The Islamic Concept of Education Reconsidered

By Khosrow Bagheri and Zohreh Khosravi

Some authors have analyzed the Islamic concept of education in parallel to the assumed contrast between Islam and the liberal tradition. Hence, given the latter’s rationalist tendencies, an almost indoctrinatory essence is assumed for the Islamic concept of education. However, we argue that rationality is involved in all elements of the Islamic concept of education. There might be some differences between the Islamic and liberal conceptions of rationality, but these are not so sharp that the derivative Islamic concept of education can be equated with indoctrination. We suggest an Islamic concept of education that includes three basic elements: knowledge, choice, and action. Then, we show that, according to the Islamic texts, these elements have a background of wisdom.


In a recent volume of Comparative Education, Halstead introduced “an Islamic concept of education.”1 As he admits, this concept still needs to be analyzed and its components to be shown. In what follows, we critique the above-mentioned analysis and some of the related views on which it relies. After this, we present an alternative view. In summary, Halstead assumes a contrast between Islam and the liberal tradition and, in parallel, given that tradition’s rationalist tendencies, concludes an almost indoctrinatory essence for the Islamic concept of education: “Independence of thought and personal autonomy do not enter into the Muslim thinking about education, which is more concerned with the progressive initiation of pupils into the received truths of the faith.”2

However, we argue here that rationality is involved in all elements of the Islamic concept of education. There might be some differences between the Islamic view of rationality and that of the liberal tradition; however, one should not conclude, as far as rationality is concerned, that there is a sharp contrast between Islam and the liberal tradition. Before going into the details of the argument, we emphasize here the place of wisdom in Islam.

The Qur’an contains many derivatives and synonyms of `aql (wisdom), as in 15:80-82. What is the meaning of using wisdom in the Qur’an? When a person is in control of his/her cognitive attempts so that he/she becomes immune to slips of thought, and, as a consequence, reaches the understanding of the thing concerned, it can be said that he/she has used wisdom. Three factors play the main role in avoiding these slips: evaluating the soundness of reasons, having knowledge, and controlling love and hate.

As far as the first factor is concerned, using wisdom occurs when the person evaluates the adequacy and soundness of the reasons held. This element refers to using logic in evaluating the soundness of claims. The Qur’an provides the following example: When addressing the Jews and the Christians who had claimed that Prophet Abraham was the father of their particular religions, God says: “O People of the Book. Why do you dispute about Abraham, when the Torah [The Old Testament] and the Injil [The New Testament] were not revealed until after him? Do you not, then, understand [use wisdom]?” (3:65). In other words, given the historical precedence of Abraham to the Christians and the Jews, it is not reasonable to attribute these religions to him.

In relation to the second factor of having knowledge, whoever has more knowledge is better able to use wisdom at the level of cognition. In other words, having comprehensive knowledge and information enables the person to have access to more material for comparison and combining and, hence, to reach a deeper cognition or a more subtle recognition. With regard to this point, the Qur’an states: “And (as for) these examples, We set them forth for people, and none understand them but the learned” (2:44). The word understand (derived from `aql) here refers to wisdom, and it is stated that being learned is required for being wise. That is to say, knowledge is a prerequisite for wisdom.

In regard to the third factor, using wisdom requires that the deviating interventions of love and hate be prevented, for just as love might prevent us from recognizing weaknesses, hate might prevent us from seeing strengths. When the two feet of love and hate are fastened by the band of wisdom, the person can be immune from any deviation in cognition and recognition. Thus, the Qur’an invites people to be aware of emotional deviations in evaluating past traditions: “And when it is said to them, follow what Allah has revealed, they say: ‘Nay! We follow what we found our fathers upon.’ What! And though their fathers had no sense at all, nor did they follow the right way?” (2:170). In other words, familiarity with particular traditions cannot be a full justification for considering them to be reasonable or right. The force of habit and social dependence should be distinguished from the force of reasonableness and truth. Thus wisdom, with its three elements of logic, knowledge, and emotional control, has an important place in Islam’s view.

It is also worth mentioning here that the Islamic word for wisdom (`aql) is wider than “reason” and, as Nasr says, refers to intellectus.3 According to him, the perennial philosophy holds that intellectus is distinct from ratio.4 While the latter is restricted to pure reasoning, the former refers to a deep insight at a higher level of the whole universe. It might be said that the Islamic concept of wisdom is more extensive than the Latin ratio and the Greek dianoia and, in fact, refers to the higher perceptive faculty of mindheart, which is called intellectus in Latin and nous in Greek, as, for instance, Plato considered noesis to be the highest level of intuitive knowledge.5 Perhaps the root factor in accounting for the difference between Islamic education and the rationalistic trend in liberal education needs to be sought in the two above-mentioned meanings. In the liberal tradition, intellectus is held to be reason, whereas Islam considers it to be wisdom. Having paved the ground for discussion, we now reconsider the Islamic view of education.


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