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Education in Islamic Education

Pedagogy And Didactics

Educational thought as such found its literary expression in Arabic texts devoted to teaching and learning: that is, in works focusing on rules of conduct for teachers and students. Based on issues raised in the Koran and the literature of the Prophetic Tradition, these works explain and analyze—in an erudite and often literary manner—teaching methods, the ways in which learning takes or should take place, the aims of education, as well as the ways in which such goals may be achieved. These include: the ways in which teachers and students act and behave, their (moral) characteristics, their relationship with one another in the process of education, didactics (including the organization and contents of learning, and the curriculum), and the means and methods of imparting and absorbing knowledge.

Concerning these medieval educational texts, the following can be noted: (a) Elements of Arabian and Persian culture and, most importantly, the Hellenistic heritage, were creatively adapted to the Islamic educational theory, especially in the works of Islamic philosophers who deal with the various stages of development of the human character and personality, child education, and higher learning. (b) Islamic education in the Middle Ages correlated—partly in beneficial mutual exchanges—with medieval Jewish and Christian views and practices of learning. (c) From the eighth to the eighteenth century, there was a continuous tradition of Arabic-Islamic scholarship dealing with pedagogical and didactic issues, regardless of the individual scholars' theological and juridical stances, ethnic origins, or geographical affiliations. Muslim scholars writing on education included jurists, theologians, philosophers, littérateurs, hadith scholars, and scientists, many of them teachers themselves.

One of the very earliest handbooks for Muslim teachers at elementary schools was written by Ibn Sahnun (d. 870), a Maliki jurist from Qayrawan (Tunisia). The curriculum he indicates is representative to some degree of the medieval Islamic elementary school; it includes obligatory topics to be taught such as: (a) the precise articulation of the Koran, along with knowledge of reading, orthography, and grammar; (b) the duties of worship; and (c) good manners, since these are obligations toward God; and recommended topics such as: (a) the basics of Arabic language and linguistics; (b) calligraphy, writing letters; (c) poetry—if the verses are decent—, proverbs of the ancient Arabs, historical reports and legends of their battles, and sermons; and (d) arithmetic. The author also makes it clear that physical punishment was part of rectifying a child's behavior in Islam in the Middle Ages, leaving, however, no doubt that it should not cross the line, and that the child should not be seriously harmed: on the contrary, basing himself on prophetic traditions, Ibn Sahnun emphasizes that modesty, patience, and a passion for working with children are indispensable qualifications for teachers.

Al-Jahiz (d. 869), a man of letters and theologian of Basra (Iraq), highlights the significance of the teachers' work by stressing that writing has had a fundamental impact on human civilization, and that writing and recording—along with calculation—are "the pillars" on which the present and the future of civilization and "the welfare of this world" rest. He notes that independent thinkers and researchers dislike memorization, and that relying on it would make "the mind disregard distinction" and, in fact, neglect thought. Al-Jahiz points to the fact that there are teachers for everything one needs to know: writing, arithmetic, law, the pillars of religion, the Koran, grammar, prosody, and poetry. Further subjects that are to be taught include: polo, hunting, horsemanship, playing musical instruments, chess and other games. Interestingly enough, he emphasizes that the schoolteachers are superior to all other categories of teachers—an appreciation put into perspective by the low social status of schoolteachers in medieval Muslim society.

In this context, it should be noted that the Islamic philosophers—although concerned with logic, natural science, and metaphysics—did not neglect the need for educating the young. Ibn Sina (Avicenna; d. 1037), a physician and philosopher born near Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan, for example, recommends that the instruction of young children should start when they are perceptive enough, both physically and mentally.

Ibn Sina's main critic, the celebrated theologian and mystic Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), is noted for accepting Greek logic as a neutral instrument of learning and for recommending it for theologians. It is, however, in his mystical writings that are encountered two things of significance to education: the first is his incorporation of basically Aristotelian ethical values into an Islamic mode, representing them as Sufi values; the second is his insistence that the path to mystical gnosis must begin with traditional Islamic belief. Al-Ghazali is considered as one of the intellectual masterminds behind Islam's classical educational philosophy and ethics. His understanding of education as "guidance" rather than "rectification" of the young is a major pedagogical principle that recurs in most classical writings on Islamic education.

Abu Bakr ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1148), a judge from Seville (Spain), stresses the physical aspects of education, maintaining that students harden their bodies by physical exercise and a "Spartan" lifestyle. Burhan al-Din al-Zarnuji (first half of the thirteenth century), a Hanafi scholar from Iran, provides detailed pious advice on the study of theology, including the first steps in studying; the amounts of material to be mastered; and the need for repetition of what was learned. He emphasizes—as many scholars of his and later times do—the integrity and purity of the transmission of the knowledge that has already been definitely established.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), a Shiite philosopher-vizier and scientist from Iran, suggests that education is a process involving the student, the teacher, and the father of the student. He maintains that the process of obtaining knowledge is in itself a pleasure and that it can lead to everlasting happiness. He says that knowledge is rewarded twice: by God in the afterlife, and by humans in this life who remember and honor scholars even after their death. Al-Tusi also provides practical advice regarding the procedure for selecting the appropriate branches of knowledge to study, and the most suitable teacher and companions to study with, rules on punctuality and scheduling time for study, and other matters such as food and a healthy lifestyle that help retain or increase a good memory.

Ibn Jama'a (d. 1333), a Shafi'i chief judge in Egypt and in Syria, and al-'Almawi (d. 1573), a Shafi'i scholar and preacher in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, strongly promote the idea of books being indispensable tools for learning. Much advice is provided on the ethics and the techniques of written text transmission. Al-'Almawi suggests, for example, that it is "more important to spend your time studying books rather than copying them," and to pay due respect to the text of the manuscript, for caution is needed so as not to alter hastily what might be the correct wording.

These and other late medieval works appear to sum up much of the educational thought of the preceding generations. However, as Franz Rosenthal put it, "it would seem that a steady refinement and completion of the relevant material took place until it took its final form" (p. 8) in these valuable documents of medieval Muslim scholarship.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryEducation in Islamic Education - Pre-islamic Arabia, The Koran, The Prophetic Tradition, Oral Instruction And Books, Educators And Institutions Of Primary And Higher Education