Recent discussions about the critical thinking skills of students who graduate from Islamic religious institutions have brought to question the aims of an Islamic pedagogy and the capacity for religious institutions in general to instill critical thinking abilities in students. Can an institute which makes knowledge sacred truly create critical thinkers? Critical thinking defined by McPeck (1981) is “the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism” (Fahim & Masouleh, 2012). While others tend to show a more positive meaning to critical thinking, “a probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger or eagerness for reliable information” (Facione, 1990, p. 10). The question still remains, how did the Islamic pedagogical system synthesize the sacred and skepticism? Can an Islamic pedagogical system offer insight into the goals of education in general and perhaps bring to question the idea that critical thinking is the final objective of education? Al-Sharaf (2013) and Altunya (2014) are both of the opinion that Islamic pedagogical outlook is based in engineering critical thinkers.
The role of education and learning from the Islamic tradition is seen as the method for preserving religious values and belief (Diallo, 2012) (Al-Sharaf, 2013). In fact, Halstead (2004) said regarding an Islamic pedagogical system, “religion must be at the heart of all education, acting as the glue which holds together the entire curriculum into an integrated whole.” Gunther (2006) explains that the Islamic ideal of piety underlies the concept of education. He explains that this ideal is due to the emphasis placed on Learning by God in the Quran and by the Prophet Muhammad in the collections of his sayings, such as, “Seek knowledge from the day of your birth to the day of your death” or “seek knowledge even if it be in China”, all demonstrate the importance of learning and education in shaping the ideal Muslim society (Al-Sharaf, 2013). Due to the fact that science is seen in the Quran as the method to recognize and identify the divine, Islamic educational pedagogies were never historically restricted to “religious” knowledge but was broadened to incorporate secular disciplines (Al-Sharaf, 2013).
The unification of religious knowledge and secular knowledge is fundamental for one attempting to understand the similarities and differences between western pedagogies and Islamic pedagogies. Others have pointed out that the centrality of education to the Islamic tradition should be traced back to the beginning of the Prophetic mission of Muhammad. The first verses revealed upon Muhammad through the angel Gabriel were, “Read! In the name of your lord.”(Quran). Can it be suggested that this verse is the primary inspiration for the oldest continually operating university founded in 859, Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco and all western scholasticism (Sabkia, 2013)? George Makdisi (1989) believes so,
“Two major intellectual movements, which we have long considered as of exclusively Western origin, have their roots deep down in Islamic soil. The first movement, appropriately called scholasticism, is that of the school guilds in the middle ages; the second is that of humanism in the Italian Renaissance”
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According to Makdisi the term doctorate was called licentia docendi in medieval Latin. This term however, is a “word for word translation of the original Arabic term, ijazah attadris” This license, in classical Islam was a license to teach religious law exclusively. As Makdisi points out the doctorate bestowed triple status; (1) he was a master of law, (2) he was a professor of legal opinions, (3) he was a doctor or “teacher” of law. The Latin equivalents of which were magister, professor, and doctor. If Makdisi is correct regarding the origins of western scholasticism, why do we see a split between the secular from religious? Diallo (2012) places the differences between the two educational systems not in their origin but rather in the social and cultural shifts that took place in Europe after the 18th century philosophers such as Descartes, Kant, and Durkheim and the appearance of academia who gained credibility for the newly formed universities. This shift is described, accurately as a push for “the primacy of secular reason and knowledge over the reason and knowledge within religious framework. The Enlightenment eliminated the realm of the sacred and there remained no authority that could not be challenged. As Diallo (2012) emphasizes, “western pedagogy and epistemology was freed from religious control”. The Islamic academic tradition responded different than its Christian counterpart, in that it never divorced religious knowledge from scientific or secular knowledge. But rather married the two (Al-Sharaf, 2013).
Looking at early Islamic scholarly works on education shows that from the beginning there was unification of all sciences under religion. Al-Jahiz an eight century Muslim scholar outlined an Islamic pedagogical system that unified all fields. Al-Jahiz (800cc) enumerated the topics a student should be taught and the sequence in which they should be taught. Al-Jahiz (800cc) wrote that that a student should be taught: writing, arithmetic, law, the pillars of religion, the Quran, grammar, prosody, and poetry. Al-Jahiz’s breakdown shows the interconnectedness of what some would call secular fields and religious.
