Posted by on Jul 26, 2015 in Blog, Reflections | 0 comments

Note by Samawi
One of the most pressing needs of Muslim communities, East and West, is a coherent, progressive framework of education that avoids the extremes of reactionary traditionalism and astray Westoxification (gharbzadegi in Farsi). The core of Islamic and AhlulBayti (S) teaching is the search for knowledge beyond faith, realized in action; efforts towards an objective framework of pedagogy and education, based on the maʿrifaḧ of Qurʾān and AhlulBayt (S) are essential, even wājib kifāʾī.

Although this writer does not necessarily agree with every detail of our dear Sayyid's analysis, it is a pleasure to have this initial product of his important research presented on Inshāʾa Ãllãh interested readers will provide him valuable feedback in the comments section. We look forward to future installments and iterations of Sayyid Shayan Doroudi's research!

End of Note

Someone on Quora asked "Does Islam, as a religion, hinder modern education among Muslims?You can find my answer to this question here. In this blog post, I address an aspect of that answer that deserves its own independent attention. I discuss what I believe to be a philosophy of education that (a) is deeply rooted in Shiʿi Islamic teachings, and (b) shares a lot in common with the modern-day constructivist philosophy of education. I believe by trying to grasp this philosophy of education and study its roots, we can understand the beautiful outlook of Islam on education, which can in turn inform modern-day theories of education (such as constructivism). I advise you to read at least the first two parts of my answer here first. I begin with a prologue which is (mostly) an excerpt from the second part of the answer mentioned above.

Prologue - A Student and His Master

Jābir ibn Hayyān is a famous scientist who played an important role in the history of chemistry and according to traditional accounts was writing in the eighth century and was a student of Imam Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq (as) (the sixth Shiʿa Imam, and a very important Muslim scholar in virtually all sects of Islam). There is controversy as to whether he lived during that time frame (or a couple centuries later), whether he was a student of the Imam, and whether he was a single person or a group of people writing under one pseudonym. However, notice that according to his own writings, he was not only a student of the Imam (as), but the Imam taught him everything he knew and encouraged him to partake in his scientific pursuits. If this is true, it would mean that the Imam (as) was a strong proponent of science (and potentially very knowledgeable about the sciences himself) and would mean the pursuit of science was an important aspect of the religion. Furthermore, religion, philosophy, and science are very interconnected in Jābir's writings and at times causing discontinuities as he jumps from one topic to another---to the extent that it is hard to parse what he is saying (which consequently makes him a difficult figure for historians to nail down).

But in fact, this principle of interconnectedness and disconnectedness of his writing, referred to as the "dispersion of knowledge", shares a lot of similarity with some Shiʿi teachings and writings, and will serve as a great introduction to the Islamic philosophy of education that is the focus of this post. Here's a quote that embodies this principle of the "dispersion of knowledge":

Know this: when my Master [i.e. Imam Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq (as)], may God be pleased with him, told me to compose these books, he instructed me to arrange them in a certain hierarchical order that I am not at liberty to change. Of course you know what some of his intentions were when he set up the hierarchy of these books, but their ensemble you do not know...Do not be disheartened then, my brother, if you happen to find a speech about religion in the very middle of which there is a speech about alchemy, a speech whose conclusion is not reached; or perhaps a speech about alchemy that is followed by a speech about religion but where the bases of the speech on religion are never set; or even a speech about devotion of some other subject that belongs to these sciences and arts that we treat of in these books of divine character. For all our developments that are offered to you in the course of these books, our Master . . . had intentions that I am not allowed to disclose to you. If I disclosed what they contain, you would be like Jābir ibn Ḥayyan. But from the moment that you were like him, you would no longer have any more need than does he for these things to be disclosed to you. Understand this. [1]

The end of the quote above points out something very important. By presenting material in a "scattered" manner as Jābir describes, he forces the reader to read through his works before being able to synthesize the theories embodied therein---Jābir wants his readers to be scientists, historians, or scholars; not simply a sponge that accepts facts. Unfortunately, much of our modern educational system consists of fact collection: in science class, we very often don't do science, but rather we learn the commonly accepted and tested hypotheses of past scientists in the form of facts. Occasionally we have some labs (or science fairs) where we replicate famous experiments, but that does not make up the bulk of our curriculum, and even then the procedure is very guided and systematic. In history, we don't even have that; we mostly just learn historical "facts". In most mathematics classes, we learn the equations and formulae discovered by others and have to routinely apply them ad nauseam; we don't get much insight into the process of coming up with the formulae. In the US, the one mathematics class where we typically learn about proofs is geometry, but this again only highlights a routine application of rules to do proofs. (Sure, all mathematical proofs at their core are a routine application of rules, but it's the insight, elegance, and process of discovery that goes into many mathematical proofs that is at the core of the mathematics' beauty, a beauty that many students are unfortunately never exposed to.) I think Jābir would be sad to see the state of our "modern" education.

