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ISLAMIC VERSUS WESTERN CONCEPTIONS OF EDUCATION:

REFLECTIONS ON EGYPT

BRADLEY J. COOK
Abstract Creating an education system based on Islamic principles while also
meeting the demands of a modern, technological world is a daunting, perhaps impos-
sible task. This paper examines the contradictions between Islamic education theory
and the Western-based education systems found in most Islamically oriented coun-
tries. Egypt is used as a case study to illustrate the complex and delicate balance policy
makers must achieve in meeting the needs of economic development while also
affirming their countries Islamic cultural heritage.
Zusammenfassung Der Aufbau eines auf islamischen Prinzipien basierenden
Bildungssystems, das gleichzeitig den Anforderungen einer modernen, technolo-
gisierten Welt entspricht, ist eine entmutigende, vielleicht sogar unmgliche Aufgabe.
Dieses Dokument untersucht die Widersprche zwischen islamischer Bildungstheorie
und den in den meisten islamischen Lndern vorhandenen westlich orientierten
Bildungssystemen. gypten wird als Fallstudie verwendet, um das komplexe,
Feingefhl erfordernde Gleichgewicht zu verdeutlichen, das die Politiker bentigen,
um den Erfordernissen der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung Genge zu leisten und
gleichzeitig das islamische Kulturerbe des Landes zu strken.
Rsum Llaboration dun systme ducatif reposant sur les principes islamiques
et rpondant en mme temps aux exigences dun monde moderne et technologique
est une tche ardue, sinon impossible. Cet article analyse les contradictions entre la
thorie de lducation islamique et les systmes ducatifs caractre occidental, qui
sont en place dans la plupart des pays orients sur lislam. LEgypte est lobjet dune
tude de cas qui illustre lquilibre fragile et complexe auquel les dcideurs de poli-
tiques doivent faire face pour rpondre aux besoins du dveloppement conomique,
tout en respectant le patrimoine culturel islamique de leur pays.
Resumen Crear un sistema educacional basado sobre principios islmicos que
tambin cumpla con las exigencias de un mundo moderno y tecnolgico es un cometido
desalentador, cuando no imposible. Este trabajo examina las contradicciones que
existen entre la teora islmica de la educacin y los sistemas educacionales de races
occidentales comprobados en los pases de orientacin principlatmente islmica. Egipto
se ha tomado como caso de estudio para ilustrar el complicado y delicado balance
que los polticos tienen que realizar para satisfacer las demandas del desarrollo
econmico, afianzando al mismo tiempo el legado cultural islmico de sus pases.

International Review of Education Internationale Zeitschrift fr Erziehungswissenschaft
Revue Internationale de lEducation 45(3/4): 339357, 1999.
1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Islams educational response to modernity
Despite its glorious legacy of earlier periods, the Islamic world seemed unable
to respond both culturally and educationally to the onslaught of Western
advancement by the eighteenth century. Contributing to the imbalance of
power was the introduction of foreign modes of administration, law, and social
institutions by the expansionist West. One of the most damaging aspects of
European colonialism was the deliberate deterioration of indigenous cultural
norms by secularism. Secularism, with its veneration of human reason over
divine revelation and precepts of the separation of mosque and state, is
anathema to the Islamic doctrine of tawhid (oneness), where all aspects of life
whether spiritual or temporal are consolidated into a harmonious whole.
Further, European colonialism created a new class of natives to function as
linguistic intermediaries between their Western colonialists and the local
masses. The colonial powers exerted such immense leverage over the com-
mercial and political enterprises of their colonies that local nationals had little
chance of any social mobility unless they were educated in a Western culture
and language. Western institutions of education were infused into Islamic
countries in order to produce functionaries necessary to feed the bureaucratic
and administrative needs of the state. Those collaborating with their colonial
overlords were drawn to modern Western institutions because of what they
could offer in terms of greater opportunity and material amenities. Islamic
education, of course, existed alongside Western education, but only served
those on the political and social periphery. Thus, by the turn of the twentieth
century, most Muslim countries had newly created elites who had a vital
interest in preserving and maintaining Western cultural traditions.
As Islamic countries gradually emerged from their colonial experiences,
political leaders sought to modernize their countries along the lines of Western
development paradigms. Government bureaucrats and officials were usually
modern educated elites who had grown comfortable and affluent with Western
material culture. Most educational policy was based on perpetuating the
secularized systems of which they themselves were a product so as to maintain
their economic and socio-political advantage. What the early educational
modernizers did not fully realize was the extent to which secularized educa-
tion fundamentally conflicted with Islamic thought and traditional lifestyle
340
(Mohamed 1993: 17). Religious education was to remain a separate and
personal responsibility, having no place in public education. If Muslim
students wanted religious training, they could supplement their existing edu-
cation with moral instruction in traditional religious schools the kuttab and
madrasa. As a consequence, the two differing educational systems evolved
independently with little or no official interface.
