Re-anchoring Muslim Education

Islamic education system did not collapse; it choked to death, initially, slowly and imperceptibly, but later in broad daylight, in front of the helpless onlookers, over the course of the 11th/17th century. This demise may also be irrevocable.

Despite certain recent attempts to cast away the gloom of that bleak century, there is no denying the fact that it was a century during which on one side of the Mediterranean Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Locke, and Leibniz were overturning the entire order of the cosmos as it was understood on the other side of the Mediterranean, where Burhān al-Dīn Ibrāhīm al-Kūrānī (1615-1690), al-Ḥasan al-Yūsī (1631-1691), Aḥmed Müneccimbāşī (ca. 1631-1702) and ʿAbd al-Ghānī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731) were deeply immersed in the mysteries of the soul, the transient nature of the world, and the opacity of the ephemeral which surrounded them with increasing weight.
In retrospect, the heavy air that filled that fateful century seems to be full of a hitherto unknown slumber that would spread not only in the Ottoman empire, but far and wide, throughout the lands where Muslims had lived for centuries with their internal feuds and external threats, but never at the outer edge of existential obliteration.

A Fateful Century

One one side of the Mediterranean there wereThe other side
Ali al-Qari (d. 1605)Galileo
Mir Zahid Harawi (d. 1689)Kepler
Burhān al-Dīn Ibrāhīm al-Kūrānī (1615-1690)Bacon
Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624)Newton
‘Abd al-Haqq al-Dehlawi (d. 1642)Descartes
Khayr al-Din al-Ramli (d. 1671)Malebranche
al-Ḥasan al-Yūsī (1631-1691)Spinoza
Aḥmed Müneccimbāşī (ca. 1631-1702)Locke
ʿAbd al-Ghānī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731Leibniz

What transpired during the fateful 17th century may not be fully understood until further research and probing but what happened during the 18th century is relatively easier to analyze.

18th Century Deluge

The 18th century (1701–1800) (Rajab 1112 AH – Shaʿbān 1215 AH) started with three powerful empires (the Mughal, the Safavid, and the Ottoman) in apparent full strength and ended with fault lines appearing everywhere. Major Western incursions and influence started to disintegrate these three empires which ruled most of the traditional Muslim lands.

To map out the present with some historic depth, we need to briefly look at the destruction of these three, apparently powerful, empires in the geographical region where Islam had been firmly established for centuries: the Ottoman (689–1343/1290–1924), the Ṣafavid (907–1135/1501–1722), and the Indian Tīmūrī (933–1274/1526–1857).

These three empires had achieved their specific forms through a grand remaking of the Muslim world during the one and a half centuries between the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 and the dawn of the fifteenth century—a period during which the traditional Muslim lands recovered from the large-scale destruction that followed in the wake of the Mongol conquest. True, Baghdad never recovered its past glory or its status as the intellectual capital of the Muslim world, but in its stead new locations attracted scholars and scientists. These included the lands of the later Tīmūrī rulers such as Tīmūr (772–808/1370–1405), Shāh Rukh (808–851/1405–47), and Ulugh Beg (796–853/1394–1449).[1] 

Cairo became the heart of the Islamic scholarship and retained its supremacy during the Mamlūk Sultanate (1250–1517). The Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526), the counterpart of the Mamlūks in the Indian subcontinent, also attracted many Muslim scholars fleeing Mongol invasion and remained a center of scholarship for 320 years, during which it continuously expanded under a series of brilliant rulers, such as ʿAlā al-Dīn Khiljī (r. 696–716/1296–1316) and Muḥammad Tughlaq (727–753/1325–51). Through this great realignment, which produced the three aforementioned empires, the Muslim world recovered, even enhanced, its power and vigor.

These empires had tremendous wealth and resources, yet, they were unable to foresee and prepare for the emergence of what Marshall Hodgson has called “European hegemony”, an outcome of the great transformation of its economic, political, scientific, and industrial institutions. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, this transformation produced such important changes in Europe’s economic, political, and military power that by 1800, not only “all peoples had to adjust their governments to a modern European international political order; but also to adjust their economies—a harder task—to the competition of technically industrialized Europe; and finally to adjust their mental outlook to the challenge of modern science as studied in Europe.”[2] 1800 is, however, already too late, because by the time Napoleon arrived in Alexandria on July 1, 1798, the European hegemony was well-established and unstoppable. Napoleon’s surprise arrival in Alexandria, nevertheless, remains a point of articulation of that hegemony which would manifest with great brutality in the following centuries.

Why did the three Muslim empires collapse?

When did the balance of global power shift in favor of Europe?

How? Why no one in the Umma saw the coming calamity in time to prevent it?

