An Islamic education that is progressive prepares future generations to alter the status quo, and provides alternative solutions to contemporary challenges.
Within Islam, progressive education has always been an important feature of the Islamic faith. Prophet Mohammad’s social position highlights how he taught the Quranic message that challenged the oral traditions and customs that belittled human kind. Thus, the Quran’s oral transmission was the most appropriate way to broadcast Allah’s message to the Meccans. Quranic ayyat were lessons to encourage Meccans to think, ponder, and consider Allah’s message. Of course, some did, but far more rejected it. Yet, as we find in Allah’s message, overtime the mind ponders the complexities and verisimilitudes of life, and their hearts grew larger, breaking the shackles of tradition and custom. But slowly and surely people came into the welcoming fold of Islam.
The nascent Muslim community brought education to both the privileged classes and the illiterate. Quranic ethics encouraged continuous learning for one’s life, livelihood, and the preparation for death. Education had such import, Prophet Mohammad appointed Bilal, a manumitted slave of the ruling classes (and he was not an illiterate as some may want us believe), as an example that the color of a person’s skin did not make a difference in their level of intelligence, nor the devotion of their heart to Allah. Even the adhan, in actuality, is a call to people to seek their religious education – one found in the Abrahamic faiths, and beyond.
Over the centuries, many have joined this process – educating the minds and hearts of humankind – teaching and demonstrating Islam in their personal lives. Even one of the Prophet’s surviving companions, Umar, encouraged later generations of Muslims to seek knowledge beyond Quranic studies, and to put forth one’s best efforts to obtain it.
Muslim education expanded as the empire gained control over older civilizations surrounding the Gulf and Mediterranean. As Muslims evolved from these diverse cultures, Islam gained their historical and scientific knowledge. Incorporated into a comprehensive educational system of Islam, scholars from diverse cultures and religious trainings, sought the literary and scientific remnants of earlier civilizations, forcing a continuous rethinking of earlier religious and socio-cultural practices. During the Golden Age, the Islamic faith and governance changed for the betterment of the masses under Muslim rule.
Ultimately, Islamic education was not only open, but localized. What this means is that different centers of learning had developed particular specialties, thus one could obtain a general theological education, and then specialize in a particular area or several fields of knowledge. In different Islamic centers of learning, for example, Mecca and Medina, one could specialize in Quranic studies, shari’ah sciences, tajweed and music derived from earlier oral traditions. In Damascus, ancient Greek and Roman societies and millenarianism. In Baghdad, Persian literary studies and the development of ahadith. In Cairo, ancient Egyptian history and architecture. In Cordoba, medicine, African and Jewish histories. In Northern to Sub-Saharan Africa, African studies, linguistics. In Delhi, Asian and Hindustan arts, crafts and music. All of these centers had a unique blend of diverse groups of Muslims – not only Arabs – from all over the world, coordinating a global understanding of the Islamic faith.
From the 15th and 19th centuries, European colonialism circumvented the Muslim trade system and many wars with nation-states brought about Ottoman economic decline, which accelerated the empires decay. Earlier Ottoman rulers ignoring changes in European technological and industrial advancements, left the Muslims of the 17th and 18th centuries lagging behind, and efforts to update failed, hindering their ability to compete in the new world economy. It was also the time when tribal clans of the Hijaz built alliances with European powers to further weaken the Ottomans. Hijaz tribal leaders, helped the Wahabist ideology, (derived from the Hanbali madhhab), took root in the region and negatively influenced the concept of an inclusive Islam. At the time, this small sect was considered an insignificant theology, but by in the mid-20th century and the influx of oil-money, Islamism has played a major role in destroying Islamic education worldwide.
20th century Progressive Muslims attempts to modernize sought nationalism, militarization, and Islamist religious leadership to reinvigorate the Islamic caliphate to restore their Muslim pride. These failures left in place highly regressive, despotic and authoritarian leaders, many prominently displayed throughout the Muslim world today. This has left the Muslim world in deep turmoil, a vacuum filled later by oil-rich Gulf clans focused on a “monolithic” Islam.
Western nations’ demand for oil fed the expansion of the Wahabist, Salafist and Jihadist mindset over the past 70 years. These dynastic clans, believing themselves shrewd, revised the Islamic educational system by teaching Wahabist and Salafist views, promoting traditionalism – one modeling a strict adherence to Arab cultural beliefs and lifestyle. By replacing the older, more inclusive Islam in these local, regional, global centers, the new “one size fits all” view promotes a false sense of Muslim religious “superiority”. Islamic education based on Wahabist, Salafist and Jihadist ideologies has Muslims killing other Muslims due to opposing views – something that is foreign to Quranic ethics. The past 20 years, Islamist views taught in local areas, those regions are now centers of violence, corruption and murder.
Whether it is the Gulf States, Pakistan, Northern Africa, the Levant, Southeast Asia, or the West, the growth of jihadist education has rooted itself in fertile ground. Often, due to the economic stability oil monies bring to the region, impoverished locals take-up offerings of “free” Islamist education. Overtime, locals are indoctrinated, and we find upheavals and violent over-throws of indigenous governments quickly replaced by a jihadist system of government intimidation and military control.
Today’s exploitative usage of Islam is a “fake” religiosity. Islamism is the last refuge of misogynistic, homophobic, anti-future and spiritually-decomposing Islam. Islamist Muslims whine of the burdens an alternative, inclusive textual interpretations of Quran, (versus the harms of their literal textual interpretations), and it is the standard complaint of Islamist movements today. Following custom and traditions is not the answer.
Muslims today need a living Islam that meets the challenges of our modern world. Knowing this, we must remain mindful that teaching young people their past, and their present, helps them focus on their spiritual needs as well as seek out a more diverse future that is not mimicry of the past. Progressive Muslims across the world know the importance to celebrate a progressive faith, and Muslims can be a progressive people too. Historically, Islam has supported the revitalization, reform and rethinking of Islamic thought when countering “tainted” answers stuck in the past and do not rise to the needs of modern-day Muslims worldwide.
Islamic education has to return to its former state as a global-focused faith. Muslims cannot continue following an educational system that pits Muslims against Muslims – or any other group. Muslims cannot thrive when ancient customs and traditions utterly strangle the very spirit out of our faith.
MECCA Institute is one such online, Islamic theological seminary that teaches a progressive and inclusive Islamic theological education, an education that prepares future graduates to alter the status quo, provide opportunities for modern-day Muslims to establish alternative progressive communities. Now is the time to bring new ideals for Muslims and their futures. Thus, our most important challenge before the worldwide Muslim community is the reeducation of Muslim minds to meet the challenges of modernization for today. This is not an impossible task.
Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute, a progressive Islamic institute with a think tank and a school.