This post is a continuation of my two previous posts — “Teaching Fish to Fly“ and “The Third Poison: The Meaning of Development“. These posts discuss briefly some of the topics covered in the first lecture I gave on Islamic Economics at IIIE, IIUI on Friday 15th Feb 2019. We have discussed how an education — both substance and process — are dramatically different between West and Islam, because the purpose of an education is different. Because our minds have been conditioned by a Western education, analysis of how it developed is very helpful in liberating our minds from the chains that it creates which binds our thoughts. This “UNLEARNING“ is required as a first step, before we can learn Islamic concepts like the purpose of life, and the substance and methodology of education required to achieve this purpose.
A previous post describes an important book by Julie Reuben with the self-explanatory title: “The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Tranformation and the Marginalization of Morality“. The book explains how in the early twentieth century, college catalogs stated that the purpose of an education was to build character. However, conflicts between different denominations of Christianity led to the abandonment of religious basis for character-building. Many secular options were tried, but none of them worked, so the whole idea was abandoned. Another important factor which led to this outcome was the philosophy of logical positivism. According to this philosophy, knowledge could only be that of the external world. This excludes our knowledge about justice and morality, since this knowledge comes from the heart and soul. The influence of logical positivism created the idea that morality is NOT part of human knowledge, and hence must be excluded from the college curriculum. It was prophesied that we Muslims will follow the ways of the Christian and the Jews, even to the extent of crawling into snakeholes after them. Exactly in accordance with this, following Western educational systems, we have also excluded the development of morality and character — the heart of an Islamic education – from our educational processes here in the East.
But this is not all. There are even deeper reasons why the Western educational systems were transformed to become what they are today. A primary shaper of modern Western thought is the loss of faith in Christianity among European intellectuals, which occured over the course of sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. To understand modern Western thought, it is essential to understand the historical process of the “European Transition to Secular Thought“. It was the weakening of religion which allowed the “Pursuit of Wealth“ to go from being an evil to becoming desirable in the West. A deeper understanding of this is available from Karl Polanyi’s book on The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times. The industrial revolution created the possibility of massive over-production. To realize this potential, the society had to be transformed in many different ways. People do not naturally pursue wealth, and are not naturally inclined to sell their labor for money. Furthermore, consumption is usually treated as something which is necessary, but is not the purpose of life. All of these attitudes must be changed in order to create a “market society” where massive amounts of over-consumption is not only possible, rather it is desirable and even the goal of life. In a market society, everything must be for sale, and the value of things must be determined by their market price. To change mindsets from their natural mold, “brainwashing” is required. The Market Society created by the industrial revolution needs to brainwash all people into becoming willing participants, by making wealth and luxury the object of life. This is why the fundamental educational process must brainwash intellectuals into accepting certain ideas which are contrary to our natural human inclinations. With this as a necessary preliminary background, we can explain the fundamental difference between Western and Islamic Education.
Western Education as Brainwashing: The fundamental premise of a Western education is that the teacher knows the truth, while the student does not. Education is the process of transferring knowledge from the teacher to the student. The teacher uses all possible methods to ensure that the student comes out believing what the teacher wants him to believe. The teachers beliefs have been produced by the same system, so that they are also in conformity with the beliefs that are necessary for the survival of the capitalist system of production. For example, one of the important teaching of economic theory is that all participants in the market economy are paid according to their marginal productivity — how much they contribute to the system. Thus, if someone is a millionaire, this means that his contribution to society is worth millions of dollars. If someone earns nothing, that means is his contribution to society is zero. While this is easy to disprove (see Lecture AM09: Marginal Productivity: You are worth what you get), those who study economics are brainwashed into believing this theory, which justifies the extremely unequal distribution of wealth under capitalism. Note that the goal of education is to produce a standardized set of beliefs which all students, regardless of their backgrounds and capabilities, must end up having, as the final product of the process of education. If some student fails to be convinced by the marginal productivity theory, then he/she will fail the final examination of the economics course.
Islamic Education as a Meta-Level Process: The central goal of an Islamic education is to teach us to think about ideas – or to think about the thought process itself. Instead of taking an idea and attempting to implant it in the brains of the student, an Islamic education attempts to teach students how to think about ideas – who are the thinkers of this idea, why did they learn to think in this way, what was the historical process that led to the creation of this thought, who are the people who will be affected favorably by this idea, who will be hurt by this idea. All of these are things that we need to do, in order to think about ideas.
This post illustrates the Islamic methodology by example. We look at theory of marginal productivity. The Western tradition would require us to examine the theory and see if it is true or false. If it is true, we must accept it. If it is false, then we should reject it. Instead of doing this, we looked at how this theory functions within a capitalist society, and we see that it justifies inequalities in the distribution of wealth. We examine the historical context in which it arose: in the battle between traditional society and the market society, which results in the Great Transformation in European Thought . The Christian maxim that “love of wealth is the root of all evil” was discarded and replaced by “lack of wealth is the root of all evil”. This change in thought processes is at the heart of the creation of the theory of marginal productivity, which justifies the inequalities of a market society, and thereby ensures its survival and strength. Note the radical differences between this EXTERNAL analysis, which looks at the Marginal Productivity theory from the outside, within its historical and social context, and the standard analysis which you will find in economics textbooks — which teach it as a truth which the student must learn, without any discussion of the deeper meanings of the theory, the context of the theory, and the historical debates and controversies which surround this theory.
