Reforms in Islamic Education: International Perspectives

  • Book Title:
 Reforms In Islamic Education
  • Book Author:
Charlene TanYasir Suleiman
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  • Notes on Contributors vii
  • A cknowledgements x ii
  • Introduction Charlene Tan 1
  • Part 1 Historical Perspectives of Islamic Education 1 5
  • 1 Islamic Educational Reform in Nineteenth-Century Egypt:
  • Lessons for the Present I ndira Falk Gesink 1 7
  • 2 Monarchical Autonomy and Societal Transformation:
  • Twentieth-Century Reforms to Islamic Education in
  • Morocco A nn Wainscott 3 5
  • Part 2 Aims and Models of Islamic Education 5 7
  • 3 Reforms in Islamic Education: A Global Perspective
  • Seen from the Indonesian Case Azyumardi Azra 5 9
  • 4 Madrasa Education Reform in Afghanistan, 2002–13:
  • A Critique Y ahia Baiza 7 7
  • 5 Reforms in Pakistani Madrasas:
  • Voices from Within M isbahur Rehman 9 7
  • 6 Breaking the Headscarf Ban in Secular Turkey:
  • An Alternative Educational Establishment in
  • Istanbul Nagihan Haliloğlu 1 17
  • 7 Santichon Islamic School: A Model for Islamic
  • Private Schools in Th ailand S rawut Aree 1 35
  • Part 3 Curriculum and Pedagogy of Islamic Education 1 55
  • 8 Reforming Madrasa Curriculum in an Era of Globalization:
  • Th e Singapore Case C harlene Tan and Hairon Salleh 1 57
  • 9 Transformative Islamic Education through a
  • Transformative Pedagogy in Malaysia Rosnani Hashim 177
  • vi Contents
  • 10 Citizenship Education: A Study of Muslim Students in
  • Ten Islamic and State Secondary Schools in Britain
  • Christopher Bagley and Nader Al-Refai 1 95
  • 11 Singing and Music: A Multifaceted and Controversial
  • Aspect of Islamic Religious Education in Sweden Jenny Berglund 211
  • 12 Children’s Literature: Eff ective Means of Islamic
  • Education in Iran Maryam Serajiantehrani 231
  • Index 245


Muslims have always placed a high premium on education. Islamic education through the teaching and learning of the Qur’an can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad’s time. Subsequently, informal religious instruction took place in sites such as mosques, palaces and homes of learned people, culminating in organized schools and universities in the eleventh century.

Education conceived of in Islamic terms seeks to provide a sense of spirituality derived from one’s own Islamic traditions, while at the same time empowering students to reflect, inquire and collaborate with others (Anderson, Tan & Suleiman, 2011). Islamic educational institutions have evolved, adapted and transformed themselves in response to changing needs, circumstances and times. The result today is a tapestry of Islamic educational institutions across regions, each with its own origin, trajectory and stories of aspirations, success and struggles (for useful readings on the history and characteristics of Islamic education, see Bah, 1998; Janin, 2005; Makdisi, 1981; and Shalaby, 1979).

Islam and Islamic traditions

The rich diversity within Islamic education should not surprise us, considering that Islam is not just a religious system but also a cultural system. The two senses are, of course, not mutually exclusive although they emphasize different aspects of the faith.

The former underscores Islam as fundamentally comprising shared foundational doctrines held by Muslims; the very word ‘Islam’ comes from the Arabic word al-Islam that means ‘surrender’ as well as the peace that issues from one’s surrender to God (Nasr, 2002). Islam as a cultural system, on the other hand, stresses the practical applications of Islam through different kinds of social groupings such as tariqah (ways of life) and ahl (people, relations) (Alatas, 2005).

 Islam encompasses complex networks of cognitive and behavioural dispositions that are political, religious, moral, epistemological and aesthetic in nature (Hanan, 2005). It is ‘always in flux, and is therefore placed in a historical and social context’ (Tibi, 2009, p. 7).

