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Thinking About Thinking: Can Islamic Nurture Be Critical And Reflective?




‘What is the point of having a sophisticated knowledge of law if you can’t dignify the rights of others?’ – Abdullah Sahin

The academic and traditional literature offers a spectrum of philosophies with regard to the Qurʾān’s approach to learning, nurture and character development. Attas (1999) asserts, for instance, that knowledge is ‘instilled’ into students by their teachers and, therefore, implies there is no scope for a learner to critically engage with what they are being taught. Sahin (2013), on the other hand, adopts a contrasting view argues that the character of nurture in Islam is experiential. More specifically, he argues that the Qurʾān not only accommodates for a critical engagement but actively promotes it.

That Islamic nurture is experiential and critical has precedent in the traditional literature. For example, Ghazālī (d. 1111), in his treatise The Just Balance (2016), not only develops a model of critical thinking from the Qurʾān itself, but he also coined the term from a Qurʾanic verse, ‘And weigh with the just balance’ [26:182].1All translations of Arabic texts in this paper, unless otherwise stated, are my own. Verses from the Qurʾān are cited with their chapter and verse numbers. This implies, as a corollary, that Ghazālī subscribed to a critical and reflective philosophy towards nurture and education, and advocated it to his audiences. Zuḥaylī (2008) suggests the mainstream position among legal scholars is that the Qurʾān advocates a critical reflection of life and experiences; they substantiate it with a myriad of evidences, including the Qurʾanic verse, ‘So, take a lesson [from the events you experience], O those who [can] observe’ [59:2].

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It is important to know that the Qurʾān and Sunnah acknowledge the diversity of humankind [30:22]. People are different, and, as the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, ‘Everyone will find it easy to do that for which they were created’ [Bukhārī: 4949; Muslim: 2647]. Hence, inevitably, there are various outlooks of education and nature that are employed in the Qurʾān, even if the vision may only be one. However, taking selected texts that support one outlook does not justify negating another outlook. For example, even though the Qurʾān contains passages like ‘We hear and we obey’ [4:46], which suggests an uncritical acceptance of certain rituals and worships, it does not negate the fact that nurture in other contexts can be critical and one of engagement, especially for those capable of it. This paper, therefore, aims to explore and identify the salient features of Islamic nurture in light of the central texts of Islam and the engagement of classical scholars with the texts.

Textual justification of a critical engagement: A closer look

A holistic reading of the Qurʾān reveals that while there are indeed passages where believers are expected to ‘hear and obey’, the overwhelming narrative is that of encouraging a critical reflection for hearts to soften and open to accept the truth [5:71; 24:51]. The Qurʾān says, for instance, ‘Do they not, then, contemplate the Qurʾān, or do some hearts have their locks on them?’ [47:24]. The type of vocabulary employed expresses not only spirituality but also a high level reflection and intuition (Sahin, 2013). This is further emphasized in the following verse: ‘It is not the eyes that become blind, but, rather, it is the hearts in the bosoms that become blind’ [22:46]. More directly, the Qurʾān challenges skeptics to critically engage with its messages and try to find incoherent content: ‘Do they not, then, contemplate the Qurʾān? Had it been from other than Allāh, they would have found in it much incongruity’ [4:82].

Not only does the Qurʾān make direct imperatives of critical thinking and reflection; it also puts its own teachings into practice. In Sūrat al-Wāqiʿah, the Qurʾān entertains its listener (or reader) by directly engaging in a critical reflection whose conclusions lead to profound nurture:

‘And you certainly know of the first [time We] created [you], so why will you not take heed?

Have you seen what you plant [in the ground]?


Is it you who grow it or We who grow [it]?


Had We willed, We could have made it broken straw, leaving you to marvel,

[saying:] ‘Indeed, we are in debt.

Rather, we are deprived.’

Have you seen the water that you drink?


Is it you who send it down from the clouds or is it We who send [it] down?


Had We willed, We could have made it salty [but We did not], so why will you not be grateful [that We did not make it salty]?


Have you seen the fire that you kindle?


Is it you who produced its tree [as fuel] or is it We who produced [it]?


It is We who made it a reminder [for you of Our work] and a benefit for the travelers.


Thus, hymn the name of your Lord, the Almighty’ [56:62-74].

In addition to advocating a critical engagement and adopting it in its own discourse, the Qurʾān also strongly condemns an uncritical attitude towards philosophical worldview in particular and life in general [7:28]. The Qurʾān recalls, for instance, the remorse of those who uncritically accepted the words of their elders and leaders, trusting them to lead them in good but ending up on the wrong path. They will say on the Day of Judgement, ‘Our Lord, we obeyed our leaders and elders, and they thus led us astray from the path. Our Lord, give them double suffering, and curse them a mighty curse’ [33:67-68].

