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EDUCATION. [To explore the dimensions of education in the modern Islamic world, this entry comprises five articles:

  1. Religious Education
  2. Educational Institutions
  3. Educational Methods
  4. Educational Reform,
  5. The Islamization of Knowledge

The introductory article provides an overview of the role and function of religious education in Muslim community life: the four complementary articles provide details on educational practices, theories, and goals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]

Religious Education

Internal political and social movements of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries within the Muslim world neglected Islamic education and allowed external secular and missionary ideas to turn it into religious education. Variations in worldviews and interpretations of Qur’dnic principles of education resulted in an emphasis on form over essence in the education of Muslims.

Historical accounts of Islamic/Muslim education provide a variety of perspectives on its nature and the function of its traditional institutions. Cultural and political restraints ended Islamic education as a functional system aimed at understanding and appropriating Qur’dnic pedagogical principles and limited it to “religious” knowledge confined to selected men. Islamic education has recently been confused with a subject matter, “religion,” or with a moral, social code, akhlaq. The primacy of formalized and juridical education over the informal development of Islamic character resulted in curricular and instructional differentiation between class and gender, a separation of “Islamic” and “non-Islamic” knowledge, and a dichotomy between ideal and practice in Muslim education.

Islamic Education and Religious Education. Islamic education, referred to in the Qur’dn (3.11o) as the process of shaping character within the Islamic worldview, requires the Muslim family to expose its children and adults to all knowledge as a means of understanding the parameters set in the Qur’dn for a constructive relationship with God, other human beings, and nature. Based on the Qur’dnic dictum, “Read in the name of the Creator . . . who taught (man) by the pen” (96.1-4),  which means that to read is to learn and to act as guided by the Book, Islamic education evolved from this kind of comprehensive training in the first Islamic community in Medina (c.623) to a course of study on religion or its inculcation in social mores. What is called “religious education” or “Muslim education” does not reflect the historical process of education in Islam. This process, in the estimate of Waqar Husaini (1981), began to disintegrate at the end of the eleventh century, when science, the humanities, and social sciences were excluded from the curricula. Fazlur Rahman (1982) suggests that it remained functional into the fifteenth century, whereas Dale Eickelman (1985) asserts that it socialized Muslims well into the latter half of the twentieth century.

Religious education differs from Islamic education even though it maintains remnants of the Islamic educational institutions. By separating “revealed” and “human” knowledge, it transformed Qur’dnic principles into formalized legal and moral codes and rituals, creating a dichotomy in Islamic thinking. It also transformed the meaning of the Prophetic dictum “Faqqihhu fi al din” (Sahih Muslim) from teaching within the Islamic worldview to teaching Islam as interpreted by the different fiqh (jurisprudence) schools.

The salient features of Islamic education, such as tahfiz (oral and aural transmission), are often confused with talqin (the acquisition and dissemination of Qur’dnic principles and spirit). Talqin, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1982) asserts, led the field of Islamic education to produce “philosopher-scientists” in various intellectual disciplines. Islamic education’s intimate relation to the Qur’dnic revelation and hadith (prophetic tradition) does not make it purely religious, nor does it render its other elements exclusively Islamic or absolute. Earlier Muslim intellectuals transformed the form, content, and intent of sciences, education, and arts into Islamic disciplines by integrating intellectual and cultural development within the Islamic worldview. Most contemporary Muslim educators assume Islamic education to be religious indoctrination.

The traditional recitation method of teaching the Qur’dn comes to mind when one thinks about Islamic education, but neither was ever restricted to this method, and Islamic education is not limited to the study of the Qur’dn. The Qur’an as the foundation of all knowledge guides behavior.

Islamic education has been decentralized, and its practice has varied. It was reduced to religious education in different regions at different times. This transformation occurred when Islamic philosophy and pedagogy were separated and when strict public moral codes were imposed on women, rendering their public appearance taboo. Concurrently, generations of male religious leaders or jurists emphasized the Qur’an as either an absolute moral code or a legal law, instead of viewing it as a universal guide for the whole of the community. The principles of Islamic philosophy were idealized, and knowledge was classified by sources and by methods that enhanced the discrepancy between goals and means and the dichotomies between teaching men and women and what is moral (religious/private/informal) and what is rational (juridical/public/formal).

Separation of Philosophy and Pedagogy. Nasr criticizes Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and other “modernist” Islamists for understanding “Greek philosophy through the eyes of its modern Western interpreters” and, hence, separating Islam from philosophy. Fazlur Rahman (“Islam: An Overview,” section on “Modernism,” in the Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, New York, 1987, vol. 7, pp. 318-322) describes Iqbal’s accusing “the West of cheating humanity of its basic values with the glittering mirage of its technology” and his strong critique of world Muslim society. For Rahman, lqbal was a “neo-fundamentalist” who was reacting to modernism but also “importantly influenced by modernism.” Iqbal’s (1962) own assertion that the Qur’an is a book that emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea” is significant to the understanding of the Islamic educational process and its transformation.

To educate in Islam, Iqbal states, means to create a living experience on which religious faith ultimately rests. For Rahman (1982), it means Islamic intellectualism. Though Nasr believes that the Islamic theory of education can be reconstructed within the Qur’anic philosophy, Iqbal emphasizes that the birth of Islam is the birth of inductive intellect, wherein “to achieve full self consciousness, Man must finally be thrown back on his own resources.”

These diverse views suggest that Muslims, particularly in the past two centuries, not only neglected philosophy, as Nasr suggests, but, as Isma’il R. al-Faruqi (1981) points out, also lost Islam’s connection to its pedagogical function and its methods of observation and experimentation. As centers of higher religious learning began formal transmission of “book knowledge” and inculcation in particular interpretations, a dichotomy arose between philosophy, or the ideal, and pedagogy, or the practice. Encouraged by skepticism in modern Western philosophy, this dichotomy widened.

Western-educated Muslim modernists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not aware that the underlying philosophy of Western education differed from that of Islam, were satisfied with teaching courses on religion in the traditional style and neglected to restructure the traditional system. Meanwhile, “traditionalists” emphasized the primacy of Islamic doctrine over falsafah (philosophy), creating, in Husaini’s words, a schism between them and the modernists and destroying the integrated educational system. Western-educated thinkers who reaffirm the validity of traditional practices (I call them “neo-traditionalists”) interpret the philosophy of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) as the “finally established” Islamic educational theory (Ashraf, 1985) and hold an absolutist perspective of Islamic education. This perspective, discussed elsewhere by this author (1990 and 1991), results, unknowingly, in a dichotomy between the Islamic worldview and its pedagogical process.

Institutions of Islamic Education. Diverse perspectives of Islamic/Muslim education also result in diverse and at times contradictory accounts of its transformation. The kuttab (for primary and Qur’anic education) and the madrasah (for secondary and higher learning) are the most frequent contexts in which Islamic education is discussed. Other places, such as the halaqah (study circle in a mosque), dar al-kutub (library/bookshop), and private homes play important roles but are rarely recognized, as Munir D. Ahmad (“Muslim Education Prior to the Establishment of Madrasah,” Islamic Studies [Islamabad] 26.4 [1987]: 321-348) and Salah Hussein Al-Abidi (“The Mosque: Adult Education and Uninterrupted Learning,” Al-Islam al -yawm [Islam Today, Rabat], 7.7 [1989]: 68-77) indicate, particularly in rural areas that constitute more than 70 percent of the Muslim world and where they might be the only educational institution.

No systematic study of the evolution of the educational process in these situations has been done. There are scattered reports in biographies, books of history and Islamic thought, and encyclopedias, but they typically leave a gap between Ibn Khaldun’s (1332-1406) Muqaddimah and the nineteenth-century sources in which Western perspectives dominate. Recent accounts of Islamic education are almost always presented in the contexts of modernization or Muslim revival movements that, Nasr (1987) asserts, Western scholarship overemphasizes even though they did weaken traditional Islam. Fazlur Rahman (1987) was more concerned that these “reformers” integrated science and technology with the “Qur’anic requirement that man studies the universe” than he was with the transformation from Islamic education into religious education.

Teaching reading and writing in kuttab, according to Ahmad Shalaby (1979), preceded the rise of Islam, but existed on a limited scale. In distinguishing this type from Qur’anic kuttab, Shalaby notes that several authors have confused the different varieties of this institution and cites Philip Hitti (The Arabs: A Short History, Chicago, 1956), Ahmad Amin (Dhuha al-Islam, Cairo, 1941), and Ignacz Goldziher. He states that Goldziher (“Education [Muslim]” in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1960, vol. 5, pp. 199-207), in his attempt to trace Qur’anic kuttab back to the early time of Islam, did not distinguish the varieties of kuttab. That Shalaby’s account differs from Goldziher’s on other matters related to teaching young Muslims suggests differences not only in their perspectives of Islamic education and its institutions but of the problems it has encountered. Though Goldziher relies largely on the same primary sources used by Shalaby, when he says that “modern movements towards reform” (p. 2o6) were unaffected by Western influence, he does not seem to distinguish between the Islam taught in kuttabs and madrasahs and that taught by informal socialization. Thus, he states, “the instruction of the young proceeded mainly on the lines laid down in the older theological writings,” suggesting that the problem lies in Muslims’ inability to adopt modern technologies. This assessment prevents him from realizing why “religious” content constituted the central curriculum, and in some localities was the only function left for the kuttab when government schools, the Ottomans’ Rushdiyah schools, took over the teaching of reading, writing, and other subjects, or why natives resisted modernity (Ahmad, 1988) and gave up even Qur’anic schools in response to colonial policies (G. W. Leitner, “Indigenous Oriental Education, with Special Reference to India, and, in Particular, to the Panjab,” Asiatic Quarterly Review, 2d ser., 8, nos. 15 and 16 [1894]: 421-438) and to exploitation of Islam by both colonial and local governments (Harrison, 1990). Similarly, when Rahman (1982) reports on educational reform in the nineteenth century, he confuses the varieties of kuttabs and their relationship to the madrasah, stating that in general, primary education given in the maktabs or kuttabs was a self-contained unit that did not feed into the higher educational system. Rahman thus contradicts reports by Mohammad Akhlaq Ahmad (1985) and others that kuttabs and mosques played an important role for those continuing their Islamic higher education.

Contradictory accounts also surround the madrasah. Shalaby gives a detailed account of the first madrasah, established in the eleventh century by Nizam al-Mulk in Baghdad, and classifies these schools by location, founders and their positions, and the primary sources that cite them. A. L. Tibawi (“Origin and Character of al-Madrasah,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 25.2 [1962]: 225-238) concurs with primary Muslim sources such as Ibn Khaldun in concluding that the main characteristics of these schools varied by region and time, but all were formal residential places of secondary and higher learning, with Arabic as the basic medium of instruction. They relied mainly on dialogue between teacher and disciples. Their curricula covered, in addition to Qur’anic talqin and Arabic grammar, tafsir (exegesis), fiqh (jurisprudence), hadith, usul al -fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), usul al-hadith (principles of narration), and the biography of the Prophet and al-Sahabah (the Prophet’s companions). Classical sciences (astronomy, geography, and medicine) and Arabic adab (literature) were also taught, the intensity and depth of instruction depending on the students’ mastery of particular subjects and the teachers’ strengths. M. A. Ahmad (1985) and other Muslim authors suggest that a similar though less vital educational process still exists in such places of learning. Goldziher, however, does not recognize that what he describes as a “primitive and patriarchal form of instruction still hold[ing] its place” in these institutions is a result of the takeover by technical and military high schools, which left only Islamic subjects to traditionally trained teachers.

