Knowledge and Education in Classical Islam: Religious Learning Between Continuity and Change
KNOWLEDGE AND EDUCATION IN CLASSICAL ISLAM – Book Sample
Islamic Education, Its Culture, Content and Methods: An Introduction
These observations, by Seyyid Hossein Nasr, professor emeritus of Islamic studies at GeorgeWashington University and a highly respected specialist of Islamic philosophy,1 seem to express, in a nutshell, the crucial significance “knowledge and education” have held throughout Islam’s history, and continue to increas-ingly hold today.
One reason for this state of affairs resides in the fact that a lifelong pursuit of learning is a fundamental ideal of Islamic piety; indeed, it underlies the concept of Islamic education. The other relates to the circum-stance that, while the primary focus of this concept is the nurturing of religious belief and godly behavior in the individual, its scope is broadened to incorpo-rate various so-called secular disciplines, both literary and scientific, since it aims to develop fully integrated personalities that are grounded in the virtues of Islam within the community.
This religiously motivated and, to a large degree, ethically framed approach relates to both the theory and practice of primary and higher education in Islam. It is evident not only in the Quran and the litera-ture of prophetic traditions (ḥadīth), but also in countless proverbs, aphorisms, and wisdom sayings, as well as in the poetry and prose texts of Middle East-ern literatures including, in particular, the numerous medieval Arabic works devoted to pedagogical and didactic issues.
Notably, the complex interrelation of “education and religion” in Islam is not a matter of concern that is confined to discourses in Muslim-majority coun-tries or “the East,” to use this somewhat stereotypical expression. In view of the challenges contemporary democracies are facing due to the effects of global ization and migration, questions relating to Islamic education have also come to be major topics of scholarly and public debate in “the West.”
Indeed, in a number of European and North American countries, the content, objectives, and mechanisms of Islamic learning are major topics in current discussions at both the public and political levels. In Germany, for example, the controversial and sometimes emotionally charged discussions on establishing faith-based instruction on Islam in German public schools, or the decision of the govern-ment to launch faith-based programs in Islamic theology at several German universities, are revealing in relation to this thematic context.
However, these developments are by no means the only examples of the types of questions with which we currently have to deal within the European and North Ameri-can educational systems.
Given these premises, it is somewhat puzzling that—on the one hand, in spite of a visibly growing societal interest in Islamic concepts of knowledge and education in the West and, on the other, the growing amount of exciting, new, and original research conducted in Arabic and Islamic studies in this regard (we will review some of it below)—the classical foundations of Islamic learning have so far not been studied as systematically as, for example, have been their Jewish and Christian counterparts.
This fact is also noteworthy because a significant number of classical Muslim thinkers anticipated in their works ideas about education that could justifiably be called “humanistic” in our con-temporary context.
Therefore, taking a firm step toward changing this situation and coming to a fuller and more academically sound assessment of classical Muslim concepts of teaching and learning are major objects of the present publication. More specially, this means the contributions in these collective volumes aim to undertake:
This strategic outline perhaps warrants a few remarks on two key words in the present publication’s title.
Knowledge, Education and Related Terms
“Education,” in the general sense of the word, denotes the act, process, and result of imparting and acquiring knowledge, values, and skills. The expression applies to early childhood instruction as well as basic and higher learning, and thus aims to provide individuals or groups of people with the intellectual, phys-ical, moral, and spiritual qualities that help them to grow, develop, mature, and become productive members within their community and society. The term “education” is also applicable in areas that denote more purely spiritual or reli-gious dimensions.
In pre-modern Islam (until ca. 1800),2 the concept of education was ex-pressed through a variety of Arabic (and Persian) terms, and most of them appear to have been used in that sense as early as in the Quran (and, in some instances, in pre-Islamic poetry). The most important are taʿlīm and taʿallum (“teaching” and “learning”), tadrīs (“[more advanced] instruction”), and taʾdīb (“tutoring,” “educating”), which leads to adab (“cultural and intellectual refinement through education”).
In the contemporary Arab world, tarbiya (from rabbā, “to make grow, rear, teach, nurture”) is the word most commonly used to denote “education.”3
The content, objectives, and details of classical Islamic learning are the sub-ject of numerous proverbs, aphorisms, and wise sayings that are found in the different forms of literature produced in Islamic lands from the second/eighth to the ninth/fifteenth centuries. Scholarly discussions on learning and teach-ing are most often found in Arabic and Persian writings on philosophy and theology, but also in many historical, literary, and mystical texts.