The Islamic methodology of education invites us to think about thoughts with a very pluralistic and tolerant attitude. For example, our books contain discussion of various questions related to Islam. The books say that X is the position of Imam Abu Hanifa, whereas the position of Imam Shafi’ee is Y. Arguments in favor of positions X (and separately Y) are as follows, while counter-arguments are as follows. At the end of this discussion, we should be left with a deeper understanding of the issues — we are not required to pass judgment as to which of the two positions is superior. In fact, the best attitude for us is to say that both of these giants were far superior to us in Taqwa and therefore we are not in a position to act as a judge between them. The Islamic attitude of tolerance is unique among the religions of the world. On many occasions, our Prophet SAW endorsed two opposite actions and beliefs as both being true and valid. For a detailed discussion of the correct Islamic attitude regarding conflicts, see the remarkable book of “Shah Waliullah: Ikhtilafi Masail main Aitidal Ki Rah”. In particular Islamic orthodoxy is unique in stating that all four dominant Mazahib are permissible to follow and correct, even though they have substantial conflicts on many issues. Tolerance and pluralism is built into the heart of Islamic teachings. A beautiful history of how the Islamic philosophy created a unique culture of peaceful co-existence among Jews, Christians and Muslims, see Maria Rosa Menocal “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain“.
How we can teach students meta-level thinking is itself an issue of great importance. This is because our students have received training in the Western tradition and have picked up bad habits of thought. They have become used to assessing ideas as being true or false and at taking sides — I am for this idea and against that one. This partisanship makes it very difficult to do meta-level thinking. So one of the key skills that we must teach our students is to lay aside all pre-conceptions. When we enter the classroom to be educated, we abandon all our loyalties to one idea or another idea. All ideas are just ideas that belong to someone else, and we will examine them without becoming attached to them and without being repulsed by them. In the lecture, this method was illustrated by asking students to detach themselves from beliefs which had been planted in their minds by economic training. One of these beliefs is the idea that all actions are in reality selfish, even if they have the appearance of un-selfishness. For example, when we do a good deed, we are being selfish because in reality we are seeking the rewards of the Jannah, or else, we feel good when we do good to others. This debate will be covered in a later post, hopefully. This first principle, laying aside prejudice or attachments, does not mean accepting whatever is said by the teacher. Rather, it is a preparation to be able to examine all ideas with detachment, without taking sides.
The second element of training which is required by our students is the ability to see “ideas” in isolation. Because we are used to thinking of ideas as being true or false — a Western training is based on binary logic, and these are the only two positions allowed — so either we reject an idea (and hate it as being a falsehood) or we accept an idea (and love it as being the Truth). We must learn to view ideas in isolation, WITHOUT evaluating them for being true or false. This skill — of learning about “ideas” as objects of thought — is very new to students, and must be learnt. There are many different exercises which students will be trained to do in order to be able to learn this skill. One of the important ones is to read passages of text and extract the central ideas from them. This exercise of compression – precis writing — is very useful in isolating and understanding ideas, and separating the essential idea from a long and detailed writing which articulates and expresses the idea, provides an explanation, and defends it via argumentation.
One Question which came up in the course of discussing the above ideas in class: “Present Day Madrassas also attempt to indoctrinate students into believing one view — Hanafi, for example — and asserting the superiority of this view over that of others.”
Answer — The idea that Islam encourages us to think, rather than to blindly follow our ancestors/teachers, can be supported by the Quran which reports how Ibraheem AS argues with his nation regarding their practice of worshipping idols. He says that, even though this is their tradition and this is how their fathers have done things, they should reason for themselves, as to whether or not the idols can help them or harm them, and whether or not they can hear your prayers and answer them.
Present day practices among Muslims, in all dimensions of life, are different from those of the Golden Ages of Islam. The madrassa’s in Islam taught all the Uloom in one place, without any differentiation between sacred and secular (see “The Second Poison: Secular Knowledge“). Our systems of governance are imitations of Western systems and not the Khilafa/Shoora of Islam. Our markets are based on practices on the West, and not on the market principles of Islam. Our banking, insurance, real estate, stock market, social norms, culture, are all deeply influenced by Western principles of thinking and organization. Truly, as prophesied, Islam came as a stranger and will become a stranger. Today, Islamic practises are strangers to Islamic societies. Nonetheless, it remains true that the principles are known and defended by many scholars who have deep knowledge of Islam, and there are many attempts at revival, led by the scholars of Islam, which are currently under way. We pray that Allah T’aala may bless these efforts and light up the world with the Noor of eeman, and make it burn bright in the hearts of the Muslims.