In response to colonial policies, these institutions evolved in one of two ways: into traditional, privately sponsored religious schools with some Western orientation or into government-sponsored secular schools with added religion courses. The “traditional” form is represented in the remnants of kuttab and madrasah. Famous among them are Deoband in India, al-Nizamiyah in Iran, al-Mustansiriyah in Baghdad, al-Sulayman-iyah in Istanbul, al-Nuriyah in Damascus, al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Qayrawan in Tunis, al-Qarawiyin in Fez, and Cordoba in Spain. Some of these institutions, such as al-Azhar and Deoband, still grant “Islamic” higher degrees but are weakened by their consideration of religious knowledge as separate from other knowledge.

When modernist elites of the early twentieth century sought reform from outside their society, they created private religious schools (for example, Yadigar-i Hurriyet established in 1908 in Basra, Iraq). Their indiscriminate adoption of Western systems, combined with nationalistic and politicized Islam, emphasized a secular morality in teaching natural and social sciences, which gradually separated Islam from its Qur’anic base, and favored secondary literary and historical sources of religion.

When the mid-twentieth-century “revivalists” assumed the preservation of Islamic principles by teaching `ibadat (rituals) and moral codes, courses on religion (al-daynah) were added, taking a secondary place in the curriculum in the secular government-sponsored system. At present, overall teaching time in these courses ranges from 32 percent in Saudi elementary schools to 3 percent in Syrian high schools, and their content varies from a watered-down version of tafsir, fiqh, hadith, and Islamic history to hifz (memorization of Qur’an) and rituals. Further, very few secular universities in the Muslim world offer any such courses on Islam outside the college of Islamic law (Kulliyat al-Shari`ah).

Education of Women. The imposition of strict public moral codes on women is another indicator of the transformation of Islamic education into religious education; women were forbidden to attend places of learning such as madrasahs and mosques, even though women formally and informally transmitted the culture to their offspring as well as to other children and to men and women inside and outside the home in early and medieval Muslim communities (Goldziher). Muslim boys and girls were taught at home and attended formal kuttab; according to Nasr (1987), girls even studied in madrasahs when they were first established. No historical accounts mention women as `ulama’ (Islamic scholars), knowledgeable in branches of Qur’anic sciences such as tafsir, kalam (Islamic philosophy/theology), and fiqh, particularly after the formalized higher learning in madrasah, although Shalaby notes that many women had established or endowed such institutions. Also, many primary Muslim sources (such as al-Suyuti [d. 1505] and others listed by Goldziher, Nasr, and Shalaby) report that up to the fifteenth century there were outstanding women who memorized and narrated hadith to earn them the title of muhaddithat (female narrators) among their disciples, and some who were well known in Sufi orders.

The assaults on Islamic culture by European Crusaders, Orientalists, and colonial governments, combined with their differentiation between private and public domains, caused Muslim leaders to lose sight of the essence of Islamic education, particularly its informal sector, and take extreme attitudes at the expense of a revival of traditional Islam. These predominantly male leaders, beginning with those of the eighteenth-century Wahhabi puritan movement, propagated the view that as women’s primary concern is the home they need a different type of education. “Reformists” such as Muhammad `Abduh (1845-1905) emphasized Islamic ideals of women’s higher status in Islam and the obligation of both men and women to seek knowledge; yet, in practice, they did not recognize women’s right to access to a thorough knowledge of the Qur’an as a key to intellectual development.

Revivalists, such as Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and Sayyid Abu al-A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979), though attempting to restore Islamic education in post-World War II nation-states, used the traditional rationale about women’s education and asserted that their “natural” disposition is to transmit culture to the next generation (both boys and girls); but they did not restructure the traditional practices of teaching Islam to allow for this transmission. The primary objectives of women’s education in Muhammad Qutb’s (1961, 1981) curriculum were to prepare them for the biological and emotional aspects of their roles as mothers and housewives. Such objectives further confused and marginalized women’s education in Islam.

The post-1969 “islamization” movements leaned toward a politicized Islam and had implications for women’s Islamic/religious education. Contrary to their intellectual tradition that culminated in Isma al-Faruqi’s (1921-1986) Islamization of Knowledge (1982), proponents of these movements emphasized morality, which overshadowed their presumed goal: to restructure the secular system of higher learning in order to address the religious and cultural needs of Muslim societies as part of the new development strategies. The Indonesian and Malay development policies of involving all segments of the population in education and training, reported by Sharom Ahmat and Sharon Siddique (1987), seem to be a first step toward recognizing women’s role in social development. Emphasis on morality, however, particularly when women became part of the Malay madrasahs (an outgrowth of the podock religious training with worldly affairs in sight) of the 1 960s and the dakwa (Ar., da’wah, call for Islamic orientation) of the 1970s and 1980s, led religious education to take the form of moral dogma. The Indonesian pesantren system, which was established in rural areas in the early nineteenth century and spread to urban development in the 1970s and 1980s, maintained an integrated system, and Indonesian women, unlike those in any other Muslim country, occupy a full range of religious leadership roles. [See Madrasah; Pesantren.]

Neo traditionalists, like Anis Ahmad (1984), attempted to “liberate Islam from Western cultural colonialism” in the 1980s and gave women’s education the form I call “reversed feminism,” emphasizing segregated education for different but unequal roles. This trend is flourishing in North American and western European countries, where Muslim males are demanding single-sex schools and, in their private “Islamic/Muslim” schools, are segregating children in the first grade. Curricula in these schools are the same as in public schools except for courses on religion and Arabic language.

Dichotomy of Ideals and Practice. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), established in 1973, held five world conferences on Muslim education in Mecca (1977), Islamabad (1980), Dhaka (1981), Jakarta (1982), and Cairo (1987). Their recommendations were to “re-classify knowledge into `revealed’ [given to man by God and contained mainly in the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet] and `acquired’ [by man’s efforts]” and to teach that “acquired” knowledge from the “Islamic point of view,” the process of which is referred to as “Islamization of knowledge” (Ashraf, 1985). The goals, similar to those outlined by al-Faruqi (1982), to integrate modern sciences and branches of knowledge within the Islamic philosophy, are stated in the Islamic Education Series’ seven monographs of which Ashraf is general editor.

A core curriculum (Muhammad Hamid al-Afendi and Nabi Ahmed Baloch, 1980) with a work edited by Syed Muhammad al-Naquib al-Attas (Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education, Jeddah, 1979) and other “blueprints” for groundwork and strategies were published in this series, the basic premise of which is that reinterpretation of “all branches of knowledge, particularly social sciences, within the Islamic perspective” is the only way to develop an Islamic curriculum that will alleviate the crisis in Muslim education caused by the dual traditional and secular systems. Yet, because the emphasis was on “revealed” rather than “acquired” knowledge, no action plan was devised either to reconstruct a fresh base for Islamic thought and educational practice in the light of new discoveries and contemporary needs or to alleviate the dichotomy in Muslim thinking that resulted from separating religious and secular knowledge. Nor, despite its urgency in light of new economic developments and the women’s emancipation movement, was an action plan chartered for women’s education. Instead, the emphasis on different and segregated education resulted only in prescriptive statements, reiterating a perspective on girls’ education that has been evolving since the introduction of Western secular education practices. Indeed, although one of the fourteen committees of the World Conferences on Islamic Education was charged with the “teaching of women,” no female educator was involved, and the topic was discussed in less than five pages of the seven volumes.

This perspective on women’s education in Islam is almost uniform in the countries that adopted segregated education after encountering the European and American systems. In the Indian subcontinent, for example, most girls attending Qur’anic kuttab not only are denied the opportunity to continue their religious education once they reach puberty but rarely are instructed by their families, as was the practice among learned Muslim families before the British colonization. A similar practice is found in other Muslim countries that interacted with Western educational practices; the emphasis is placed on girls gaining religious knowledge and character in sexually segregated schools (El-Sanabary, 1973); no women teachers are allowed education in religion. Despite their enrollment in kuttabs in earlier times, Saudi girls, for example, were not allowed to enroll in religious institutions of higher learning such as Umm al-Qura in Mecca until 1970-1971, when, according to Mohammed Saad al-Salem (“The Interplay of Tradition and Modernity: A Field Study of Saudi Policy and Educational Development,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1981), only 8o women as compared to 2,210 men were admitted. Thus, girls and young women receive their religious knowledge primarily by observing their elders’ practice of local, regional, tribal, or ethnic customary interpretations of Islam; those who attend public and private schools receive secular knowledge from trained, organized teachers with structured curricula.

In summary, Muslim male educators continue to overlook the dynamics of the role of women as the transmitters, preservers, and transformers of the culture in Muslim societies in the 1980s and 1990s. These educators keep women’s religious education peripheral, relegating it to the home. This attitude is only one of many other disparities that have transformed Islamic education, resulting in fragmented educational planning and a lack of balance between religious and secular objectives. This imbalance is primarily the remnant of the colonial and missionary legacies that left the Muslim world in a turmoil even after independence.

[See also Women and Islam; Women and Social Reform; and the biographies of Faruqi, Iqbal, Nasr, and Rahman. ]


General Works

Ahmed, Akbar S. Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. London and New York, 1988. Unique history of Muslim societies’ response to world events, by a native Muslim. Chapter 7 gives special treatment to the impact of colonialism on the Muslim rejection of modernity. Chapter io, on the reconstruction of Muslim thought, is illuminating. The appendix, “Muslim Chronology” (up to 1986), is particularly helpful.

Ashraf, Syed Ali. New Horizons in Muslim Education. Cambridge, 1985. Representative of neotraditionalist views on Muslim education. The appendices summarize the recommendations of the four World Conferences on Islamic Education. See also the Islamic Education Series, some volumes of which are cited below.

Eickelman, Dale F. Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable. Princeton, 1985. Unprecedented anthropological analysis of the power of knowledge in a Muslim society. Faruqi, Isma’il R. al-. Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Workplan. Washington, D.C., 1982. Essential introduction to the understanding of contemporary trends in Islamic education and thought by an American Muslim scholar.

Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1934). Reprint, Lahore, 1962. Landmark by the Pakistani poet and scholar, giving his views on reforming Islamic education through the reconstruction of Islamic thought.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Traditional Islam in the Modern World. London and New York, 1987. Leading work in deciphering traditional Islam and its contrast to fundamentalism and modernism with respect to Western scholarship.