These are weighty questions with which scores of scholars have wrestled since the establishment of the European hegemony. The Reformers’ discourse framed the preceding centuries, especially the seventeenth, as an era “marked by unthinking scholarly ‘imitation’ (taqlīd), crude Sufi pantheism, and ‘syncretic’ and idolatrous popular religious practices.”[3]

Recent scholarship has seriously questioned this narrative in reference to the Ottoman empire. New studies contend that it is no more possible to construe the seventeenth century as a bleak century during which

on one side of the Mediterranean…one encounters Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Locke, and Leibniz, whereas on the other side one encounters popular chroniclers, Sufi diarists, popularizers of medical or occult knowledge, and the like.[4] 

These studies also attempt to deconstruct the “triumph of fanaticism” narrative, propounded by—among others—Halil Inalcik, Marshal Hodgson, and Francis Robinson.[5] There were no fanatics or sword wielding Mullas fighting against scientific rationality. “The evidence behind a ‘triumph of fanaticism’ in the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century is, to sum up, far from compelling. The Kāḍīzādelīs were by all accounts a minority within the scholarly class, and in any case, there is surprisingly little evidence that they were hostile to all the rational sciences.”[6]

Similarly, we now recognize that the Istanbul Observatory, built in 1577 and demolished in 1580, was not demolished because religious scholars opposed astronomy, but because of its use for astrology, especially, for an incorrect prediction about Ottoman victory against the Safavids.[7]

Likewise, the “so-called ‘Ottoman decline thesis’ has also been called into question:

… that is, the notion that towards the end of the sixteenth century, following the reign of Sultan Suleyman I (1520-66), the empire entered a lengthy decline from which it never truly recovered, despite heroic attempts at westernizing reforms in the nineteenth century. Over the last twenty years or so… historians of the Ottoman Empire have rejected the narrative of decline in favour of one of crisis and adaptation: after weathering a wrenching economic and demographic crisis in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire adjusted its character from that of a military conquest state to that of a territorially more stable, bureaucratic state whose chief concern was no longer conquering new territories but extracting revenue from the territories it already controlled while shoring up its image as the bastion of Sunni Islam.[8]

[1] Historians of science have plausibly argued that the “Golden Age of Islamic Astronomy” lies between the middle of the thirteenth and the middle of the fourteenth centuries, and not in the ninth-tenth centuries as was previously assumed. See, for instance, George Saliba, A History of Arabic Astronomy (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 15 and passim.

[2] Marshall G. S. Hodgson, Venture of Islam, 3 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 3: 177.

[3] Khaled El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 2.

[4] Ibid. p. 3.

[5] Ibid. p. 1.

[6] El-Rouayheb, op. cit. p. 26, passim.

[7] D. A. King, “Takī al-Dīn b. Muḥammad b. Maʿrūf,” Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden, Brill, 1960-2002), Vol. 10, 132-133.

[8]  Jane Hathaway, with contributions by Karl K. Barbir, The Arab Lands Under Ottoman Rule, 1516–1800, end edition (New York, Routledge, 2013), pp. 7-8.

Reconstruction Efforts (19th Century Reformers’ Agenda)

There are many ways to understand major winds of change that swept through the Muslim world during this transformative century, but perhaps the following quote would suffice:

“Without flattering the English, I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners, and uprightness, are as like them as a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man.”
Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–99), shortly after receiving the Order of the Star of India at a ceremony held in London on August 6, 1869.

Maqalāt-e Sir Sayyid (Lahore: Majlis Taraqi-e Adab, 14 vols., 1965), vol. 14, 8.

From 20th to the 21st Century

There were many false starts in the 20th century before a mature discourse emerged (see the full article below).

In order to transform Muslim schools to Islamic schools, Islamic framework of learning and teaching needs to be revived. This can be done by using the Ten Foundational Principles first developed by Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. Fūrak al-Asbahānī al-Shāfiʿī (330–406/ 941–1015)—who was the foremost scholar of Arabic language, grammar and poetry, Tafsīr, Kalām and uṣūl in the 4th/10th century.

Foundational Restructuring

The need of the hour is to have a foundational restructuring of Muslim education. This will, insha Allah, provide practical solutions to many pressing needs.

As a start, the meaning of “Education (al-tarbiyya wa-l-taʿlīm) itslef is to be seen through the Qurʾānic and Prophetic teachings.

Thereafter, the four core subjects can be subjected to rigorous filtering through the application of the Ten Foundational Principles:

  1. Languages
  2. History and Social Studies
  3. Mathematics
  4. Science

Ten Foundational Principles

Ten Foundational Principles

  1. al-ḥadd, the definition of a given subject
  2. al-ism, the name
  3. al-mawḍūʿ, the subject matter
  4. al-thamara, the benefit of learning it
  5. al-masāʾil, the issues with which it deals
  6. al-istimdād, the sources
  7. al-wāḍiʿ, the founder
  8. al-nisba, its relation to other subjects
  9. al-faḍl, its rank among other subjects
  10. alḥukm al-shāriʿ, Law-Giver’s Ruling about it

Once these principles are applied at the foundational level, they yield fruit that can be shared with students.

So travel through the earth and

and see the fate of those who rejected (Q 16:36). History is one of the three realms from which the So, travel on earth and see how was the Qurʾān presents data for reflection. Signs from these observable realms (cosmos, history and nafs) provide compelling proofs of continuous Divine presence in human and cosmic affairs. For an authentic Islamic educational framework, one must pay attention to the Qurʾānic view of the cosmos, history, and the human beings, who are the prime addressees of this effort.

Currently, one can hardly find an Islamic school anywhere in the world…

We have millions of Muslims schools, but are they Islamic? How can we know?

Read more…