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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Islam and Education

Islam and Education

The Early Days of Islam
One of the most important legacies for which Islamic civilization is most often remembered is its preoccupation with scholarship at a time when others were concerned with ignorance and material acquisition. This primarily derives from the instruction of God right from the beginning of the Message. In the first revelation to His Prophet, Muhammad (PBUH), God asked him to read:

“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth, Createth man from clot. Read: And thy Lord is Most Bounteous, Who teaches by the pen, Teaches man that which he knew not.” (96: 1-5).

Several lessons could be adduced from the above verse. First, it generally illustrates the importance of Knowledge in Islamic culture. From its position in the chronological order of revelation we can safely conclude that Islam places knowledge precedes worship. This is confirmed by the Tradition in which God was reported saying, “Know Me before you worship Me. If you do not know Me how do you worship Me?”
Two, the last verse clearly proves the divine origin of knowledge. This fact makes knowledge sacred and something that should be respected by the society and especially the learned. The two points mentioned above – the precedence of knowledge and its sanctity – are elucidated in another Tradition where the Prophet was reported saying, “what I fear most on my nation is the evil learned and the ignorant worshipper.”
Three, two words are of added weight: “read” and “pen.” God knew that the Prophet whom he was instructing to read was unlettered. He knew also that the immediate community to which he was sent was unlettered too. Arabs barely knew the art of reading and writing those days. Nevertheless, the instruction to read along with the mention of the pen were prophecies on how scholarship will come to occupy a central position in Islamic civilization and a signal to the universal jurisdiction of that civilization. As a follow up to this, the next revelation after this opened also with a mention of the pen. In it God said: “Nun. By the pen and that which they write..” (68:1-2)
Four, by instructing man to read and ascribing teaching to Himself, God was attesting to the holiness of knowledge and its lofty divine station. It also proves that learning is an act of worship.
God has witnessed His Prophet carry out this command faithfully, in fact to a fault. He was keen to preserve in memory revelations with such zeal that God had to advise in two places in the Quran the duty of preservation was His. On his part, the Prophet was required only to follow the recital and pray that God increase him in knowledge. On this God said: “Stir not thy tongue herewith to hasten it.

Lo! upon Us (resteth) the putting together thereof and the reading thereof. And when We read it, follow thou the reading; then lo! upon Us (resteth) the explanation thereof.” (75:16-19). In another place He said: Then exalted be God, the True King! And hasten not (O Muhammad) with the Quran before its revelation hath been perfected unto thee, and say: My Lord! Increase me in Knowledge.” (20:114).

The Prophet’s prayer was answered. The Quran together with his Traditions served as a spring that continued to quench the thirst of humanity for knowledge and guidance for over fourteen consecutive centuries now. None of their assertions has ever been questioned either on the basis of reason or by empirical evidence, despite the astonishing achievements of humanity in scholarship since then.
When the Prophet was alive, he did not hesitate to show his preference to knowledge over other activities. One day he came across two groups of his companions, one supplicating God and the other engaged in learning. He chose to remain with the latter saying, “I am not raised but a teacher.” In another instance, he had the opportunity to demand for ransom on his enemies whom he captured on the battlefield. He rejected that option even though the Muslim community then was in dire need of funds. He opted that the ransom on each literate captive was to teach ten Muslims the art of reading and writing.
God Himself gave Muslims a respite to engage in learning no matter how crucial the time could be. At the peak of the expedition of Tabuk, when the Muslims set out prepared to meet the Roman army for the first time, they mobilized all their resources, human and material. When they returned, God admonished them thus:

“And the believers should not all go out to fight. Of every troop of them, a party only should go forth, that they (who are left behind) may gain sound knowledge in religion, and that they may warn their folk when they return to them, so that they may beware.” (9:122).

Finally, to immortalize the position of knowledge, the Prophet declared that, “seeking knowledge is compulsory upon every Muslim male and female.” In another Tradition he has instructed his followers saying, “seek for knowledge even if it be in China.” Learning therefore should preoccupy us no matter the sacrifice it demands. We should not engage in anything without understanding it. God said: “(O man), follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge..” (17:36).