Qutb, Muhammad al-. Al-tarbiyah al-Islamiyah, vol. 2, Fi al-tatbiq (Curriculum of Islamic Education, vol. 2, Application). Reprint, Beirut, 1981. Good representation of revivalists’ view of Islamic education, particularly the Muslim Brothers.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual

Tradition. Chicago and London, 1982. Definitive work for understanding contemporary Islamic intellectualism as the essence of Islamic higher education, and the implications of the method of Qur’anic interpretation for the development of the intellectual Muslim.

Shalaby, Ahmad. History of Muslim Education. Karachi, 1979. Deals with the subject from the beginning of Islam through the fall of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt (1250), covering important issues in the evolution of Muslim education. The bibliography is rich with primary sources in Arabic and English.

Regional Accounts

Ahmad, Mohammad Akhlaq. Traditional Education among Muslims (A Study of Some Aspects of Modern India). Delhi, 1985.

Ahmat, Sharom, and Sharon Siddique, eds. Muslim Society: Higher Education and Development in Southeast Asia. Singapore, 1987. Collection of essays surveying historical and contemporary educational issues in the Muslim societies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

Barazangi, Nimat Hafez. “The Education of North American Muslim Parents and Children: Conceptual Changes as a Contribution to Islamization of Education.” American journal of Islamic Social Sciences 7.3 (1990): 385-402.

Barazangi, Nimat Hafez. “Islamic Education in the United States and Canada: Conception and Practice of the Islamic Belief System.” In The Muslims of America, edited by Yvonne Y. Haddad, pp. 157174. New York and Oxford, 1991.

El-Sanabary, Nagat. “A Comparative Study of the Disparities of Educational Opportunities for Girls in the Arab States.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1973. Rich in data on girls’ education.

Harrison, Christopher. France and Islam in West Africa, 1860-1960. Reprint, Cambridge, 1990. Chapters 9 and to, “The French Stake in Islam” and “The `Rediscovery of Islam,’ ” are particularly intriguing.

Topical Studies

Afendi, Muhammad Hamid al-, and Nabi Ahmed Baloch, eds. Curriculum and Teacher Education. Islamic Education Series. Jeddah, 1980. Ahmad, Anis. Muslim Women and Higher Education: A Case for Separate Institutions for Women. 2d rev. ed. Islamabad, 1984. Provides insights into the neotraditionalists’ biased views on women’s education.

Faruqi, Isma’il R. al-. “Islamizing the Social Sciences.” In Social and Natural Sciences: The Islamic Perspectives, edited by Isma’il R. alFaruqi and Abdullah Omar Nasseef, pp. 8-20. Islamic Education Series. Jeddah, 1981.

Husaini, Sayyid Waqqar Ahmed. “Humanistic-Social Sciences Studies in Higher Education: Islamic and International Perspectives.” In Social and Natural Sciences: The Islamic Perspectives, edited by Isma’il R. al-Faruqi and Abdullah Omar Nasseef, pp. 148-166. Islamic Education Series. Jeddah, 1981.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “The Teaching of Philosophy.” In Philosophy, Literature, and Fine Arts, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, pp. 321. Islamic Education Series. Jeddah, 1982. Blueprint for the role of philosophy, the arts, and literature in Islamic education.


Educational Institutions

As the nineteenth century opened, Islamic societies had highly developed educational institutions-elementary Qur’an schools (Ar., kuttab or maktab) and higher religious schools called madrasahs. Less formal education was available from Sufi lodges, literary circles at princely courts, private tutors, and apprenticeships in state bureaus and craftsmen’s shops.

After 1800, Western-style schools were introduced to meet new needs. Reforming Muslim rulers created new armies and schools in hopes of warding off the intrusive West and local rivals. Today’s state school systems in many Muslim countries grew out of such beginnings. Missionaries and local minority communities also founded private Western-style schools. The new schools became rivals of the Qur’an schools and madrasahs, with a cultural divide separating graduates of the two systems. Conscious and unconscious borrowing has led to considerable convergence of the two systems, but an entirely satisfactory synthesis of Islamic and Western educational institutions remains elusive.

This article discusses five phases of the development of educational institutions in the Islamic world since 1800. In phase one, Islamic schools were unaffected by the West. In phase two, reforming Muslim rulers-and, for different reasons, Western missionaries-set up Western-style schools. In phase three, colonial rulers subordinated schools to their own imperial interests. In phase four, newly independent states unified their school systems and rapidly expanded all levels of schooling. In phase five, Islamists campaigned to islamize education, along with the rest of state and society.

The chronology of these phases varied from place to place, and some countries bypassed a phase or two. The Ottomans entered phase two as early as 1773 by opening a naval engineering school; isolated North Yemen and Saudi Arabia had not yet entered it in 1950. The colonial rule of phase three began before 1800 in the Dutch East Indies and India, but reached Syria and Iraq only after World War I. North Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan skipped the colonial phase. Turkey and Iran won the independence of phase four in the 19206 without having been fully colonized, while the emirates of the lower Gulf did not begin phase four until the British left in 1971.

Phase One: Before Western Intrusion. Qur’an schools stressed memorization of the Qur’an, reading, and writing. Often the initial memorization did not mean comprehension, particularly where Arabic was not spoken at home. Teachers taught in homes, mosques, or shops, receiving their pay from pupils’ fees or waqfs (pious endowments). Although conservative `ulama’ might disapprove, girls sometimes attended Qur’an schools, and a few became Qur’an reciters or teachers.

Advanced schooling in mosques went back to the seventh century, but the formal madrasah-an endowed residential college stressing the shari’ah-took shape only in the eleventh century. The Nizamlyah in Baghdad was a renowned prototype. In common usage, distinctions between mosque schools and madrasahs disappeared. Subjects seen as closely related to religion were stressed: Qur’anic exegesis, hadith, jurisprudence, theology, Arabic grammar, and logic. There were no formal admissions or graduation ceremonies, no grade levels, written examinations, grades, classrooms, desks, or school diplomas. Barred from the madrasah, only a few women pursued higher studies with private tutors.

Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Suleymaniye in Istanbul, Qarawiyin in Fez, the Zaytfinah in Tunis, and various mosque-madrasahs in Mecca, Medina, and Damascus stood out in the Sunni world of 1800. For Shi’is, the madrasahs of Najaf (Iraq) were foremost, with others in Isfahan and other Iranian cities.

Phase Two: Western-Style State and Missionary Schools. Defeat in wars with Russia and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798) helped persuade Muslim rulers to reform their armies and military support services along Western lines. This called for a new type of school, and it was easier to bypass the conservative religious schools than to reform them. Phase two thus began a secularizing trend that prevailed until the Islamist challenge of phase five.

Enlisting Europeans as instructors, the Ottomans opened naval engineering and army engineering academies in 1773 and 1793. In 1826 Sultan Mahmud II destroyed the obsolete Janissary corps, a major obstacle to reform. He and his successors opened a bureau to train translators (1821) and schools of medicine (1827), military science (1834), civil administration (1859), and law (1878).

In 1811, Muhammad (or Mehmed) ‘Ali, the sultan’s ambitious vassal in Cairo, destroyed Egypt’s obsolete Mamluk cavalry. Thereafter he rivaled or led Istanbul in military and educational innovations, following his first Western-influenced military school (1816) with schools of engineering (1820), veterinary science (1827), medicine (1827), civil administration (1829), and translation (1836). The school of administration and languages (1868) became a law school. In Tunisia, Ahmad Bey opened his Bardo military school in 1840.

Three related phenomena (which persist today) accompanied the new schools: importing Western educators, dispatching students to study in the West (small missions first left Egypt in 18o9, Iran in 1811, and Istanbul in 1827), and putting new printing presses to work publishing translated Western textbooks.

Recruits from the Qur’an schools and madrasahs proved ill-prepared for higher professional education, so Cairo and Istanbul next began turning Qur’an schools into state primary schools. Al-Azhar and many other religious schools, however, long eluded serious reform and state control. In the 1860s, ministries of education in Cairo and Istanbul, patterned on the highly centralized French model, laid out blueprints for full state school systems. The Ottomans planned for lower and higher primary, middle, and high schools (lycees), capped by higher schools and a university. The Frenchinspired Galatasary Lycee stood out among eleven Ottoman lycees (one of which was for girls) in 1918. Teacher’s colleges, founded in Istanbul (1846) and Cairo (1872, Dar al-`Ulum), included both Western and Islamic subjects in their curricula.

More isolated from the West and with a weaker state, Iran trailed Egypt and the central Ottoman Empire in military and educational reform. Dar al-Funun (1851) taught military science, engineering, medicine, and Western languages, but it lacked firm support from the shah. Without an official ministry of education until 1925, other ministries set up their own schools: political science (1899/1900), agriculture (19oo/01), arts (191o), and law (1921).

Phase Three: Under Colonial Rule. Colonial rule lasted anywhere from a few years to a century or more, and several Muslim countries escaped it altogether. There were three types of educational institutions under colonial rule: Western-style, unreformed Islamic, and hybrids of the two.

As colonies for European settlement, Algeria, Libya, and Palestine suffered most under colonial rule. In Algeria, over 132 years, the French established primary, secondary, and higher schools (medicine in 1859; law, sciences, and letters in 1879) for the settlers. The University of Algiers brought the higher schools together in 19o9. A handful of Muslims submitted to France’s “civilizing mission” and assimilated sufficiently to enter this system, but separate “Arab-French” schools were intended for them. Italian rule in Libya (1911-1943) was too brief to leave a comparable educational legacy. Palestine under British rule (1918-1948) was unique, for there most settlers were European Jews. With their own Zionist agenda and Hebrew-language schools, they left state-run schools largely to Palestinian Arabs.

Elsewhere colonial rulers ran Western-style schools mostly for the local population. In Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, these were inherited from indigenous reformers; other colonial regimes mostly started from scratch.

Whether frankly exploitative or conscious of a “white man’s burden,” colonial regimes put their own interests first. They usually intended for secondary and higher schools to turn out docile government clerks and technicians. In India the British experimented with reformed Muslim madrasahs and Hindu Sanskrit schools from the 1780s to the 1830s, when those who wanted to anglicize the courts and administration won out. English language schools and colleges proliferated thereafter. The universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras opened in 1857 as examining bodies on the model of the University of London.

The Indian “Mutiny” of 1857 haunted Lord Cromer, who administered Egypt for England from 1883 to 1907. He warned that “orientals” with a European education easily turned nationalist if frustrated in aspirations for official posts. He severely restricted enrollments in the elite primary-secondary-higher schools track, imposed school fees few could afford, and developed a curriculum as apolitical and narrowly professional as possible. He did not object to terminal “elementary” (distinguished from the elite “primary”) schools for the masses, but these were underfunded and of poor quality in any case.

Cromer squelched Egyptian demands for a university, recommending as a model instead the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (Aligarh University since 1920), founded in India in 1875 by Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Modeled on the Oxbridge colleges, and with an English headmaster, it turned out officials, lawyers, and teachers-presumably loyal servants of the British Raj. [See Aligarh. ]

Afraid that the `ulama’ might lead mass protests, colonial rulers often left the madrasahs alone, starved for funds, overshadowed by state schools, and with dwindling prospects for their graduates. Cromer halfheartedly supported Muhammad `Abduh’s effort to reform al-Azhar, but abandoned him when the `ulama’ and the palace resisted. In India, a new Azhar-like college at Deoband, which offered a traditional religious education, received no state support.