Of course, Jābir essentially claims this principle was instructed to him by Imam Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq (as). If this is the case, it would suggest that this principle and its associated pedagogy has its roots in Shiʿa Islam. Is this the case? I can't definitively answer the question here, but I will argue how this principle in Jābir's writings is at least very reminiscent of a holistic Islamic philosophy of education. (Note: much of what I say in the following discussion will be common to all Muslims, especially when discussing the Qurʾan, but when I specifically refer to the teachings of the Family of the Prophet (ṣ), I'm predominantly talking about Shiʿa Muslims.)

The ʿAql as A Focal Point

At the focal point of this philosophy of education is the ʿaql. This is often translated as the faculty of reason or intellect, but we need to be more careful. According to Dr. Idris Samawi Hamid:

The word ʿaql as used in the Qurʾan and the traditions of the Prophet has no exact equivalent in English. The root verb literally means "to bind together". In English sometimes we say "he's got it together," for someone who has got his sense and wits about him...To have ʿaql is, in some sense, to "have it together." The root verb also means "to restrain or withhold". What ʿaql restrains one from is ignorance, ignorant behavior, or anything unsuitable to one's well-being...

In later Arabic usage ʿaql became equivalent to intellect or reason but this constitutes a major constriction of its usage in the Qurʾan and the traditions. [2]

Hamid goes on to translate the word as consciousness, in the sense of keeping us conscious of what Allah wants and staying on course from that by binding ourselves to the service and adoration of Allah. The term intellect or reason captures the fact that Islam emphasizes following the way of Allah (i.e. Islam) is the logical thing to do; whether consciously or subconsciously, it is our ignorance and foolishness that keeps us from choosing this path. To avoid forgoing subtlety, I won't translate the word ʿaql below.

It is reported that when asked what ʿaql is, Imam Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq (as) answers:

That through which Ar-Rahmān (The Compassionate) is adored and served, and through which the gardens are attained. [2]

It is by our ʿaql that we are accountable for our actions in this life. If we didn't have this form of ʿaql, we would either be like animals and could not be accountable for "sins" or be like angels, whereby we would instinctively obey Allah's command: we would be bound to do so, rather than opting to bind ourselves to Allah's command (with the permission of Allah) because we see it as the right path.

Many, many āyāt (lit. signs, but commonly translated as verses) of the Qurʾan refer to the ʿaql  (often after mentioning the signs of Allah)*. Here are just a few:

And He has subjected for you the night and day and the sun and moon, and the stars are subjected by His command. Indeed in that are signs for a people who use their ʿaql. (16:12)

Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qurʾan that you might use your ʿaql. (12:2)

Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you might use your ʿaql. (2:242)

Do you order righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the Scripture? Then will you not use your ʿaql? (2:44)

Say, [O Muhammad], "Bring forward your witnesses who will testify that Allah has prohibited this." And if they testify, do not testify with them. And do not follow the desires of those who deny Our verses and those who do not believe in the Hereafter, while they equate [others] with their Lord.

Say, "Come, I will recite what your Lord has prohibited to you. [He commands] that you not associate anything with Him, and to parents, good treatment, and do not kill your children out of poverty; We will provide for you and them. And do not approach indecent acts - what is apparent of them and what is concealed. And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right. This has He instructed you that you may use your ʿaql." (6:150-151)

We see in the last pair of verses the conflict between following our desires and following our ʿaql. Indeed that is one of the pinnacle conflicts a Muslim faces.

