This is an abridged transcript of the first lesson on Theology for Muslim Educators. If you are interested in watching the recordings of this lecture series, please visit the course page, fill up the registration form and you will be contacted via email.
Sayyid Ali is helping a small faith-based school in Toronto. He has studied Islamic theology, law and philosophy for around a decade and has completed a Master’s in Islamic Studies. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Education at the University of Toronto. He noticed that many Muslim educators lack basic education and an understanding of Islamic tradition. To address this, he plans to create courses to equip Muslim educators at a basic level and advance their knowledge. The theology course for Muslim Educators is not a technical course but more about exploring the Islamic tradition in a way that all can understand.
What is Islamic Theology?
Islamic theology is a discipline in which scholars study and understand different belief statements within the Islamic religion. Theology includes the study of beliefs such as the existence and justice of God, the attributes of God, the afterlife, prophethood, infallibility, and more. Theology is a study of belief systems and different schools of thought within Islam such as the Shi’i, Ash’ari, Mu’tazalis etc. It is also linked to the worldview of individuals and their behaviour. This course will be based on a Twelver Imami Shi’i perspective and will cover the fundamental beliefs within the Shi’i tradition.
A Muslim teacher is expected to have a deep understanding of Islamic beliefs, and this knowledge should inform the way they teach and educate. The belief in Islam is meant to make a difference in the way a Muslim teacher carries out their role as an educator, compared to a teacher who is not a Muslim. If there is no difference between the pedagogy of a Muslim teacher and a non-Muslim teacher, this implies the irrelevance of Islam in this role. The aim of Islamic education is to preserve the faith and provide an environment for the students to grow in their beliefs.
Within an Islamic school, it is imperative for the teacher to be familiar with key theological concepts such as divine attributes, divine leadership, the afterlife, religious identity, and morality. These concepts should shape teachers’ teaching methods and interactions with their students. The goal is to help students understand and express their Muslim identity while engaging with the outside world.
Education is a process of transmission of knowledge and a crucial part of every human civilization. The Islamic civilization has a rich history of knowledge transmission that spans over a thousand years, with changes and developments happening over time. Education systems serve the purpose of socializing individuals and becoming members of society. Over the past 100-200 years, Muslim societies have experienced changes in the education system that has led to negative consequences. The aim is to change the education system so that the next generation has a better future.
How were children learning in Muslim societies in the past?
During the time of the first four caliphs, children in cities like Basra or Kufa received their education through a combination of informal and formal methods:
- Informal methods included learning from the elders in the community, such as parents and religious leaders, as well as listening to stories and learning the Quran at home.
- Formal education was provided through institutions called Kuttab, which were attached to local mosques and taught basic skills such as reading, writing, and memorizing the Quran. Some children continued their education in secondary institutions called Maktabs, where they learned more advanced subjects like Arabic grammar, logic, and Islamic law.
A child’s education level was often determined by their family or local community’s support and the desire of the child to become a scholar. For many children, their education would end at the Kuttab level, and they would return to their homes to work or start families.
- For the ruling class they would appoint private tutors for their children, called mu’addib, who would serve as private instructors to the children of the caliphs and royalty. Their role was to prepare these children for leadership positions and to teach them subjects such as eloquence, poetry, grammar, and hadith.
- Travelling was an important aspect of education in the past, as people had to physically travel to find specialists and gain knowledge. This was a way of breaking out of the “bubble” of their current beliefs and perspectives and gaining new insights and knowledge. Travelling was seen as a way of increasing emotional intelligence and understanding other perspectives, which can help in discussions and debates. Nowadays, this aspect of education is largely lost, but it still holds value for those who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the world and different perspectives.
When did specialization begin?
An average child would remain in school until their early teenage years, but those who were going to specialize and learn advanced subjects would begin specialization at approximately the age of 22-23. Specialization happened much later in the Islamic tradition than modern education, which today begins as early as grade 11. Most people who did not go to the maktab or specialized still gained knowledge from different sources, just like how we gain some knowledge about science from different forms of media today.
What Were the Categories of Educators in Muslim society?
1. The ‘Ulama (Scholars): Learned scholars who were deep into research e.g., Shaykh Tusi, or equivalent of a Marja’ today such as Ayatullah Sayyid Sistani.
a) the average person does not have access to the ‘Ulama, and if a layman does happen to meet one, at most the scholar will give them advice.
2. The Preachers: For example, most seminary students who return back to the West are not Mujtahids nor Marja’, but they may be familiar with various discussions. They often preach and give lectures on ethical topics to ensure people remain upright and righteous.
3. The Qussas (Storytellers): These people are not scholars or preachers. They are those who have heard something from here and there and have the skill to tell common people stories. Today, many speakers and lecturers play the role of storytellers and at times combine some aspects of the Preachers. There is very little interaction and exposure of the Muslim community in the West with high-level scholarship.
Ibn Qutayba – a Sunni scholar – wrote against the preachers and storytellers but acknowledged their power:
“The preacher brings to Allah a great number of people while a jurist or a muhaddith or a Quran scholar (Qari) cannot even bring to Allah one-hundredth of that number. Because the preacher’s admonitions are addressed to both the common people and the elite, and these common people can rarely meet the jurist. The preacher is like the trainer of animals, and this preacher is the one who educated them and he refines them.”
The key here is that storytellers should tell stories about the Islamic tradition correctly and should develop a slightly better understanding of Islam and its sources, so they do not continue to deviate and lead common people astray due to their wider reach to larger audiences.
The Emergence of Modern Schools
The emergence of modern education in the West developed alongside with exclusion of religion and God from schooling. There were serious epistemic attacks made on religion and Christianity which led to this worldview eventually being replaced with a secular worldview. The concept of Sunday school emerged to teach children Biblical studies and basic morals. Another important concept was the formation of the nation-state which led to major changes in laws, leadership, and democracy. They now need a generation who will abide by this system, so discussions around the foundations of curriculum emerged and significant changes were made to the curriculum in the 20th century.
At the same time these discussions were happening in the West, the West also colonized Muslim countries. The average age of a Muslim nation today is around 100 years old. The colonizers brought a version of their modern education system to Muslim countries (secular and detached from religion) and began to implement many aspects of the modern curriculum.
Point to consider: In our schooling system in Muslim countries, you will notice that history excludes any mention of why the Muslim civilization collapsed. We don’t know why we declined.
- What were the mistakes Muslims made that allowed colonizers to take over?
- What was the psyche of the Muslims and the ‘Ulama?
- We don’t even know why our civilization declined. It is very vague.
As a Muslim educator, you have to be on top of your game as children today are exposed to so much online and in society that we will not be able to address the challenges they are facing.
In conclusion, it is vital for Muslim teachers to have a strong understanding of religion and theology in today’s world, especially for the new generation due to the open attack on fundamental beliefs. The speaker believes that the current education system is limited, and the curriculum is just an adaptation of what other public schools generally offer. When you copy someone’s work, you copy the assumptions they made, which may not be relevant to your goals, or in the case of the western education system vs. Islamic maybe be at odds.
Teachers need to strengthen their knowledge of Islam and their belief systems to educate the next generation. In this light, the role of a Muslim teacher or educator is crucial, and the standard for becoming an educator is high.