The colonial age was golden for missionary and minority community schools. Banned from proselytizing Muslims, Catholic and Protestant missionaries either tried to convert Jews and Eastern Christians or emphasized a humanitarian mission of medicine and schools for all. The American University of Beirut (the former Syrian Protestant College), Beirut’s University SaintJoseph, and Bogazici University (formerly Robert College) of Istanbul are legacies of the missionary age. The missionaries also led the way in education for girls, with the first state girls’ schools following in Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran in 1858, 1873, and 1897/98, respectively.

Phase Four: Post-Independence Educational Unification and Expansion. Reacting against colonial policies, newly independent states moved to unify their educational systems by subordinating missionary, minority, and Islamic schools to state control. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forced national curricula on foreign and minority schools in the 1920s, and Reza Shah nationalized primary and secondary schools in Iran in the 1930s. Syria closed French schools in 1945 during the final struggle for independence. Egypt finally consolidated control over missionary and minority schools as the British left in the 1950s. Exceptionally, the American University in Cairo eluded nationalization (Nasser’s daughter and Hosni Mubarak’s wife were among its students), as did foreign and communal schools in decentralized Lebanon. Robert College was nationalized and renamed Bogazici University.

As for the Islamic schools, Turkey and the Soviet Union simply abolished them. The closing of Istanbul University’s faculty of theology (the former Medrese Su-leymaniye) in 1933 left Turkey without higher Islamic education until Ankara University added a faculty of theology in 1949. Iranian madrasahs survived the Pahlavi regime, but the Qur’an schools did not. In 1961 Nasser forced al-Azhar into a state university mold, adding colleges of medicine, engineering, and commerce and even a women’s college. Indonesia, more diverse culturally, tolerated private Islamic schools and universities alongside its State Islamic Religious Institutes, which trained judges and teachers.

Post-independence Syria switched to Arabic as the language of its medical school, but often vested interests and the need for Western languages as a means of keeping up with world science prevailed over nationalist pressures. In linguistically fragmented India and Nigeria, the English of much advanced schooling unifies the elite but hinders mass access to higher education.

Nationalism, populism, and socialism put free, compulsory, universal schooling on every independent state’s agenda, but universality is still an elusive goal. In the 192os Turkey made all levels of education free, and Iran decreed that only the better-off would have to pay. Egypt made primary school free in 1943-a step toward unification with the inferior “elementary” schools; secondary and higher education became free in 195o and 1961. Even without questions of quality, the literacy and enrollment rates in Table i show the distance yet to be traveled. The gap between male and female enrollments is also a problem: in 198o, 76 percent of Egyptian males were enrolled compared to 63 percent of females, with 78 percent to 56 percent in Turkey, and 95 percent to 55 percent in Iraq.

The Ottomans founded Darulfunun (Istanbul University) in 1900. British-dominated Egypt managed only a small private university in 19o8, and had to wait until 1925 for a state university. Tehran followed in 1934. Women entered state higher education in the 1910s in Turkey, 1928 in Egypt, and 1935 in Iran. The Syrian University dates from the French era, the University of Indonesia from the last years of Dutch rule. Gordon Memorial College evolved into the University of Khartoum (1956). In the rush of independence in the 1950s and 1960s a university seemed almost as important symbolically as a flag.

An interval of some years usually followed before a second state university was founded, with rapid proliferation thereafter in the more populous countries. Ballooning primary and secondary enrollments inexorably increased demand. Quantity overwhelmed quality, financing faltered, standards plunged, and graduates scrambled for government jobs. Educational specialties bore little relation to the job market, and vocational education languished. Iran and Turkey each had twenty nine universities by 1992; Egypt, with a comparable but more concentrated population and fewer resources, had thirteen. Turkey pioneered adult education programs in the 1920s, and since the 1960s open universities have become popular.

Phase Five: The Challenge of Islamization. Israel’s defeat of the Arabs in 1967, the oil price boom following the 1973 War, and Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1979) all contributed to the Islamist revival. Though differing widely on specifics, Islamists see current regimes as morally bankrupt and reformed schools as a means of moving toward an ideal Islamic society.

The Islamic Republic of Iran provides the fullest example of a regime’s attempt to islamize its educational institutions. Although the Free Islamic University and other new institutions were founded after the revolution, the main task was the overhaul of existing institutions. With minor exceptions, the universities were closed from 198o to 1983. Professors and school teachers presumed to be enemies of the revolution were fired, and many fled abroad. When the universities reopened, ideological tests were used to screen student applicants and professors. Several universities were renamed for religious leaders. Coeducation at all levels disappeared, and “Islamic dress” became mandatory for females. Required religious courses were emphasized, and there was an attempt to introduce Islamic perspectives into every field of study. With the `ulama’ controlling the state, the neglected madrasahs-and especially Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fayziyah Madrasah in Qom-took on a new prominence.

Revolutionary upheaval, war, economic crisis, and runaway population growth inevitably forced the revolutionary regime into pragmatic compromises. To some purists’ dismay, English retained a strong place in the curriculum. Now the justification was not only its importance for science and technology, but also its utility in exporting the revolution and making converts to Islam. Acute shortages of teachers, funds, school buildings, and ideologically correct textbooks prompted appeals for emigres to return, the relaxation of ideological tests, and even the reopening of private schools.

Islamists from Morocco to Indonesia are demanding educational changes similar to Iran’s. Since 1980, universities with “Islamic” in their names have opened in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Niger. Very different Islamist regimes in Iran, Pakistan, the Sudan, and Saudi Arabia vie with each other for religious legitimacy. Never having experienced colonialism or coeducation, and fortified by oil wealth and Wahhabi ideology, the Saudis proclaim their brand of Islamism as a model, but their Islamist detractors are unconvinced. In educational institutions and elsewhere, regimes that inherited more complex legacies of indigenous reform, colonial rule, and postindependence nationalism and socialism balance uneasily today between cooption and repression of Islamist challengers.

[See also Azhar, al-; International Islamic University at Islamabad; International Islamic University at Kuala Lumpur; Madrasah; Universities; Zaytunah.]


Colonna, Fanny. Instituteurs algeriens, 1883-1939. Paris, 1975. Far broader insights into Algerian education than the specialized title suggests.

Dodge, Bayard. The American University of Beirut. Beirut, 1958. Concise survey by a former president of the institution.

Eccel, A. Chris. Egypt, Islam, and Social Change: Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation. Berlin, 1984. A mine of information and stimulating interpretation. Despite organizational problems and excessive sociological jargon, the fundamental work in English on al-Azhar. Findley, Carter V. “Knowledge and Education in the Modern Middle East: A Comparative View.” In The Modern Economic and Social History of the Middle East in Its World Context, edited by Georges Sabagh, pp. 130-154. Cambridge, 1989. Thoughtful, concise overview.

Heyworth-Dunne, James. Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt (1939). London, 1968. Unsurpassed in English on Egyptian education up to the British occupation of 1882.

Husayn, Taha. The Stream of Days: A Student at the Azhar. Translated by Hilary Wayment. 2d ed. London, 1948. Colorful, hostile view of traditional Islamic education by a famous blind writer and reformer.

Lelyveld, David. Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. Princeton, 1978.

Matthews, Roderic D., and Matta Akrawi. Education in Arab Countries of the Near East. Washington, D.C., 1949. Lacking in historical depth; but still useful for the state of education in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Trans jordan, and Palestine in the 1940s.

Menashri, David. Education and the Making of Modern Iran. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992. By far the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive book in English on Iranian education.

Misnad, Sheikha al-. The Development of Modern Education in the Gulf. London, 1985. Focuses on Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, and especially useful on the issue of women’s education.

Murphy, Lawrence R. The American University in Cairo, 1919-1987. Cairo, 1987. Official history.

Qubain, Fahim. Education and Science in the Arab World. Baltimore, 1966.

Reid, Donald Malcolm. Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt. Cambridge, 1990. Education set in social and political context. Also useful for pre-university education.

Szyliowicz, Joseph S. Education and Modernization in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973. Historical overview, with emphasis on Turkey, Iran, and Egypt.

Thomas, R. Murray. A Chronicle of Indonesian Higher Education. Singapore, 1973.

Tibawi, A. L. Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernization into the Arab National Systems. London, 1972. Survey by a veteran Palestinian educator.

Waardenburg, Jean-Jacques. Les universitis dans le monde arab actuel. 2 vols. Paris, 1966. Packed with valuable statistics.

The World of Learning, 1993. London, 1993. Europa Publications’ indispensable annual reference volume listing institutions of higher learning.


Educational Methods

Methods are a critical element in realizing the goals of any educational enterprise. They link teachers, students, and content. Curricula may be carefully designed to achieve particular ends, but unless appropriate instructional methods are utilized, the subject matter will not be communicated effectively to the students, the anticipated learning will not take place, and the educational goals will not be achieved. Like all aspects of education, methods are deeply influenced by cultural environments and traditions; thus it is appropriate to consider the educational methods used in traditional Islamic societies.

Inheritance from the Past. Given the central role of the Qur’an in Islamic civilization, it is natural that Islamic education revolved around the sacred book considered to be the basis of all knowledge. From the time a child began school at the age of six or seven, his major preoccupation was to memorize the Qur’an as perfectly as possible. The main technique was repetition, in which students learned by imitating the teacher. They would repeat a section of the Qur’an until it had been committed completely and accurately to memory and then proceed to the next section. The teacher would recite the verse and the students would chant it after him; to aid memorization students would utilize such techniques as rocking back and forth while chanting. The goal of education was to produce students who were good Muslims-that is, students who could recite the Qur’an accurately; understanding it was not a primary goal.

At the higher levels the focus was also on rote learning, although specific texts and commentaries were studied intensively. The teacher would often dictate passages from a work and then deliver a lecture interpreting them. Students took notes, which they would seek to memorize in order to demonstrate that they had recorded the lesson accurately. Two techniques facilitated the process of committing large quantities of material to memory. First, lessons were repeated aloud until the material was memorized; silent reading was frowned on. Second, many important texts were rewritten in verse form.

The ultimate goal was not to acquire the ability to repeat a text, but to understand it. Students were expected to acquire knowledge first through rote learning but then to learn how to apply what they had memorized creatively to particular issues. Thus students were presumed to learn the argumentative techniques that the authors of the texts had employed. Such methods as discussions and disputations were used in teaching, but these followed well-established patterns and focused on issues that had been debated for generations. At its best this approach produced sharply honed minds, but learning remained a closed process into which new ideas and concepts could not easily be introduced.

