June 15, 2012 By Hamza Yusuf

Education: What the Nomads Have to Teach Us

The lecture begins on an intense personal note. Sheik Hamza Yusuf narrates his own experience at school. He vividly remembers the moment when he was subjected to false testimony and that was when he started to think about justice and injustice. He remembers the bullying in the form of hazing (ragging) he underwent when he was at the ninth grade. This made him suspicious of the humanisation process and state of equality in schools. ‘We don’t call our schools ‘Alma mater’ (the nurturing mother) for nothing. That is what the schools are supposed to be. They are supposed to give you your humanity,’ Sheikh says. During his college years at California he did not find his studies interesting and he dropped out. He ‘went overseas and spent three and a half years with a person from whom he has got his real education. He remembers the vast home library and the insightful individual who in fact educated him, he does not remember anything like that about schools. He quotes Herman Melville as saying that the novelist’s real college was a whaling ship.


Sheikh Hamza Yusuf attributes the failure of American educational system as well as all other contemporary systems to a horrendous pedagogy which the the teachers have learnt from their peers. ‘As Nietzsche has said, we recreate ourselves and we are giving the next generation the same problems that we had.’ In the UAE, the Sheikh had a unique experience of meeting west Africans, who he believes are the extraordinary people in the whole planet. They are nomads and have prodigious memories to absorb massive amount of information from wherever they went. Sheikh studied with them. It is not simply their knowledge that attracted Hamza Yusuf but how their knowledge permeated their experience of life and how it got translated to their behaviour. Sheikh studied with them and whenever he went to the UAE he extensively travelled with them. He went to Sahara Desert and marvelled at the way desert schools functioned without salaried teachers, ministry of education and distribution of books. He learned the difference between information and knowledge from the Bedouin. People have lot of information, but don’t know how to process them. The Bedouins taught  him the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Based on his life with them, he is going to share his experiences on what is the difference between classical and modern education. The West African model can be found in traditional American or European societies. The most important element of the traditional West African model of education is that it is a democratic model in that it was stipulated that everyone should attempt to discover and learn something new. There is fatwa given by a Moroccan scholar regarding a student from a foreign country who does not study well. The Moroccan scholar replied that the student should be given ten years and if the god does not open a way out to him, let him learn how to raise sheep or do something useful. None has the right to consider someone as stupid but as having the potential for intellectual or spiritual awareness, Hamza Yusuf adds.

In education it is important that we should not hasten the whole process as in gardening its important that we should not hasten the flowering of a plant; as a flower knows when to bloom and how to bloom. You need just to provide water, if its an indoor flower, if it is an outward flower, it will take care of itself. There is an extraordinary tradition by the deeply wise Ali Ibn Abi Thalib who said : ‘Play with your children for seven years; and then teach them for seven years; and then befriend them for seven years. and then let them go.’ The play described in the tradition is what Piaget calls the play. As what work is to the adult, the play is to the child.’ The age of three is the Eden of garden period. Let them play in the garden. Don’t send them out before they bite the Apple.

The reason why children should not be sent to school early is the importance of morality which is part of our oral culture. Barry Sanders ‘ A Is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age  is an important work in this respect. It says a lot about the  importance of developing linear thought . Hamza Yusuf describes how pernicious is television to children as it stifles the process of imagination . Reading is an active learning process; while  television is passive process. It gives you emotions too . When we just narrates stories to children they build images on their own. But television provides ready-made images. For example, Speilberg manipulates the emotions not letting you think by yourself . He is pulling the strings of our emotions that is why he has impacts on a society that enjoys being manipulated by others.

We are losing our independence on our sovereign experience of the world. There are elder people in the audience who have the experience of falling in love. Now the films teach us how to fall in love and how to express love. Now there is a jaded experience of the world about freshness. Bedouins taught Hamza Yusuf mnemonic devices for memorization. These devises are not imparted to children at a young age which could have made so many things very simple for them. The Bedouins are more concerned about the language skills and they laid stress on learning grammar. You can read English without the knowledge of grammar. This is not so in Arabic. Which is an inflected language.

Grammar preserves a type of integrity in language. There are rules by which we abide in order that there should be rational structures and meanings in our sentences. The post-modern minimalist linguistics reduces everything to simple structures. But in fact deep thoughts need deeper syntactical structures to express it. Poetry helps us go from the surface to the deeper meaning of existence. If education does not help us in the process, it does not help you. It simply makes you a materialistic consumer. That is why, children should be taught to analyse language.

Poetry has centrality in human life. Our culture is losing the capacity to hear the poets. The Arabic word for poet is Shair, which is the Greek equivalent as well. Shair is someone who feels things that other people don’t.