The imposition and lingering influence of Western secularist approaches
to education has been vehemently criticized by contemporary Islamic schol-
arship as doing immeasurable damage to the moral, spiritual and ethical values
of Islamic culture and heritage (Ali 1984: 51). Having two parallel streams
of secular and religious education has drawn virtually unanimous condemna-
tion in the Islamic world as a hindrance to national development and the
epitome of Muslim decline (Faruqi 1982). Two prominent professors of
Islamic education describe the current situation in these terms:
There are at present two systems of education. The first, traditional, which has
confined itself to classical knowledge, has not shown any keen interest in new
branches of knowledge that have emerged in the West nor in new methods of
acquiring knowledge important in the Western system of education. . . . The second
system of education imported into Muslim countries, fully subscribed to and sup-
ported by all governmental authorities, is one borrowed from the West. At the head
of this system is the modern University, which is totally secular and hence non-
religious in its approach to knowledge. Unfortunately, these people educated by
this new system of education, known as modern education, are generally unaware
of their own tradition and classical heritage. It is also not possible for this group
to provide such leadership as we have envisaged. (Husain and Ashraf 1979: 1617)
Many Islamic educators point inwards to the universal Muslim Community
(umma) for the source of continued cultural dualism found in their countries.
Criticism is levelled at Muslim intellectual or political leaders who have
neglected, intentionally or otherwise, the cultural problems associated with
educational dualism found in most educational systems in the Islamic world.
The current leadership, notes Ibrahim Sulaiman (1985: 32) has continued to
hold the reins of government in all these [Islamic] countries in cynical and
damaging succession creating a neo-colonial status which the umma cannot
escape. According to some, the Islamic leadership not only lacks the vision
necessary for meaningful change, but perpetuates an education system that
produces students who are deluded hybrids (idem). On one level students
of these systems remain Islamic in performing the outward duties of Muslims
(i.e., prayer, mosque attendance, etc.) but retain the trappings of Western
thought, dress and language.
Criticisms of this ilk, along with the general rise in Islamic consciousness,
have forced many Islamic leaders to take a different strategy towards educa-
tional policy. The Islamic solution has gained greater popular and emotional
appeal as disillusionment with Western-inspired socio-political systems
increases. Islams renewed vigor has encouraged the return of many Islamic
countries to traditional religious values in education. Greater attention, there-
341
fore, is being given to Islam in contemporary education policy out of sheer
political expediency. As is the case with Egypt and some other Islamic coun-
tries, policy makers pay homage to religious education in the public sector,
if only rhetorical, in order to alleviate extremist demands. The resultant effect
has been various permutations and often superficial combinations of Islamic
and Western education systems.
The First World Conference on Muslim Education in Mecca in 1977
Creating an education system based on Islamic principles while also
accounting for the modernizing needs of contemporary society has not been
a simple process. It was for this purpose that Muslim scholars, educators and
policy makers from around the world gathered from 31 March to 8 April in
1977 for the First World Conference on Muslim Education. The conference
was a landmark in Islamic education for it was the first attempt of its kind
to remove the dichotomy of religious and secular education from the current
education systems of Islamic countries (Al-Attas 1979: v). Fourteen com-
mittees were formed to discuss, analyze and make recommendations on
fourteen different issues. Following the conference the Mecca Declaration was
drawn up and signed by all of the heads of Muslim states signifying the com-
mitment to Islamic education at all levels of government. The conference gen-
erated several follow-up conferences and inspired a number of initiatives,
organizations and specialized professional journals dealing exclusively with
the problem of Islamic education. Those calling for Islamization of educa-
tion consider it one of the keys to the revitalization of Islam. The conference
resulted in the most comprehensive collection of theory and practical recom-
mendations for Islamic education found anywhere to date. However, monu-
mental as the Meccan conference was, and important as the philosophical
foundations were that it laid, problems are legion when it comes to formu-
lating and implementing concrete solutions. Indeed, since 1977, only a few
isolated examples of successful Islamicized education systems can be cited.
Even that ancient bulwark of conservatism, Al Azhar, can only point to
limited success in eliminating the secular/religious dichotomy (Tibawi 1972:
120). Despite a widespread and sometimes deep consciousness of the
dichotomy of education, says Fazlur Rahman, all efforts at a genuine inte-
gration have been largely unfruitful (1982: 130). Thus, by and large, no
system has really provided a model which is completely satisfactory from a
Muslim perspective. The abundant literature and academic discourse on
Islamic educational theory is persuasive and compelling, but that appears to
be where it ends. How to solve the issues related to modernity and develop-
ment while at the same time maintaining the cultural and religious integrity
of the umma remains an elusive and monumental task. On a pragmatic level,
modern Islamic nations still struggle to meet the scientific and technological
changes demanded by the modern period. Modernity and development, in
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the minds of many Muslim policy makers, are still closely linked to Western
modes of doing things. In addition, with the resurgence of Islamic feeling in
many countries, many leaders have had to make efforts to temper the radical
elements inside this movement.