Likewise, the Qurʾān acknowledges the intelligence and maturity of Prophet Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) in his youth [21:51]. It then illustrates an episode in his younger life that not only shows a clear case of critical engagement, but it also condemns the idea of blind faith. According to the Qurʾān’s narrative, Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) once broke all the idols of his people and left the greater one standing. Once the people came home, they enquired as to who broke the idols, to which Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) engaged his audience critically and responded with his famous words, ‘Rather, this big one of theirs did it; ask them, if they can speak’ [21:63]. After the people explicitly acknowledged that idols cannot speak or do anything, Abraham rebuked them, saying, ‘Shame on you […] do you have no sense?’ [21:67].

This incident demonstrates an exemplary case of critical thinking as well as purposeful reflection in nurture. The critical engagement enables for an objective discussion on theology, and the reflection provoked thought, insofar as Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was concerned, with regard to the purpose behind worshiping idols when they cannot speak or defend themselves, nor cause benefit or harm to their worshipers. It is as though Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was asking: ‘What is the point in creating idols of stone that can neither benefit nor harm you and worshiping them instead of the one true God, who created you?’ It is this sentiment that Dr Sahin expressed in a 2018 seminar at the University of Warwick when he said, ‘What is the point of having a sophisticated knowledge of law if you can’t dignify the rights of others?’

Case studies

Not only is the Qurʾanic narrative of Islamic nurture one of critical engagement, but classical scholars of the Qurʾān and Sunnah also applied this approach in their own works. Exploring a few case studied by Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373), a classical scholar accepted by all mainstream Muslims, will demonstrate the existence of numerous methods of a critical approach in understanding the sacred scripture of Islam.

1.0  Intra-textual cross-referencing:

The great Levantine exegete and historian Ibn Kathīr (1999) exhibits a critical engagement with the Qurʾān to decipher which of his sons Prophet Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was ordered to slaughter, Ishmael 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) or Isaac 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Acknowledging that the early Muslims maintained two contrasting opinions on the matter, Ibn Kathīr proceeds to critically analyze both positions and offer his own conclusion. Appealing to the coherence of the Qurʾān, Ibn Kathīr entertains the minority opinion that it was Isaac 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) whom Prophet Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was commanded to slaughter. He then explores the rest of the Qurʾān for inferences on the topic, and argues that at least two passages in the Qurʾān imply that it could not have been Isaac who was to be slaughtered. Of them, the most explicit is the prophecy of the birth of Isaac 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) to his then-barren mother, Sarah, where God says, ‘And [Abraham’s] wife was standing [there], laughing [in joy], as we gave her the glad tidings of Isaac, and after Isaac, of Jacob’ [11:71]. Classical exegetes such as Muḥammad ibn Kaʿb al-Quraẓī argue this verse is clear in the fact that Isaac’s progeny will live on, and so this eliminates any possibility of Isaac potentially dying a premature death (Ibn Kathīr, 1999).

Sūrat al-Ṣāffāt is the chapter in the Qurʾān where the incident of the slaughter is mentioned in most detail. In it, Prophet Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) is on record as supplicating to God for offspring, due to which God ‘gave him glad tidings of a forbearing boy’ [37:100-101]. Thus, it is clear that prior to this son, Abraham 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was hitherto childless. The chapter then illustrates the full incident and concludes, after which the Qurʾān begins a new topic and says, ‘And We gave him glad tidings of Isaac, a prophet from among the righteous’ [37:112]. Ibn Kathīr rightly points out that this indicates the son in the preceding passage was someone other than Isaac (Ibn Kathīr, 1999).

It is clear from the above analysis that classical Muslim exegetes engaged with scripture critically. They certainly did not see Islamic nurture – academic or otherwise – to have a character that is not reflective in nature.

2.0 Historical congruence:

The Qurʾān calls for an inquisitive approach to history (Sahin, 2013). After narrating the incident of a certain community being exiled, the Qurʾān urges believers to reflect on the event; it says, ‘So, take a lesson [from the events you experience], O those who [can] observe’ [59:2]. This is the same verse the legal scholars relied on in justification of the usage of analogies and critical thinking to extend rulings into new contexts (Zuḥaylī, 2008). Known for his astute acumen, the erudite scholar Ibn Kathīr demonstrated in his magnum opus a critical reading of the Qurʾān in light of historical data – this time, opposing the status quo.