Teachers possessed great authority. The Qur’an gave them the right to administer corporal punishment whenever necessary, and use of the rod was widely regarded as essential if children were to develop suitable character. At the more advanced levels education was highly personalized, because the system was based on the view that knowledge was acquired through contact with learned individuals. A student would select a master and develop a close personal and intellectual relationship with him. The choice of a teacher was usually the single most important decision that a student could make, for one’s career was commonly determined by the mentor’s reputation. The teacher was responsible for the moral as well as the intellectual development of the student. A psychological distance always remained between them, however, and teachers could and often did punish their disciples severely.

Over time education became more institutionalized, especially at the higher levels, where various kinds of colleges were established; these, however, retained the personal, informal character of earlier institutions. Egypt’s famous al-Azhar, for example, possessed no regular schedule, entrance requirements, formal standards, required courses, examinations, or sharp distinction between faculty and students-a teacher in one course could be a student in another.

Some early Arab scholars who studied educational processes advocated the use of different methods and arrangements, especially at the higher levels, but their treatises had only limited impact. The prevailing methods effectively socialized large populations into Islamic beliefs, values, and practices, and Qur’anic schools using these methods continued to thrive and are today to be found in large numbers throughout the Islamic world.

Creation of Modern Schools. The establishment of modern schools in the nineteenth century did not produce any dramatic change in teaching methods. Two major factors account for this continuity. First, much Western education of the time was also characterized by strict discipline and memorization. Second, the Western powers had no interest in establishing schools that would prepare students to think independently and creatively, especially in the colonies. They developed curricula that were similar to those at home and expected students to master a body of knowledge that would prepare them to be loyal, obedient administrators. The cultivation of intelligence, sensitivity, and awareness was often rigidly suppressed, in Egypt under Lord Cromer. Ministries of education permitted no deviation from strict rules and regulations. A harsh examination system that determined the student’s educational position and future prospects reinforced the emphasis on rote learning; students strained to memorize every word in their notebooks in order to pass the dreaded examination that would permit them to continue their academic training.

Even in states that retained their independence, Western influences did not transform traditional patterns. At first large numbers of Europeans were hired to teach in reformist schools, but this was an inefficient arrangement because their lectures had to be translated into the local language. To meet the need for native teachers the Ottomans founded the Daruhnuallim in 1848. Its graduates and those of the other teacher-training colleges subsequently opened throughout the region replaced the Europeans, but teaching methods retained their traditional character for two reasons. First, these schools were based on nineteenth-century European models in which lectures and memorization were the norm. Second, since most teachers and students in the new schools were graduates of the religious schools, they tended to maintain traditional patterns.

The major difference between the traditional schools such as al-Azhar and the modern schools, therefore, lay not so much in the methods or in the behavior of teachers but in the bureaucratization and formalization of schooling and in the kinds of knowledge that the new curricula embodied. Although the methods of the latter are usually labeled “Islamic,” they were in many ways consonant with Western practices and heavily influenced by the interests and goals of the colonizing power.

Contemporary Methods. The achievement of independence brought little change to these patterns; the character of education remained the same-highly centralized and oriented toward passing examinations-although its size expanded rapidly to meet the pent-up demand for modern schooling. As a result, traditional patterns were reinforced as exploding enrollments at all levels created an ever greater demand for qualified, motivated teachers that could not be met.

Most emerging states had to utilize whatever teaching resources were available, regardless of their qualifications. Hence many teachers, especially at the primary level, have only a secondary education and are poorly prepared in subject matter and teaching methods. Teachers at the secondary level are better trained; most are graduates of teacher-training institutes. They tend to be familiar with the subject matter but usually know little about how to teach effectively, because teacher training remains weak and formalistic. Curricula in the institutes stress theory and abstract subjects; there is little concern with practical preparation or with teaching general and specialized methods of instruction. Moreover, few in-service training programs are available, and so teachers tend to stagnate and to remain at a fixed level of professional development. They remember the body of knowledge that they memorized in school and teach it in the same way until they retire. Most teachers carry out their tasks mechanically and tend to be authoritarian, formalistic, and apathetic, adhering closely to the textual materials, which they either dictate or hand out in condensed form. They have little incentive for innovation, and a national corps of inspectors ensures that the ministry’s rules and regulations are scrupulously followed.

Furthermore, teachers tend to regard themselves as authority figures rather than as partners in a learning experience. Students are not expected to ask questions, and certainly not to challenge a teacher’s knowledge and authority by raising different points; rather, they are expected to memorize their notes as thoroughly as possible in order to pass the all-important examinations. Even when a teacher assigns a topic for research (a rare event), students are not expected to take the initiative but rather to work within prescribed boundaries by consulting only the sources suggested by the teacher.

When called on to recite or to answer a question, the good student does not present his own ideas but demonstrates his prowess by parroting the proper answer as it appeared, word for word, in the textbook or in the lecture. Often reciters stand at attention while the rest of the class sits quietly. Such behavior is consonant with a cultural environment that emphasizes hierarchy and conformity. Teachers are not expected to be motivators or to prepare students to be creative problem-solvers but to maintain discipline and to socialize students into traditional values of respect for authority and obedience.

Resource constraints further limit the possibility of applying more student-centered methods. The available textbooks are of poor quality; most are merely unadapted translations of Western texts or works produced by authors without any practical experience, and these do little to excite the imagination of the student. Audiovisual materials and other teaching aids are rarely available. Library resources too are very limited, and what is available is usually tightly controlled by librarians who are often legally accountable for each book.

These generalizations apply not only across countries but across subject areas-even those such as science, foreign languages, and vocational training that have received special attention because of their significance for the achievement of national developmental goals. Science continues to be taught in a formalistic manner. Schools at all levels lack adequate laboratory facilities, and what is available is often not utilized properly. Equipment is expensive and scarce, and teachers are usually held personally responsible for every item, so that breakage becomes a catastrophe that the teacher seeks to avoid at any cost. Instead of allowing students to engage in practical work, to solve problems for themselves, the teacher demonstrates his ability by carrying out experiments while the students watch. Even though simple homemade devices can be very effective in science courses, few teachers possess the knowledge or motivation to develop and utilize them.

Foreign-language instruction is another critical area where poor results are commonplace. In most countries every student is required to study at least one foreign language, but few students acquire fluency. Many of the instructors possess only an imperfect knowledge of the language they are teaching. Furthermore, important advances in instructional methods are very rarely encountered in textbooks, teacher manuals, or classrooms.

Vocational and technical education has also been emphasized everywhere, but once again poor teaching methods limit its potential contribution to national development. Vocational schools do not prepare students adequately for industrial occupations because of inadequate facilities and curricula and the difficulty of finding and retaining staff with industrial knowledge. The teaching is theoretical rather than practical, memorization is commonplace, and students spend little if any time working with machinery and tools and acquiring hands-on experience.

Higher Education. Although higher education has been favored by all Islamic states, in this area too the rapid expansion of enrollments has greatly outpaced the available human and physical resources. The result has been that in almost every college facilities are stretched to their utmost, many faculty members are not highly qualified, and student-teacher ratios are too high. Education has become a mass-production process with little interaction between student and teacher. Universities in the richer Arab countries utilize temporary faculty from other states, but this solution creates a divided faculty, many of whom have little interest in the institution or its students.

The drop in quality is evident in all fields, but somenotably the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences-have suffered more than others because enrollments there can be expanded at low cost. To increase the number of students in scientific courses entails expenditures for equipment and the employment of more specialists, whereas in the humanities and social sciences such expenditures can be neglected; the same professor is simply expected to lecture to three or four times as many students as before.

Partly because of the overcrowding that characterizes most universities, mass lectures without questions or discussion have become the common teaching method. Furthermore, these lectures may consist largely of repetitions from notes taken years earlier. Even committed scholars rely on mass lectures. They have few options when facing hundreds or even thousands of poorly prepared students who believe education is synonymous with memorization. In some cases, students come to the university without even the ability to take notes, so faculty members have been known to dictate resumes of their courses for the students to memorize. Under these circumstances there is obviously very limited opportunity for student-faculty interaction or for research activities.

The same patterns severely limit the effectiveness of graduate training. In many countries students pursuing advanced degrees take little formal coursework. They are expected to work independently and to carry out research under the guidance of a senior faculty member. Although this method can produce fine scholars, this seldom happens because of limited student-faculty interaction, resource limitations, and the lack of academic freedom. Thus a vicious cycle is perpetuated.

Prospects for the Future. Throughout the Islamic world one can find exceptions to this sorry state of affairs. There are many teachers who are committed to their students and attempt to make schooling an exciting and stimulating experience. Unfortunately, they are found primarily in the elite schools of urban centers, and even there they struggle against great handicaps. The more remote the area, the worse the facilities and the more traditional the teaching styles.

The problem and its implications are widely recognized. The use of modern teaching methods is usually precluded by poor training, large classes, scarce resources, limited support, high degrees of centralization, rigid examination systems, low morale, and a traditional environment. There is little incentive or opportunity to engage in meaningful teaching or to change the pattern of teacher dominance. Even Turkey, where democratic values prevail, has found it difficult to create a different environment in its schools.

The need to change this situation is by now generally accepted. Many Muslim scholars argue that existing teaching methods are not consonant with a real Qur’anic approach to education, and pedagogues point out that these patterns do not promote the intellectual and moral development of young people or prepare them to function in modern societies. Nonetheless, the criterion of good teaching remains the number of students who successfully pass the national examinations, the primary purpose of which is to identify those (usually of elite background) who are qualified for further schooling; the majority receive only an elementary education, and the number of functional illiterates remains high.

Many governments are seeking ways to transform these patterns. They accept the need to upgrade teaching staffs, modernize curricula, and improve facilities. Many are turning to modern technologies to improve educational practices. Turkey, for example, has created an “Open University” in which classes are conducted via television. Large numbers of teachers are receiving instruction in subject matter and pedagogical techniques, and it is hoped that thousands of students will be positively affected. Computers are also being emphasized in many countries.

It remains to be seen, however, whether these technologies will contribute to the transformation that is required, or whether they will simply be integrated into the existing educational culture and suffer the fate of other reform projects. Such technologies can play a useful role, but only if a new orientation toward education is accepted within a society. In other words, quality must replace quantity as the major criterion for educational policymakers; political elites must recognize that development requires creative, independent, resourceful citizens capable of critical reasoning and moral judgment, and they must be willing to allocate the necessary resources to create the educational systems that produce such citizens.


`Abd Allah, `Abd al-Rahman Salih. Educational Theory: A Qur’anic Outlook. Makkah (Mecca), Saudi Arabia, 1982.

Berkey, Jonathan P. The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo. Princeton, 1992.

Eickelman, Dale F. Knowledge and Power in Morocco. Princeton, 1985.

Massialis, Byron G., and Samir Ahmed Jarrar. Education in the Arab World. New York, 1983.

Massialis, Byron G., and Samir Ahmed Jarrar. Arab Education in Transition. New York, 1991.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet. New York, 1985. Szyliowicz, Joseph S. Education and Modernization in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973.

Za’rour, George I. “Universities in Arab Countries.” PRE Working Paper, no. 62, 1988. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.


