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Rethinking Islamic education to produce global Muslims

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 28/7/2018 FMT
a group of people in a room: Rethinking Islamic education to produce global Muslims © Free Malaysia Today Rethinking Islamic education to produce global Muslims a group of people in a room: Maszlee: Public universities free to organise debates, forums © Free Malaysia Today Maszlee: Public universities free to organise debates, forums

by Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Yusof Rawa seems optimistic about changing the current narrow Islamic teachings into a more inclusive and broad-based spirituality that can make Islam part of an acceptable global civilisation. I support his optimism but it is an uphill battle.

What is critically needed is a new framework to replace the present PAS-Umno and Jakim (Islamic Development Department) perspective of a prescriptive, ancient and exclusive Islam. I put forth the following suggestion for a new framework.

Islamic education at the primary, secondary and tertiary level is still trapped in a parochial framework that does not take into account the idea of the global society and multi-cultural and multi-faith co-existence. The result is the production of graduates who feel Islam is not part of the bigger society of mankind. The idea of “me and the other” is emphasised too much. The graduates also do not understand the idea of “differences being the essential ingredient of meaningful wholeness”.

Two things are needed for meaningful change: Firstly, the curriculum of Islamic education must reemphasise the historical and civilisational location of Islam within human wholeness of experience and concerns. Secondly, the teachers of Islam must be retrained under a human civilisational construct and not just a narrow “Islamically defined” construct.

Emphasising the broader civilisational construct

At the moment, Islam is being taught as an isolated entity in a sea of human “ignorance” or “jahilliyah”. To classify the whole experience of humanity as “ignorant” is truly an act of sheer arrogance. What is needed is a new, broader frame.

My first step in rethinking Islamic education is to emphasise the direct historical link between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many Muslims are not even aware of this important chronological tie. Muslims seem to think that Islam appeared out of nowhere. In real fact, the roots of the values and construct of God as understood by Muslims is a product of historical evolution in the previous two religions.

Many Muslims do not realise that most of the important prophets mentioned in Islamic theology and history come from the Judaic line of Ishak. Prophet Muhammad is the only one from Ismail but both Ismail and Ishak (Ishmael and Iseah) are Abraham’s sons. This is an important geneological and spiritual tie.

Emphasising universal brotherhood values

The Quran and the Hadith corpus contain several verses and statements that suggest a universal brotherhood of man that the Muslim is encouraged to be a part of.

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” ( 49:13}

In this verse above, which is mostly quoted by defenders of Islam to point out that Muslims are moderate, the Quran mentions the idea of multi-culturalism that requires man to know one another because only God is complete and on his own whereas man is weak and needs others to complete himself. But there are Muslims who add to this verse the idea that all the cultures here means only cultures that are Muslim by faith; there are also those who add the idea that Muslims can only be friends with others with the hope and intention that these people convert to Islam.

Such thoughts destroy the respect that we should give to others because only by respecting others and accepting them can other faiths accept Islam and Muslims. But because the education of the usatz has been so forceful about our “holier than thou” attitude, there is complete failure on the part of Muslims to put this verse into practice.

“Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

In this verse, God has promised reward for those not of the Muslim faith but who are sincere seekers of truth and pure of faith. I have checked the “tafsir” (interpretation/commentary) of this verse in order to verify whether the Quran has specified a period limitation but this is an eternal verse and not meant only for those who lived before the Prophet Muhammad’s time.

“O you who believe! Believe in Allah, and His Messenger (Muhammad SAW), and the Book (the Quran) which He has sent down to His Messenger, and the Scripture which He sent down to those before (him), and whosoever disbelieves in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Last Day, then indeed he has strayed far away. (4:136)

This is a clear verse extolling the concept of Islam being a single evolutionary line of development from Judaism, Christianity and even a few other ancient faiths. “The book” means the original teachings of the message bearers of the past. The contention by many Muslims that this verse does not refer to the present “books” of the other faiths as they have been tampered with shows the Muslim lack of understanding of the historical methodology in reading texts and writings.

All historical records, texts and writings never truly present the truth or fact in a black and white manner. The historian usually has to look at the larger context of the period’s socio-political and religious framework as well as take the message rather than the word-for-word reading. If we were to reject all historical records of man just because they have been “tampered with”, we would be a species without any history. If we read the present published scriptures there are many similarities in values regarding the idea of the dignity of all mankind as equal before god.

Possible political influence on religion

Muslim students must be taught that many seemingly religious conflicts between Islam and Christianity and Islam and the Hindus or Sunni and Shia are not necessarily religious. Many of these conflicts have their origins and main issues in geo-political concerns as well as egos and the private agendas of the proponents of wars like kings, popes and khalifah.

For instance, Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea framed Christianity in a certain manner and may have acted for political and other intentions. Constantine knew that the old Roman order was dead and he must rise with the new faith if he were to survive. For instance, the Palestinian issue is political but possibly made into a religious one.

Such historical events have a geo-political context and Muslim teachers must not simplify them as “religious conflicts”.

Cultural layering of religious messages

Many religious rituals and values have undergone layers of practice to the point that some of these practices are not within the original spirit of the faith. Students must be able to identify which practices and values are a product of cultural interpretation and must be able to distance themselves from their negative implications on society.

Issues causing social and religious tension are mostly a product of cultural layering and these must be peeled off one by one to expose the fundamental teachings and values of the faith. Perlis mufti Dr Asri Zainul Abidin is disliked by many Malays simply because he is very hard on the Muslims who practice religious rituals never encouraged or started by the Prophet Muhammad.

The vice-regent mindset

Muslims see themselves as the vice-regent of Allah, and have a “world managing mindset” However, this mindset has always been about conquering and subjugating as well as challenging non-Muslim powers and cultures. In the new curriculum, Muslim minds must be re-aimed at solving global concerns such as famine, pollution, global warming, deforestation, natural disasters, pandemics, political injustice and sustainability

Now, isn’t this better than telling young Muslims to bomb and kill people, to shout obscenities at others, to burn their holy books and perform other atrocious acts with a seemingly religious fervour? Taking care of the world and the people living in it is the greatest call to spiritual growth and enlightenment.

Minimum qualifications for a teacher

The teacher of Muslim graduates must be from a varied academic area of studies. One of the degrees must be in traditional Islamic studies. One of the degrees must be from the humanities, such as philosophy, anthropology, history or sociology. In this manner, the teacher can be broad-minded and can look at others with a larger sense of humanity.

It would be best if the teacher of Islam spends at least one year in a country where Islam is in the minority so that he or she would learn the sensitivities of teaching and imparting knowledge within the socio-political context of multi-cultural and multi-faith nation-state entities. The social and political backgrounds of these teachers must also be checked. He or she must have a clean record of writing or social/political activities without racist or extremists agendas.

The new Muslim graduate

The following is my idea of the characteristics of a global Muslim:

  • He is concerned about the well being of all of mankind;
  • He loves everyone as part of a single brotherhood;
  • He understands the strengths and weaknesses of religious institutions;
  • He can discern what is cultural and what is Eternal;
  • He understand the world as his environmental vehicle for survival;
  • He understands the place of his religion in human history and civilisation;
  • He knows that he does not know everything and that this is the key to wisdom; and
  • He can “fit in” into all meaningful organisations and human cultures.

Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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