You want to be happy, educated and true to the spirit of Islam? Well, good fortune smiles on you: there is no lack of great thinkers eager to walk you through to your destination. The issue of knowledge and education has preoccupied Muslims right from the inception of Islam.
There is a vast body of Islamic literature on how young minds should be nurtured, how critical insight can be inculcated, and how to be happy and virtuous. It all starts with the first word of the revelation we call the Qur’an – ‘Read’, and the Prophet’s injunction that ‘seeking knowledge is a duty of all Muslims’, and moves forward with a plethora of classical scholars, philosophers and thinkers exploring and delineating what a good education ought to be. A good education, they thought, is not simply about transmission of knowledge but also includes emotional, social and physical well-being of the student. It is about creating a well-rounded moderate person with passion for thought and learning. The kind of individuals who ended up pursuing higher education at al-Azhar University in Cairo and al-Karaouine in Fes, established in 970 and 859 respectively.
The Islamic literature on education and knowledge is as fresh and relevant today as it was in the classical period. Of course, the world has moved on. But just as we still study Plato and Aristotle, so we ought to be reading works such as The Treatise on Matters Concerning Learners and Guidelines for Teachers by al-Qabisi (936-1012) and Exposition of Knowledge and Its Excellence by ibn Abd al-Barr (978-1070). Or exploring the classification schemes of al-Kindi (801-873), al-Farabi (d950) and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (864-925) to see how knowledge was organised in the classical period. Or scrutinising the Fihrist (Catalogue) of al-Nadim (d. 995-998) to determine what the young folks of the tenth century were reading and studying. The legacy of classical Islam only has meaning as a living heritage; only as a dynamic tradition can it provide us with a sense of continuity and identity, and tell us not only where we have been but also where we ought to be.
So begin your great learning adventure by discovering the works of some prodigious minds, classical and modern, Muslim and non-Muslim. Here are ten key texts everyone concerned with education and knowledge should know intimately.
1. The Refinement of Character by Miskawayh
Miskawayh (932-1030) began as a librarian before moving on to philosophy, logic, history and pedagogy. The Refinement of Character is his most famous book, and is amongst the first works on Islamic ethics. It consists of six discourses: principles of ethics, character and refinement, the good and its divisions, justice, love and friendship and the health of the soul – the sort of things that enhance our humanity and young Muslims yearn for today. For Miskawayh, the only happiness worthy of its name is ‘moral happiness’. Everyone can be changed; and everyone can change things for the better. The young should be praised for the good things they do, encouraged to rise above basic desires and trained to admire moderation and generosity. ‘When the activity of the rational soul is moderate, when it seeks true knowledge, not what is presumed to be knowledge but is in reality ignorance, it achieves the virtue of knowledge followed by that of wisdom’. What better advice can one give?
2. The Memoire of the Listener and the Speaker in the Training of Teacher and Student by ibn Jammah
Ibn Jammah (1241-1332) was a highly respected jurist and teacher. A guide both for teachers and students, The Memoire describes the qualities needed in a teacher and the etiquette required from a student so both work as equal partners in the pursuit of knowledge. The ‘Listener’ and ‘Speaker’ in the title emphasises the fact that ibn Jammah favours discussion as the basic instrument of teaching and learning. Ask questions fearlessly, ibn Jammah tells the students; encourage students to ask questions, and where necessary help them formulate critical questions, teachers are told. And both should observe the etiquette of handling books and treat them with grace and dignity!
3. Instruction for the Student: The Method of Learning by al-Zarnuji
Al-Zarnuji (d.1223), who flourished in Turkistan, was amongst the first to write on the theory and practice of professional education. Instruction for the Student was used as a standard text for over six centuries; and was translated into Latin in 1838. Al-Zarnuji distinguishes between education and knowledge and is concerned with ‘whole education’ rather than mere academic attainment. You could have a PhD, he seems to be saying, and yet still be uneducated – a common currency in contemporary Muslim societies. Education is acquired through effort, aspiration, pursuit and persistence; knowledge is about moral and ethical acumen.
4. The Book of Knowledge by al-Ghazali
Al-Ghazali (1058-111) begins his monumental forty-volume Ihya Ulum al-Din (‘The Revival of Religious Knowledge’) with The Book of Knowledge. It is the first book of the first quarter on the Acts of Worship – proceeding ‘The Articles of Faith’ and ‘The Mysteries of Purity’. In other words, knowledge is supreme worship for al-Ghazali. Peppered with hadith (not all particularly authentic it has to be said), aphorisms, and pearls of wisdoms from pious sages, The Book of Knowledge offers a discussion on the value of knowledge, the praiseworthy and objectionable branches of knowledge, the qualities needed in teachers and students and ends with a blistering praise of the ‘noble nature’ of the intellect. Al-Ghazali was perhaps the first to note that knowledge has a downside too – it could be ‘evil’ designed to perpetuate injustice and suffering. And there is nothing worse than the ‘learned hypocrite’. ‘Knowledge is not the prolific retention of tradition, but the fear of God’.