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The ‘historical and social context’ of Islam, as highlighted by Tibi, naturally gives rise to multiple Islamic traditions. Not to be confused with the sunnah (normative practice of the Prophet Muhammad) or hadith (report on the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), an Islamic tradition is a social process of constructing and transmitting shared meanings for a community of Muslims in a locality (Tan, 2011).

 As a tradition, Islam ‘consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history’ (Asad, 1986, p. 14; also see Zaman, 2002).

 The discourses are (re)constructed through the dynamic interactions between the text (sacred writings) and context (formal, non-formal and informal education). That ‘tradition’ and ‘transmission’ are etymologically related is highlighted by Nasr (1989) who points out that the word ‘tradition’ implies the oral and written transference of knowledge, practices, techniques, laws and other related forms.

There are three key characteristics of an Islamic tradition. First, an Islamic tradition is composed of not just religious beliefs but also political, social and cultural values, beliefs, logics, assumptions and practices that are crucial for the identity formation of its members. An adherence to a tradition entails that members share a common set of core beliefs that both define and is defined by that tradition.

 The core beliefs include concepts such as ‘knowledge’, ‘modernization’, ‘rationality, ‘critical thinking’, ‘evidence’ and ‘autonomy’ that are understood and acquired within the context of a specific tradition. It follows that there is no unitary Islamic tradition, but a plurality of Islamic traditions among Muslims.

Secondly, while a community with an effective programme of enculturation is likely to nurture members who are bonded by a set of common beliefs, not every member of an Islamic tradition holds the same beliefs, or holds them to the same degree of commitment. Such variations among members are due to the disparate ways in which they subscribe to their control beliefs (Tan, 2011; Wolterstorff, 1984). A control belief, as the name implies, controls what goes into our belief system and how we look at everything – ourselves, others and the world.

Control beliefs inform and are informed by a person’s thought process, logic, observation and experience, thereby forming the basis of one’s worldview through which one perceives, interprets and constructs the world and its meanings. As psychologically strong beliefs, control beliefs are cherished as integral to a person’s life and personal identity; they are embraced without question and most resistant to change. The dominance of control beliefs, however, does not mean that they are unchanging and unchangeable. Although difficult to achieve, such beliefs may be challenged, modified and even rejected when confronted with other beliefs, especially those antagonistic to one’s tradition.

Adherence to an Islamic tradition entails that members of a Muslim community hold on to the same set of control beliefs that belongs to their tradition, albeit to different degrees, due to contingent factors such as one’s family profile and upbringing, educational background and a myriad of life experiences.

Thirdly, an Islamic tradition is not static and unchanging. Rather, it is constituted and reconstituted through the ongoing interaction between the present and the past.

Asad (1986) avers that the discourses in a tradition ‘relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions)’ (p. 14, italics in the original).

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 A tradition is also constantly defined and redefined through external exchanges and conflicts; these changes are initiated by critics and enemies outside the tradition, and/or arise from internal conflicts among fellow believers.

Through the influence of the past and present as well as external and internal conflicts, the control beliefs belonging to the tradition are strengthened, weakened, added or replaced, thereby challenging and modifying the fundamental agreements of the tradition through time.

Reform in Islamic education, globalization and social imaginaries

Contributing towards the evolving nature of Islamic traditions is reform in Islamic education. The concept of reform is not new in Islam. The word ‘reform’ is implied in the terms tajdid and islah that are found in the Qur’an, hadiths and contemporary Islamic literature.

As explained by Ramadan (2009):The verb root of this noun [tajdid] can be found in a famous hadith of the Prophet: ‘God will send this [Muslim] community, every hundred years, someone/some people who will renew [yujaddidu] its religion.’ . . .

This is also the meaning of the concept of ‘islah’ that appears several times in the Qur’an and in some Prophetic tradition (ahadith); it conveys the idea of improving, purifying, reconciling, repairing, and reforming. This is the meaning the prophet Shu’ayb conveys to his people when he says in the Qur’an: ‘I do not desire, in opposition to you, to do that which I forbid you to do. I desire nothing but reform [betterment, purification] (al-Islah) as far as I am able.’ . . .