The case of Egypt
Egypt is a country comprising approximately 90% Muslims and where secular
experiments have yielded little relief from unemployment and slow economic
production, increasing numbers of Muslims are turning to Islam as a principal
means of facing an uncertain future. Since it was declared as the official
religion of State by the 1964 Constitution, Egyptian policy makers do not
underestimate the potency of a politicized Islam and the emergence of various
Islamic movements as more secular forces appear to erode Islamic values
and ideals. On the other hand, Egypt acutely realizes that it cannot exist in
isolation and a considerable amount of Western aid and technology is required
to achieve domestic and regional objectives. Educational initiatives that inten-
tionally target Western economic integration, such as the 1995 Mubarak-Kohl
Agreement for the Development of Technical Education in Egypt, reinforce
pragmatic links with a technologically superior West (Arab Republic of Egypt
1996: 6872). Egyptian policy officials point out:
We are all confronted with the challenges of the twenty-first century, something
which we must realize. Furthermore, we have to absorb the required mechanisms
for change, and the present age is characterized by competition and diversity. We
cannot escape this reality or violate its laws. It is a reality which requires each
and every one of us to absorb the facts of this present age and to prepare our-
selves from now onwards (Arab Republic of Egypt 1995: 190).
Egypts national education system is struggling for survival against an
onslaught of overwhelming political, social and economic problems. Rapid
urbanization, rampant population growth, inefficient allocation of resources
and economic dependency all combine against the successful implementa-
tion of even the most carefully designed reform initiatives. Insufficient funds
for materials and equipment, the lack of adequate physical facilities and the
sheer magnitude of class enrollments severely hamper educative efficacy. The
educational crisis (al-azma al-talim), as President Hosni Mubarak and other
leading officials call it, is manifesting itself in the growing rates of illiteracy,
unemployment and economic underdevelopment.
2
In 1991, Egypt launched its
National Project (Mashru al-Qawmi) to address the infrustructural and the
socio-economic challenges facing the countrys education system. An area of
particular emphasis has been on technical and scientific education, since
modern education takes place under conditions imposed by the technically
adept West. Egyptian policy makers are intensely aware of this fact and are
making gestures to accommodate it.
343
The National Project, while primarily designed to confront Egypts socio-
economic woes, does exhibit caution in not offending the socio-religious sen-
sibilities of its Muslim constituency. In a speech to the Peoples Assembly in
1991, President Mubarak said: We have to agree that the coming years are
the years for developing and promoting culture in Egypt. A great task lies
ahead of us which can never by underestimated.
3
Not only is the task of the
National Project to produce a better workforce imbued with the principles,
values and labour skills needed for a technological society, but also for rein-
forcing the values of religion; (tarsiq a-qiyam a-diniya)
4
a daunting, perhaps
an impossible task, as we will shortly see. In a document outlining prescrip-
tive measures for confronting the crisis, a statement reads:
Religious and moral values should be deeply ingrained among our children.
Religious instruction should motivate our children to adhere to desirable values
and morals. . . . The curricula for religious education should be revised and devel-
oped to match the changing levels of understanding of children at various stages.
(Arab Republic of Egypt 1996: 55)
Herein lies the awesome challenge of the Egyptian education system:
creating a system which gives adequate attention to religious instruction to
maintain cultural values, while at the same time providing education and skills
to students so they may succeed and contribute to the needs of a developing
and modernizing country. A system espousing too many Western secular
values might introduce elements which are alien to the spirit of Islam and
spark further religious opposition from Islamists. On the other hand, Islamic
education of the old variety fails to adequately prepare students for the
modern, technological world. Furthermore, too much attention paid to the
demands of conservative orthodox thinking could disenfranchize Egypts
leaders from the moderate majority. The quest is obviously modernization
without Westernization, and Islamization without extremism a complex and
delicate balance. In the meantime, the current fragmentation and superficial
mixture of secularized and religious courses in Egypts public education
system is completely alien to the fundamental principle of tawhid.
Islamists in Egypt and throughout the Islamic world are calling for edu-
cational reform of a revolutionary sort to rejuvenate their societies. The
governing bodies of these countries interpret educational reform along a
variant Western-secular conception. Understanding Islamic educational theory
will help us understand the Islamist side of the debate and appreciate the extent
to which they see the Islamization of education as a crucial factor in eradi-
cating the dichotomized, Western-secular influences eroding their culture.
Aims and objectives of Islamic education
Three terms are used in Arabic for education, each differing in connotation
but embodying the various dimensions of the educational process as perceived
344
by Islam. The most widely used word for education in a formal sense is the
word talim, stemming from the root alima (to know, to be aware, to perceive,
to learn) relating to knowledge being sought or imparted through instruction
and teaching. Tarbiya, coming from the root raba (to increase, grow, to rear)
implies a state of spiritual and ethical nurturing in accordance with the
will of the Lord, al-Rabb. Taadib comes from the root aduba (to be cultured,
refined, well-mannered) and suggests the social dimensions of a persons
development of sound social behavior. What is meant by sound requires a
deeper understanding of the Islamic conception of the human being. Recom-
mendations made by the scholars at the First World Conference on Muslim
Education provide this definition:
Man according to Islam is composed of soul and body . . . he is at once spirit and
matter . . . man possesses spiritual and rational organs of cognition such as the
heart (qalb) and the intellect (aql) and faculties relating to physical, intellectual
and spiritual vision, experience and consciousness. . . . His most important gift is
knowledge which pertains to spiritual as well as intelligible and tangible realities.
