Islamic Education for the 21st century
“One hundred years ago, the great African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously said, ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,’ I believe that the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. “ (Eboo Patel, p xv)
Sociologists and urban anthropologists are predicting that the by the year 2020, Islam will be the dominant religion of urban America. Much of this increase in the Muslim population will be due to immigration trends and African American and Latino conversions to Islam, but a significant portion will be the result of the birth rates of the children and grand children of the early American converts. As the Muslim population expands the demand for Islamic education will intensify. The question as to how to ensure that there will be institutions, resources and knowledge to meet those demands is one that must capture the attention and imagination of today’s Muslim communities.
Since the time of the Prophet (SAWS), the transmission of religious knowledge has been at the heart of Islamic civilizations. The educational institutions that different cultures evolved to fulfill this function have varied according to the dynamic of specific cultural contexts. Throughout history and across cultures vigorous debate has revolved around such issues as funding for Muslim schooling, access across socio-cultural and gender lines, and inclusion of “secular” subjects. What has remained a constant is the transmission of religious knowledge such as Quranic memorization and recitation and the Islamic sciences. As we here in America at the dawn of the 21st century create educational institutions that meet our needs we can draw from and contribute to historic and contemporary discourses on Islamic education. The tremendous cultural, political and technological shifts in modern societies and the globalization of American pop culture have created unprecedented challenges for Muslims worldwide. How Muslim Americans think about and do Islamic education on this side of the globe will have worldwide consequences. InshaAllah, we really need to get it right.
Knowledge is not neutral
To get it right we must begin by ensuring that our ideas about the what, why and how of education are solidly grounded in Quranic principles and Islamic ideals. While this may seem obvious, we are so inundated with counter Islamic stimuli that constantly checking our “thinking and being” against the Quran has to become a habit of mind.
Knowledge must by its nature “stand” somewhere. Like all “things” it takes up space, has a shape, and an objective.
You are what you eat. The physical, intellectual and spiritual “food” we eat will determine the nature and strength of the physical intellectual and spiritual bodies we develop. We already have heard about and perhaps personally experienced the dire consequences of a steady consumption of TV, video, and other media products on the spending behavior, attitudes and dress of teens. We have seen children act out behaviors they have “eaten/consumed” from TV. We have been subjected to the persistent pleas of our young ones for a particular type of cereal, or other food item because of their consumption of a favorite cartoon or tv sitcom.
For many of us, the tv and the media do not seem and feel like dispensers of knowledge. But in reality they are—just like books, magazines and other texts. And all texts , all knowledge have biases. Knowledge is not neutral. Knowledge is a “thing” that is produced by a producer. It reflects the character, values, inclinations, and biases of that producer—i.e. it is situated within a worldview. We must intensify the production of Islamic knowledge products that promote an Islamic worldview. It is absurd to think that non-Muslim knowledge products, i.e. the textbooks, curriculum and resource materials in Muslim schools will build, on a deep level, Muslim minds, Muslim values and Muslim character. One of the most essential tasks of Islamic education is to create knowledge products that are relevant to the times and culture but are Islamically sound.
In 1933 Carter G. Woodson wrote the Miseducation of the Negro and made the argument that the same knowledge that invested the white child with a sense of personal importance, devastated the esteem of the Black child. Further he suggested that if you control a man’s thinking vis a vis the knowledge that you give him you don’t have to train him to go to the back door. He will go there automatically. And if there is no back door he will create one because his thinking and his knowledge will demand it. Knowledge products, then, become tools to support and or distort the social, emotional, moral and cognitive growth of children, families, and communities. To put it another way, one could say that knowledge products become weapons of mass destruction. After all, every living thing from micro-organisms to complex societies has an instinctual desire to survive and to fend off its enemies with appropriate weaponry whether it’s the changing colors of the chameleon or the protective prickly coat of the porcupine or the knowledge products of a society.
So what’s a Muslim to do to counter weaponized knowledge products and practices and their use on Muslims?
The antidote to mass cultural weaponized knowledge is to saturate our families, communities and schools with Islamically grounded knowledge. The antidote is to change the way we think about Islamic Education from a separate part of the necessary educational experience of our children to an integral part of the way we raise our children and ourselves in a world dominated by unIslamic messages. Islamic education must become a living breathing process we engage in to protect our Islamic life.
To counter anti-Islamic cultural values we need to ensure that every member of the family, school and community—including teachers-- have certain basic knowledge of Islam. We must find ways to reward good adab in teachers, family members and community; engage in Islamic knowledge contests (patterned after spelling bees) and other creative formats to encourag the dissemination and consumption of Islamic knowledge; create a vibrant loaning Islamic libraries at the school and masjid; and support Muslim educators and thinkers in the development of culturally relevant Islamic educational materials (Given the diversity of the Muslim ummah, it is imperative that visual representations in Muslim books reflect that diversity and that culturally specific references, anecdotes and stories also reflect the diverse socio-cultural and ethnic backgrounds of Muslim Americans.)
All action is educative. It is the nature of life that we learn from and are influenced by everything we read, think and experience. Islamic education must become the tool we use to be more intentional about t harnessing the learning potential in our lives so that we are constantly drawing nearer to our Islamic ideals.