Before returning to what this has to do with education, let us end this preliminary discussion of ʿaql with a tradition from the Prophet (ṣ):

Don't be overly impressed with someone who does a lot of prayers and fasting until you observe his ʿaql. [2]

So now we might see that what Jābir wanted his readers to do was use their ʿaql (at least in the sense of intellect) to synthesize his arguments (and perhaps new ones for themselves) by combining and binding the various pieces together. Indeed this is emphasized elsewhere in Jābir's writings:

First collect my books and read what is in them. It behooves you, O reader, that you join these books together so that through prolonged study the secret of creation and the art of nature is revealed to you. [3]

Indeed this has its roots in Islamic teachings, and this is the foundation of the educational system that I'm trying to point out. According to Hamid:

The Imams also practiced the art of “dispersion of knowledge”. As opposed to laying out a complete and systematic exposition of philosophical doctrine and methodology, the Imams would mention a metaphysical issue while discussing a legal issue, or discuss a point of doctrine in a lecture, whose deeper implications may only be gathered by meditating upon a particular supplication, whose understanding in turn depends on a verse of the Qurʾan, the understanding of which depends on other verses including a verse which can only be understood in light of that original point of doctrine, and so forth. [4]

According to another scholar (Amir-Moezzi):

Although to our knowledge the expression [dispersion of knowledge] is never used in the early Imamite corpus, the method is widely applied... In fact, the fundamental traits of the Teaching, the cosmogonic details, the initiatory ideas, the esoteric and occult information, the eschatological details, are split up and scattered through chapters that most often have no evident logical connection with them. Thus, in cases similar to what we just saw in Jābir’s text...a speech about prayer leads into an expose on the World of Shadows, comments about the Companions of the Mahdi are inserted in an expose on divine Unicity [etc.] The reason for this is not only the interdependence and interpenetration of ideas, all of which are connected by Imamology, but also the esoteric process by which the doctrine is exposed in the form of a real “puzzle,” which essentially appears to aim at two goals: first, safeguarding the secret of the Sacred Knowledge that by nature must be difficult to access, since it cannot be passed on to those who are not worthy; and second, putting to the test the perseverance of the faithful believer, who is thus invited to reconstitute the whole from its “scattered” parts progressively, through ʿaql [1]

I believe this is a lifelong educational process that a Muslim or Muslimah partakes in by using the ʿaql: to connect various pieces of Islamic knowledge together, refine his or her understanding of Islam, and bind himself or herself to act upon the truth as best as he or she can. Let's briefly look at how the believer might partake in this process of the intellectual discovery of his or her beliefs, by turning to the Qurʾan. I believe the Qurʾan has been greatly misunderstood because people have failed to realize the educational merit of this process.

The Qurʾan: The Light of Islamic Education

The Qurʾan has a very interesting nature that can unfortunately be easily misunderstood. The surahs (chapters) of the Qurʾan seem to vary in style and length. The Qurʾan will often jump from one discussion to another. (Sound familiar?) The stories of prophets are generally not given in one place. Sometimes a few verses of the story of a prophet will be mentioned in one surah, and then the topic will change. Another aspect of that story will be picked up in another surah. This is in stark contrast to, for example, how the stories are presented in the Bible (or in any other book for that matter). Furthermore, Allah (swt) may alternate between third person, first person plural, and first person singular to emphasize various points. Here's an article that gives some explanation behind these grammatical switches: Neal Robinson on Iltifat. In my experience, these context switches and grammatical switches forces the reader to stop and think. The Qurʾan is not meant to be read quickly and be understood completely in one reading; understanding the Qurʾan is meant to be a lifelong process.

Furthermore, we know that the order of revelation of the Qurʾan is very different from the order of compilation. Many of the chapters that were revealed early on in the message of Islam (when the Prophet (ṣ) was in Mecca) were placed at the end of the Qurʾan in written form. These chapters emphasize the core foundations of Islamic belief. The chapters that were revealed later on in Medina often appear earlier in the Qurʾan. These chapters are often much longer and emphasize the laws as they were revealed (in addition to the core beliefs). If the order of compilation was to be different from the order of revelation, couldn't the compilers place all the verses that were relevant to a certain topic together so the Qurʾan seems more cohesive and more linear? Of course, as Muslims, we believe the order of the Qurʾan was determined by Allah (swt), not by the people, and since we believe that Allah (swt) is All-Wise, clearly something else must have been intended. The Qurʾan was purposely both revealed and compiled in particular ways that is unlike any other book. There is wisdom behind this. I cannot claim to be qualified to fully comment on this wisdom, but the following āyāt discuss this wisdom (or at least an aspect of it) beautifully:

And those who disbelieve say, "Why was the Qurʾan not revealed to him all at once?" Thus [it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly.