The Qurʾān makes mention of a tale of the ‘people of the settlement,’ to whom two messengers were sent, who were then joined by a third [36:13-29]. Many exegetes assert that the settlement in reference to this passage was the city of Antioch, and the three apostles sent to them were three disciples of Prophet Jesus – some suggesting they were Simon Peter, John and the controversial Paul (Ibn Kathīr, 1999).

Ibn Kathīr pauses and takes a closer look at the issue: Is this interpretation congruent with what is known of history? Ibn Kathīr, who himself was an accomplished historian, rightly notes that Antioch was among the first townships to accept the message of Christ, along with three others: Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome. He argues that the Qurʾān could not have been alluding to Antioch in this passage, as it is evident from the end of the story that the town was destroyed, while Antioch had never encountered any such disasters (Ibn Kathīr, 1999).

He makes another observation – that is, if the incident is referring to three Disciples of Christ, it necessarily follows, by greater reasoning, that it was after the revelation of the Torah, as the revelation of the Torah preceded Christ by many centuries. Accordingly, the early Muslims noted that God Almighty had not destroyed any nation in totality after having revealed the Torah, as implied in the verse: ‘And We surely gave Moses the Scripture after We had destroyed the previous nations’ [28:43]. The critical exegete thus concludes that the incident in question cannot be in reference to the city of Antioch (Ibn Kathīr, 1999).

This engagement too exemplifies how classical Muslim historians and exegetes sought congruence between their metaphysical beliefs and the world around them in which they live. Rather than having an uncritical approach to accepting the tradition as granted, erudite historians such as the Damascene Ibn Kathīr did not shy away from reflecting on the verses and critically analyzing them in light of his knowledge of history, even if that led him to challenge the status quo.

Potential objections

1) Verses demanding submission

One could argue that the above case studies are not in line with the basic concept of ‘surrendering’ – the literal meaning of Islam. They could present texts from the Qurʾān itself that negate this type of critical engagement with religious matters, demanding an uncritical acceptance of scripture and law. For example, the Qurʾān says, ‘It does not befit a believing man or woman that, when Allāh and His messenger have decided a matter [for them], they should have any [say] in their matter’ [33:36]. Elsewhere, the Qurʾān remarks, ‘And had they merely said, ‘We hear and we obey,’ […] it would have been better for them and sounder’ [4:46].

An obvious answer to the above would be that the two concepts – namely, a critical or reflective nurture and submission to God – are not mutually exclusive. Rather, one adds nuance to the other. In reality, as is understood from the context, the verses that imply a ‘hear and obey’ narrative are related to specific matters related to rituals and worship – that is, accepting the divine law. They concern not the believers’ spiritual and academic growth (or nurture) but, rather, tests their docility and readiness to submit to the rituals and carry out the worships that God demands of them. Due to the fact that many rulings are super-rational, reflecting on them will not only raise more questions than answers but also be contrary to the spirit of obedience. This is supported by another verse in the Qurʾān: ‘By your Lord, they will not [considered as those who truly] believe until they make you arbitrate between the disputes that arise among them, and then find no hesitation in their hearts with regard to your decision, and [until] they submit a [full] submission’ [4:65)] (Ibn Kathīr, 1999). After all, Islam by definition means to submit one’s self to the Creator (Sahin, 2013).

That the concept of uncritical acceptance is restricted to divine laws and rituals alone is evident from the Qurʾān’s own command of critically analyzing news from fallible human beings. It reads, ‘O you who believe, if a sinner brings you news, ascertain [the truth by verifying or falsifying it], lest you unknowingly wrong others, then regretting what you have done’ [49:6]. This verse offers a compelling case that critical thinking and analysis is to be applied in all aspects of life, bar the context of surrendering to the will of God through worshipping Him and carrying out His rituals. Therefore, it would be incorrect to extend the verses of submission to contexts beyond that of submission and entertain the idea that the character of Islamic nurture is uncritical.

2) The practice of the mystics

Another case could be presented that there have been mystical groups and figures who claimed to possess a high level of esoteric knowledge, which led them to maintain a hostile attitude towards the exoteric sciences, which require a reflective and critical engagement to gain academic growth and spiritual nurture. They, therefore, forbade their followers from reading legal texts and engaging with knowledge – to the extent that they called knowledge a ijāb (barrier) from spiritual prosperity (Abū Ghuddah, 2010).

