Education, like democracy, the free market, freedom of the press, and “universal human rights,” is one of those topics whose virtue is seen as self-evident. So is the superiority of the industrially advanced countries in catching up with them. As a result, any package that arrives with one of these magical labels automatically qualifies for the “green channel” at our ports of entry. No questions asked. This uncritical acceptance has severely paralyzed our discussion of all these vital topics. For example, in education, most of our discussions center around literacy statistics and the need to have so many graduates, masters, doctoral students, and so many professionals — engineers, doctors, etc. — in a given country based on the standards in the advanced industrial countries. The central question of the curriculum, and even more so the fundamental question of the purpose of education, usually do not attract our attention; they have already been decided by the “advanced” countries for us and our task is only to follow in their footsteps to reach their level of progress.
Indeed they have. In the “first” world, education has become an extension of the capitalist system. Its aim is to provide skilled workforce for its manufacturing machinery and eager consumers for its products. Stated in a more refined form, the purpose of education is to provide for the economic prosperity of a country. Similarly, on a personal level, the purpose of education today is to be able to earn a respectable living.
While making a halal living and providing for a country’s economic well-being are certainly important Islamic goals, linking education to financial goals is extremely unfortunate. Transform learning centers into mere vocational centers in their perspective and spirit. It degrades education and through it society.
To bring home the vital but forgotten role of education, we must remember that there is a fundamental difference between humans and animals. Instincts and physical needs alone can bring ants, bees, or herds of animals together to live in a fully functioning animal society. Humans don’t work that way. They are not forced by nature to follow only those paths which are necessary for the harmonious functioning of their society. If they are to form a viable and thriving society, they must choose to do so. What drives this choice is the sharing of common goals, beliefs, values and perspectives on life. Without a common framework binding its members, a human society cannot continue to exist; it will disintegrate and be absorbed by other companies. Furthermore, society must ensure that the common ground continues to hold up from generation to generation. This is the true purpose of education. A society’s education system produces the citizens and leaders necessary for that society to function well, now and in the future. His state of health or disease translates directly into the health or disease of the society he is to serve.
Today we find many internal problems — corruption, injustice, oppression, crippling poverty — everywhere we turn in the Muslim world. If we think about it, we can realize that most of these problems are man-made. Which is another way of saying they are largely traceable, directly or indirectly, to the education system that has produced the people who perpetuate the problems. Rulers who sell themselves to foreign powers and subjugate their people; the bureaucrats who impose laws based on injustice; the generals who wage war against their own people; the businessmen who exploit and cheat; the journalists who lie, sensationalize, and promote indecency are all educated people, in many cases “highly” educated people. Their education was meant to prepare them for the roles they are playing in real life. And he did, albeit in a very unexpected way!
The problem affects all strata of society. Why are Muslim communities in the grip of so much materialism today? What should we expect when our entire educational system preaches the gospel of materialism? Why have we effectively relegated Islam to an irrelevant little neighborhood in our public life? Because that’s where our secular education system put it. Why in our behavior towards each other do we see so little evidence of Islamic manners and morals? Because our imported education system is devoid of any moral training. Why are our societies sick? Because our education system is sick.
This is the real crisis of education. Before getting into this mess by importing what was current and popular from the colonial powers, education in our societies has always been the means of nourishing human beings. Moral training, tarbiya, has always been an inalienable part of it. The ustaz, (teacher), was not just a lecturer or a simple practitioner, but a mentor and moral guide. We then recalled the hadith: “No father has given his children a greater gift than a good moral education.” [Tirmidhi]. Our education system has been informed by this hadith. Our darul-uloom still maintain that tradition, but the number of students who pass through their gates is tiny compared to secular schools.
In the United States and Europe, schools were started by the church. Later, when the forces of capitalism overwhelmed them, they shaped them in their image. Moral training was a casualty of that acquisition. But capitalism and its political economy needed people trained to work under these systems. Thus citizenship education was retained as a major, albeit diminishing, component of the curriculum—a religion-free subset of the moral education it replaced. Whatever civilization we see here is largely the result of that remaining component. Versions imported into Muslim countries, however, had that component filtered out as well. And the results are visible.
We can fix our problem once we realize our mistakes. The primary purpose of our education system must be to produce qualified citizens and leaders for the Islamic society. Tarbiya, true Islamic moral education, must be an integral part of it. This must be the soul of our education, not a ceremonial shell. All plans to improve our education will be totally useless unless they are based on a full understanding of this key fact. This requires revamping our curricula, rewriting our textbooks, retraining our teachers, and realizing that we have to do all of this ourselves. We have a rich history of doing so. Are we finally willing to call on our internal treasures to remake education as it was always meant to be?