Educational Reform

An understanding of the dynamic relationship among political, social, and educational changes is central to the determination of the nature of educational reform in the Muslim world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Changes in curricular and instructional policies and their implications for intellectual and cultural development are discussed in relation to four major issues.

The Muslim world initially rejected as irrelevant changes introduced from Europe in the early nineteenth century. Changes in technical, military, and vocational training dictated by local rulers and elites did not conform to the traditional educational practices that were the remnants of Islamic education. Comparing these practices with recent changes runs the risk of overstating where and how educational reform has taken place.

Available literature indicates that old practices were not reformed and changes resulted in no significant attitudinal or cultural development. Setting the European utilitarian and the Muslim altruistic modes against each other resulted in centralized state-controlled educational institutions and a complete departure from Islamic education.

The intellectual stagnation that characterized the Muslim world since the early fourteenth century remained despite mass and compulsory schooling in the postcolonial era. Recent reports indicate school and teacher shortages, low educational quality, lack of planning and of curricular and instructional compatibility, and disparity in access to and completion of all types and levels of education between the sexes, between rich and poor, and between rural and urban populations.

Preservation of Islamic Culture. The Islamic world’s reaction to Western-introduced changes in education has lacked the intellectual dynamics that once marked its educational system, in which formal and informal teaching and learning took place based on the accomplishments and needs of teachers and pupils. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987) discusses the oral transmission that produced some highly knowledgeable, though illiterate, Muslims. Fazlur Rahman (1982) does not mention either these distinctive characteristics or such remaining institutions as the kuttab (place of primary and Qur’anic education), the halaqah, the majlis (study circle in a mosque or private home) and the madrasah (center of secondary and higher learning). In the Islamic world, Western educational practices did not produce the same economic, intellectual, and social development that they did in western Europe. Adnan Badnan (1989) reports a lacks of cohesion in educational planning, which is inhibited by socioeconomic, technical, or cultural factors. Educational objectives are ambiguous; although the philosophy claims to be rooted in the ideals of Islam, the pedagogical strategies contain both modern methodologies and political, nationalistic rhetoric. The inconclusive, fragmented, and contradictory literature, in both English and Arabic, indicates that educational transformation is an unstable process.

No full account of curricular reform is available despite the many reports on changes in the instructional process and the increased number of schools, universities, and student enrollment. Reports by Albert Hourani (1981 and 1983), Jesse T. Jones (Education in East Africa, New York, 1970), UNESCO (1961), and others largely praise the progress of the “reformed and modernized” education system. Recent accounts, however, such as Nasr’s, question such conclusions that confuse traditional Islamic reform with fundamentalism and modernity with nationalism. Others, like Stephen P. Heyneman (1971), Ali Mazrui (The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Boston and Toronto, 1986), and A. L. Tibawi (1972) expose conflicting purposes and incoherent systems resulting from colonial and missionary educational changes and emphasize problems of imported development strategies and personnel.

These changes were rejected by the local peoples and religious leaders who were suspicious of any new type of formal education, although foreign cultural practices had been integrated during the eighth and ninth centuries. They considered the European educational changes irrelevant, alien, and expressions of colonial exploitation and missionary attempts to christianize the population. These views were not baseless, as missionary education, foreign private, and colonial government-supported school systems attest (British Parliamentary Records vol. 137 [1905])

Changes instituted by the Ottoman ruler Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807), considered in the traditional literature on modernization as the precursor to reform, were viewed by Stanford J. Shaw (“Some Aspects of the Aims and Achievements of the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Reformers” in Beginnings of Modernization in the Middle East: The Nineteenth Century, edited by W. R. Polk and R. L. Chambers [Chicago and London, 1968], pp. 29,39) as traditional reforms; old elements remained even when they were superseded. The result was the development of a heavy, complicated, and paralyzing hierarchy that stifled Ottoman educational development.

Sultan Mahmud II’s (r. 1808-1839) Tanzimat reform ideology is another example of Ottoman reaction to the military advancement of the French as early as 1789. The impact of this regimented, centralized system on modern bureaucracy in the Muslim world is apparent even now, particularly in the civil service systems: personnel affairs, education, and justice.

Educational objectives shifted from an emphasis on discipline for both children and adults (Eickelman, 1985) to a formalization of the relationship of citizens to the state to meet its economic and political interests. Local governors’ policies, led by an eagerness to acquire European technologies to strengthen and modernize the military, weakened the kuttabs and madrasahs, often distributing their waqf (endowment) among the ruling class and missionary societies to establish private schools. J. Heyworth-Dunne (An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt, new impression [London, 1968]) suggests that the Egyptian Mamluk Muhammad `Ali’s (r. 18o6-1841) imposed system is the key to understanding why Egypt’s present system is so defective and poorly adapted to the country. Although he established a military school (1816), technical and engineering schools and colleges, and a medical school (1827), they were for men only and staffed by European Christians. He also sent large student missions, all men mainly of ruling and elite families, to study in Europe in 1826. In these European schools, the men were forced to study Turkish, Italian, French, and English. Even when translations were available to aid in the instruction, comprehension problems were not overcome because the men were unprepared. The shortcomings of this instructional system also stemmed, in part, from its neglect of women’s education, particularly at the secondary level, and training of teachers for the elementary and the preparatory schools. But, most of all, the system was not coordinated with the traditional practices and appeared to operate as a rival or even as a substitute. New subject matters were divorced from the Qur’anic study and the sciences of antiquity such as astronomy, geography, and medicine. Above all, Tibawi asserts, the system had little or no direct intellectual purpose; it existed primarily to train the local people to serve colonial and local government interests.

Changing Function of Education. Despite its lack of vitality after the fifteenth century, Lillian Sanderson points out in “Education and Administrative Control in Colonial Sudan and Northern Nigeria” (African Affairs 74 [October 1975): 427-441) that Islamic education achieved its goals: to pass on the customs of the adult community, to teach children the knowledge and skills of the culture that they needed to function effectively, and to instill in them beliefs about the relationship between the seen and the unseen in the universe.

What remained of the Islamic education system became peripheral, reserved for the underprivileged, such as girls and poor rural and urban masses. Primary Islamic education, for example, came to a standstill when Turkish replaced its main language, Arabic, as the medium of instruction in most government schools, as did colonial languages in private schools. Changes, as Gregory Starrett has stated, “transformed people’s ideas about religion” and its importance to community development by removing the teaching of Islam as the basis of character formation and making it a new subject called “Religion,” without primary status in the curriculum (“Appropriating the Kuttab: The Functionalization of Mass Religious Instruction in Egypt, 1882-1952,” paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association Annual Conference, Washington, D.C., 1991).

Changes introduced in the nineteenth century did not meet Islamic cultural needs. The government schools were agents of the colonial policy to control Muslim rulers, administrative management, and agricultural productivity. As described by Leila Ahmad, when enrollments grew, girls were denied places in classrooms and tuition was instituted in secondary schools, making girls’ education of low priority (Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven and London, 1992).

The English colonial system penetrated the Indian subcontinent, the majority of the Middle East, and many African nations, even though it claimed that it did not interfere in internal affairs (Mazrui). The French colonial system in North and West Africa and in Syria and Lebanon, as W. Bryant Mumford suggests, assimilated the existing system to the point of annihilating it (Africans Learn to Be French, New York, 1970). It contributed further to diverting the rural system from traditional Islamic education to superstitious social customs, dogmatic and nationalistic creeds, and passive Sufi orders. And instead of strengthening institutions of higher learning, such as the oldest, the 1,100-year-old al-Qarawiyin in Fez, Morocco, the colonial government dismantled many old centers.

Similar movements took place in other regions, with varying degrees of interaction with European expatriates and different degrees of emphasis on traditional or modern elements in education depending on the colonizers’ policy and the extent of their penetration of native cultures.

Comparing the Two Schemes of Education. A comparison of teaching in the kuttdb and the madrasah to the colonizers’ technical, military, and vocational training or the missionaries’ book knowledge is not an accurate indicator of educational reform. What is obvious, however, is that educational practices have changed from informal family-based, formal teacher-centered, and informal decentralized tarbiyah (character and intellectual development) to either formal missionary-controlled or state-centralized schooling.

The function of teaching was primarily Qur’anic talqin (acquisition and dissemination of meaning and spirit), instilling community values while combating illiteracy. Other types of kuttdb taught some knowledge of akhbdr (history), hisdb (simple arithmetic and reckoning), and elementary Arabic nahw (grammar), reading, and writing. The function of the madrasah was to complement the objectives of both kuttdbs, as well as the halaqah’s advanced `ulum al-Qur’an (Qur’anic sciences), `ulum alhadith (sciences of the Prophetic tradition), and their ancillary sciences of Arabic nahw and adab (literature). Thus, hikmah (wisdom), kalam (philosophy/theology), mantiq (logic), `ilm al-nujum (astronomy), music, and `ilm al-tibb (medicine) were part of the curriculum even early in the nineteenth century (Ali, 1983). Government and missionary schools, meanwhile, sought to implant European secular and Christian values of agrarian, office, and class bureaucracy (Bennabi, 1969).

Although printed textbooks and notebooks have replaced the murabbi’s (teacher or guide) scripted notes and the lawh (tablet) in the urban schools particularly, book and lecture instruction and memorization of factual information continue to prevail. But they lack the essence of the transmitted oral tradition.

A pupil who used to study under one teacher with whom she or he had a relationship and moved from one subject to the next after showing mastery through oral discussion or by tutoring younger students is now instructed on a mass scale, segregated by sex, and taught different subjects in a school day. The idea of special girls’ schools was introduced by the Catholic missionaries. In these schools girls were taught embroidery, home economics, domestic skills, and nursing; they also read the Bible. Boys were taught office skills, agricultural, military, and vocational trades, and some fiqh (jurisprudence) to serve government needs. Pupils in these schools, according to M. H. Khan, are tested in material that is irrelevant to their culture so they can be promoted to the next level taught by a new teacher (History of Muslim Education, vol. 2, 1751-1854 A.D., Karachi, 1973). The concept of tarbiyah has been reduced to passing on some skills and information to qualify for a job.

These two modes of instruction represent a departure from the Islamic perspective that was instrumental in the evolution of the Islamic civilization. Rahman notes that intellectual stagnation occurred during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when manuals and commentaries dominated, and suggests that the educational process had virtually ceased to function by the late 1500s when the Andalusian Islamic community was dismantled. Eickelman, however, sees the mnemonic devices of Islamic education as a continuation of the socialization process even during and after the colonial period when systems of mass and compulsory schooling were legislated.

The Islamic system was abandoned when the state and colonial governments made decisions for the local peoples, and Muslims lost their scholarly and intellectual initiative. With the exception of scattered individual scholars and artisans during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries that Nasr points out, Islamic educational practices fell into abeyance. Attempts to expound the positive attitude of Islam toward science by those Rahman calls “pre-modernist reformers”-Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1928) of India, Namik Kemal (18401888) of Turkey, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Muhammad `Abduh (1845-1905) of Egypt-resulted instead in complete separation of “Islamic” and “non-Islamic” knowledge. The strategies of nationalist elites such as Ma’ruf al-Rasafi (1877-1945) of Iraq, attest to differences in attitude, especially toward the implications of modern science for the traditional worldview and faith. These different attitudes and strategies created further confusion as to how to reintroduce science and technology in the culture. As Bennabi notes, the aspirations of some elites and rulers were not those of the community or the masses, but those of the colonials, missionaries, and romantic Orientalists.