Makdisi (1989) explains why Islamic scholarship did not face the same crisis that the Christian world faced. The Islamic doctorate, which was referred to earlier, was only restricted to field of law alone. Meaning that one did not need a license to teach other sciences. When the doctorate was introduced it consisted of two elements: (1) competence i.e. knowledge and skill as a scholar of law, and (2) authority i.e. “the exclusive autonomous right… to issue opinions having the value of orthodox (Makdisi, 1989). However, in the Christian West there was already another authority in place i.e. the church. This appearance of authority from other than the church marks the beginning of the struggle between the church and the university and thus religion and science. “There was therefore the prospect of duality of authorities in Christian West” Makdisi points out.
St. Thomas Aquinas had already recognized this problem and made a distinction between the two magisterial; the teaching authority of the pastor and the authority of the professor of theology. The first possessed jurisdictional authority, while the second possessed, the competence that belongs to a master in a given field of knowledge. Makdisi explains it very clearly, “the competence of the professor was subordinate to the authority of the pastor”. One has to wonder how it was perceived that a growing community of educated parishioner would continual overlook the possible incompetence of the pastors? It wasn’t long before the Faculty of Theology in Paris in 1387 assumed the power of passing final judgements on religious doctrine (Makdisi, 1989). What this means is that the authority of the professor could not help but clash with the authority of the pastors. The pastors gained their authority from the church i.e. the Pope and the academia gained authority from the University i.e. academic pursuit and verification. This forces one to question the origins of atheist trends among academia.
Islamic pedagogical systems simply didn’t create a struggle for power between academia and “the church”, because there was never a centralized body that assumed the authority to issue rulings. Religious scholarship in the Islamic tradition has always been decentralized. The licensing to teach always remained restricted to religious law and was open to anyone. Essentially the theological professors became the pastors. Science and other fields where never controlled by the religious scholarship. Thus avoiding conflict between areas where freedom of thought ideally should be allowed unchecked i.e. sciences, and other areas where freedom of thought would first have to licensed and regulated i.e. religious law.
Medieval Muslim scholars did of course make a distinction between the two types of knowledge. The “traditionally transmitted” sciences included Quran, Hadith (the traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), Law, and principles of jurisprudence. And the “rational” sciences logic, philosophy, math, astronomy, etc. (Zaman, 1999). The religious institutions were the primary centers for learning both sciences. Zaman (1999) describes the breakdown of knowledges in two broader categories. The Primary sciences i.e. that which was “sought for its own sake” and the auxiliary sciences i.e. that which was sought “to aid” the primary sciences. These auxiliary sciences were never static and adjusted throughout the ages according to the threats to Islamic society.
The question that naturally should be asked after looking at the “sacred” nature of knowledge and the presumption that reverence is needed for learning true knowledge is, “Is there any room for critical thought in Islamic pedagogical systems?” Halstead (2004) claims, that in Islamic educational systems’ “knowledge must be approached reverently and in humility, for there cannot be any ‘true’ knowledge that is in conflict with religion and divine revelation, only ignorance” (Halstead, 2004). But is it plausible to assume that a civilization which placed so much emphasis on education, did not construct a critical thinking pedagogy? According to Gunther (2006) there are multiple examples of the Islamic religiously based educational system emphasizing critical thought in students. In fact, Gunther (2006) speaks in detail about the numerous medieval Arabic works devoted to “pedagogical and didactic issues”. These works focus on teaching methods and ideals for learning and touch upon the moral aspect of learning and organization and content learning as well as curriculum and how to create a student capable of thinking critically. In addition, Gunther (2006) offers two observations about medieval Islamic education. Firstly, Arab culture and Greco-Hellenistic heritage were both adapted and incorporated into Islamic educational theory. Secondly, “from the eighth century to the sixteenth, there was a continuous tradition of Arabic-Islamic scholarship dealing with pedagogical and didactic issues…”.
Dr. Al-Sharaf (2013), places the source of critical thought in the primary sources of Islam i.e. the Quran and Prophetic traditions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “contemplate everything, but do not contemplate over the nature of God”. This concept of questioning everything which is encouraged in this saying of Muhammad is the very same idea behind critical thinking pedagogies. As explained by Fahim and Masouleh, “To Critical Thinking, the critical person is something like a critical consumer of information; he or she is driven to seek reasons and evidence.” (Fahim & Masouleh, 2012) The Prophetic tradition mentioned above clearly encourages analysis of everything, while however placing a limit to what can be contemplated i.e. god.
A sixteenth century scholar Ahmed ibn Lutfullah also referred to as Muneccimbasi wrote an entire book on the method of perusing books, which he titled adabul-mutala (the art of reading). He explained that critical thinking wasn’t a skill that students naturally possessed but rather a skill that was slowly learned and mastered (Muneccimbasi, 1660).