5. Knowledge Triumphant by Franz Rosenthal
It would be reasonable to assumed that thinkers and scholars such as al-Ghazali, ibn Jammah, al-Zarnuji and Miskawayh were obsessed by the concept of knowledge. Or, more appropriately, ilm, which is normally translated as knowledge. But the term ‘knowledge’ does not fully express the factual and emotional content of ilm, which has a deeper and wider meaning. Given that it was a central concept for Muslim civilisation, the delineation of its full meaning was seen as paramount. At the zenith of Muslim civilisation, over 500 definitions of ilm were being discussed and debated; and most are explored in this meticulously researched classic by Franz Rosenthal (1914-2003), a renowned German scholar of Islam and Arabic literature, who taught at Yale University for some decades. There is no branch of intellectual, religious, political and daily life of the ‘average Muslim’ that remained untouched by the all-pervasive concept of ilm, notes Rosenthal. ‘What does it mean for a civilization, and beyond it, for the history of mankind, if knowledge is made its central concern’? he asks. His answer: ‘a great deal can be achieved by the fusion of intellectual and spiritual values in one dominant concept’; but there are ‘drawbacks’ – most notably, the danger of the spiritual subsuming the intellectual.
6. The Rise of Colleges by George Makdisi
What use is knowledge if it cannot be transmitted to the next generation? Institutions devoted to thought, learning and education were needed to perform this task. The Rise of College, subtitled ‘Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West’, tells us everything we need to know about the emergence of colleges and universities in the Muslim world, from their organisational and administrative structure to how they were funded, their curriculum, the methods of teaching and learning, the designation of professors and the classification of students, the intellectual ferment of the scholastic community to how the Muslim system of education was transmitted to the West. George Makdisi (1920-2002), who was Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at University of Pennsylvania, is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest Arabists of his generation – The Rise of Colleges provides ample evidence of this fact.
7. The Arabic Book by Johannes Pedersen
Students and professors needed books. During the time of al-Ghazali, over a million books were published every year in Baghdad. How did such a prodigious book publishing industry evolve? How were books actually published and distributed? How were they protected from plagiarism and forgery? In this classical text, Johannes Pedersen (1883-1977), Danish theologian and scholar of the old school of European orientalists, provides detailed, and often surprising answers to these questions, including what went on in the margins! It was a truly phenomenal industry with no rival in the Middle Ages.
8. The Fihrist of al-Nadim
Then, as now (or at least before the arrival of Amazon), you went to a bookshop to buy your books. And if you lived in Baghdad, you would, more than likely, end up in the bookshop of Al-Nadim (d. 995 or 998). The bookseller was also an accomplished calligrapher and a warraq – that is, someone who copied manuscripts for sale at the speed of sound. His celebrated bookshop, spread over several floors, was a favourite haunt for the scholars, students and the literati. The Fihrist is a catalogue of books that he sold. Each manuscript could be copied within a day or two, if not hours, by a string of warraqs who worked in unison. A testimony to the thriving book culture in classical Islam, al-Nadim’s bookshop had everything that a seeker after education and knowledge of this period could wish for. Not just the sacred texts of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and countless commentaries on them, but also studies on the doctrines of Hindus, Chinese and Buddhists. Not just texts on hadith, law, grammar, philology, history and philosophy, but also biography, poetry and literature, fiction and fables (from as far afield as Persia, Byzantium and India), discourses on ethics, morality, pedagogy, as well as sports and sex and – let us not forget – the study of pigeon droppings (very important for young men and women looking for a hot date). The Fihrist is the ideal double tome that you should keep by your bed-side and dip into from time to time; and weep at what you are missing in contemporary times.
9. Islamic Education by A L Tibawi
Before Edward Said, and the Said industry, there was Abdul Latif Tibawi (1910-1981): historian, educationalist and critic of Orientalism. Born in Palestine, Tibawi lectured in Arab Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His English Speaking Orientalists, published in 1964, is a landmark study offering a masterly dissection of the techniques and methodology of Orientalism. Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernisation into the Arab National System, provides a concise history of Islamic education from its origins in the seventh century to early attempts at modernisation in the nineteenth century, explores the educational theory of Islam, and analyses the problems of modernisation by looking at specific cases – the modern national systems of Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and a host of other Middle Eastern states. It is perhaps the first comprehensive study of educational problems in the Arab world. The changes, Tibawi laments, are not good for ‘stimulating thought’.
10. The Venture of Islam by Marshall Hodgson
The pedagogical texts, educational system, colleges and universities, and the book publishing industry were all major ingredients that shaped the Muslim civilization of the classical period. But the Islamic civilisation was not simply ‘Islamic’: it was a world civilization, a point aptly demonstrated by the monumental four-volume The Venture of Islam by historian Marshall Hodgson (1922-1968). Hodgson, a Quaker who taught at the University of Chicago, and tragically died young, differentiates between ‘Islamic’, meaning religious and pious, and ‘Islamicate’, the cultural products of Muslim societies. The Venture of Islam presents Islamic history as world history – and no Muslim intellectual can maintain his or her self-respect without reading it.