The practical implications of these differences in attitude and of alienated aspirations may be seen in the varied and conflicting responses to modernization and in the present disparity between the ideal and the reality of the Muslim world, particularly in education. Sir Sayyid’s call in 186o for the reinterpretation of the Qur’an in light of modern experience, for example, failed because his views were not based on the Islamic perspective. He was not able to implement them in the Aligarh Muslim University of India, which he created to integrate religious beliefs with a modern scientific outlook. Islamic education was reduced to religious education and was left to teachers who had little training or support. Other reform ideas, put forth by those who had studied in Europe, had a similar negative results. Though these ideas were supported by elites and rulers, they were opposed by orthodox community leaders who feared they would contaminate the beliefs of the people and were ignored by the masses as irrelevant and providing no practical solutions to the ailing educational practices.

Community Development and Educational Progress. The rival Muslim and European education plans were in place until the second quarter of the twentieth century, when turmoil was the common factor in the social, political, and educational systems until military and political independence from colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. Elites (who were largely educated either in missionary schools and colleges, or in East and West European and American institutions), Bennabi adds, contributed further to this turmoil by adopting Western ideas of change as the only means for reform without considering the actual needs and the sociopsychological factors of the community.

Post colonial changes, which almost uniformly used modern educational instructional schemes, also resulted in confusing outcomes. With minor variations in their level of success in achieving the objectives of the ruling class (introducing modern technology as a symbol of progress), the overall picture after almost fifteen years, as A. A. H. El-Koussy (Survey of Educational Progress in the Arab States, 196o-2965, Beirut, 1966) describes it, is still an aimless system with no evaluation system or overall direction. His description of the Arab world applies to other Muslim countries as well. Education authorities were working with enthusiasm, but they lacked planning and balance in educational development.

The general uncertainty of objectives prevailed with some exceptions. For example, the goal to return to regional languages (European languages became secondary to Arabic, Persian, or Urdu as the means of instruction in public schools) was achieved on a limited basis. This uncertainty is evident in African countries, especially those in North Africa (Abdel Hamid Mansouri, “Algeria between Tradition and Modernity: The Question of language,” Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Albany, 1991), and in Asian countries, particularly in Pakistan where a full transition could not be effected (Taj Ali Koraishy, How to Reform Educational System in Pakistan and Other Muslim Countries, Gujranwala, 19’72). With the emphasis on nationalistic sentiments, the restoration of Arabic-the language of the Qur’anfor instruction became an ideal. Meanwhile, the use of regional languages for instruction meant that energy was directed to the translation of European textbooks instead of to writing new, native textbooks.

The rapid increase in the number of schools did not keep up with population growth or with the demand for education. High levels of illiteracy persist (UNESCO, 1990) and, not with standing arguments concerning the definition of literacy and the value of oral transmission, the levels and types of education available to women are still inferior to men’s (Nagat El-Sanabary, 1992). Educational quality is sacrificed inadvertently in pursuit of universal schooling and mandatory elementary education because of the lack of human and other resources and of coherent regional planning and technical competency (Badran). Intellectual production, Bennabi (1959) laments, is hindered because Muslims value European products and wish to acquire them, without researching the ideas behind these products.

The nature of educational transformation varied among Muslim countries, reflecting on the development model adopted, the post-1969 Muslim world’s economic and political polarization, and the role played by oil-rich countries and their international benefactors. For example, the Malaysian government accommodated secularism in its educational program between 1971 and 198o, M. Kamal Hassan (1981) reports, expanding facilities and opportunities for education in science, mathematics, and technology-oriented disciplines along with attempts to equip the young people of all races and both sexes with the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in developing the economy. The relation between tradition and change in the Malaysian context did not arise from the question of cultural change, in which women’s place is used as the central discourse as in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan. Instead, Muslim religious groups used new discourse to defend the encroachment of Western ideas. By emphasizing the morality question, epitomized in attire and sex segregation, particularly in higher education institutions, they have indirectly restricted intellectual role of women in the development process. Malaysian educational reform did not change the intellectual, attitudinal, and cultural development of the Muslim masses either. As similar movements are spreading in other Muslim communities from Indonesia to North America, one wonders whether there ever was an educational reform.


General Works

Bennabi, Malek. Mushkilat al-thaqafah (The Problem of Educating). Arabic translation from the French original, Le probleme des etude, by `Abd al- Sabur Shahin. Beirut, 1969. Islam in History and Society. Translated from the French original, Vocation de I’Islam, by Asma Rashid. Islamabad, 1988. Cairo, 1959. Realistic analysis of the relationship between education and cultural development in the contemporary Muslim world by a native Algerian Muslim scholar. Eickelman, Dale F. Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable. Princeton, 1985. Unprecedented anthropological analysis of the power of knowledge in a Muslim society. Chapter 3 deserves special reading to internalize the Qur’anic presence in a Muslim intellectual and social development. Heyneman, Stephen P. The Conflict over What is to Be Learned in Schools: A History of Curriculum Politics in Africa. Syracuse, N.Y., 1971.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939. Cambridge, 1983. The Emergence of the Modern Middle East. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981. Considered by Western and Arabic Middle Eastern scholars as classical works on reform and modernization in the region.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Traditional Islam in the Modern World. London and New York, 1987. Leading work in deciphering traditional Islam and its contrast to fundamentalism and modernism with respect to Western scholarship. Part 2, “Traditional Islam and Modernism,” is particularly illuminating. The notes are rich with primary and secondary sources.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago and London, 1982. Definitive work for understanding contemporary Islamic intellectualism as the essence of higher Islamic education, and the implications of the method of Qur’anic interpretation to the development of the intellectual Muslim.

Tanguiane, Sema. Literacy and Illiteracy in the World: Situation, Trends, and Prospects. Paris, 1990.

Tibawi, A. L. Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernizations into the Arab National Systems. London, 1972. Insightful interpretive work on educational theory in Islam and the implications of the philosophy of modernism on educational systems in the region.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Asia, Arab States; Africa: Education and Progress. Paris, 1961.

Missionary and Colonial Sources

Labaree, Mrs. Benjamin W. “The Heart of the Mohammedan Woman.” Missionary Review of the World 26.8 (August 1913): 578-582.

“Lebanon and Its Mission Schools.” Church Missionary Intelligencia 19 (October 1869): 293-3o6.

Prothero, M. “Recent Educational Changes in India.” Asiatic Quarterly Review, third series, 16, 31, 32 (July-October 1903): 292-299.

Regional Accounts

Ali, A. K. M. Ayyub. History of Traditional Islamic Education in Bangladesh (Down to AD 1980). Dhaka, 1983. Though reporting mainly on Bangladesh, the author presents a sequential development of Muslim education from Islam to 198o that was very much in place in the entire Indian subcontinent.

Badran, Adnan, ed. At the Crossroad: Education in the Middle East. New York, 1989. Collection of essays dealing with various countries in the region, addressing many issues of contemporary education, with emphasis on the role of education in regional development and conflict resolution.

El-Sanabary, Nagat. Education in the Arab Gulf States and the Arab World. New York, 1992. Extensive bibliographical guide with 1,775 entries of books, articles, dissertations, and reports covering the period 1959-1989. Important reference source to other Arab countries, even though it covers mainly bibliography concerning the seven Arab Gulf States. The introduction is an especially valuable summary of topics covered in the volume, including Islamic education.

Hassan, M. Kamal. “Education and Family in Modernizing Malaysia.” In Changes and the Muslim World, edited by Philip H. Stoddard, pp. 65-73. Syracuse, N.Y., 1981.


The Islamization of Knowledge

Although the phrase “islamization of knowledge” is a recent one, the general impetus behind it is not new. The recurring need to view the approach to knowledge and reality within an Islamic frame is activated whenever Muslim scholars perceive a serious threat to Islam and a need to reemphasize its boundaries. In times of political uncertainty and change this need is the greatest; thus, Shah Wali Allah in eighteenth-century India warned of the loss of power and called for a revival in Islamic thought and knowledge. Social and political comment and the radical, first translation of the Qur’an from Arabic into Urdu, the more popular language, followed, making Islamic thought accessible to a greater number of people than ever before.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century one of the most significant attempts at what could justifiably be termed the islamization of knowledge was made in the famous college (later university) begun by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan in Aligarh. Facing the bleak aftermath of the failed 1857-1858 uprisings against the British, Sir Sayyid sensed a real danger to the Muslims who, insecure, powerless, and vulnerable, now wished to be isolated and to cling to tradition. Rejecting English and Western knowledge, they argued, would allow them to preserve their own identity and, at the same time, express their contempt for the emerging non-Islamic milieu.

Sir Sayyid hoped to benefit Muslim learning with the latest in Western education. His enthusiasm for Western scientific thought and rationalism was unbounded. Victorian clock towers and Islamic architecture, the cricket field and the mosque, Qur’anic scholars and Cambridge staff combined to produce a remarkable synthesis at Aligarh, which almost by itself produced the first major modern Muslim educational movement. Not all Muslims approved; many traditional religious scholars condemned Sir Sayyid as a kafir (nonbeliever), even a secret Christian convert. In time, Aligarh would provide the lead for the creation of Pakistan. Major modern Muslim figures like Muhammad Iqbal and Mawlana Mawdudi found a particularly sympathetic audience in Aligarh students. [See Aligarh and the biographies of Ahmad Khan, Iqbal, and Mawdudi]

In the Arab world, Muhammad `Abduh and Rashid Rida, based in Cairo, provided an intellectual lead. Their links with al-Azhar, one of the oldest and most respected Islamic universities of the world, further strengthened their position. These Muslims were neither rejecting modern knowledge and education nor simply wanting a return to the past; they were attempting to live in the here and now but in the light of Islam. [See Azhar, al-; and the biographies of `Abduh and Rashid Rida.]

Contemporary Context. Different, yet recognizably similar, perceptions of threat have created the demand for an islamization of knowledge in our times. Contemporary Muslim scholars have argued that although their nations were free from colonial rule, Western intellectual and cultural influences still dominated them. In particular, knowledge itself reflected these influences in the disciplines taught at the university and in the journals published in a European language and sold to the elite. Modern knowledge was clearly devoid of the Qur’anic concept of human nature and view of the universe. To combat this increasingly powerful trend, it was necessary first to reexamine the major disciplines, economics, anthropology and so on, and then to suggest how best they could reflect authentic Islamic thought. The approach to the discipline more than the discipline itself needed to be cast in a more Islamic frame.

