Tools in Crafting our Best Muslim Selves: Some Reflections on Islamic Education in a Global Age

Recent sensational headlines involving Muslim extremists--and the actions of the extremists themselves--have contributed to challenges facing Muslim educators, as well as obscured the important work that these educators are doing the world over.

Across North America, specifically, Muslim educational institutions are blossoming, offering a variety of accredited programs from higher education institutions to teacher education programs to Arabic/Quran instruction. Conferences abound. For the youngest members of the ummah, Islamic studies classes in mosques and full-time Muslim schools are supplemented with enrichment camps and Muslim scouts. In addition, educators are exploring the best ways to integrate Islamic studies material across all subjects, rather than teach it as a stand-alone subject. A responsibility common to all these initiatives involves finding ways for Muslims to integrate, contribute and engage within the global community while perpetuating the socio-religious-cultural continuity of the Islamic faith. Rooted in tradition, we move with the times.

The main goal of Islamic education has remained consistent through all the cultural shifts that have taken place over the last couple of decades, altering the ways in which we educate our children, including Muslim diaspora, maturation of Muslim communities in non-Muslim cultures, use of secular Western curricula, terrorism and Islamophobia. Education is aimed at the balanced growth of the total person--intellectual, physical, spiritual and social-emotional--nurturing in children's hearts the light of faith and internalization of the principles and qualities laid out in the Quran and exemplified by Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. The comprehensive system of Islamic education takes into account all levels of human reality, according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "from physical exercise to contemplation of God, and everything in between."

While the goals and basic content of Islamic education have remained consistent through Muslim history, some methods of teaching it have changed--and not always for the better. There seem to be at least three characteristics of the pedagogy of the Prophet Muhammad--the very first Islamic educator, peace and blessings be upon him--in educating his companions. These characteristics comprise a starting point for considering improvements in Islamic education.

The first is relationship. As Tariq Ramadan describes, the Prophet had close relationships with each of his companions, tailoring instruction to their specific needs and abilities, appreciating their uniqueness and nurturing their hearts as well as their intellects.

A second characteristic is the use of questions, dialogue, metaphor and analogy in order to develop critical and creative competencies. The Prophet's way of teaching was not only through memorization, imitation or obedience; these three things are means towards a higher end. His companions, men and women, asked questions of him, challenged his actions and decisions in specific instances, and the Prophet provided them with opportunities to lead.

A third characteristic that contributed to the effectiveness of the Prophet's teaching is that it was conducted through lived experience. It took place everywhere, at all hours, as he modeled and mediated the message of the Quran, peace and blessings be upon him.

As the Prophet's words and actions embodied the Quran, the Quran became his very character. One way to examine this phenomenon is to think about the elements of Islamic studies--content and methods--as cultural tools.

Cultural tools are the culturally-specific ways by which people learn, develop and advance their cultures. Cultural tools consist of material tools and artifacts, as well as psychological tools--thought processes, symbolic systems, formulae, ways of functioning. A prayer rug, for example, is an artifact, a physical tool that serves a higher function. Supplication (dua) is a psychological tool that also serves a higher function. Both can be considered as cultural tools--unique to Islam--and when they are mastered and internalized, become a person's inner cognitive structure.

Just as the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, internalized the Quran, the ultimate goal of the Muslim educator or parent, for ourselves as well as our children, is the mastering of Islamic cultural tools so that they become part of our very inner cognitive structures.

While Muslim educators across time and culture work toward Islamic education's exalted goal, today's world presents some significant challenges as well as some unique opportunities in moving toward it. Both suggest that we need to reevaluate the cultural tools we use in the education of Muslim children.

Educational challenges facing Muslim communities today include Muslim children attending secular 'international' schools by day, returning to Muslim homes afterwards, essentially moving between worldviews in a bifurcation alien to the Islamic conception of unity (tawhid); difficulty integrating Islamic material across secular curricula; and unstandardized Islamic Studies content.

But along with the challenges, many educational opportunities have arisen recently including the reform of Western and international curricula, educational technology and research into human learning and development. Muslim educators are both contributing to and benefitting from these pedagogical evolutions.

Nouman Ali Khan suggests that Islamic Studies can be taught using methodologies successful in contemporary Western higher education and operationalized by the digital revolution, including engaging information transfer happening at home with lectures online, and practice happening in the classroom. Muslim educational researchers are searching for methodologies confluent with Muslim epistemologies. The maturation of Muslim communities in non-Muslim cultures finds educators and students considering social consciousness a primary aspect of the faith and looking for ways to contribute to their communities through and from within Islam.

In this way, it becomes clear that in this global age there is an overlap in the cultural tools used in different domains. Cultural tools privileged by formal Western schooling include being able to think in decontextualized abstract ways, use analogical reasoning, transfer cognitive strategies to different contexts, engage in problem posing and problem solving and exercise metacognitive functions. Obviously, these cultural tools are not unique to a Western worldview; they are prevalent in other cultures as well. The key for Muslim educators is to identify the specific tools that are important for success in an increasingly global, technological world, as well as those that are crucial to success in the Islamic domain.

This overlap of cultural tools in the service of learning and development of Muslim children suggests that Islamic content could be taught using Western (as well as Islamic) cultural tools and secular content could be taught using Islamic cultural tools. Perhaps this is the ultimate educational integration, offering the potential to nurture knowledgeable, faithful, applied Muslims who thrive in a globalized world. And it's already happening.

In light of the challenges and opportunities facing Muslim educators, and the intimacy of the global community, our evolutions are shared; our cultural tools overlapping. We don't need to lose one set of tools at the expense of the other, but we need to be conscious and intentional about the tools that we privilege and select to use. This might allow us to dialectically integrate them into our Islamic educational systems.

Muslim parents and educators--bearing the double challenge of passing on Islamic knowledge and processes to the next generation while helping children equip themselves to engage in a pluralistic society and globalized world--are leaders in discerning, crafting, teaching and learning the cultural tools needed for an uncertain future.

While the actions of extremists have given us challenges and obscurations, they have also given us food for thought about tools gone wrong. Whatever cultural tools they are using--and the tools of extremism look eerily similar across diverse cultural groups--all Muslim leaders agree that their actions are not reflective of Islam. This poses questions about their educational experiences. Where did they learn the cultural tools of extremism?

Because while prayer rugs and supplications are amongst the cultural tools of the rich Islamic domain, so are processes that cultivate humility, mercy and responsibility--toward ourselves, our children and all with whom we share this earth.