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01 January 2011

The Right to Question: A Muslim Legacy

The ninth to the 13th century saw the flourishing of scientific thought and inventions in the Muslim world. It was as early on as the ninth century that Muslims had acquired knowledge of astronomy, medicine, chemistry, philosophy, geography, mathematics, botony, logic and sociology.
To name a few who contributed to scientific discoveries in the above fields within  a short span of 350 years there are Jabir ibn Haiyan, Al Kindi, Al Khwarizmi, Al Fargani, Al Razi, Thabit ibn Qurra, Al Battani, Hunain ibn Ishaq, Al Farabi, Ibrahim ibn Sinan, Al Masudi, Al Tabari, Abul Wafa, Ali ibn Abbas, Abul Qasim, Ibn al-Jazzar, Al Biruni, Ibn Sina, Ibn Yunus, Al Kashi, Ibn al-Haitham, Ali Ibn Isa al-Ghazali, Al Zarqab and Omar Khayyam. These glorious names did Muslim learning proud from 750 to 1100AD and it was their curiosity and innate love of their beliefs that made them exceptional men of learning. And, what made them successful scholars was the right to question rather than accept the knowledge handed down by others.
It was Al Ghazali who questioned the Neo-Platonism in Islamic philosophy based on Hellenistic philosophy and evolved a trend in Islamic philosophy which was based on the concept of cause-and effect decreed by God or intermediary angels resulting in the theory of occasionalism (which maintained that all physical effects were caused directly by God’s will rather than by natural causes).
An Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher, cosmologist and psychologist, Al Ghazali is acknowledged as one of the great Muslims of all times. To gain this title, he initially worked as a teacher in the Al Nizammiyah of Bagdad and participated in numerous debates and discussions which made him popular in the Islamic territories of his time. In comparison, in today’s modern teaching and learning methodology, debate and discussion are central to quality education and the way forward to innovation and creativity.
Similarly, Jabir ibn Haiyan would not have become known as the Father of Chemistry if he had not delved into investigation and systemic experimentation to lay the base of modern chemistry. He gave importance to practical knowledge gained from experience and experimentation. Similarly, twentieth century education uses prior knowledge and experiences of children to gain new knowledge with application as the end goal in higher thinking skills determined by Bloom’s taxonomy.
Were the likes of Al Kindi, Al Razi, Ibn Rushd, Ibne Sina, and Al Haitham as discoverers of the wonders of nature and the human body in any way irreligious people? The answer is in the negative because all of them were well-versed in the Islamic theology and inspired by the truth.
However, when it comes to education in the present context in Pakistan, the argument to adopt a secular approach to education is often reiterated by giving the example of western systems of education. The proposition is that religion in the curriculum restrains the flowering of innovation and discovery in scientific thought and that a dominant ideology is regressive where processes of learning are concerned. Although modern nation states of the 20th century have developed at a faster pace in technology and economic prosperity using a dominant ideology and Christian values, Pakistan has lagged far behind its peers in this field. Of course, this may be the effect of unimaginative radicalisation of textbooks and curriculum in the religious context and dominant ideology of the state even though corrections since then been made recently in this regard.
Whatever the ongoing debate may yield in terms of a futuristic goal for education in Pakistani context, it is becoming more and more obvious that confusion reigns in choosing the right road to take.
The argument usually set forth is that Islamic learning dominates the curriculum and is a set back to progress as a modern state. However, if one examines the Muslim thinkers and inventors of yore, exactly the opposite is the case. Religious knowledge was the base on which they built on and furthered their inquiry and discovery of many unknown fields of their times.
For instance, Imam Ghazali’s impressive command of a variety of subjects made the Seljuq sultan appoint him in 1091 as chief professor at the Al Nizamiyah of Baghdad. He used to lecture more than 300 students and his wide knowledge was never challenged. Ghazali’s influence also extended to scientific learnings and he labeled medicine as one of the most praiseworthy of secular sciences. His encouragement for the use of dissections in medical inquiry was later followed by Muslim physicians, Ibn Zuhr and Ibn al-Nafis to write extensively on anatomy in the 12th and 13th centuries. Muslim scientists were always eager to put theory to tests and having introduced the concept of experimentation, never tired of experimentation. Even though they were motivated and permeated in the spirit of their religion, they would not allow dogma as interpreted by the orthodox to stand in the way of their scientific research.