Furthermore, a central characteristic of these medieval Muslim deliberations on teaching and learning is that they are often clearly, even if not explicitly, derived from principles stated in the Quran and prophetic traditions. At the same time, however, classical Islamic educational thought was also deeply influenced by
the paradigms of the ancient Greek paideia (“rearing,” “education”), which was creatively adapted and further developed by Muslim scholars, especially dur-ing the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries, despite the almost exclusively philosophical nature of educational thought in classical antiquity.
The other term featuring prominently in the title of this publication is “knowledge.” The Arabic word that is often translated into English as knowl-edge, or science, is ʿilm. Throughout the history of Islam, this term has acquired a spectrum of connotations and meanings, depending on the epistemological context in which it occurs. Thus, ʿilm came to express both sacred and secular concepts, and it may also express factual or emotional content. Contextualized within a chronological framework, ʿilm essentially conveys three ideas:
1. the informal acquisition of physical data in order to attain certainty in understanding the world and insight into “a higher and truer form of real-ity”4—an idea already expressed in the Arabic term before the rise of Islam;
2. divine knowledge, in the sense of truth and the unity or interconnected-ness of all that can be known—a concept advanced in the Quran and fur-ther developed in the prophetic traditions, thus providing sacred ground for the notion of a comprehensive, lifelong quest for learning and human growth; and
3. an individual branch of knowledge or a scholarly discipline, from which the plural form of the word ʿulūm (“sciences” or “the sum of all knowl-edge”) derives.5
Therefore, in Islam the expressions ʿilm and ʿulūm came to designate (a) the religious disciplines concerned with the preservation and study of the divine revelation and the development of religio-political regulations for the Muslim community, and also (b) the sciences concerned with the study of the world in general, including natural phenomena, as well as related philosophical prob-lems. While the former disciplines were based on the Quran and the literature of prophetic traditions (and were thus called al-ʿulūm al-Islāmiyya, “Islamic sciences,” or al-ʿulūm al-naqliyya, “transmitted sciences”), the latter acceler-ated through the Muslim creative adaptation and incorporation of the ancient Greek, Persian, and Indian intellectual heritage into Islamic culture and civi-lization (and were thus called ʿulūm al-qudamāʾ, “sciences of the ancients,” or “foreign sciences”; or al-ʿulūm al-ʿaqliyya, “rational sciences”), including reason-based philosophy and the natural sciences in particular.
While ʿilm seems to denote “the highest quality of [knowledge] because it is that which [the classical Arabic lexicographers] allow to be an attribute of God,”6 there are a number of synonyms for this term, each expressing a specific connotation or nuance in meaning. Most notably, there are maʿrifa (“knowledge [acquired through reflection or experience],” cognizance; also gnosis), ʿirfān (“knowledge,” “cognition,” often used in the Irano-Shiʿi context as gnosis), fiqh (“understanding,” “intelligence”; also jurisprudence), ḥikma (“wisdom”; also philosophy) and shuʿūr (“realization or cognition,” resulting in knowledge; with shiʿr meaning poetry).
Furthermore, relevant within the context of the Quran are the derivatives of the verbs yaqina (“to be sure,” “to know something with certainty,” including the theologically charged yaqīn, “certainty”), ẓanna (“to think” or “to assume”), and, as some exegetes suggest in order to explain Q 13:31, yaʾisa (“to know,” although it usually means “to give up hope”).7
It is worth recalling Johann Fück’s (d. 1974) short but particularly insightful article Das Problem des Wissens im Qurʾān (posthumously published in 1999). Here, he notes that in the Quran knowledge is portrayed as closely connected with and, in fact, derived from divine revelation. Consequently, knowledge and faith, objective cognition and inner conviction, came to be viewed by Muslim theologians as two sides of one and the same coin—an understanding that clearly differs from, for instance, the respective views of Christian theologians. Fück then also states,8
[The Prophet of Islam] had great respect for knowledge, and to this day a certain intellectual disposition has remained a characteristic feature of the religion he founded. Islam knows no peace, which surpasses all understanding,9 and no beatitude for the poor in spirit.10 This religion does not ask of those who wish to enter paradise that they become like….
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