense. Students will be told of those things which stain the heart, which put a person’s Akhirah at risk, and they will be told that ultimately, Allah is Ever-Watchful of what they do and that if He Wills, He can punish them for that which they do in the darkest room on the blackest of nights if it is something He has forbidden.
In reference to this, Sheikh al-Abbasy stated that in Madinah, ‘the teachers teach, and give Taribyya [nurturing and edification] too. This is done through the good example [of the teacher] and the good books of Tarbiyya’. Indeed, Green and Leask state that ‘above all, pupils respond to individuals one of the first things your pupils pick up on is you as a person; how you present yourself as an individual and as a practitioner’.[3]This concept is widely accepted among those involved in teaching pedagogy and clearly shows that Muslim teachers aiming to ‘educate’ young Muslims need to first themselves be the embodiment of the personality of our beloved Prophet (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him), and then work to ‘educate’ the students so they too embody the mannerisms and conduct of the Prophet (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) before they leave school.
This crucial role of the Muslim teacher has been expanded on here because of the fact that over time the role of the teacher in the State sector has changed and become increasingly focused on improving grades and assessment marks rather than the personalities of the students. Such is even the case even in certain ‘outstanding’ schools in London. This has led to the primary role of the teacher being to help the student get the best grade possible, nothing more. This is something which has been problematized even by Western thinkers. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in their well-known collaborative work Inside The Black Box (1998) state that one of the ‘negative impact[s]’ of ‘assessment in classrooms’ which they came across in their research, was that ‘the giving of marks and the grading functions are over-emphasized, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are under-emphasized’.[4] The mark of a ‘good teacher’ has become more about how much ‘value’ have they ‘added’ to the pupil in terms of Key Stage 3 Levels, GCSE grades, or A-level grades. This is not the way forward. Young people need examples to follow to shake them out of apathy, and teachers cannot be more than a very basic role model without the blueprint of the Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him).
In drawing this study to a close, it is clear that when it comes to the aims of Islamic education, we have set our aims high. So we should. It is true also that the responsibilities on the Muslim teachers in Islamic institutions, Academies, and schools are great. So they should be. Success will never be achieved if we set our sights any lower than on the personality, path, conduct, and advice of the Messenger of Allah (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) - the most influential man in history, as confirmed in Michael M. Hart’s book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (1978). Who is there that can argue, when the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth declares,
{Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammad prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much.} [Surah Al Ahzab 33:21]
{لَّقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّـهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِّمَن كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّـهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّـهَ كَثِيرًا} الأحزاب: 21
Transliteration: Laqad kana lakum fee rasooli Allahi oswatun hasanatun liman kana yarjoo Allaha waalyawma alakhira wathakara Allaha katheeran
Imparting the rationale the Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) on our students must be the primary aim of Islamic education, with subject related knowledge coming as a secondary objective. Of course, before this can even begin to happen, we the teachers and instructors need ourselves to use the Quran and Sunnah as a criterion as well as becoming an embodiment of the Sunnah right down to our rationale. What is the aim of Islamic education? As we have discussed, it is to educate, shape, and mould ourselves, and subsequently our children and students into the most influential and most blessed man to walk the face of the earth: Muhammad (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him), the Khayru-l-Khalq.
[1] Ashraf, 1978:1
[2] Greek and Leask, 2009:13
[3] Green and Leask, 2009:10
[4] Black and Wiliam, 1998:4


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