Marmaduke Pickthall explains in one of his lectures on Islam that “The Muslim universities of those days led the world in learning and research. All knowledge was their field, and they took in and gave out the utmost knowledge attainable in those days… They were probably the most enlightened institutions that have ever been a part of a religion.” Moreover, the German Professor Joseph Hell, in a little book on the Arab civilization which has lately been translated into English by S. Khuda Bukhsh, thus writes of them:
“Even at the universities religion retained its primacy, for was it not religion which first opened the path to learning? The Qur’an, tradition, jurisprudence, therefore all these preserved their pre-eminence there. But it is to the credit of Islam that it neither slighted nor ignored other branches of learning; nay, it offered the very same home to them as it did to theology – a place in the mosque. Until the fifth century of the Hijrah [12th century CE] the mosque was the university of Islam; and to this fact is due the most characteristic feature of Islamic culture “perfect freedom to teach.”
The teacher had to pass no examination, required no diploma, no formality, to launch out in that capacity. What he needed was competence, efficiency, mastery of his subject.” No wonder then that Ghazali’s education made him question the philosophical method in vogue then and evolve one that became a discipline for the future of Philosophy.
Modern teaching methodology is focused on reflection, imagination and memory work. If one quotes from the numerous writings of Ghazali, his description of how the senses are placed become a precursor of educational psychology of today. He wrote that, while the external senses occur through specific organs, the internal senses are located in different regions of the brain, and discovered that the memory is located in the hinder lobe, imagination is located in the frontal lobe, and reflection is located in the middle folds of the brain. He stated that these inner senses allow people to predict future situations based on what they learn from past experiences.
While Al Jazari (1150-1220) built the first automated gadget nearly 800 hundred years ago, Ghazali offered the possibility of dividing an atom. Interestingly, commenting on the wide divisions among Muslims, he wrote, “Muslims are so good at dividing that they can divide the atom. If you see two Muslims, probably they belong to three parties.” His theory bore fruit about the atom among later scientists while Jazari went on to be considered by some as the ‘Father of Robotics’. His conceptual understanding of creating automatons for use instead of humans is today a widespread phenomenon as nearly a million robots are in operation around the world.
Ibne Sina is named after Plato and Aristotle as having given direction to a concrete educational theory. Known as Avicenna in the West, his writings on maktabs include a chapter titled “The role of the teacher in the training and upbringing of children” as a guide to teachers working in maktab schools. He advocates that children are better taught in classes than at individual tuitions as classroom teaching encourages competition and emulation among students. Furthermore, it is useful for group discussions and debates. Ibne Sina devised a curriculum for two stages of schooling. At the primary stage from the age of six, students were to be taught the Qur’an, Islamic metaphysics, language, literature, Islamic ethics and manual skills. At the secondary stage of the maktab, they may pick up the subject they were most interested in whether it was reading, manual skills, literature, preaching, medicine, geometry, trade and commerce, or craftsmanship.
The educational training of pupils by Muslims in the golden age of their ascendancy was no different from those educational philosophers of the West who gave shape to education in the 20th century. Jerome Bruner offered the concept of discovery learning as a process of constructing new ideas based on current or past knowledge. Thus students are encouraged to discover facts and relationships and continually build on what they already know. John Dewey campaigned for a reform of education in the USA and pointed out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was only concerned with delivering knowledge, and not with enough understanding of students’ actual experiences.
We in Pakistan are still at the stage where knowledge is delivered with little understanding and students still focus on the rote method. To debate on secular or religious issues concerning education in Pakistan should not be the overriding concern right now. What should be the focus is the quality of education in the classroom and whether it is a process of learning through dialogue, debate and discussion. The textbooks should then be vehicles of the same criterion of encouraging debate, dialogue and discussion.
Lastly, the objectives of the examination system should be testing the above skills and thought processes. In the final analysis, those who deliver such a curriculum in the classroom, i.e., the teachers have to be well-versed in the skills and mastery of subjects to bring out the best creative and imaginative potential of Pakistani children.
By Ismat Riaz, an educational consultant based in Lahore. ismatriaz@yahoo.com