Indicating a need for instruction in the area critical thinking, and that critical thinking and analysis was a desired objective of religious education. Ḥāmid ibn Burhān ibn Abī Dharr al-Ghifārī wrote, Risālah fī ādāb al-muṭālaʻah (Treaties in the method of Studying) in the fourteenth century. This books primary focus as explained by the author is the explanation and guide for students and researchers (Ghaffari, 869). Al-Ghifari (869) states in his introduction, “Everything that one reads will be either a statement or a propositional claim. The reader must consider if the requirements of a definition are met, if the definition is adequate, is it circular…”. Al-Ghifari’s work is significant because of the profound influence he had on seventeenth century Ottoman scholarly culture. (ElRouayheb, 2015) In fact El-Rouayheb’s research clearly displays a shift in the type of literature written regarding the method of study. This shift focused on the methods of verification and critique rather than the ethical aspect of learning. Al-Ghifari (869) writes in his final advice to his readers,
“And be careful that you don’t restrict yourself to merely rote memorization of words without understanding the inner meanings of those words. This can create stupidity and mental lethargy; in fact, such memorization has the propensity to complete take away one ability to understand deeply”
According to Diallo (2010) and Gunther (2006) and the majority of Islamic educationalist, memorization of Quran and prophetic traditions is the base of the Islamic educational system. The focus and attention placed on memorization of traditional sources of knowledge has caused, in Diallo’s (2010) understanding assumptions about the Islamic educational system. For example, the idea that such as pedagogy impedes on the learner’s creativity and critical thinking skills and that this memorization based pedagogy creates passive learners. These mentioned assumptions regarding the effects of a memorization based educational system are then placed in juxtaposition with the western pedagogy based in critical thinking development where students actively participate in the knowledge building process.
A curriculum development manual was written as early as ninth-century, by Muhammad ibn Sahnun, titled Rules of Conduct for Teachers (Adab al-Muallimun) (Gunther, 2006). This treatise deals with issues that an elementary school teacher might face when teaching. He discusses aspects of curriculum development, examination, appointment and payment of teachers, organization of teaching, supervision of pupils at school, supervision of pupils on their way home, discipline of pupils and conflict resolution and final graduation of students. (Gunther, 2006)
Ibn Sahnun’s treatise also sticks with the Islamic norm of placing Quran memorization as the base for educational pursuits. Interestingly however is Ibn Sahnun’s instruction to teachers to challenge the mind of the pupils.
Gunther (2006) also presents another medieval Islamic scholar who wrote about pedagogical issues, Al-Jahiz. Al-Jahiz (869) penned his treaties, The Book of Teachers (Kitab al-Muallimin) in the eight-century. His book focuses heavily in issues and questions regarding learning and education at a more advanced level. Al-Jahiz places school teachers as the champions of society and the best of all educators. This is an appreciation which according to Gunther is not evident in our society. Al-Jahiz also makes an interesting correlation between the advancement of civilization and the skills of writing and calculation. Which according to Al-Jahiz displays the value of school teachers. Al-Jahiz (869) also brings to light the problems of a memorization based pedagogy. According to Al-Jahiz (869) a good memory is needed and valuable for the learning process. However, he believes, “Memorization inhibits the intellect”. He further explains the “memorization is mere imitation whereas deductive reasoning brings one to certainty and great confidence” (Gunther, 2006).
Al-Jahiz suggest a reasonable balance, he feels that a student that doesn’t exercise the rational reflection than ideas won’t come quickly to him, and if he doesn’t exercise his memorization and retention skills his ideas won’t stay. (Jāḥiẓ, 869)
How can we understand the different approach of Ibn Sahnun and the majority of Islamic educationalist and Al-Jahiz (869) and others who exhibit an abhorrence for memorization based pedagogy? One possible approach for understanding the Islamic pedagogical relationship between memorization and critical thinking is to apply Blooms Taxonomy of learning objectives.