(Al-Attas 1979: 157)
Education, as envisaged in the context of Islam, claims to be a process
which involves the complete person, including the rational, spiritual and social
dimensions of the person. As discussed previously, Islam provides a complete
code of life and strives for a balanced, harmonious weltanschauung repre-
sented by the concept of tawhid. The comprehensive and integrated approach
to education in Islam strives to produce a good, well-rounded person aiming
at the balanced growth of the total personality . . . through training Mans
spirit, intellect, rational self, feelings and bodily senses . . . such that faith is
infused into the whole of his personality (Al-Attas 1979: 158). In Islamic
educational theory the general objective of gaining knowledge is the actual-
ization and perfection of all dimensions of the human being. Man is intended
to act as the vicegerent of God (khalifat Allah) who, in order to fulfill this
holy obligation, must submit himself completely to Allah (Abdullah 1982:
116). Indeed, it is obedience which is the summum bonum of mans exis-
tence, as is illustrated in the Quranic verse: I have not created jinn and
mankind except to serve Me (Quran 51: 56). Perfection then, which is the
ultimate aim of Islamic education, can only be achieved through obedience
to God. While education does prepare man for happiness in this life, its
ultimate goal is the abode of permanence and all education points to the per-
manent world of eternity (al-akhirah) (Nasr 1984: 7). Education is, or at least
should be in Islam, inseparable from the spiritual life.
The perfect model for mankind to emulate from an Islamic perspective is
the education of the Prophet Muhammed through Gods final message, the
Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet are the immutable sources
for all aspects of both temporal and spiritual life. The Quran is, as the founder
of the International Federation of Muslim and Arabic Schools wrote, the
perennial foundation for Islamic systems of legislation and of social and
345
economic organization. It is last but not least the basis of both moral and
general education . . . and the core, pivot and gateway of learning (Al-Saud
1979: 126127). As long as the Quran remains central to the educational cur-
riculum, there is a guarantee that the Muslim umma will keep its integrity
and authentic character (idem: 127). The Prophet Muhammed was the highest
and most perfect example of al-insam al-kamil, and the function of education,
as Al-Attas remarks (1985: 200), is to produce men and women resembling
him as near as possible. The teachings of the Quran and the example of the
Prophet constitute the spiritual pattern of early Islamic education, which
resulted in the blossoming prosperity of Islamic civilization. With this assump-
tion, it follows then that the current crisis in Islam and the erosion of the
spiritual and moral foundations in the Islamic world is the result of the umma
straying from Gods intended course and from the program of [true] Islamic
education (Qutb as found in Toronto 1992: 96).
If the goal of education is the balanced growth of the human character,
the heart (qalb) (the seat of the spirit and affection, conscience, feelings,
intuition) should receive equal attention to the intellect (aql), reason (mantiq)
and mans rational dimensions. To ascertain truth by complete reliance on
reason alone is restrictive since both spiritual and temporal reality are two
sides of the same sphere. Indeed, the highest form of knowledge is the per-
ception of God (idrak), which cannot be realized in any other way than through
faith (iman). Revelatory knowledge is the most elevated form of knowledge,
not only because it relates to God and the understanding of His attributes,
but because it provides an essential foundation for all other forms of knowl-
edge. To favor reason at the expense of spirituality hampers balanced growth.
Exclusive training of the intellect, for example, is inadequate in developing
and refining elements of love, kindness, compassion and selflessness, which
have an altogether spiritual ambiance and can only be appealed to by processes
of spiritual training. Separating the spiritual development of the human being
from the rational, temporal aspects of the same person, says one prominent
Islamic educationalist, is the main cause for the disintegration of the human
personality (Ashraf 1993: 2).
Education is thus a twofold process acquiring intellectual knowledge
(through the application of reason and logic), and spiritual knowledge (which
is derived from divine revelation and spiritual experience). According to the
educational weltanschauung of Islam, provision must be made equally for
both. Acquiring knowledge in Islam is not meant to be an end unto itself, but
only a means to stimulate a more elevated moral and spiritual consciousness
leading to faith and righteous action.
Inadequacies of Western/secular education from an Islamic perspective
According to many Muslim thinkers, the philosophical shortcoming of most
modern systems of education in the Islamic world is that they do not reflect
346
the fundamental aims and objectives of Islamic education. Contemporary
policy makers are simply products of the Western social and cultural milieu,
adopting Western modes of curriculum development administrative structures
and pedagogical tools. Shahed Ali (1984: 52) comments:
Our intellect is steeped in the norms and forms evolved by the West. Systems of
education in our schools, colleges and universities are mostly imported; these are
not our own systems; they are fashioned after the outlook and model of Western
educational systems.
As such, they do no represent the religious values implicit in Islam and
fall short in educating the whole person. Modern/Western education and
research, are insufficient in Islamic society because they have been totally
cut off from the spiritual roots (ibid.). The source of any system of educa-
tion, according to Ali,
should be traced to its philosophy of life, and a system of education is organically
connected with the ethical and moral values that spring from that philosophy. . . .