And they do not come to you with an argument except that We bring you the truth and the best explanation. (25:32-33)

Clearly we see that a Muslim need not always read the Qurʾan cover-to-cover. Indeed, it wasn't revealed "cover-to-cover." It has been emphasized to read the Qurʾan cover-to-cover, but it has also been emphasized to recite the Qurʾan in other ways. Often we just recite a certain Surah of the Qurʾan; in our prayers we can choose nearly any Surah to read after the Opening (al-Fatihah). When we listen to a recitation, the reciter typically chooses a few verses. These could be from anywhere to the Qurʾan. We don't come in with some "prerequisite knowledge" to these verses. We listen, we ponder, we reflect. Well, at least we should. Indeed, in a supplication that it is said Imam Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq (as) would read before reciting the Qurʾan, we find the emphasis on reflection and pondering on what is being read:

O Allah I have opened Your Covenant and Your Book. O Allah, so make my looking at it an act of worship and my reciting it a pondering, and my pondering over it, a way to derive lessons. [O Allah] include me from those who are advised by the narrations of its advices, and who avoid Your disobedience. [O Allah] do not seal my ears when I’m reciting it and do not place a curtain over my sight, Nor make my recitation a recitation lacking ponderingRather make me from among those who ponder over its verses and its rules, Deriving the ways to Your religion, and do not make me heedless when I’m looking at it, nor make my reciting a waste. Surely You are the Most Gentle, the Most Merciful. [5]

Two words here are translated as pondering: tafakkur and tadabbur. According to Idris Samawi Hamid:

Given ʿaql, it must exercised or applied. The fundamental application ofʿaql in Islam is tafakkur (reflective meditation). One literal meaning of tafakkur is the movement of the heart to observe and consider the significance of something. In part it also connotes a certain openness and receptivity to whatever is under observation, free of preconceived notions and dogmas. [2]

Indeed when a non-Muslim comes and criticizes certain hand-selected verses of the Qurʾan (often not from reading the Qurʾan themselves, but from finding these verses online), they are not using tafakkur. When we say they are taking the āyāt out of context, it is not only because they don't read the surrounding verses, not even only because they don't read the entire Qurʾan, but because they don't attempt to situate the verses in the context of the entire Qurʾan and the entire body of teachings of Islam. This is what the believer does. Even if a believer does not understand a certain verse now, in due time, she may come to understand that verse, by reflecting on other verses, having encountered the relevant traditions of the Prophet (ṣ), and having spiritually and intellectually matured over time. She is able to situate the verse in its broader context, and the verse becomes a sign for her, not something to simply be read, but something by which to connect to her creator.

This is a lifelong journey. Islam encourages a lifelong learning experience, where the believer becomes a scholar and scientist, a scholar seeking enlightenment of the soul, an enlightenment that does not only manifest itself in one's mind but also in one's actions. When one uses ʿaql, one follows through with the teachings of highlighted above in 6:151, and realizes how to implement them in one's life. One accomplishes one's duty to Allah and to her fellow servants. In a tradition from Imam ar-Riḍā (as), the grandson of Imam aṣ-Ṣādiq (as), we find that:

[Real] ʿibādah (adoration and service to Allah) is not a lot of [formal] prayer and fasting. Indeed, ʿibādah is really reflective meditation in the affair of Allah. [2]

The idea is that someone who does tafakkur realizes the necessity of following Allah, and in doing so will follow through with the other forms of ʿibādah.

According to Imam ʿAlī (as):

Indeed! There is no good to be found in recitation [of the Qurʾan] without meditation. Indeed! There is no good to be found in any [ritual] ʿibādah that does not contain reflective meditation. [2]

I end this section with a few beautiful āyāt, which captures what I'm trying to get across much better than a person like me can:

And [it is] a Qurʾan which We have separated [by intervals] that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. And We have sent it down progressively.

Say, "Believe in it or do not believe. Indeed, those who were given knowledge before it - when it is recited to them, they fall upon their faces in prostration,

And they say, "Exalted is our Lord! Indeed, the promise of our Lord has been fulfilled."