In his critical edition of al-Muḥāsibī’s Risālat al-Mustarshidīn, ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah (2010) makes a compelling case clarifying that the uninformed mystics have adopted a method that is alien to Islam’s foundational sources of guidance, the Qurʾān and Sunnah. Since the mystics prefer to appeal to human authority rather than reason or scripture, Abū Ghuddah (d. 1997) too appeals to personalities whom all mainstream Muslims accept as authority. He quotes the erudite scholar Junayd of Baghdad (d. 910) as saying, ‘This way of ours is bound by the foundations, the [Qurʾān] and Sunnah. So, whoever has not learnt the Qurʾān, written the Sunnah or studied law is not fit to be followed’ (Abū Ghuddah, 2010). This implies that those who seek nurture through mysticism or esoteric sciences ought to not strip themselves of critical thought. Rather, even practitioners of esoteric sciences and mysticism are required to critically analyze their practices in line with the guidelines of the Qurʾān and Sunnah.

More clearly, however, the Egyptian legal scholar and mystic al-Shaʿrānī (d. 1565) is on record as criticizing such practitioners of mysticism, saying: ‘Be with the law, however that may be, not with inspirations, as they could be mistaken. One should likewise continually read the books of law, contrary to what is done by the pseudo-mystics, for whom a ray of the path has beamed, and so they prohibited the reading of legal texts, saying it is a barrier [to knowledge], out of ignorance’ (Abū Ghuddah, 2010).

It is clear from the above that the mystics were opposed by the mainstream Muslim scholarship with respect to their advocating a lack of critical reflection. Thus, not only did they never reflect the mainstream understanding of Islamic nurture; but the earlier founders of mystical orders like Junayd of Baghdad taught that the character of Islamic nurture ought to be critical and reflective, even in the context of mysticism and esoteric sciences.


Despite academics disagreeing on the character of Islamic nurture, a closer look at the foundations of Islam suggests the matter is nuanced. That is, any type of nurture or growth – whether spiritual, academic or otherwise – is to be critical and objective, as well as reflective and with purpose. This is overwhelmingly supported by numerous verses of the Qurʾān itself, as well as the practice of mainstream Muslim scholarship.

As for the verses that demand total submission, they refer to rituals alone and cannot be extended to other contexts, as is understood from the Qurʾān itself. The verses are also not in contrast with the idea of reflective nurture; rather, once a critical and reflective nurture leads one to believe in the existence of one God and His oneness, it necessarily follows that He is to be worshipped. Moreover, it is the nature of rituals and worships that they are accepted uncritically as law, not because they are void of wisdom but because they are many a times super-rational whose deeper wisdoms cannot be comprehended without further details from the Lawgiver. Further still, Islam by definition means ‘to surrender,’ and so this element cannot be removed from the bigger picture. More importantly, it is not mutually exclusive with the critical and reflective character of Islamic nurture.



Al-Attas, S. N., (1979). The Concept of Education in Islam: a Framework for an Islamic Philosophy of Education. Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC).

Al-Bukhārī, M. I., (2011). Al-Jāmiʿ al-aḥīḥ. Beirut: Al-Risālah al-ʿĀlamiyyah, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnaʾūṭ et al.

Al-Ghazālī, A. H., (2016). Al-Qisṭās al-Mustaqīm. Jeddah: Dār al-Minhāj.

Ibn al-Ḥajjāj, M., (2010). aḥīḥ Muslim. Damascus: Dār al-Fayḥāʾ, ed. Muwaffaq Marʿī.

Ibn Kathīr, A. F., (1999). Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm. Riyadh: Dār al-Ṭaybah, ed. Sāmī ibn Muḥammad Salāmah.

Al-Muḥāsibī, H., (2010). Risālat al-Mustarshidīn. Beirut: Dār al-Bashāʾir al-Islāmiyyah, ed. ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah.

Sahin, A., (2013). New Directions in Islamic Education: Pedagogy & Identity Formation. Markfield: Kube Publishing Ltd.

Al-Zuḥaylī, W., (2008). Al-Wajīz fī Uṣūl al-Fiqh. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr.


Related reading:

Islamic Pedagogy and Critical Thinking: Does Islamic Pedagogy Want Critical Thinkers?

Islamic Pedagogy and Critical Thinking: Does Islamic Pedagogy Want Critical Thinkers?

Podcast: A Critical Look At Islamic Pedagogy

Podcast: A Critical Look At Islamic Pedagogy


Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Shaykh Shahin-ur Rahman graduated in 2014 from a traditional Islamic seminary in the UK. In 2021, he completed a master’s degree at the University of Warwick in 2021 in Islamic Education: Theory and Practice. A thinker, educator and writer, he is the founder of Al-Rahma, a daʿwah platform based in his hometown of Northampton. Professionally, the shaykh works as a curriculum writer for a publishing house in London.

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