When such a short-sighted policy prevails, social cohesion and collective initia-
tive for the well-being of the community becomes a far cry. (Ibid.)
Egypt and other countries like it, according to Islamic educational theory,
cannot modernize their education systems along Western lines without seri-
ously compromising their essential Islamic character. Western philosophies of
education are fundamentally at variance with Islam because of the absence
of properly integrated religion in the Western curriculum. Scathing attacks
on the dissonant influences of Western educational theory on the Muslim world
have featured prominently in the literature on Islamic educational theory. What
most Muslim theorists take particular issue with are the Western notions of
liberalism and secularism, which aim at delivering man first from the reli-
gious and then the metaphysical control over his reason and his language
(Al-Attas 1985: 15).
A characteristic of Western/modern education is its primary reliance on the
rational faculties for the discovery of truth. Reality is restricted to sensual
experience, scientific procedure or processes of logic. Secular education strives
principally for the development of the rational life of every individual (Hirst
as cited in Halstead 1995: 35). Islam is not unique in claiming that this sort
of posture represents only one level of reality. The debate between secular
scientists and Christians, for example, has been raging for centuries over
whether spiritual experience is a legitimate means of determining truth. In
Islam revelatory experience, intuition and faith are not only valid, but are
absolutely necessary in ascertaining the highest of truths, the nature of God.
Al-Attas, in particular, has expounded on the weaknesses of the secular sci-
entific method, claiming that its preoccupation with natural phenomena
prevents unnecessarily the discovery of whole truth. Fixating only on observ-
able objects and events, says Al-Attas, limits truth because they point to
347
themselves as the sole reality and not any other Reality (1985: xix). Secular
science tries to interpret reality only with the empirically verifiable. In Islam
this definition of science has its defects because direct observation is no more
than outward appearances, perceived through human senses (El-Nejjar 1986:
5963), which by the standards of experimental science are innately limited.
Therefore, human senses can perceive evidences of truth, but not the truth
itself.
Islam does not reject science and technology per se, but rather the per-
vading Western philosophy of secular science. After all, at the height of its
glory, the Islamic empire was considered the vanguard of science and tech-
nology. However, science and technology as they are presented today bear the
distinct mark of a Western social and intellectual milieu, causing some
Muslims to mistrust it. Badawi explains:
This suspicion is well founded. Western science, it must be remembered, has, for
historical reasons, developed in an atmosphere of hostility towards religion and has
acquired a negative attitude towards religion and has in the process acquired a
negative attitude towards all non-empirical aspects of belief. The basic assump-
tions of Western science are in reality a greater menace to Islamic culture than
any hostile work by orientalists . . . modern education is by definition that type of
education inspired by the West . . . the onslaught of science upon our basic belief
and values is indirect and therefore too obscure for the ordinary person or even
the educated to measure and rebut. (Badawi 1979: 114115)
Sayyid Qutb, an influential thinker in contemporary Islamic thought, argues
that science itself should not be rejected, but its acceptance should be quali-
fied. Islam, he says, is in harmony with the laws of the universe and the
nature of existence (fitrat al wujud) (Qutb as found in Moussalli 1990: 322).
Science, pure and applied, can be accepted on the condition that it does not
exceed its limits by trying to interpret philosophically what exists. Qutb argues
that man neither has knowledge, nor the ability to know the entire order of
this universe, and hence, neither empiricism nor rationalism is satisfactory
instruments for the expression of complete truth (idem: 324). Islam empha-
sizes the concept of tawhid, and as Qutb states, the universe is a unity
composed of visible and the invisible unknown. Life is a unity of material and
spiritual energies whose separation results in imbalance or disturbance (idem:
323). Consequently, any system or philosophy that does not embrace the unity
of the universe is incomplete and fragmentary.
The Western liberal perspective of education also conflicts with Islamic
educational theory in its heavy emphasis on relativism. There is a tendency
in liberal theory to accept a pluralism of personal private beliefs and that all
beliefs are equally justifiable (Hirst 1974: 4). Making claims to the absolute
truth is avoided in liberal education at almost every level. In a recent document
on how to handle controversial subject material in British schools, the inspec-
tors stated that: It can be very helpful for pupils to know their teachers views,
provided these are offered as one among many possible perspectives on an
348
issue with no more weight or truth than any other (Inner London Education
Authority 1983: 48).
The basic assumption in this relativist approach is that there are no
absolutes and that all truth as subjective. Islam considers this sort of rela-
tivism overtly damaging. If all positions are relative and all opinions are con-
sidered as good as the next, on what basis can a society build a reliable and
stable civilization? What will inevitably occur is that the one who shouts
loudest and longest will prevail (Watson 1987: 29). Islam claims to embody
absolute truth, with an innate universal truth within each person. Humans are
able to tap into this universal truth by virtue of their perfect essence (al-insan
al-kamil), which is borne within the depth of ones being. While Islam can
show tolerance for differing moral, aesthetic and cultural perspectives, it
never considers all views to be equally valid (Ashraf 1987: 11). Values in
the secular conception are ever changing and tentative. For a completely
balanced development of a childs moral, spiritual and intellectual dimensions,
and for a society to be built on a foundation of righteousness and justice,
basic universal unchanging norms are necessary (idem: 7).
