School's out

School's out

Can an Islamic education produce critical thinking?

Al-Madina free school governor Abdullah Shahjan was told his school was disfunctional. Rui Vieira/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The closure of the secondary section of the Al-Madinah free school in Derby will be celebrated by those who oppose free schools and what are euphemistically labelled “faith” schools.

Whatever the stated objections to them it is left to bloggers to warn of indoctrination. The bloggers say what many people fear and fear to say – that Islamic schools are closed “indoctrination centres” where creating open and critical thinkers is not an educational aim.

There is some historical evidence that would support this view. Peter Watson in Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud argues:

“One of the most poignant moments in the history of ideas surely came in the middle of the eleventh century. In 1065 or 1067 the Nizamiyah was founded in Baghdad. This was a theological seminary and its establishment brought to an end the openness in Arabic/Islamic Scholarship which had flourished for two or three hundred years.”

But this tragic moment cannot be generalised across centuries. It wasn’t all downhill from 1067. On the other hand, it would be wrong to deny that there is no truth in the closing down of the Islamic openness that characterised this period.

Cultural trends in the West adopted by Islamic, and many other, educationalists, such as well-meaning policies emphasising diversity and multiculturalism, and the adoption of the politics of identity, may reinforce a closing of Islamic thought and of critical thinking. They celebrate what you are, rather than what you can become.

The end of the openness that characterised a great cultural epoch for Islam and its consequences, is the broad historical and philosophical context in which we have to discuss Islamic education today. In the UK, there has been an increase of Muslim free and independent schools along with the rise in small-scale part-time madrassas attached to mosques throughout the UK. So the question has to be asked: will this tradition mean these schools may or must produce uncritical young people?

I offer here two arguments, one from religion and one from certain general facts about life, that mean an Islamic education can and will be critical.

Criticise everything

In her book Moral Clarity, Susan Neiman identifies two moral paradigms that are common to the Abrahamic religions, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic.

…the first paradigm [is] that of Abraham at Sodom, who refuses to rest in the humility of resignation and demands that his world makes sense. Those who subscribe to this paradigm hold fast to the principle that there must be reasons for everything that happens, and that those reasons are up to us to find. This is the fundamental law to which everyone, including God, must answer and it leads us to seek not only justice, but transparent justice. The second paradigm is that of Abraham at Mount Moriah, who doesn’t ask anything at all. To do so, he thinks, would be an act of superstition, even violence. Does trust mean asking no questions? Does love mean never having to say you’re sorry? The man of faith is certain: The demand to find reason after reason is at odds with a grateful acceptance of creation, and arrogant at that.

Neiman contrasts the usual idea of morality or religious belief as a matter of blind faith – exemplified in the binding of Issac – with Abraham’s stand for reason and truth at Sodom. The former “sustains orthodoxies of every kind”, the latter points to reason and criticism, even of the highest authority. This is why the example of Abraham at Sodom is so important. If criticism of the highest authority is allowed, then “criticise everything” is the injunction.

However, in the suras of the Koran which refer to Sodom, Ibrahim is given short shrift by the angels who come to tell him of the pending destruction of the city.

The shortness and brief dispatch of the objection might lead a reader to think that the Islamic version gives less credence to reason. But this is incorrect: however short the objection, it exists.

Although for many political and even more for cultural reasons, the belief in reason is often mentioned only rhetorically in contemporary debates about Islam, it is inescapably present. The “golden age” of Islamic openness may have passed, but reason and critical thinking need not be an historical artefact.

Hard knocks

At the same time, we are all subject to hard knocks. Even the most restrictive form of Islamic education takes place in a world where there are accidental happenings. People die in tragic ways, individuals fall in love with others that their religion bans relations with, and natural, political and economic events cause social and personal turmoil.

These hard knocks will cause individuals to think, however strictly and uncritically they have been reared, and there is no possible way of shielding young people from accidental experience. In fact when strict families lock young people up or severely restrict them, this is of course another accidental experience, a hard knock that can turn them towards criticism.

An Islamic education has a rational tradition, as well as a wealth of history and culture to pass on. Equally, so has a Jewish or a Catholic education. That is why it is often more valued by parents today when secular state schooling has had its educational content hollowed out.

Part of what it passes on to future generations is necessarily critical, and even if some schools play this down, young people, more than their elders and “betters”, will face the hard knocks that will force them to think and be critical.