Another focus of the nomads was on the rhetoric. Rhetoric is the method by which you converse with people without faults.  Rhetoric or sophistic reasoning is the token of early American culture. Lincoln would argument for three hours on a sunny day. People like Hitler have used the technique to manipulate people. But if you are taught the same and know how to use it, you can take it as an immunity-to immunize you against manipulation.

Education derived from educarre means lead out. The principle underlying in it is that a child has the kernel inbuilt in it and the educator is leading the knowledge out of the child from where it was already there.

Muslims and Science

Muslims developed arithmetic and trigonometry for very specific religious reasons. Algebra was designed to work out inheritance. and spherical trigonometry was designed to get the fastest way to Mecca because of the spherical curve of the year. If you are interested in it, David King has written an entire book on the  subject. He is brilliant historian of science in Germany.

in the Muslim world music is related to cosmology. Al Farabi has written the book Kitab al Music al Kabir (Big Music Book). The Book has 2000 pages. . Plato wanted to banish music from his academia. It is because of the danger the music can inflict on the soul. The impact it has on the souls and at the hands of somebody who does not know what he or she is doing, it can be manipulative. In the Muslim tradition the scholars separated the profane and sacred music. Many scholars have prohibited the profane music because it would have a bad impact on people. And they relate sacred music to cosmology. In Turkey there is a man who has a hospital where music therapy is used to cure. The therapy originated in Persia. In Arabic music there is a 24-note system as opposed to the twelve-note system in, say, Chinese or Ayurvedic system (related to twelve hours of the day, twelve organs of body ). In Andulusia, there were mental asylums where orchestra was used to treat the mad. The ancient musicians were master musicians and they based music on pulse and humeral theory.

‘I was very fortunate,’ Hamza Yusuf says, ‘to live in West Africa where they taught sacred astronomy-the order of heavens. The sacred astronomy is not specific to west Africa. It existed in India and native America. The secret behind observing the order of heavens is to set the order and harmony in our lives. Because everything out there is in extraordinary harmony and human beings are adept at being disorderly and chaotic and at being out of sync with the world and nature.

The Problem of Education

The problem of education is well enshrined in some famous quotes against the contemporary system of education. Mark Twain said: ‘God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.’ Will Rogers said: The schools ain’t what they used to be and never was. Alexandra Dumas said: ‘How is it that little children are so intelligent and men so stupid? It must be education that does it.’ Hamza Yusuf takes what Robert Frost said as an important point in the whole discussion: ‘Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper and self-confidence.’
‘And it is the role of civilisation’, Hamza Yusuf adds, to facilitate education for people to learn everything without losing temper and self-confidence.

Sheikh says: ‘I don’t equate education with literacy. Some of the most intelligent people I met were illiterates. The whole American foreign policy is summed up to me by a Bedouin from Yemen: who absolutely has no education. “You know the problem with your country is as in the story we have in Yemen. It is the story of a wolf and sheep which is about drink water from the the pond.’ ‘I am going to eat you,’ the wolf said, ‘I am going to  eat you as you have mucked up my point.’ The sheep said: ‘I haven’t even touched the pond.’  The wolf said: ‘You did it last year.’  The sheep said: ‘I was not born in last year.’  ‘Then your father mucked it up.’

Hamza Yusuf cites another example in which he met an illiterate man in West Africa who taught him the value of preserving environment. In West Africa, students used to erect tents  chopping branches from a tree and thereby nearly cutting it down. The Beduine once intervened: ‘You have a right in the tree and the tree has a right with you. Don’t chop the entire tree. Chop branches from several trees. There are animals which benefit from the tree and there are people who sit under its shade.

Only people who live close to the environment can understand that natural resources are limited. Trees are limited. Take what you need. But don’t destroy.

‘To learn without losing temper and self-confidence is education and the Arabs have a beautiful word for intellect which is him and this word in its root word is to suck milk. The breast in Arabic is Halema. It comes from the same route. That is to take milk from mother. Hilm is in an unperturbed state. It is the state of child when he is suckling. The word for intellect is the same word. Intellect is to be in unperturbed state. That is to become in a state in which you can make sense of your will even in the midst of immense chaos and immense calamity. In the midst turbulence you maintain an unperturbed state, because you have this incredible gift of intellect and reason and losing that state is to lose your sanity.

‘Acquistiion of knowledge is to listen to others as if you don’t know anything. Children have as much to teach us as we have to teach them. They remember things that we have forgotten. I want to experience the world like children with new eyes and the world is all new. Our children have that newness of being that our educational system destroys .

The word in Arabic to find something new is’ vajada ‘which also means to get ecstatic. Ecstatic etymologically means ‘to come out of self’.  And education is to loose the self , the Eureka as in our tradition, and run out ecstatic over the physical universe. And those discoveries about the physical world are orders for our discoveries about the metaphysical world. Our children should be allowed to retain that power for discovery that is deeply ingrained in every cell of their body.

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