Liberal education is also characterized by a predominant stress on indi-
vidualism and the freedom of individual choice. What [liberal education]
liberates the person from, comments one noted liberal theorist, is the lim-
itations of the present and the particular (Bailey 1984: 20). According to
most liberal theorists there are no absolute authorities in matters of morality
or how to best live, and therefore education must avoid authoritarian posi-
tions (White 1982, 1984). Bailey goes on to say that a liberally educated
person is released from the restrictions placed on him or her by the limited
and specific circumstances in which he or she is born. Liberal education,
according to Bailey (1984: 21), allows for intellectual and moral autonomy,
the capacity to become a free chooser of what is to be believed and what is
to be done, a free chooser of beliefs and actions in a word, a free moral
agent, the kind of entity a fully-fledged human being is supposed to be and
which all too few are!
Islam, on the other hand, puts must less stress on individual autonomy
than it does on the consensus (ijma) of the community (umma) and respect
for the social contexts and traditions in which an individual originates.
Education and the acquisition of knowledge, then, are good only if they serve
to engender virtue in the individual and elevate the whole community. Islamic
educators criticize the freedom implicit in liberal theory because, as Ashraf
comments:
By denying faith and by creating a conglomeration of multiple choices . . . with
no norm to be guided by, except reason or social values or . . . fashions, the
secularist educationalists create an unsettled situation for children. Doubts and
scepticism are preferred and even encouraged. As a result children have no norm
of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, truth and falsehood (Ashraf
1987: 11).
349
Western liberal education encourages people to align their religious beliefs
with rational principles, helping children to become free agents independent
of the pressures of socialization. Without this ability to make independent
rational choices, people tend toward blind reliance on authority (White 1982:
50). In Islam, however, encouraging students to question their moral beliefs
may merely make them confused and unmeshed with society as it is (Barrow
as cited in Halstead 1995: 40).
The unhealthy material fixation of the West can be directly related to this
sort of individualism. Shahed Ali states that Western forms of education
create a capital I in the psychology of man to the exclusion of the rest of
the world. Self before everything is the only truth, disguised as enlightened
self-interest (Ali 1984: 53). Ali claims that if education becomes secular or
irreligious, material progress and prosperity become the end all and be all of
life. And if an education system focuses on material pursuits to the exclusion
of spiritual and moral training, it will fail to nourish the human soul . . .
enrich human life with noble virtues of love, service and sacrifice (idem).
Strengthening spiritual faith and virtue is imperative in any education system
which seeks to posses an Islamic character.
Secularist critique of Islamic education
The Islamic conceptions of education as outlined above have featured promi-
nently in the educational debate in Egypt, but have had generally negligible
success in actual implementation. The secular/religious dichotomy in Egypts
education system remains entrenched, and the integration of an Islamic per-
spective into the curricula has yet to materialize in any substantial form.
Contemporary Islamist thinking has done little in regard to educational reform
beyond the level of sloganization. Fazlur Rahman assesses the current situa-
tion in the Islamic world in these scathing terms:
neorevivalism has reoriented the modern-educated lay Muslim emotionally toward
Islam. But the greatest weakness of neorevivalism, and the greatest disservice it
has done to Islam, is an almost total lack of positive effective thinking and schol-
arship within its ranks, its intellectual bankruptcy, and its substitution of clich
mongering for serious intellectual endeavor . . . the neorevivalist has produced no
Islamic educational system worthy of the name. (Rahman 1982: 137)
Substantial educational reform in accordance with a unified Islamic con-
ception has in most cases been reduced to theoretical platitudes from the
Islamic scholars (ulama) themselves. The rhetorical ideals of a universal
Islamic system of education solving the plight of Muslims is widespread in
Islamist literature. An example of such sweeping utopian and even naive
language is:
The entire educational system of Muslim countries should be saturated with these
values of Islam. . . . It is the need of the hour for the Muslims to . . . have only
350
one educational system, to be compulsory for every man and woman. . . . This edu-
cation will bring a quick revolution in the thinking, feeling and actions of the
Muslims (Ali 1984: 55).
The Islamic movement generally fails to address how an Islamic educa-
tion system with universal application could overcome the formidable barriers
of the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of the umma. Nor is it clear
how such a system would operate in a pluralistic society with the sentiments
and needs of religious minorities. There has also been a lack of clear thinking
on how an Islamic Alternative could manage the infrastructural problems
endemic in most Islamic countries, i.e. overcrowding, lack of resources, crum-
bling facilities and inadequate equipment. Disparate visions among Islamic
thinkers themselves as how to achieve meaningful Islamization of education
creates further barriers. While some general agreement exists on a philo-
sophical level, there is significant disagreement among the ulama as to the
pragmatic issues of organization, administration, and curriculum development.