There was reason for alarm. For a few decades after independence, the education available in most Muslim nations was either a shallow imitation of the West (sustaining an often corrupt and self-perpetuating elite) or isolated in traditional religious schools with little or no contact with the outside world. The time was ripe for appraisal.

It is necessary to place this intellectual development in the political context of the 1970s when it first gained strength. That period was one of notable Islamic intellectual and political energy. King Faysal of Saudi Arabia mobilized Muslim opinion behind him by his bold support for Islamic causes, support which included the use of OPEC prices as a formidable weapon; General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq declared martial law in Pakistan and launched a movement which would be known as the islamization of Pakistan; Afghanistan was invaded by Soviet troops, and the Afghans declared a “holy war” to liberate their land. Finally, the period culminated in the spectacular overthrow of the shah of Iran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the triumph of his Islamic revolution.

Not surprisingly, this political activity found its counterpart in intellectual endeavor. A fresh confidence and vigor appeared among Muslim scholars, who, in different parts of the world, attempted to reexamine their disciplines in order to recast them in the light of Islam. New Islamic centers and universities provided a natural academic home. for their scholarship both in the Muslim world (in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and Malaysia) and in the West (the International Institute of Islamic Thought, formerly in Philadelphia [now Herndon, Virginia] in the United States and, in the United Kingdom, the Islamic Foundation in Leicester and the Islamic Academy in Cambridge).

Developments in communications technology helped to create a global network, facilitating scholarly exchange of ideas. Scholars discovered a thirst for a more Islamic interpretation of knowledge wherever Muslims lived.

The seminal first world conference on Muslim education was held, appropriately, in Makkah (Mecca) in 1977 and generated a series of seminars, conferences and books: educators such as Ali Ashraf wrote of “Islamic education” (1979, 1985), economists such as Khurshid Ahmad of “Islamic economics” (1981), M. N. Siddiqi of “Islamic Banking” (1983), sociologists such as Ilyas Ba-Yunus and Farid Ahmad of “Islamic sociology” (1985), and anthropologists of “Islamic anthropology” (Ahmed 1987). The fact that these scholars came from different countries and represented different disciplines added to the prestige and credibility of the endeavor.

Scholars now grappled seriously with the cluster of ideas that formed around the notion of the islamization of knowledge. One of the most active and committed scholars of his generation, Isma`il al-Faruqi, a Palestinian settled in the United States, helped to launch the International Institute of Islamic Thought, which became an intellectual powerhouse, providing ideas and publications with a global following; a major program was initiated to examine each main academic discipline in the light of the islamization of knowledge (see Abu Sulayman, 1989). Tragically, al-Faruqi, was assassinated in 1986 when the first study of the series appeared. In his Foreword to this study, he defined the endeavor:

This program, conceived and crystallized in a number of symposia on the subject, consists of twelve steps designed to effect the necessary Islamization in the various disciplines of human knowledge. Some of these steps seek to survey and evaluate modern Western accomplishments. Others do the same for the legacy of Muslim learning. The purpose is to reach full mastery of the “state of the art” in each discipline, and to prepare that discipline for re-establishment on Islamic foundations. This implies correction of its prejudices and errors, elimination of its shortcomings, and redress of its methodology and aspirations. (al-Faruqi,, Foreword, in Akbar S. Ahmed, 1987, p. 7).

Al-Faruqi warned Muslims of the need for rigor and integrity in their own work. He did not wish to replace one kind of dogma by another:

Islamization does not mean subordination of any body of knowledge to dogmatic principles or arbitrary objectives, but liberation from such shackles. Islam regards all knowledge as critical; i.e., as universal, necessary and rational. It wants to see every claim pass through the tests of internal coherence, correspondence with reality, and enhancement of human life and morality. Consequently, the Islamized discipline which we hope to reach in the future will turn a new page in the history of the human spirit, and bring it closer to the truth. (Ibid.)

Although the intent of islamization and the political context causing its necessity are clear, the actual method is far from resolved. Critics argue that there can no more be an Islamic science of economics, for example, than a Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist one. Precisely, reply the Muslim scholars, the practice of economics is rarely neutral and never free of a moral position. Clearly, there is a Keynesian economics and a Marxist economics.

Islamic Economics. As Western economists reflect the Western capitalist order within which they develop their ideas and socialist economists the communist one, Islamic economics should reflect the core principles of Islam, thereby influencing the very nature of society. This approach would be a departure for those Muslims influenced by either capitalist or communist models. Muslims would emphasize the Qur’anic notions of al-`adl (balance) and al-ihsan (compassion). Islamic economists would attempt consciously to create a balanced and compassionate society; thus, for example, individual rights to education, health, and social security would be ensured, since they are simply a restoration of the central notions of Islam: the tawhid of God, the organic interconnection of life, its high moral purpose, and so on.

For Muslims the starting point is the central concept of tawhid (God’s unity and sovereignty). That God has made the earth for humanity, hence, the good things it produces are theirs to enjoy, is explicit in the holy Qur’an. Also explicit is humanity’s central role in the universe as khalifah, (God’s viceregent on earth). From this follows the strong moral imperative to care for one another. “Basic needs” (the current development jargon) are recognized as the right of every human being. Basic needs in the Islamic framework include the rights to education and transport, to found a family, and ensuring self-reliance. Conspicuous consumption is strongly discouraged. Both the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, the two major sources of Islamic life, support austerity. The Prophet’s saying aptly sums up the position: “My poverty is my pride.”

Islamic economics is far from being an intellectual fad or a marginalized eccentricity. It has influenced policy and planning in various countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as the establishment of university departments to work on numerous economic issues in many Muslim countries; advice has been offered to banking and business concerns. The debate around interest-free banking, that interest itself is haram (prohibited), was stimulated by Islamic economics.

Islamic Anthropology. In my discussion of an Islamic anthropology I pointed out the underlying Islamic principles that needed to be identified (Ahmed, 1987, 1988). Islamic anthropology is ideally placed to assist Islamic endeavor, a view supported by Qur’anic verses and the Prophet’s sayings. The Qur’an tells us: “Say: Travel through the earth and see how God did originate creation” (29.20). Sayings of the Prophet also reflect this sentiment: “Seek knowledge, even unto China.” People are asked to contemplate, to think of and marvel at, the multitudinous variety in the heavens and on earth: “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours” (surah 30.22).

Islamic anthropology cannot be a passive or neutral science. It must attempt solutions to the major social problems facing humanity in the late twentieth century: drug abuse, alcoholism, AIDS, famine. The Islamic use of the word jihad, striving to better the world-incorrectly understood in the Western media as religious war-is apt in this context.

Islam not only encourages commitment, it demands it; it not only strives for moral consensus, it insists on emotional loyalty as well. Islamic ideology has much to say about an entire range of social issues, behavior, and organization. Islam has an intrinsic social side; how a Muslim moves from birth to death, through the rites of passage, how a Muslim eats, walks and talks are all suggested in text and tradition. Muslim sociology for Islam is clearly the manifestation of its theology. Al-Faruqi had warned anthropologists:

Anthropology, like all disciplined pursuit of knowledge, must pull itself out of this narrow vision to which it has been confined by the necessities of European history. It should humanize and universalize itself, and stop looking at the people of the world as if they were specimens in a zoo, each specimen carrying its own habits or “culture” as an autonomous end in itself, or as instruments for Western dominion, or as a vacuum to be filled by Western religion, culture and civilization. It should learn anew the simple but primordial truths of all knowledge that are equally the first truths of Islam, namely, that truth is one, just as God is one and as humankind is one. (Ibid., pp. 8-9)

The intent of Islamic anthropology is not to belittle Western anthropology and its achievements or to annul its past; it seeks to create an additional body of knowledge based on scientific and unbiased information, adding to our understanding. People all over the world today are irreversibly bound together through the power of high technology: computers, videocassettes, and satellite television. In this complex world of ours anthropology can assist, in its own low-key but meaningful way, our understanding of each other and the major contemporary problems we face. This task is the relevance of anthropology in today’s world, its special destiny.

However, to validate the assertion that Islamic anthropology is a universal science, Muslim anthropologists first must examine Muslim society from an Islamic perspective and avoid the danger of its idealization, of discussing it as it should be rather than as it is, of whitewashing, of not seeing reality, thereby falling short of accurate analysis. The next challenge is to examine nonMuslim societies. What does Islam have to say about them and what remedies are available to them through the application of Islamic anthropology? Have Muslims themselves solved these problems? These studies must be penetrating and original, for their quality and relevance will determine the importance of Islamic anthropology for non-Muslims.

Future Tasks. Despite the awareness created by the islamization of knowledge exercise, that is, that there are other legitimate ways of examining and confronting knowledge than Western ones, its meaningfulness and permanence will require much work. The label of Islam is no guarantee of islamizing a discipline. There is a danger of reductionism, of rejecting ideas associated with the West as unworthy and unimportant. Indeed, the simplistic understanding of Western economics as amoral and heartless is a dated one. Most economists today are sensitive to humanist welfare and social security considerations in their work.

Perhaps the most serious shortcoming of the quest to islamize the discipline is the failure to establish and develop a wide body of scholarship. There has been excessive reliance on one central intellectual figure at the expense of the development of a school or university; after the death of al-Faruqi, the vigor of the quest declined. Further, the cause of Muslim scholarship has not been assisted by Muslim governments which aid Islamic centers and colleges and then attempt to use them crudely as political platforms for the projection of their rulers or policies. Too often have the noisy politics of Muslim governments been evident in Muslim educational centers, making the independent work of scholars difficult and preventing the growth of a genuine academic environment. Besides, the power of Western scholarship, the lure of Western universities, and the influence of the Western media remain as strong as ever (Ahmed, 1992). The quality of Muslim scholarship and the sophistication of its analysis rather than the zeal of its passion and politics will decide the eventual success and influence of the project of the islamization of knowledge. Until then, it will remain a strong if amorphous idea, challenging both Muslim and non-Muslim scholarship and knowledge.

[See also the biography of Faruqi]


Abu Sulayman, ‘Abdul Hamid, ed. Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan. 2d ed., revised and expanded. Herndon, Va., 1989.

Ahmad, Khurshid, ed. Studies in Islamic Economics. Jeddah and Leicester, 1981.

Ahmed, Akbar S. Toward Islamic Anthropology: Definition, Dogma, and Directions. Foreword by Ismd’il R. al-Faruqi, Lahore, 1987. Ahmed, Akbar S. Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. London, 1988.

Ahmed, Akbar S. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. London, 1992.

‘Ali, `Abdallah Yusuf, trans. The Holy Qur’ dn: Text, Translation, and Commentary. New rev. ed. Brentwood, Md., 1989.

Ashraf, Syed Ali. New Horizons in Muslim Education. Cambridge and London,1985.

Ashraf, Syed Ali, and Syed S. Husain. Crisis in Muslim Education. London,1979.

Ba-Yunus, Ilyas, and Farid Ahmad. Islamic Sociology: An Introduction. Cambridge, 1985.

Siddiqi, Muhammad N. Issues in Islamic Banking: Selected Papers. Leicester, 1983.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/education/

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