And they fall upon their faces weeping, and the Qurʾan increases them in humble submission. (17:106-109)

Islamic Philosophy of Education and Constructivism

Finally, I will conclude this post by showing how the form of education described above has much in common with a very modern philosophy of education as espoused by the constructivist school of learning. In a paper that seeks to promote constructivism, Lorrie Shepard asks us to question the preconceived notions of education that many of us have:

But what if learning is not linear and is not acquired by assembling bits of simpler learnings? What if the process of learning is more like a Faulknerian novel where one has glimpses and a vague outline of ideas before each of the concrete elements of a story fit in place? What if learning is more like an image gradually brought into sharper focus as the learner makes connections, not stimulus-response connections but connections and relations among ideas? Or what if learning is like a mosaic with specific bits of knowledge situated within some larger design? But even these metaphors are wrong because they imply that a knowledge structure external to the student is exactly what is reproduced and cemented inside the student's head. [6]

The notion of connections between ideas should be very familiar in light of the Islamic philosophy of education espoused above. The last line of the quote highlights another important aspect: that every student constructs her own world of ideas in her mind. Our experiences, our courses, our discussions with others, our memory, our motivations all contribute to the state of our knowledge and how we learn. Yet many (or perhaps most) educational environments do not facilitate these differences. Constructivism says that each individual constructs a different body of knowledge, and thus we each need our own specialized education to facilitate this.  Khosrow Bagheri Noaparast, who has many papers on Islamic philosophy of education, argues for this. Here he is actually arguing for a Qurʾanic basis for constructive realism, in philosophy of science, but his argument also lends support to a basis for constructivist philosophy of education:

That is to say, according to Qurʾan, as far as ontology is concerned, there are realities in the world including the reality of God, on the one hand. However, epistemologically speaking, achieving these realities involves a constructive development in the human mind. Thus, while knowledge is held in this reading to be toward reality, reality is taken to be achieved through human constructs. [7]

We each construct our own ideas of Islam, and so long as they fall in the framework of what is true as we can know it, then this is okay. Meaning, I cannot say in my understanding of Islam, it's okay not to do the daily prayers. No, that is violating a basic principle of Islam. But it's okay to have my own personal understanding of concepts and how they relate and how they impact my life, so long as they do not violate the teachings of Islam; in fact, it's unavoidable and encouraged in the Islamic educational framework. Islam recognizes our differences, and wants us to mature in a way that suits our intellectual and spiritual capabilities. This is the hallmark of personalized education!

In fact, in Islam an essential aspect of the concept of tawhīd, the belief in the oneness and uniqueness of God, is that we will never reach true knowledge of Allah. We find this in a supplication that is either taught by the grandson of the Prophet (ṣ)---Imam Husayn (as)---or his son Imam Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn (as):

O One who is described yet nothing described nor any limited limit can reach His Being! ... He cannot be perceived by "How?" Cannot be located by "Where" or "What manner?" [2]

We read the Qurʾan and traditions to perfect our understanding of tawhīd and to reach maʿrifat (recognition) of Allah, but at the same time we know we will never understand His essence. That is part of tawhīd itself!

Moreover, in Islam we believe Allah guides us through this educational process, this personal quest. He knows what signs we personally need, and when and how we should encounter them; so if we sincerely seek knowledge from Him, He will guide us in ways unimaginable.

I can go on, but perhaps I have already said too much. This concludes our description of a comprehensive Islamic philosophy of education...for now.

I used Saheeh International for the translation of Qurʾanic verses, however some translations were modified. I also modified some of the translations of narrations and quotes. I will give references to the texts with the translations I used, not the original texts.

[1] The Divine Guide in Early Shiʿism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, trans. by David Streight
[2] Islam, Sign & Creation: The Cosmology of Walayah by Idris Samawi Hamid
[3] Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān and his Kitāb al-Aḥjar (Book of Stones) by Syed Nomanul Haq
[4] The Metaphysics and Cosmology of Process According to Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsʾāī by Idris Samawi Hamid
[5] Duʿa before and after reciting Qurʾan
[6] Psychometricians' Beliefs about Learning by Lorrie Shepard
[7] Constructive Realism: A Reading of Islam and a Version of Religious Science by Khosrow Bagheri Noaparast