A further constraint for the Islamization of education is that governments
in most Islamic countries, while paying lip service to the idealism of Islam,
actively resist the drive toward Islamization. The Mubarak regime in Egypt
has had to navigate a careful, gradualist course that simultaneously reinforces
the values of religion (al-qiyam al-diniya) while avoiding fanaticism and
extremism (tassub wa tatarruf ) (Arab Republic of Egypt 1995: 61). The
Mubarak government acquiesces to the Islamization of education on a
cosmetic level but sternly limits its encroachment upon actual school curricula
and policy. More concessions to Islamism on actual policy would only desta-
bilize the existing social order and increase the political turmoil through
greater inroads by extremism.
The vigorous argument that religion and spirituality should be infused into
education is by no means an issue found only in Islamic countries. Religious
education, or at least moral education, features high on the agenda of most
national education debates even in the West. The debate differs in Egypt in
an important way because it is not characterized by polar differences between
believer and nonbeliever, as is the case in the West, but rather between believer
and believer.
The salient question when looking at the educational debate in Egypt is
what Islam and whose Islam we are talking about when discussing the
appropriate role of Islam in the public sector. Differing interpretations on
the degree to which Islam offers an absolute and complete way to life is at
the heart of the issue. The conception of education as outlined by Islamic
educational theorists would be rejected by certain segments of Egypts more
secularized; many of them claiming that it represents only one interpretation
of Islam and not universal Islam as such. Even among many ilmaniyyum
(secularists) in Egypt, Islam constitutes a deep and meaningful way of life,
but should, in their opinion, be confined to the appropriate private spheres
of life, i.e. the home and the mosque. They diverge from he more asaliya
(traditional) idea that all spheres of life should be unified and inseparable.
351
How Islam translates into public education has been a particularly vexing issue
between the two camps; a dialectic one Egyptian educator characterized as a
debate between the deaf.
5
Western-oriented secularists constitute a high percentage of those in policy
making positions; a fact which most Islamists would see as one of the greatest
hindrances to the Islamization of official educational policy. By virtue of being
products of a Westernized educational system, most secularists have been
influenced by Western humanist thought, predisposing them a perpetuate the
dichotomy between secular and religious education. Secularists not only differ
from Islamists on education in the interpretation of Islam, but also consider
Islamic education theory to be seriously flawed from an epistemological
perspective.
I will now turn to evaluating some of the counter arguments which secular
policy makers make against Islamic education. Liberal, secular educational-
ists primary criticism of Islamic educational theory has been its rigid abso-
lutist posture on truth. Such a dogmatic position, from a secularist perspective,
can only breed intolerance toward other religious or nonreligious ideologies.
By claiming that one has infallible whole truth one implies that all other beliefs
are false, skewed, or only partially true. Clearly, from an absolutist perspec-
tive, differing ideological positions cannot all be presented as true since
accepting the truth of one tradition requires that other traditions be dismissed
as mere truth claims (Halstead 1995: 37). When those espousing a position
of asala want to make Islamic education the norm, do they account for
minority positions, religious or otherwise? Egyptian policy makers perceive
the inherent risks of absolutist thinking in these terms:
The perception of absolute truth (al-haqiqa al-mutliqa) becomes deeply rooted in
the minds of the students, who eventually come to believe there is only one possible
solution or answer to any problem, and that in every situation there is only one
answer or truth, in spite of the fact that there might be several correct answers.
We have suffered a lot from the idea of absolute truth. It has for many years
confined our thinking and has resulted in paving the way for extremism (a-tataraf )
bigotry and addiction. (Arab Republic of Egypt 1996: 5253)
From a liberal perspective, Islamic education is problematic because it
assumes a primacy of religious belief that is based on what Barrow would call
unprovable propositions (Barrow 1981: 147). Nor is it open to critical
scrutiny; both positions are contradictory to the process of educating. If
schools seek to initiate students into a particular Islamic conception of the
world with the intention of committing them to those beliefs, this is not edu-
cation, according to secularists, but indoctrination.
Indoctrination is objectionable according to White because it prevents the
recipient from questioning beliefs and prevents them from critically analyzing
the status of beliefs (1982: 127). The question of freedom arises when there
is a contrived religious agenda, tending toward constraining peoples belief
along narrowly conceived or doctrinaire line. Within the liberal conception
352
of education, children should be allowed to develop into morally autonomous
people without external constraints. Islamic education moulds students into
a predetermined conception of how they should lead their lives and incul-
cates specific kinds of dispositions, which does little to liberate pupils from
ignorance and misconceptions (White 1982: 126).
One of the primary dicta of education in a modern context is to prepare
people for productive employment. The relevance of religious education from
this perspective is unclear since obvious priorities should be given to those
subjects furthering usable skills in the work place. The problem with including
religious education in an already overcrowded school schedule is that there
is simply not enough time to address it in the integrated and comprehensive
way Islamists conceive it. The General Director of Religious Education at
the Egyptian Ministry of Education had this to say about dedicating more reli-
gious instruction to core curriculum time:
There are thirty hours a week of study (for all subjects), and of these, elementary
students receive three hours of religion, while preparatory and secondary students
receive two hours a week. The number of hours spent in religion is sufficient. I
dont think we need more religious education than have. It is a tiny minority of
the population, perhaps three percent, that demand more. But more hours than this
would simply not be appropriate (munasib) for Egypt. If we add two to these, every
subject will also ask for two more, and we would need more than 24 hours a day
to fill requests.