Islamic Civilization
With this solid foundation in scholarship, the Companions of the Prophet dispersed after his death to various lands preaching and practicing the virtue of righteousness that was based principally on knowledge before any other thing. Reputable scholars in various fields and from various nationalities emerged. The light of civilization once more illuminated the globe so much so that the name of Islam became synonymous with scholarship. This was not an adventure restricted to Arabs. In the succeeding centuries non-Arabs came to play the most prominent roles.
The foremost compiler of the Traditions of the Prophet, Bukhari, for example was a Caucasian from Bukhara. Himself and many other scholars in the early centuries of Islam were able give scholarship its relevance and protect its sanctity. He one time traveled to a distant land to receive a single tradition of the Prophet from somebody. After months of toil, he reached the person and found him trying to trick his camel by swinging an empty vessel. Bukhari interpreted this as an act of deceit and immediately decided that the man was not trustworthy enough to qualify as a reliable source from which a tradition of the Prophet would be received.
The reader should not be under the impression that this effort was restricted to Islamic literature alone. Wherever Islam reached, it nurtures the atmosphere that was conducive to scholarship. From the East it introduced to the Middle East and to the rest of he world the ancient technological and scientific developments of China, India, Mongolia and so on. But its impact on the kingdoms it built on the coasts of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Anatolia, North Africa and Western Sudan were the most fascinating. For example scholars like Ibn Rushd successfully unearthed the then almost extinct Greek philosophy of Aristotle and others, translated it, improved on it and made it available to Europe. Scholars like Ibn Sina also improved upon the ancient medical practices of the Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks. Mathematics got a boost under scholars like al-Jabir, the founder of Algebra. Literature was at home in Arab world since the period of Jahiliyya especially as regards poetry. Our present social sciences had their foundation built by people like Ibn Khaldun, the author of the famous Prolegomena (al-Muqaddimah).
Though the world often remembers and laments the lost of Muslim Spain (al-Andalus) and other civilizations that Islam built in Europe and Asia Minor, it is becoming clear that its impact as far as scholarship is concerned in Western Sudan, particularly West Africa, was by no means smaller. The ancient Empires of Mali, Songhai and Borno and Sokoto Caliphates were centers of learning with heritage in scholarship that will take a century or more to exhaust. The early efforts of scholars and travelers like al-Batuta and al-Maghili have introduced such achievements to the rest of the World. However, the widely held opinion today in the Arab World is that the scholastic heritage of Western Sudan was by far greater than of al-Andalus. Our ancestors might not have created gardens and castles similar to those of Seville or Cordoba. However, the ancient universities of Gao, Timbuktu and Jenne could hardly be matched by their contemporaries. Though we have an appreciable knowledge of the Sokoto Caliphate, what we up till now know about Borno, sad to mention, is only a scratch. We await its full exploration with keen interest.
In the old Hausa city-states and in the Sokoto Caliphate especially, knowledge was given its due position in line with the Islamic tradition that we elaborated on earlier. It is interesting to note how its dissemination cut across the differences of gender, ethnicity or class. Students of Shehu Usmanu Danfodio came from various parts of Hausaland and from different ethnic backgrounds. Women were at the center of that scholarship. They were engaged right there inside the house of the Shehu. So strong was that scholastic culture that despite its deliberate subordination by colonial efforts, it still maintains a resonance in our ancient cities. The result was that they were able to meet all the scholastic demands of their spiritual life as well as their elaborate bureaucracy in such a way that would capture the admiration of Europeans a century later.

Today and Tomorrow
Pride should not be derived from the achievements of ancestors but from what we have achieved ourselves. It is sad to note how we treated this legacy with reckless abandon in the past one hundred years. This trend is not peculiar to us. The whole Muslim world today is lagging very far behind its Judeo-Christian counterparts. What brought this is how the political atmosphere that was once conducive for the flourishing of scholarship was vandalized as the entire society sunk into the trap of political indecency and material accumulation. Knowledge was forcibly denied its relevance over a long period of time.
Here in Western Sudan, the seat of learning that once attracted renowned scholars and historians from other parts of the world, we are yet to find our bearings after the great shock of colonization. That historical event has totally brought in a culture of politics and materialism that is outside the scope of our heritage. In an effort to come into terms with its dynamics, the leadership has failed woefully to live to the moral standards of the past. It therefore got cutoff from the past, thus breaking the chain of continuity that has lasted for at least a millennium.
Today, knowledge is regarded as immaterial by both the leadership and the ordinary. Scholars are relegated to the background. The stocks in trade are cheat deceit and sycophancy. As a result the leadership has become pre-occupied with the mundane, abdicating its responsibility to citizens. Poverty and desperation over tomorrow has thus taken over the affairs of people.
We could have moved ahead of others if we have jealously guarded our scholastic heritage while at the same time aggressively pursuing the sciences that reached us from the West. We could have gained the privilege of being the confluence where the freshwater of the rivers coexists with the salty water of the sea without either losing its identity. But this will remain a dream until the political class that control our resources is transformed from its present parasitic habitation to one characterized by values of dedication and selflessness. Knowledge then will take its right position in the society beyond its present representation by certificates that certify nothing beyond ignorance.
Our performance in this century has left us in a position of mockery that we surely deserve. This is unbecoming of a people whose religion is founded on knowledge and regard learning as sacred and an act of worship; whose civilization is synonymous with scholarship and is throughout the ages characterized by erudition.
Let us resolve today that both our poor and our rich will contribute to the restoration of the culture of learning. Our present reliance on government will not be an excuse for our collective failure in this world and particularly when we are interrogated for it in the Hereafter. Let whoever knows how to read and write resolve to teach ten children from his family relations or neighbors. Whoever has a dime should invest it in the education of his children; if he has more he should be large-hearted to cater for his community; if he still has plenty, please let him be wise and kind enough to establish a school somewhere for the benefit of all. We have the capacity to open thousands such private schools where religion and secular subjects will go hand in hand. Any rich person that does not meet this challenge has lost the greatest source of happiness and pride his wealth could afford.
Through this, our children will live in a world full of pride, industry and virtue. We have the assurance of God’s assistance. Ours is to read. He will do the teaching as shown in the following verse, which marked the beginning of revelation and with whose commentary we opened this very short discourse about Islam and education:

“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth, Createth man from clot. Read: And thy Lord is Most Bounteous, Who teaches by the pen, Teaches man that which he knew not.” (96: 1-5).

May God bless us with the resolve and ability to match our words with prompt action!

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