 It can be understood, then, that the two notions of tajdid and islah convey the same idea of reform and are at the same time complementary since the former primarily (but not exclusively) refers to the relationship to texts, while the latter mainly has to do with reforming the human, spiritual, social, or political context. (pp. 12–13, italics in the original)

Muslims have been reviewing, improving and renewing Islamic education for many centuries. Their reforms of religious educational systems and institutions are underpinned by two distinctive ideas: that the acquisition of knowledge is both a lifelong pursuit and a religious duty for Muslims, and that there must be a correlation between knowledge and action for the welfare of the Muslim community and humanity in general (Anderson et al., 2011).

Although reform in Islamic education is not a new phenomenon, it reached a turning point during the second half of the nineteenth century amidst European colonization and the concomitant decline of Muslim societies. The Ottomans, by signing the Treaty of Carlowitz (1699) that ended sixteen years of hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League (Austria, Poland, Venice and Russia), admitted defeat to Western powers and quickened the pace of Western colonialism over many Muslim countries (Janin, 2005; also see Hodgson, 1993 and Ruthven, 2006). Whether in India (under the British), Indonesia and in the Malaysian archipelago (under the Dutch), the Caucasus and Turkestan (under the Russians), or the Maghreb (France), most Muslim countries subsequently came under direct or indirect colonial rule.

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Not only did colonialism challenge the status of Islam in Muslim countries, it also imposed on these countries two major changes that had far-reaching repercussions. The first was the introduction of secular laws that were supported by foreign state apparatuses, modes of administration, law and social institutions.

Arguing that one of the most damaging aspects of European colonialism was the deliberated deterioration of indigenous cultural norms, Cook (1999) maintains that secularism, ‘with its veneration of human reason over divine revelation and precepts of the separation of mosque and state, is anathema to the Islamic doctrine of tawhid (oneness), where all aspects of life whether spiritual or temporal are consolidated into a harmonious whole’ (p. 340).

The second major and related change was the introduction of ‘modern’ Western-type education. Such an education was marked by the promotion of the language of the colonial powers (such as English, French or Dutch), limited enrolment of a select number of locals at European schools, and dual nature of the colonial school system.

In concert with the promotion of secularism, secular education was introduced where it aimed principally at the development of the rational life of every individual, premised on a form of reality that is restricted to sensual experience, scientific procedure or processes of logic (Halstead, 1995). The impact of colonialism was that Islamic education was sidelined, relegated to private education and left to the management of Muslim organizations and individuals.

In response to the onslaught of colonialism and marginalization of Islamic education, Muslims reacted in various ways. Broadly speaking, the Muslims tended towards either being ‘traditionalist’ or ‘reformist’, with variations in between, depending on their views (control beliefs) on the place of academic subjects vis-à-vis religious subjects in the Islamic education curriculum (Sikand, 2005; Tan, 2009).

The ‘traditionalists’ either resisted any attempt to introduce ‘modern’ academic subjects in the Islamic schools, or allowed limited learning of these subjects with priority given to religious subjects.

Some traditionalists argued that knowledge of elementary English, basic mathematical problems and basic social sciences were helpful for the madrasa students to function in the modern world but such learning should neither threaten nor dilute the religious character of the madrasas (Sikand, 2005).

On the other hand, ‘reformists’ believed that madrasas should be ‘modernized’ through the learning of academic subjects within an Islamic framework so that the graduates, whether as future religious leaders or professionals holding secular jobs, could be empowered with the wherewithal to provide answers to modern questions and challenges in a globalized world.

 Various reforms were proposed and implemented by prominent reformers such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Shah Waliyullah in India, and Mahmud Yunus and Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin in the Malay Archipelago.

The impact of secularism continued after colonialism where Muslim leaders of the newly independent countries – themselves beneficiaries of secular and modern education – sought to reform and modernize their countries along the lines of Western development paradigms (Cook, 1999).

Such an attempt naturally led to uneven developments and different degrees of success across Muslim countries. Take the examples of Iran and Turkey: while both countries attempted to secularize their states and education systems, the progress in Iran was cut

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