6
Liberal educational theory would also take issue with Islams narrow tran-
scendental justification of education. Education as conceived by Islam is only
good if it inspires virtue in the individual or uplifts the community. The liberal
theorist would say that education and knowledge acquisition need no justifi-
cation. Education can be valued in and of itself and does not need to further
any other agenda. Downie asserts that: The simplest justification for educa-
tion, and perhaps the one which in the final showing is the most satisfactory
is that its intrinsic aims, those states of mind which constitute it, are good
in themselves or desirable for their own sakes (1974: 50).
Since religious belief is a private and subjective matter, it must not be
allowed to determine public issues such as education (Hirst 1974: 3). If
one particular religious position emerges as the norm, then it also becomes
the standard by which the other religious and nonreligious positions are to be
judged. Consequently, says Cox, there is no objective way of choosing
between them. All are based on belief, not on demonstrably proven fact, and
so, ideally, each is as good as the other (Cox 1983: 117). If religion is going
to be studied at all in public education, liberal proponents such as Barrow,
would argue that it needs to be within an academic framework only. Education
in a public forum must not teach religion, but about religion. According to
Barrow, religion can only be taught in public schools as an academic exercise;
for comparative or historical purposes. Religion should not be taught if the
intention is to propagate its ideas to the students (Barrow 1975: 150). This
particular position has been adopted by the American public school system.
353
Conclusions
The purpose of this paper has been to illustrate the conflicting and incom-
patible ideologies between the two camps of asala and ilmaniyya when it
comes to aims and objectives of education is Islam in general and Egypt in
particular. On the one hand, secular forces in Egypt comprising of well-
educated professionals, intellectuals and those holding the lions share of
political influence, advocate ideals of a modern democratic, pluralistic society.
This group, along with the Mubarak government, make conciliatory gestures
to the demands of Islamic reform by allowing religion courses to be mingled
in with the required curriculum. But this group tenaciously maintains the
educational status quo so as to avoid intolerance and fanaticism. On the other
hand, Islamists adamantly insist that the government does not go far enough
in providing an education system of an Islamic character. They argue that a
short-sighted education system that consists of both Western and Islamic
elements destroys social cohesion.
Egypt, by virtue of being an Islamic nation, requires an education system
that is comprehensive, integrated and in alignment with the doctrine of tawhid.
Social cohesion and public well-being are compromised by Egypts current
Western hybrid form of education. On the other hand, extremist Islamic inter-
pretation is highly unrepresentative of the vast majority of Egyptians and
also casts its own cancerous effects on social cohesion. Neither secularism
nor extremism embodies the principles on which Islamic education should
be constructed. Islamic education in Egypt, Islamists would argue, is irrele-
vant only if Islam is not true. Either Gods final message to mankind was
revealed in its entirety through Muhammed and enshrined in the Quran, or it
was not. If it was, then it is incumbent upon Muslim leaders everywhere to
mould their education systems to an Islamic conception. If the truth of Islam
is established, then its relevance follows as a matter of course (see Mills 1874:
69). What is Islam? asks Rosenthal,
Is it a personal faith, piety, and devotion, or is it a religious and political unity for
the community of believers? If the former, then Islam has no role to play in the
public life of a modern Muslim state, and it is unnecessary to confirm or refute
the views of individuals who think so. . . . But if Islam is both a system of beliefs
and practices and a law for the community of believers, then its relevance to the
modern Muslim state and society is uncontestable. (Rosenthal 1965: xi)
The two educational positions of asala and ilmaniyya exhibited in Egypt
are fundamentally incompatible a fact that unfortunately does not bode well
for Egypts educational future.
Notes
1. Cowan, J. M., editor, The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Ithaca,
New York: Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1976). For a more in-depth study of
354
these two terms see Azzam, Maha, Islamic Oriented Protest Groups in Egypt
19711981: Theory, Politics And Dogma (D. Phil Thesis, Oxford University, St.
Catherines College), pp. 5051.
2. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a speech to the Peoples Assembly and Shura
Council on 14 November, 1991 in Arab Republic of Egypt 1995 (7).
3. President Mubarak, speech to the Peoples Assembly and Shura Council on 14
November, 1991, ibid., p. 7.
4. Ibid., p. 61.
5. Interview with Sami Nasser, a professor of Adult Education at the Institute of
Educational Studies at Cairo University on 7 September, 1996.
6. Interview with the General Director of Religious Education in the Egyptian Ministry
in 1991, in Toronto, J. A. (1992) The Dynamics of Educational Reform in
Contemporary Egypt (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University), p. 136.
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The author
Bradley J. Cook is an Assistant Professor of Comparative and International Education
at Brigham Young University in the Department of Educational Leadership and
Foundations. He has had extensive experience in the Middle East both as a student
and a professional in the past twenty years. He has published on educational research
in developing countries and is currently conducting a study of the influence of Islam
on higher education in Egypt.
Contact address: Dr Bradley J. Cook, Brigham Young University, 310F MCKB,
PO Box 25069, Provo, Utah 84602-5069, USA.
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