As explained by Qader Vazifeh Damirchi, Mir Seyyedi and Gholamreza Rahimi (2012), “Bloom’s taxonomy is a framework for analyzing and testing levels of knowledge achievements”. This approach may give insight into the deeper workings of the Islamic memorization based pedagogy. The base level of Bloom’s taxonomy are the knowledge objectives. Stated clearly by Bloom himself, the knowledge objective primarily emphasizes the psychological process of remembering. (Bloom, 1956) The second level of the of Bloom’s taxonomy are the comprehension objectives, which represent the lowest level of understanding, an individual must not only have knowledge, but must also understand what he/she knows (Damirchi, Seyyedi, & Rahimi, 2012)
Thereafter Bloom’s taxonomy places the application objective. Which according to Bloom is the use of abstractions in particular and concrete situations (Bloom, 1956). Fourth is the analysis objectives, which is according to Bloom the breakdown of material into its consistent elements. Fifthly, the synthesis objective which is “the putting together of the elements and parts so as to form a whole” (Bloom, 1956). The last of the objectives according to Bloom (1956) is the evaluation objective which is defined as making judgements about the whole. This is the original taxonomy, which has since its creation been revised. David R. Krathwohl (2002) has pointed out that the original taxonomy is ordered from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract (Krathwohl, 2002). Forty-five years after its creation however Bloom’s well accepted taxonomy was revised. The revised Taxonomy maintained its six categories however the names of the categories were changed and rearranged: (1) Remember, (2) Understand, (3) Apply, (4) Analyze, (5) Evaluate, (6) Create (Krathwohl, 2002). Bloom’s taxonomy be it the original or the revised, highlights the importance of building a base of knowledge. Critical thinking is clearly a skill which is developed after a student has obtained some fundamental level of information. In fact, a pedagogy which places over emphasis on critical can run the risk of destroying a student’s ability to learn. If critique comes before acquisition. Hayes (2015) explains, “By critical thinking we mean thinking for one’s self as opposed to just accepting what authorities of various kinds tell us to think”. Is it actually possible to ever begin the learning process without blind acceptance for what authorities say? Hayes (2015) explains that ordinary students normally begin “without comprehension of a text or work of art”. Hayes (2015) explains that a critical thinking based pedagogy teaches a student to reject everything until further investigation. Yet it fails to explain how the student who rejects authoritative knowledge should verify claims about fields which they have no prior knowledge. Hayes (2015) also explains how developing comprehension takes time and is dependent on conversation. Critical thinking undermines meaning-receiving. Meaning-receiving is the act of trying to find meaning in what I am saying. It is both ethical and cognitive as Haynes explains. Interestingly Hayes (2015) explains that this is an act of charity on the part of the listener because,
“you have to reach out to me with charity, to make an effort to construe me as sense-making rather than nonsensical”.
The charity involved is that you establish that I deserve to be listened to before I can prove that what I am saying makes sense. It is an effort to find sense in what the other person is saying. This ethical effort is undermined from the critical thinking orientation, which assumes that belief is easy and challenging is hard. However, as Hayes points out when dealing with the ideas and thoughts of others searching for plausibility may in fact be more challenging than thought processes based in skepticism. Thus according to Hayes the real challenge of today’s classroom is to try in take up the position of interest rather than the position of disinterest.
Al-Ghifari (1868) seems to agree that critical thinking comes after having initially attempted meaning- receiving. He writes in his Treaties on the Method of Studying, “And be careful that you do not restrict yourself to a general reading without following up that reading with close analyzation and deeper investigation. Because this i.e. a topical reading will lead to being deprived of the ability to read deeply and cause of stupidity”. This clearly shows that this eighteenth century Islamic scholar understood the method and approach which Bloom invented. Sidiq ibn Hasan al-Qanuji (1889), wrote an encyclopedic work on learning and teaching, which he titled Abjad al-ulum (the simple truths of knowledge) in the eighteenth century. AlQanuji (1889) quotes the words from another book which his lost today written by Alimullah ibn Abdul al-Razaq. He writes;
“…Studying is a science which teaches one how to learn the meaning of a writer…when you wish to begin studying a work, look at the work from start to finish in a way that extract the meaning from it. If you are successful in extracting the meaning the first time well be it…After extracting the meaning examine every conceptual aspect very closely for any deficiency…” (al-Qanuji, 1889)
It appears that this source which predates al-Qanuji (1889) understands the importance of meaning-receiving before critical analysis.
Both the Western Critical thinking based pedagogy and an Islamic pedagogy have religious roots. And while the Western pedagogy has for the most part divorced religion, the Islamic pedagogy has remained deeply spiritual and religion orientated. With Memorization as a key stepping stone in the process of acquisition of knowledge, it is not seen as an obstruction to learning until it is made the objective of educational pursuits in either of the pedagogical systems. There also seems to remain questions regarding how a critical thinking pedagogy effects acquisition of knowledge meaning-receiving. Questions regarding the ability of Islamic seminaries to actually achieve their critical thinking objective still needs to be discussed.
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